WOMEN IN BLUEMore women in Korea are wearing police uniforms these days, and the barriers to their starting careers in law enforcement are slowly being dismantled.
As of July, there were 1,774 policewomen nationwide, or just under 2 percent of the nation's police officers. By the end of next year, insiders on the force say, that ratio should rise to about 4 percent. The rises are remarkable when compared with just two years ago: In 1999, the ratio was less than 1 percent.
Policewomen are also taking up higher-ranking posts. Traditionally they mostly assisted policemen or worked in traffic control, but now they are breaking into fields like criminal investigations and intelligence, and are climbing the system's hierarchal ladder.
"I am very proud to be a policewoman," says Kim In-Ock, the police superintendent at the Gyeonggi provincial police agency. On her desk are two TVs tuned to news stations so she can be on top of any breaking news. Ms. Kim, in her simple light-blue uniform, with a badge pinned to her shirt and a blue tie, projects a reserved air, sitting upright with arms crossed.
The female supervisor, 49 and a police officer for almost 30 years, is responsible for the daily security of 10 million people, she says, and heads a police force comprising 4,500 men and 50 women who work out of 360 police stations and boxes.
"It's a lot of work," she says. "Security is linked to so many issues, and we also work on preventive measures like encouraging juvenile delinquents to find jobs or fighting prostitution." And the working hours, are they regular? "No way!" she says. "Normally I start at 7 in the morning and finish around 8 at night, but not always."
Ms. Kim started her career as a police officer in the early 1970s on Busan's police force. Her main motivation to become a police officer, she says, was to help people. Things were much different back then.
"I worked 10 times harder than the policemen around me to make sure I succeeded," she says. "I did more taekwondo, I studied harder and I kept pushing myself tirelessly." But today, she claims, policewomen and policemen are treated equally.
"There is no sexual harassment at police offices," she insists.
Other policewomen disagree. Two female officers who recently were interviewed by the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition voiced complaints ranging from discrimination to sexual harassment in the workplace. Fearing reprisals from their male superiors, both women insisted on remaining anonymous and refused to speak on the record. A third female officer turned down an interview request.
The nation's police forces have been undergoing reform since the inauguration of Lee Moo-Young as general commissioner of the National Police Agency in 1999. Among Mr. Lee's reform promises were vows to increase the number of policewomen and gain more public trust by policing with a more service-oriented approach. If they prove to be successful, the plans would be a model of change for other public agencies. But as long as the reform process lacks avenues for open discussion, any "positive image cultivation," as he puts it, is just a catchphrase.
Korea is trying to hire more women as police officers in order to promote a more friendly and service-oriented image, Ms. Kim says. "One of my goals is to have more policewomen stationed at the boxes, doing the practical work," she says. "The most important work is when you're in contact with the people."
Three hundred more women joined police forces last weekend, she pointed out, during a nationwide recruitment campaign that is held three times per year.
Another way for women to enter the police force, and to begin with a high rank, is to enroll at the National Police University. About 110 men and 10 women sign on every year to study at the school for four years to learn the nuts and bolts of police work, from taking fingerprints to gathering evidence at a crime scene.
"Young women entering the university are very enthusiastic about their work and very often get better grades than their male classmates," Ms. Kim says. The graduates of the police university usually start their careers on police forces － at the age of only about 23 or 24 － as police inspectors. Conflicts between young policewomen outranking older policemen might seem natural, especially in Korea's patriarchal society, but Ms. Kim again insists that such discord is rare. "No, I really don't see many problems like that, and when I do it's usually not too serious," she says. "More often, you see disputes between hypercompetitive policewomen."
[INTERVIEW]On the Brothel Beat, the Work － And the Anger － Seldom Wanes
By Park Soo-mee
It's an early Saturday evening ahead of the long Chuseok holiday weekend at this Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency in Gwanghwamun, but the building's security guards have already shut down most of its elevators.
The hallway on the fourth floor leading to the office of senior police chief Kim Kang-ja is dark, about as dark as one of the brothels Ms. Kim describes when she recalls her first visit to the "Miari Texas" area seven years ago. Miari is a notorious vice district in northern Seoul that borrows its traditions from old wild-west style bars: patrons can buy sex on the upper floors after stuffing their bellies with food and drinks at bars downstairs. For years, women － and girls as young as 12 years old － have traded their bodies for the cash equivalent of a couple of hamburgers.
In one corner of Ms. Kim's office are rows of flowerpots containing orchids she received from friends when she moved into the new office in January. Ms. Kim sweeps aside a hot cup of green tea that her young assistant had just prepared and politely asks him for a cup of instant coffee instead. That's what she drinks at night, she says. "The girls sent me a fax last night," she says with a trace of the familiar Cholla accent, while apologizing for being late to the interview. The young prostitutes from Miari wrote to ask her to tell their employers to let them take a few days off to go home for Chuseok. "I called all the pimps this morning and threatened to crack down on the district right away if they don't give the girls the holidays off," she says, then giggles like a schoolgirl.
Three years ago, Ms. Kim launched a major campaign against pimps and brothel owners in Miari to stamp out underage prostitution. Before Ms. Kim volunteered for police work targeting the sex industry, an estimated 500,000 minors were working in brothels out of 1.5 million prostitutes nationwide. Ms. Kim initiated a meticulous identification process for the prostitutes in the area over a period of a year. During that time, Ms. Kim succeeded in breaking the code of silence which for years kept venal police officers and brothel owners in cahoots. The underage prostitutes were sent to care homes and rehab centers while the others were offered regular physical checkups at a local clinic. It was an unusual code of action pulled off by an individual representing the Korean government, considering that the country has laws banning all forms of prostitution.
Recalling that period, Ms. Kim says she was surprised by the amount of attention the local media placed on her efforts. "It just wouldn't have had the same effect if the media weren't there; they outraged all the pimps," she says. Perhaps what the media was compelled to document all along was not the campaign itself, but the image of a small middle-aged woman, clothed in a winter uniform, proudly knocking on the doors of each of the brothels and asking to be let in.
"If she were born again she'd still want to become a policewoman," says Lee Keum-hyeong, a senior police officer at the National Police Agency, of Ms. Kim. "She had an emotional attachment for the girls in Miari." Reporters from major newspapers responded enthusiastically and portrayed her as an evangelist who emerged to save the nation's women, while others saw her as a heroine who threw a wrench into the works of Korea's patriarchal culture. But most of the time Ms. Kim just looked like an angry-faced parent who was looking to rescue her youngest daughter. In fact, there is a story behind that face, an incident which Ms. Kim says still makes her head spin. When she first visited Miari in 1994, she found at one of the first brothels she entered a 14-year-old girl confined in a cell. The hapless teen's face was swollen to seemingly double its size － she had contracted gonorrhea and was being treated with homemade tonic shots the pimps gave her whenever she got violently sick. Ms. Kim was at the scene with the girl's mother. That was the officer's first wake-up call.
"My head just spun right there, partly because my youngest daughter had just turned 14," she said. The girl had been sold to the brothel through a pimp. "I felt ashamed as a police officer that I had been ignorant about this issue for years. I also resented my male colleagues, who were so desperate to pull me away from the subject. They knew that if a female officer got her hands on a case like this, she wouldn't just sit back like they did." A few months later, she applied to work for the police headquarters of Ockchon, a small town in north Chungchong province, known for its many "discreet" coffee shops, which sell a lot more than hot beverages.
At 55, Ms. Kim is quick to acknowledge that the strength that keeps her in her current position is her "fearlessness and ability to spew anger." Betraying a bit of self-satisfaction with a smile, she says, "Even when I was very young, I used to climb mountains all by myself at nighttime."
As another example of her fearlessness, or frankness, Ms. Kim intentionally "slipped out" a few personal thoughts during a recent lecture she gave at Yonsei University, claiming the necessity to legalize prostitution in Korea. That would also require allocating certain parts of the city to be red light districts.
"The idea of enforcing most prostitution laws is simply meaningless," she says. "The police may clean out the district by shutting all the brothels, but eventually they'll move into apartments and barber shops near your house if they are not allowed elsewhere." Ms. Kim says she was asked to remain quiet about the subject of legalization, but a lively debate has already begun on Internet chat sites and among major civic groups.
She faces a long battle ahead. "I am just baffled by Korean men's duplicitous attitudes about sex," she says. "They talk about it so casually in drinking spots, but they still believe the subject shouldn't escape those confines."
by Sonja Ernst