Female Leader May Not Be Enough To Change Male-Dominated South Korea

The final polls ahead of South Korea's presidential election show Park Geun-hye with a narrow lead over her opponent, and poised to be the first female leader of a country where, until quite recently, men monopolized politics. But feminists say Park, the daughter of a former authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee, is not one of them. Her policies, they say, are no more beneficial for women than those of her opponent. And while they would welcome a female leader, they predict it would do little to change South Korea — where women's representation in government and cases of unequal pay are among the worst in the developed world.

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South Korea holds a presidential election tomorrow. And, for the first time there, public opinion polls favor a woman. Park Geun-hye is promising more support for single parents and a push to get more Korean women into the workforce. Still, even if she wins, no one is expecting any radical changes to the traditional male-dominated Korean society.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Mak Jung-wan(ph) and her colleagues are cooking lunch at a small apartment which serves as the office for their civic group. It's called the Korean Unwed Mothers Families Association. Ms. Mak broke up with her boyfriend while she was still pregnant. She decided to give birth to her son eight years ago. And that choice nearly got her fired from her job and estranged from her parents.

She explains that under Korea's Confucian ethical code, a child born out of wedlock is frowned upon and discrimination makes it extremely difficult for single mothers to raise their children alone.

MAK JUNG-WAN: (Through Translator) In Korea, if you become pregnant out of wedlock, people suggest you get an abortion or put the child up for adoption. If you try to keep your child, they ask you: Why would you put yourself in such a hard spot; do you understand how hard it is for a kid without a father; how will you get a job; why would you put your family through this?

KUHN: Government support rewards those single parents who put their children up for adoption, Mak notes. This fuels a lucrative trade in adopted Korean babies, she says, who most commonly go to the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

KUHN: Given this kind of social environment, some observers have been surprised that conservative candidate Park Geun-hye has pledged to increase government aid to single parents, expand maternity and paternity benefits, and promote flexible work arrangements in order to get more women in the workforce.

Park is the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, who brought South Korea 18 years of rapid economic growth under his military dictatorship.

Kim Eun-Ju, director of the Center for Korean Women and Politics, notes that while Ms. Park is hardly a champion of gender equality, her presidency might still give her fellow women a boost.

KIM EUN-JU: (Through Translator) Because we're all women, I expect women's rights to improve. But looking at her policies, I do not have high expectations. She's not the woman president we had hoped for but if she is elected it would be worth congratulating her.

KUHN: Meanwhile, Jin Seong-jun, spokesperson for liberal opposition candidate Moon Jae-in, says that although Moon is a man, his policies offer women a better deal than Park's.

JIN SEONG-JUN: (Through Translator) A person who is biologically a woman may have some unintentional positive influence. But we don't believe Park will work harder to improve women's lives, just because she's a woman.

KUHN: Kim Eun-Ju notes that this presidential campaign has mostly ignored two big problems. One is that Korean women get paid nearly 40 percent less than their male counterparts - the biggest such disparity among the world's developed economies. The other is that Korean women's representation in politics ranks 108th out of 132 countries.

Kim Wan-hung(ph), a researcher, Korean Women's Development Institute, says it is difficult for any government policy to undo centuries of cultural tradition.

KIM WAN-HUNG: (Through Translator) Men work. Women stay at home. This idea is ingrained in people's minds. The salary differential has not been considered important. And less has been done to solve this problem in Korea than in other developed countries.

KUHN: Mak Jung-wan, of the unwed mothers group, says she certainly hopes the candidates will make good on their pledges to help single parents. For now, though, she's busy counseling single mothers and helping them to plan for productive futures.

MAK: (Through Translator) We want to live in a society where we can ask single mothers: Why did you have an abortion, why did you put your child up for adoption? You want to live somewhere where you can keep your child.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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