Feminism in South Korea

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Feminism in South Korea is the origin and history of the movement of feminism or women's rights in South Korea.

Women’s suffrage in South Korea was included in Article 11 of the national constitution in 1948. The constitution says "all citizens shall be equal before the law, and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social or cultural life on account of sex, religion or social status."[1] The feminist or women’s rights movement in South Korea is quite recent compared to first wave and second wave feminism in the Western World. While drastic changes in the workplace and economy have been implemented thanks to the industrialization of the economy and globalization, there has been less change in cultural values in South Korean society.[2]


Along with history of a royal monarch, strict hierarchical division and patriarchal family structure, Korean society had maintained the social structure that justified unfair social treatment and distribution of unequal role. At the center of this phenomenon, Confucianism is deeply placed under people's mind. For instance, Confucianism apparently had required women to obey the men; from the journal "Women's Status in South Korea" by Marian Lief Palley quoted the tenet about women's obedience and translated as "to the father when young; to the husband when married; and to the son in old age."[3] Combined with Confucianism's emphasis on relationship among people rather than individual freedom, gender discrimination was justified which not only men but also women themselves recognize subordinate nature under this Confucianist system unconsciously.[3] In fact, the "custom" of "tradition" Confucian group often asserted during the discussion with feminist movement was derived from old Japanese civil code determined during colonial era. Although the start of this "custom" supposed to be viewed improper to keep up after the decolonization in Korean stance, similar culture code under Korea and Japan dissolved into Korean culture and perceived as it derived from our ancestors.[4] Despite the fact that the root of this custom arouse a question of validity to conserve it, this system of thoughts was deeply settled in general society that it made hard for people to realize the fact that society only favors certain group of people.

This worn-out paradigm had suddenly been challenged due to sudden modernization of society. With vast economic growth through rapid industrialization and modernization, the role of men and women took a new aspect. With advent of democracy and capitalism, women started to do work in public space, participated in political activity which their suffrage was legitimized in the 1948 Constitution, and gained more opportunity to pursue higher education including college and university degree of education.[3] However, cultural growth does not coincide well as the economic growth.

Under this seemingly improved condition, long entrenched gender discrepancy was held even more devious ways. Behind the scene, gender discrimination was prevalent without any conscious questioning about its validity upon moral aspect. Although the social perspective no longer externally prohibit women from doing economic activity, poor working condition, low wage comparable to those of male workers, and sexual harassment taken place at work cite discouraged women workers.[5] Moreover, these issues are not really discussed openly within society's members or often overlooked as a small problem compare to other social issues such as democratization of government or human right issues among Korean society. Politically paralyzed, those who were involved and suffered from this gender incident could not expect an public solution or improvement. Instead, religion and sisterhood within women in same classes console their sadness shown in case of Song Hyo Soon introduced in journal "WOMEN, WORK AND THEOLOGY IN KOREA" by Soon Hwa Sun.[5] Political influence of women also depicted differently from what the Constitution of the Republic of Korea stated. During the era when women's suffrage was officially included in the Constitution, National Assembly of Korea was composed of only 6 women member out of 299 members serve there, and had not appointed any female cabinet ministers up to date.[3] Unlike the ideal statement of article 11, clause 1 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea where it states that "all citizens are equal before the law and that there shall not be discrimination in political, economic, social, or culture life on account of sex, religion, or social status,"[1] substantial changes for female's fair participation of politics had not yet achieved. Higher education of women also did not guarantee an improvement in job opportunity. Beside certain career commonly pursued by women including nurse, or hairdressers, job opportunities were not equally given to women; especially to women college/university graduates who were excluded from companies' and work cites' employment scope.[3] To rectify these unfair incidents recurring in Korean society, women's rights movement enlighten people to recognize the issue of equity and worker exploitation.

Minjung Undong[edit]

While there are women’s rights groups today in South Korea that were founded before the second World War and post 1945, most of these groups did not focus solely on women’s rights until the mid-1980s.[3] The contemporary feminist movement in South Korea today can be traced back to the minjung undong or mass people’s movement of South Korea. As the minjung movement grew, so did the focus on women’s rights. The exploitation of women labor in factories during South Korea’s “economic miracle” gave the minjung movement a women’s issue to focus on. The core of the minjung movement was thought to be poor rural and urban women.[6] In the 1970s, the feminist movement in Korea was influenced by women’s movement in the Western world, particularly in the United States. However, in the 1980s, the birth of radical women’s organizations began to resist American feminist influence by concentrating on broad human rights issues and reunification instead of gender equality.[3]

The minjung undong movement began as a response to Japanese colonialism of South Korea and subsequently continued through 1961–1992. The movement fought for the freedom of the oppressed labor forces of Korea and was championed by students, workers, peasants, and intellectuals. At the same time, minjung feminism grew from this movement. During the years 1961–1979 or General Park Chung Hee’s regime, women factory workers in South Korea, or yo’ kong, were girls from the countryside who worked in factories for electronics, textiles, garments, plastics, and food processing. They suffered from poor working conditions, such as living in dormitories where mattresses were shared between two shifts of workers and working in factories where a single floor was divided into two. They were also paid low wages and were sexually harassed. During this period, the work done by the oppressed labor forces built the foundation for South Korea’s later economic development.[6] This period gave South Korea the reputation for having “the world’s longest work week and highest rate of industrial accidents”.[7] For the first time in South Korean history in 1972, a woman was elected as president of the democratic union movement and kept the movement going for six more years before it was finally shut down by the government. The Garment Makers Union or Chunggye Pibok Union represented 20,000 women working at Seoul’s Peace Market until it was also shut down in the 1980s by General Chun Doo Hwan.[6] South Korea's first female diplomat Hong Sook-ja entered the 1987 election, becoming the first female presidential candidate.[8]

By the mid-1980s, the women’s movement gained traction thanks to female involvement in the labor and student movements. The 1980s was a period of political turmoil and reform in South Korea.[3] The Institute of Women’s Research was created at Ewha University which was the first university for women in South Korea. In 1985, there was a national women’s rally with the theme “Women’s Movement in Unity with National Democratic Minjung Movement”. Then in 1986, spurred by the rape and torture of female labor organizer Kwon In Suk by the hands of police in Buchon, women rallied together to form The Korean Women’s Associations United (KWAU) which was made up of 33 different organizations (peasant, religious, environmental). KWAU’s participation in protests eventually forced General Chun Doo Hwan to step down whose successor then implemented direct presidential elections.[6]

By 1987, women made up 55% of the paid workforce. The service industry had the highest percentage of women (60%) compared to manufacturing (40%) and office workers (38%). However, sex worker jobs make up 30% of women employed in the service industry.[6] The Korean Women Workers Association (KWWA) formed in 1987 in response to gender discrimination in the workforce and fights for gender equality in South Korea. It was essential in continuing the fight for women’s rights following democratic and political reform in South Korea. Even now, the KWWA fights for an 8-hour work day, higher wages, maternity protection, an end to sexual discrimination in the workplace, and an end to sexual violence against women in Korea. Chapters of the KWWA are in Seoul, Pusan, Buchon, Inchon, Changwon-Masan, and Kwangju.[6] In response to workplace discrimination, the Korean Women’s Association for Democracy and Sisterhood was founded by women office workers. These female workers fought against both the pay gap and sexist errands (such as carrying coffee and getting cigarettes for their male coworkers and superiors).[6]

The minjung feminist movement was vital in bringing to light the crimes committed against women in the military. It provided support for comfort women survivors by establishing groups. Comfort women survivors in Korea and other countries such as the Philippines, Taiwan, and other Japanese-occupied territories banded together with the Korean Council, the Korean Sexual Violence Relief Center, and the Korean Women’s Associations United in order to submit testimony to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations in 1993. Their testimony also included their demands to end violence against women committed in the military and during war.[6]

Direction of Feminism Activities[edit]

There are generally two types of women’s movements in South Korea. They are either called “radical” or “reformist”. These two terms are different in South Korean context compared to American or Western feminist context.[3]

Reformist female movements in South Korea concentrate on changing women’s roles in society. These movements are more similar to feminist movements in America. Their methods include lobbying, influencing decision makers, and drafting legislation. They are usually in support of the government of South Korea. These groups are said to be more mainstream and are made up of women from the middle-class who speak both Korean and English. Most of these groups are affiliated with the Council of Korean Women’s Organizations (CKWO). Examples of mainstream reformist organizations are: the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) established in Korea in 1922, the Korean Center for Family Law established in 1954, Business and Professional Women (BPW), the Korean Association of University Women (KAUW), the Korean National Mother’s Association (KNMA) established in 1958, and the Korean Federation of Housewives’ Clubs (KFHC) established in 1963. The last two organizations are the biggest with the KNMA having about 40,000–50,000 members and the KFHC having 180,000 members.[3]

KNMA and KFHC support changes in the Family Law and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act was passed in April 1988 and includes equality for women in job placement, promotions, retirement, job training, and compensation for maternity leave. Radical groups have criticized the law by stating that it does not have a “mechanism for implementation”. Reformist groups have referred to the act as a first step and a sign of encouragement for reforms to come. The efforts of reformist groups to change the Family Law of South Korea culminated in the change in child-custody arrangements in 1991. The rule that children had to go with the father after divorce was changed. The inheritance system was also changed to all children sharing equally in inheritance.[3]

Radical female movements in South Korea focus on broad human rights issues. Many of these groups were formed during the late 1980s as opposed to the older reformist groups. These are issues like reunification with North Korea and the prevention of torture of prisoners. The term “radical” does not refer to support for radical changes in women’s roles. Their methods include strikes, marches, and public demonstrations. It can be argued that the word ‘radical’ is used because of the context of Korean society which is far more oppressive and conservative than Western society. The radical groups are also younger than the reformist groups and are made up of usually well-educated, middle class women who prefer to speak only Korean. They usually affiliate with the KWAU. Examples of radical organizations are: the Women’s Society for Democracy which was founded in 1987, the Women’s Hotline founded in 1983, the Women’s Newspaper founded in 1986, Korean Women’s Worker Association, Korean Catholic Farmers, and many other religious-related organizations. The Women’s Society for Democracy believes that human rights issues take precedence over issues of sexual equality. The Women’s Hotline organization in Seoul addresses rape, prostitution, workplace discrimination, and domestic abuse. The radical women’s rights groups criticized the Equal Employment Opportunity Act passed in 1988.[3]

