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 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT