It’s a man’s world: South Korea’s presidential race lacks diversity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 May, 2017, 2:10pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 May, 2017, 10:28pm

When Park Geun-hye was elected South Korea’s first female president five years ago she secured the largest-ever vote share of the country’s democratic era. But after her term ended in impeachment and disgrace only one of the 13 candidates to succeed her is a woman.

Analysts say the near all-male panel – epitomised by rows of campaign posters dominated by middle-aged men in dark suits – demonstrates the enduringly patriarchal nature of Korean society.

The only exception is Sim Sang-jeung, a former labour activist who is the leftwing Justice Party’s candidate.

Park – the daughter of the late dictator Park Chung-hee – was ousted from power in March over a massive corruption and influence-peddling scandal centred on a secret female confidante that prompted millions to take to the streets calling for her ouster.

She is now detained and awaiting trial for charges including abuse of power and bribery, and the public outrage unleashed a storm of sexist remarks online such as: “Don’t even dream about having a female president for the next 100 years.”

Sim condemns what she calls a sexual double standard, saying no one took issue with the gender of two previous presidents – both men – who were imprisoned in the 1990s for their part in crushing the Gwangju Uprising against the military-backed dictatorship.

“We had two other ex-presidents jailed for slaughtering countless citizens who were protesting against army rule. But not a single person said, ‘No more male presidents’,” she said in a campaign speech.

Park is a conservative who did little for women’s rights while in office, and female politicians struggling with the glass ceiling say her humiliating downfall has done nothing to help.

“I’ve seen recently many male voters, or even male politicians, saying, ‘This is why women should never be in politics’,” said Han Jeoung-ae, a two-term lawmaker with the centre-left Democratic Party.

“We have no shortage of male politicians brought down by corruption and other crimes, but no one ever frames it as the failure of entire male politicians like they do over women,” she said.

Female politicians are still a relative rarity in the South, accounting for only 17 per cent of parliamentary representatives, ranking it 30th among the 35 advanced nations of the OECD.

That is an advance on the six per cent of 2000, but it is still “extremely hard” for female politicians to secure electoral nominations, said Nam In-soon, a Democratic lawmaker, who is pushing for parties to be legally obliged to select women as at least 30 per cent of their candidates.

“We have made some progress over the years, but most internal networking within a political party’s leadership is still based on the good old boys’ club,” she said. “We still have this hard, thick glass ceiling all over our head.”

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Park herself rose to power largely due to the popularity of her father, who remains widely revered by older voters who benefited from rapid growth under his 1961-79 iron-fisted rule.

South Korea remains a deeply conservative society in many respects and, along with Japan, is seen as one of the worst places for working women among economically advanced nations.

The two Asian neighbours were this year ranked at the bottom of the Economist’s “Glass Ceiling index”, which measures gender equality at work among 29 advanced nations.

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Sim has no chance of victory at the ballot box, with South Korea’s leading pollsters both putting her in fourth place in the final surveys of the campaign, on 7.3 per cent according to Realmeter and eight per cent for Gallup Korea, far behind Democratic Party front-runner Moon Jae-in.

But the 58-year-old scored well in debates and was the most vocal critic of Hong Joon-pyo, the candidate of Park’s conservative Liberty Korea Party, who is known as “Korea’s Trump” for his outspoken rhetoric and sexist remarks and has been polling third.

Hong, 62, drew fire for saying “washing dishes is women’s work” in an interview, and for bragging in his memoir about helping a college friend with an attempted date rape by drugging a woman.

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Sim targeted him repeatedly during a television debate until he forced out an apology.

Sim is pushing for measures to help working mothers faced with the double burdens of employment and household duties, dubbed “Superwoman Prevention Laws”, and rules to make half the cabinet women. “The current reality faced by female politicians still looks bleak,” said Lee Jin-ock, head of Korea Women’s Politics Solidarity think tank.

But Sim offers a ray of hope as a “new female leader who climbs the political ladder on her own terms”, she said, “unlike Park who symbolises the patriarchal, patronage politics of the past”.