In December last year, a majority (51.6 percent) of South Korean voters elected the first female president, South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye of the New Frontier Party. She is to be inaugurated tomorrow.
South Korea is a male-dominated society. For Park to defeat Moon Jae-in from the liberal camp and win South Korea’s top leadership post was not easy, because she had to crack the citadel of masculinity in a culture deep-rooted in male chauvinism.
A male professor at a leading university said on a TV program: “Women in Korean society attain the phenomenon of womanhood by getting married, giving birth and raising children. Park Geun-hye [who has never married or given birth] falls short of those conditions. Only her reproductive organs makes her a woman.”
Shocking as his remarks are, that is probably typical of South Korean men.
Park did not campaign on her gender, nor on the promotion of women’s rights and empowerment. Her one great advantage was her father, the late South Korean president Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist in the 1960s and 1970s, and produced an economic miracle.
Many South Koreans in their 50s or older give him credit for eradicating South Korea’s abject poverty in the wake of the Korean War, laying the ground for South Korea’s economic take-off, the growth of an affluent middle class and South Korea’s rise to an industrialized leader in world trade. Those South Koreans who have a favorable view of Park Chung-hee’s legacy naturally supported his daughter’s election.
However, her father’s memory was a mixed blessing to Park Geun-hye. A large number of South Koreans, including human rights lawyer and presidential candidate Moon, suffered badly under his repression and see her as a vestige of the Park Chung-hee era. Progressive opponents were motivated and mobilized to stop her candidacy. Young South Koreans, and residents of Seoul and southwestern Cholla region voted overwhelmingly for Moon.
To some degree, Park Geun-hye seems to fit into an Asian tradition of the daughters, wives or sisters of powerful men becoming political leaders after the men are assassinated, forced from office or pass away. On the other hand, she is different and distinguishes herself by having a formidable political career in her own right, and not being merely a successor to her father’s power.
She has been noted for her political sophistication and leadership skills, twice rescued her party from the brink of collapse and built her own base of voter support among conservatives and moderates, thereby achieving a “grand coalition of conservatives” in the last presidential election — a first since South Korea democratized in 1987.
Park Geun-hye will preside over a country that is economically, politically and socially polarized. She is aware of the challenges her presidency has to deal with and has called for a national reconciliation.
She has promised to deliberate on the various opinions and suggestions of her supporters and opponents, and appoint talented people from all walks of life to her administration “regardless of their regional background, gender and generation.”
She pledges to strive for national reconciliation, harmony and a just society. While the mission is not necessarily impossible, it will certainly be difficult.
While Park Geun-hye has become a role model for hundreds of millions of women across East Asia, advocates of women’s rights in South Korea are demanding their new president advance South Korean women’s rights — an issue to which she has yet to devote her attention.
There are bright spots for South Korean women in politics and business, but feminists contend that women there in general suffer from lower wages and less chance for promotion in the workplace, and to enhance women’s advancement in South Korea, Park Geun-hye should lead a cultural revolution to enlighten men and change male chauvinism in South Korean life.
The International Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW International), an influential global network of business and professional women devoted to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women in education, economy and politics, will hold its 18th World Congress in South Korea next year.
Hundreds, if not thousands of outstanding professional women from all over the world will gather to address issues regarding gender equality and enhancement of women’s rights.
Many of them are sure to seize this opportunity to call for Park Geun-hye to undertake actions to promote and protect women’s rights. As former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has said, “women’s rights are human rights.”
As Park Geun-hye enters the Blue House, her policy priority is how to deal with North Korea, which has threatened to conduct further nuclear test and missile launching.
South Korea has been divided over its inter-Korea policy. In response to Pyongyang’s military and political provocations, the conservative regime under South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reduced investment and aid to the North, and held joint South Korea-US military exercises to deter Pyongyang.
The progressives, including Moon, have blamed the conservatives and the US for the tensions in the Korean Peninsula, and called for a return to the “sunshine policy,” including generous investment and aid, with no strings attached.
During her presidential campaign, Park Geun-hye advocated a cautious and modest approach to improve inter-Korea relations, and offered to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to talk about peace and stability.
She also offered to provide humanitarian aid and resume investment, but on the condition that the North would give up nuclear weapons. Pyongyang apparently rejected her offer and harshly denounced Park Geun-hye during the presidential campaign in an attempt to influence the outcomes of the election.
North Korea poses a threat not only to neighboring countries, but also to its own people.
The conditions of life inside North Korea are terrible, as its 23 millions people have languished in the shadow of a vast network of concentration camps, suffered acute food shortages every year, and had their basic liberties — freedom of speech, thought, religion and movement — severely restricted.
Last year, the UN General Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights abuses, with no objection by China, North Korea’s staunch ally.
Despite Pyongyang’s denials, the first-hand testimony and detailed satellite imagery have shed light on a huge network of prison camps in North Korea. These gulags are estimated to hold about 200,000 prisoners.
As more information on the prison camps became available, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay supported a resolution to be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council meeting next month, calling for a commission of inquiry to be set up to investigate the gulags and other human rights abuses in North Korea.
Will South Korea cooperate with the UN endeavor and help apply more pressure on North Korea over human rights, including those of South Koreans held in the North?
Most politicians in South Korea have evaded these issues, so as not to provoke Pyongyang. Park Geun-hye is one of the few public figures who has spoken out.
She stated during the campaign that “we cannot go on neglecting the suffering of the North Korean people” and promised to prevent the forcible repatriation of North Koreans and strengthen the “resettlement support program for North Korean defectors.”
As the president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye’s great challenge will be to keep faith with these pledges. In so doing, she will be the first South Korean leader to make the human rights issue of the North Korean people a national priority without fear of offending Pyongyang.
Shirley Lin Chang, associate professor emeritus of information and library sciences of Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, is chair of the Committee of Public Relations and International Affairs of BPW-Taiwan and president of its Taipei Club II.