Hae Jin Son: Regarding Gender Equality in South Korea

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s). 

Hae Jin Son is a Senior at the Elliott School of International Affairs majoring in international affairs with a concentration in Asia and a minor in Economics

November 29, 2017

Over 10 female nurses in Sungshim Hospital were forced to dance along a sexual song wearing an erotic outfit at the Hospital Foundation talent show earlier this month. This news went viral in Korea and made me wonder: why are they treated as if they were puppets and commodities for entertainment? From my friend who is a female nurse in Korea, I came to know that nurses at her hospital are assigned a timeframe during which they can get pregnant and take a maternity leave. While a three month paid maternity leave is guaranteed by the law, these women cannot use it because of pressure in the work culture. This is not only unprofessional, but violates basic reproductive rights of women. A series of events like this led me to wonder, is it even legal to do that?

The Korean Constitution guarantees equality between men and women since its enforcement in 1996. The Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family was established in 2010 to address and enact women-centered policies to eradicate gender-based discrimination in Korea. In fact, the Framework Act on Women’s Development protects women from “gender based discrimination.” This national law creates a blueprint on how women-centered policies in Korea should be directed and enacted in order to promote “equality between men and women.” While there is a legal foundation for gender equality in Korea, the reality is that Korea is ranked as 117th out of 142 countries in gender equality according to the Global Gender Gap Index 2014.
In addition to the incident at Sungshim Hospital, violence in intimate relationships is another example of the disparity between the legal and real status of women in Korea. According to a journal released on International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics in October 2017, 34% of pregnant women in Korea experience physical or psychological violence by their spouses. Dating violence has recently become a serious topic of debate in Korea. A recent survey revealed that almost 80% of Korean men abused a girlfriend physically or psychologically while they were dating.
For the last two decades, Korea has shown continuous efforts to end gender discrimination by enforcing laws to protect women’s rights. In response to the recent issues of gender violence at the workplace such as the recent incident in Sungshim Hospital, the Ministry of Employment and Labor said that they would work with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family to enforce their monitoring on prosecution, victim protection, and education to prevent further violence against women. This is not enough, however. The government’s efforts to enforce laws are necessary and important, but this alone is insufficient to decrease the disparity between legislation and reality.

Deep-rooted cultural factors such as Korean Confucianism and male-oriented society explain why there is gap between the current laws and reality. While there are clear gender roles in Korea based on Confucianism, it should not justify any type of discrimination or violence against women. The recent news about nurses being forced to wear erotic clothes and dance in front of colleagues is a clear example that the legal framework is not applied to these individuals. Even if the Ministries enforce the current laws on gender violence, punish perpetrators and improve their monitoring system, they will not change people’s perceptions on gender equality.
I believe, to identify a balance between gender equality and Confucianism in Korea, the Korean government should encourage people to engage in constructive dialogue on gender equality. Only a subset of people are talking about this issue. But everyone should talk about it because it is relevant for all, regardless of gender. As the news and people’s reactions show, we know that this is a problem. What is the next step for us?

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One thought on “Hae Jin Son: Regarding Gender Equality in South Korea

  1. I suppose one way that women can gain better treatment in the workforce is to play the game as is. Which is exactly what is happening. Women are now choosing not to have children, thanks to decades-long pressure to choose between a career and children. The low employment rate has sped this process up – who has time and money to raise a child when they can’t even take care of themselves? The low birthrate has triggered panic among politicians who are motivated by two things: 1) the lack of babies who will grow up to be taxpayers 2) the extinctions of “ethnically Korean” citizens (because the society is still super conservative and racist when it comes to non-white multicultural families). Threatened by the collapse of the patriarchal heteronormative and racist social system, gears have started to turn. So now there is more support behind women’s rights and guaranteed maternity leave and even paternity leave. It doesn’t address the real issues of gender inequality. It’s just panic-induced politics. But it does provide an opportunity for discourse on gender equality. And as more men start to realize that there is something in it for them as well (namely, they will be freed from the burden of having to perform Korean masculinity and masculine gender roles at all times), things will gradually change.

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