Skip to main content

Why Madam president in South Korea may not be gender game changer

By Seungsook Moon, Special to CNN
updated 10:38 PM EST, Fri December 21, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Park Geun-hye to become 18th president of South Korea -- its first female leader
  • Moon writes it's easy to look at Park's future presidency as sign of social change
  • Park's father's legacy has propelled her political career, writes Moon
  • Moon: Park's political record lacks support of policies promoting gender equality

Editor's note: Seungsook Moon is a professor of sociology and chair of the department at Vassar College. As a political and cultural sociologist, she is the author of "Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea" and a coeditor and contributor of "Over There: Living with the U.S. Military Empire from World War Two to the Present."

(CNN) -- Citizens of South Korea chose their 18th president this week -- Park Geun-hye, who will be the nation's first female leader.

Park, 60, was the candidate of the ruling conservative New Frontier Party, also known as Saenuri. To some observers' surprise, Park's campaign had repeatedly highlighted her gender as a marker of her superiority to her rival, Moon Jae-in, a 59-year-old candidate of the opposition Democratic United Party, who is currently a member of the National Assembly.

Seungsook Moon, sociology professor at Vassar College has published numerous articles on gender and citizenship.
Seungsook Moon, sociology professor at Vassar College has published numerous articles on gender and citizenship.

For example, her television advertisements promoted Park as a prepped woman president who understands feminine leadership that is responsible and subtle. Park also made pledges appealing to women in workplace and family. She even equated the birth of a woman president with political cleanup and innovation in South Korea.

Looking at Park's future presidency from afar without considering its historical and social context, it is rather tempting to celebrate it as a sign of positive social change in the conservative Asian country -- women have finally arrived. Or have they?

Certainly, there is an affirmative note in the conservative party's calculation that they need to woo women voters and promote feminine leadership as a positive alternative to a male leadership soiled by corruption and power struggle.

We can appreciate its significance even more when this change is juxtaposed with the 1990s when many pregnant women in South Korea aborted female fetuses to ensure that they would have at least one son among one or two children they were willing to bear. The positive meaning of feminine leadership is also a step forward from older generations of women leaders in South Korea and elsewhere, who either downplayed their gender or ignored it altogether to avoid any negative consequence for their political career.

South Korea's hopes for new president
Park Geun-hye's life shaped by politics
S. Korea president-elect talks N. Korea
South Korea elects woman as president

However, looking into it, the gender politics of Park's candidacy is replete with contradictions and ironies. Here are a few examples.

First, her political career, including her prominence in national politics since the 2002 presidential election, has been propelled and maintained by her father's posthumous political fortune.

She is the daughter of Park Chung-hee who ruled the country with a repressive iron fist from 1961 to 1979. Her father came to power through a military coup d état and his rule ended when he was assassinated by his own Korean CIA director.

In the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis (1997-1998) and disillusionment with civilian presidents who were democratically elected, a growing number of Koreans became nostalgic about her late father whose collective memory had been largely negative. In multiple national surveys conducted at the turn of the second millennia, an increasing number of respondents chose her father as "one of the greatest leaders" or even the greatest leader in Korean history.

Park began her political career in 1998 when she was elected to be a National Assembly member representing the city of Daegu through a special election.

Conservative Koreans have adored her as the daughter of the national hero. In fact, during the later years of her father's presidency, known as Yushin Dictatorship (1972-1979), young Park played the role of the first lady because her mother was assassinated in 1974 by a North Korean agent who intended to kill her father. This experience shaped her views on major historical and current issues in South Korea that often echo her father's. To progressive Koreans, her father's specter looms too large to consider Park as a symbol of new feminine leadership.

Second, evaluating her record as a politician in her own right without reducing her to her political pedigree, there is little to celebrate. She lacks a track record of practicing such positive feminine leadership and supporting policies to promote gender equality and empower social minorities in general.

On the contrary, she is known for her inability to communicate with people spontaneously and her lack of empathy for difficult lives of grassroots populace because of her privileged position throughout her life. Her admirers praise Park for her composure and discipline, but these positive qualities are not specifically related to her feminine leadership and commitment to empowering women and other social minorities. Therefore, the vociferous emphasis on these issues in her presidential campaign was nothing but expedient rhetoric to win the presidential race.

President-elect Park Geun-Hye, South Korea's first female president, waves to supporters after being declared the winner on December 19, 2012 in Seoul. She will become one of several female leaders in Asia, as well as the world. President-elect Park Geun-Hye, South Korea's first female president, waves to supporters after being declared the winner on December 19, 2012 in Seoul. She will become one of several female leaders in Asia, as well as the world.
South Korea's President Park
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>

Third, comparatively speaking, the rise of Park's political star echoes the ironic situation of women politicians elsewhere (such as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Sarah Palin), promoted by conservative or leftist parties that have rarely prioritized or supported gender equality in their policy making and implementation.

Park also conforms to the recurring model of female political leader who is a daughter, a wife, or a sister of a powerful male leader. This reveals that high social status overrides female gender in many societies and especially in a patriarchal society.

Women politicians in such situation may conjure up a powerful illusion that women are also individuals (like men) with equal right to run for public offices at all levels. Their presence also reflects a popular sentiment for gender equality that has spread globally in recent decades. Yet such women politicians are more likely to be window dressing to garner public support than agents of progressive social change toward equality and empowerment of women and other social minorities.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Seungsook Moon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT