South Korea’s Budding Femocracy

TOKYO – This is a year of presidential elections worldwide, and the last to take place – on December 19 – will be in South Korea. That ballot, however, is already having an international impact, in part because South Korea’s failure to ratify an important new intelligence-sharing treaty with Japan is widely seen as a result of campaign politics. But the election may well have a more positive impact on the region as a whole.

On July 10, the frontrunner, Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri (New Frontier) Party, became the first to announce her candidacy. In addition to other opposition candidates, much attention has focused on Ahn Cheol-soo, Dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology at Seoul National University, who is a successful entrepreneur and a charismatic figure for South Korea’s young and independent voters.

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But it is Park who has so far stimulated the greatest interest. There is great anticipation among conservative voters, in particular, concerning her policy toward North Korea, a country that continues to be as unpredictable as ever. (Witness Kim Jong-un’s sudden dismissal of senior military officer Ri Yong-ho, anointment of himself as a marshal, and revelation that he had married a woman first glimpsed when she accompanied him to a concert featuring appearances by Disney’s Mickey and Minnie Mouse.) So far, Park, sensing that the electorate trusts her foreign-policy instincts, has kept her North Korea cards close to her chest.

For many South Koreans, Park is a tragic heroine. Both her mother and her father, President Park Chung-hee, were assassinated, in 1974 and 1979, respectively. Indeed, her father was murdered by his own intelligence chief, KCIA Director Kim Jaegyu.

Park avoided active politics for many years after her parents’ death, but later won a parliamentary seat. She has also served as a leader of the Saenuri Party (formerly known as the Grand National Party). In 2006, an assailant slashed her face as she was campaigning on behalf of the GNP’s candidate in Seoul’s mayoral election.

But now the real battle begins. If elected, Park will become South Korea’s first female president. Like Japan and other Asian countries, Korean society, which is underpinned by Confucian thought, has experienced little political participation by women, though that appears to be changing rapidly. In 2000, only 5.9% of the National Assembly’s 299 members were women. In 2004, however, women more than doubled their share, to 13%, when 39 were elected from single-seat constituencies and through party-list proportional representation.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), that election pushed South Korea from 101st to 62nd place worldwide in terms of the proportion of female MPs , well ahead of 121st-ranked Japan. The increase in women MPs led not only to an increase in female cabinet members, but also to a variety of policies and institutional improvements aimed specifically at women. And, although South Korea has slipped to 80th place in the IPU’s most recent rankings, the fall reflects subsequent growth in the proportion of female legislators in other countries.

The main reason for the increase in the number of women MPs was the introduction of a quota system, according to which South Korea’s political parties should ensure that 30% of their candidates are women. The campaign-finance law was revised to provide additional government funding to parties that meet the quota, and to reduce the amount for parties that do not.

As a result, more than half of the 56 members elected through proportional representation in 2004 were women. Moreover, 10% of government funding to political parties is now used for the advancement of women in politics, with each party establishing institutions for training women MPs and candidates.

Although the quota system is still a matter of constitutional debate in South Korea, years of effort by women’s groups have made a significant contribution to boosting women’s role in policymaking. The triumph of a female president would be an important symbolic and practical victory for all who have sought to establish a political environment that is hospitable to women. And it would provide a powerful example to other Asian countries – including my own – in which women have struggled to gain an electoral foothold.

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