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Women are on the move in East Asia

Korea's new president may herald a new era

New president Juliana Park Geun-hye (courtesy Park Geun-hye election office) New president Juliana Park Geun-hye (courtesy Park Geun-hye election office)
  • Joseph Pak, Seoul
  • Korea
  • February 25, 2013
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When a woman was a candidate for the presidency in December, a lawmaker supporting a rival candidate cited an ancient Asian proverb in an effort to dissuade people from voting for her:

"When the hen crows the house goes to ruin."

But Park Geun-hye presented herself as "the prepared woman president" and won the election despite the sexist putdowns. She will be sworn in as the 18th president of South Korea today.

Park is the first woman head of state in Korean history since Queen Jinseong, who ruled from 887 to 897, the last of only three queens.

Park's campaign compared her to Queen Seondeok (632-647), the first queen. The name of Seondeok means "the good and the virtue".

Most think that Park could not have won the election if she was not the daughter of late president Park Chung-hee (1961-79) who has been criticized for his dictatorship but is adored for lifting South Korea from extreme poverty.

Korea’s queens only succeeded the throne by virtue of having no male siblings to serve as king. Park has one younger brother, but he has repeatedly been in addiction treatment and served related prison terms.

Korea’s lack of women leaders has paralleled the rise of Confucianism.

If we carefully observe the issue in other East Asian countries, Japan may follow suit, sooner or later.

Japan has had eight to 10 queens, but after World War II, Japan amended its rules to state that only a man can be emperor. But in recent years, the Japanese government has signaled it may change, as the present Crown Prince has no male successor. (And as a constitutional monarchy, Japan not yet had a female prime minister, either.)

China, the origin of the male-centered Confucianism, seems to need more time to embrace a woman head.

China had no queens in its more than 4,000 year history. There were several empress dowagers who had more power than the son or grandson emperor, but all of these women are remembered by their evils, not virtues.

The Chinese Communist Party prides itself for liberating Chinese women from feudal society, but even Jiang Qing -- Madame Mao, who actually led China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), was not allowed to enter the power center of the Politburo Standing Committee. 

East Asia is one of the last bastions of male domination, but Korea is quietly departing from that trend.

In the younger generation in South Korea, women receive the majority of certifications as teachers, public servants, diplomats, and lawyers.

But observers say this shows the existence of the glass ceiling -- only exams allow women to fairly compete with men, so women tend to concentrate on jobs that require state exam qualifications.

To break such invisible discrimination, affirmative action has gained traction in South Korean society.

The trade unions and employers in the country's bank and finance sector reached an agreement last October that starting in 2013 a quota system for promotions will be used.

The trade unions have pointed out that though female employees are increasing, there are few female corporate officers. In the four biggest banks, there are no women executives.

The country's political systems have already introduced, though partially and ineffectively, some affirmative action policies to expand the number of female lawmakers.

I hope the fact Korea now has a woman at its head will stimulate women's growth in various fields in society -- and in the Church too.

The Church serves in society to reflect the teachings of Jesus, and it needs to be "semper reformanda" (always reforming) to do so. About a decade ago, a quota system for women was suggested for the Korean Church in building parish pastoral councils, but the suggestion was simply ignored by the Church hierarchy.

No one can ignore the growth of female leadership in the Church anymore. Last November, Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul, said to be "the face of the Korean Church,” welcomed its first woman president for its pastoral council.

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