An important organization that is not affiliated with either the reformist or radical groups in South Korea is the Korean League of Women Voters. Recently, its activities have increased in encouraging voter participation among women.[3]

The terms reformist and radical are, at most, general classifications of the feminist movements in South Korea. Feminists in South Korea have also been divided by socialism and Marxist ideologies. Social feminists in South Korea concentrate on the effects of the patriarchy and the gender issues women face. They have a strong influence in women’s studies in South Korea today. In contrast, Marxist feminists focus on the class divide in women’s rights and oppression and concentrate more on the urban and rural poor. Both socialist feminist and Marxist feminist organizations have combined to form the Alternative Culture and Research Center for Korean Women’s Studies.[6]

Political Status of Korean Women[edit]

Not only the social status of women was neglected by cultural bias, but also the political status of women was not fully approved by law. As the society grew and modernized under new ideology of democracy and social structure derived from United States, range of women's activity in public space broadened as well as the devaluation of female activity and legal position as reaction. While Korean women realized how poorly they had treated under Confucian family system and society, Korean women was especially in need of diminished influence on family's politics, right on property and children custody. To achieve such equity, women's right movement raise the voice to abolish the family law.

Within the family law, the fundamental idea was depended on the Confucian belief that the family-head, who is oldest male member among the family, has the authority on ruling his family and family members. The authorities given to family-head were including inclusion of family member when marriage of male member of family occur, child custody and property ownership when divorce happened, and to sustain his family line while female family line is not included. Besides, the law even states unfair succession of property to first male child.[9] With legislation of these laws, women underwent hardship of composing a family under absence of husband or male family member in case of divorce, remarriage and etc and of gaining a financial support from family in either in succession or property division during divorce.

To make this happen, numerous attempts to eradicate these unfair laws were held by feminists and these attempts made slow but firm change over time. By 1962, the first revision on family law has made. By this change, the traditional huge sized family now can be separated and re-arranged as a new family with fewer members with their own rights to decide where to live and work . Although it did not directly make a positive effect on women's law, the revision contains its meaning on change of people's perspective over social structure. On the following revision in 1977 and 1989, substantial changes were made and approved by law. Since the 1989 revision, property division upon divorce and succession prone to male were prohibited; parental right was fairly shared by mother and father that introduces the right to meet the children after divorce.[9] Although lots of improvement was made and they make a significant change in women's life, the family-head issue and exogamy of same surname or ancestry still remained to be changed. Without rectifying them, women couldn't achieve the position as one of the family's representative and freedom to create or re-create social relationship under law(e.g. remarriage, adoption, and etc).

In 2005, Along the social changes over diverse family structure and citizens' broad participation on the issue through internet including the support from professionals, the government and feminist movement finally agreed on a consent to abolish the entire concept of family-head system and dongsung dongpon – institution prohibiting the marriage in between members who share same surname and ancestral seat – from the Constitution. It is remarkable achievement that epitomizes feminist movement's influence. Not only it is a meaningful achievement improving Korean women's social and political position, but also its result are regarded as "effort to decolonize its(Korean) law and society."[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Korea (South)., & Korea (South). (July 1959). The constitution of the Republic of Korea. Seoul via Office of Public Information, Republic of Korea.
  2. ^ Park, Kyung Ae (January 1993). "Women and development: The case of South Korea". Comparative Politics. City University of New York via JSTOR. 25 (2): 127–145. doi:10.2307/422348. JSTOR 422348. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Palley, Marian Lief (December 1990). "Women's status in South Korea: Tradition and change". Asian Survey. University of California Press. 30 (12): 1136–1153. doi:10.2307/2644990. JSTOR 2644990. 
  4. ^ Hyunah, Yang, (2008). "A Journey of Family Law Reform in Korea: Tradition, Equality, and Social Change". ISSN 1598-1681. 
  5. ^ a b Sun, Soon-Hwa (1987). "Women, Work and Theology in Korea". Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 3 (2): 125–134. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Louie, Yoon; Ching, Miriam (July–August 1995). "Minjung feminism: Korean women's movement for gender and class liberation". Women's Studies International Forum. Elsevier. 18 (4): 417–430. doi:10.1016/0277-5395(95)80033-L. 
  7. ^ Bello, Walden; Rosenfeld, Stephanie (1990). Dragons in distress: Asia's miracle economies in crisis. San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Policy. ISBN 9780935028553. 
  8. ^ Kim, Younghwa. "Hong Suk Ja: Pursuing Women's Rights in South Korea". Retrieved 22 November 2016. 
  9. ^ a b c Hyunah, Yang, (2008). "A Journey of Family Law Reform in Korea: Tradition, Equality, and Social Change". ISSN 1598-1681.