Feminism in South Korea
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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." 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. This period gave South Korea the reputation for having “the world’s longest work week and highest rate of industrial accidents”. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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).
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.
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.
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.
KNMA and KFHC support changes in the Family Law and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act was passed in April of 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.
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.
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.
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.
State of Women in South Korea Today
Both Confucianism and the Family Law (The Civil Code of the Republic of Korea) emphasize family relationships and patriarchal households in South Korea. Many women today are restricted in their job opportunities by the expectations of Korean society Despite the strong Western feminist influence in South Korea during the 1970s, South Korean feminism resisted American influence with the birth of radical feminist groups. Women’s rights organizations have divided into two basic categories: those who fight for human rights and similarly broad issues and others who focus on specific women’s rights issues and are pro-government.
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