Politics remains man's game in Korea

Park Geun-hye will take office as Korea’s first female president Monday. This photo shows her meeting with a group of women in November as part of her presidential campaign.

An hour after being elected Korea's first female president on Dec. 19, Park Geun-hye travelled to her party headquarters in Yeouido, Seoul.

She was greeted by party officials ? mostly men in their 60s. "Park Geun-hye! Daetongryong!" they chanted, repeatedly, yelling the Korean word for president.

Next to her were Chung Mong-joon, one of the nation's richest businessmen, and Hwang Woo-yea, Saenuri Party chairman and five-term lawmaker. She received flowers from Lee Jun-seok, 28, a male venture entrepreneur whom Park presented as the voice of the younger generation.

She then moved to Gwanghwamun Square, where her father, Park Chung-hee, once stood with his lieutenants after staging a military coup on May 16, 1961.

"This election is the victory of you the people. The victory is that of the people's heart emanating from the yearning to overcome crises and revive the economy," she told the crowd.

Her much anticipated victory speech lasted just over a minute, without referring to the one word that defined her presidential campaign: woman.

Meaning of female leader in dispute

Park won the election with the catchphrase a "prepared female leader." Her campaign featured a series of pledges to promote gender equality, protect women from discrimination and violence and boost support for balancing career and motherhood.

The election of the first female head of state may be a milestone in women's empowerment in Korea, according to some observers.

"The election of a female president will have far greater impact on our society than putting a woman in any other position," said Kim Myeong-ja, who heads the Korean Federation of Women's Science and Technology Associations.

"Having a female as the head of the state will come as a fresh surprise and shock to children and adolescents and other developing countries that take South Korea as a model."

But the significance of having a female president is still bitterly contested even among feminist circles and hopes for the improved status of women have quickly fizzled mainly due to the paucity of women among her government nominees.

The fiercest criticism came from female leaders and women's rights activists.

"I don't really see her as a female leader," said the main opposition Democratic United Party's Rep. Kim Sang-hee, who chairs the National Assembly's Gender Equality and Family Committee.

"She became the 'queen of elections' by rekindling the favourable memories attributed to her father. I don't think she represents women or female leaders per se, so I don't think her election represents a groundbreaking moment for Korean women."

Among the more than 30 key Cabinet and Cheong Wa Dae appointments, only two were women ? Cho Yoon-sun as gender equality and family minister and Yoon Jin-sook as maritime affairs and fisheries minister.

Record on women's issues

"The Cabinet appointments raise doubts as to whether Park is serious about implanting her campaign pledges and is a tremendous disappointment," Korean Women's Association United, a coalition of more than 60 advocacy groups, said in a statement Monday.

The organisation in particular criticised the selection of Cho, a lawyer and former vice-chairwoman of Citibank's Seoul office.

"We express sincere worry that a person who lacks experience and professional capability in women's issues has been nominated to head the ministry," the press release stated.

The Korean National Council of Women also issued a press release stating that Park had failed to live up to her campaign pledge to increase the appointment of women in government.

"Park's cabinet runs counter to today's trend (of greater gender equality)," the statement read.

"The foremost step that should be taken for our country to really join the ranks of developed countries should not be forgotten; there needs to be an expansion of women's participation and representation in society to achieve gender equality in society at large."

During her nearly two decades of political life, Park did not emphasise her female identity, perhaps in a nod to South Korea's deeply patriarchal social mantra. But she came out in full stride to boost her credentials in women's rights in last year's election.

"The knowledge-based society of the 21st century is an era in which how women's potential is utilized will determine the competitive edge of the nation," Park said during a press conference last year when she announced her campaign policies targeting women. "I will create a society where women are worked and judged equally as men."

Park pledged to implement a quota system where 30 per cent of positions at public institutions and educational jobs would be filled by women. The former first daughter also proposed a project to nurture 100,000 female leaders by establishing a government-run academy dedicated to female leadership.

Park, who has never married and has no children, also promised to significantly expand government-sponsored child care services. Male workers, in addition to their female counterparts, would be encouraged to take paternity leave, and companies with a high number of female employees would receive tax breaks and other incentives.

Despite her promises to improve the status and opportunities available to women, many women's rights activists, largely progressives, are critical of the former lawmaker's legislative record on women's issues.

During the 16 years she was at the National Assembly, Park Geun-hye proposed 15 bills in total, none of which related to women.

"What did Park say and what did she do when women were crying on the street, when (women) pushed for legislation revising family law, preventing domestic and sexual violence?" said a joint statement by over 130 advocates of women's rights issued several days before the presidential election.

"For Park, who never shared in women's pain and struggle, to proclaim herself a prepared female president amounts to shamelessly riding the coattails of the historical struggles of the women's movement."

The outspoken criticism from the women's group emanates in part from the secluded life Park led as the first daughter. After her father's assassination in 1979, Park largely remained out of the public eye before she made a political debut in the mid-1990s.

"As I washed the bloodstained necktie and dress shirt of my father, I could not help but cry out in sorrow," Park recalled in her autobiography published in 2007. "In washing the blood-soaked shirt of my father, I cried all the tears that one would cry in a lifetime."

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