Meet a new breed of political leader: Young women

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Meet a new breed of political leader: Young women

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Kim Hee-suk reclines against a couch at the Starbucks across from the National Assembly in Yeouido. She is surrounded by a crowd of businessmen in dark suits, but clad in blue jeans and a Scandinavian vest and with her restful demeanor, she projects an unusual aura for a politician of a ruling party.
“It’s interesting, because the older party members find my casual dress code rather amusing,” she says. “It’s the people my age who are worried [about my career]. I wear different clothes when I go to the National Cemetery.”
At 34 a committee member for the Uri Party in Gyeonggi province, Ms. Kim is one of the growing number of young Korean women who have entered the ring of big-league politics. In the past, women rarely ran for office ― politics was considered an old-boys’ club, a realm of smoke-filled rooms and behind-the-scenes deals.
While the male activists against the old military regime became statesmen and legislators for the current government, touting their role in the student activist movement to help sway voters, most of the women activists from the period started non-governmental organizations for underprivileged groups, such as migrant workers and battered women. Over the years, some women politicians emerged and then disappeared, but many women in politics took far more militant, extreme or conservative positions within their parties than their male counterparts did.
Chu Mi-ae, a former ruling-party lawmaker from the Millennium Democratic Party, was nicknamed “Chu of Arc” for her habit of outdoing her male colleagues in partisanship and acid-tongued comments.
The difficulties women in politics face can be legendary: During the Kim Young-sam administration, the head of the Environment Ministry, Hwang San-seong, was photographed by reporters with her hands in her pockets during an audit and inspection of the National Assembly. That might seem like no big deal, but the press and opposition-party members roundly bashed her for “looking arrogant.” Some media critics stepped forward to defend Hwang, calling the public outrage an expression of denial, and saying her gesture was interpreted as insolence against “male authority.”
Determined to end the “code of silence” for women politicians ― the unspoken rules for the way they are supposed to act and dress in the public sphere ― Lee Mi-kyung, a lawmaker for the Uri Party, launched a campaign in the 15th National Assembly to encourage female lawmakers to act assertively and wear pantsuits instead of skirts.
Women still have a long way to go in politics.
In order to win the games, they have to play as the men do. In fact, one of the rising complaints within Korean women’s groups today is that women are better politicians than they were 30 years ago, but they lack strong solidarity, which they used to have.
Only 41 out of 296 of the current National Assembly members are women, but their rise in the political scene has been astonishingly rapid. This may be due in large part to public frustration with corruption and incompetence in government, a legacy of the country’s closed, old-boy network. Women politicians are seen as guardians of transparency and honesty, two values conspicuously absent in Korean politics.
The large influx of women politicians has coincided with the arrival of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, and was given a boost by the bungled impeachment of Mr. Roh in 2004. Critics have said that in the aftermath of the messy scandal, which showed dark-suited male politicians pushing and elbowing in the boardroom of the National Assembly, women appear to be the only hope left for Korean politics.
Shortly after Han Myung-suk was appointed as the nation’s first female prime minister, Gang Geum-sil, a former Justice Minister, announced she was running to be the first woman mayor of Seoul. The Grand National Party, too, greatly succeeded in softning their image by appointing Park Geun-hye as the party’s leader, though she is often dubbed “a woman with the look of her mother with a political ambition of her father” (the late president Park Chung Hee) among the political journalists.
Figures for the regional elections, scheduled for later this month, show that about 250 female candidates are running for Uri Party positions (7.5 percent of the party’s total); that figure is about 5 percent in the Grand National Party, 1 percent in the Millennium Democratic Party and 34 percent in the far-left Democratic Labor Party.
Not only are there more women in politics, but like Kim Hee-suk, the women are younger and more confident in their political strategy.
Lee Geun-hye, 26, is a member of the Democratic Labor Party who is running for a seat on the Dongjak district council. She is one of the few members of that party who was never part of the student activist movement.
Instead, Ms. Lee took her own road into politics. After earning a degree in economics, she worked for a pharmaceutical company before joining an advocate group for street vendors, who have been battling government crackdowns for years. Her entry into politics was mainly due to her father, a street vendor activist who died immolating himself in protest. For that reason, Ms. Lee sees politics as a something that is personal.
“Residents in some areas had been fighting against the government’s demolition projects since 2003,” she says. “Small merchants and street vendors are constantly subject to restrictions and fines. I will take to the barracades so that these incidents don’t happen again in my neighborhood. I will work to enhance and support the human rights of the disabled, women, children, youth and migrant workers.”
Others aim for a less confrontational and more playful image. Kim Hui-jeong, 32, the youngest lawmaker in the Grand National Party, was often seen shaking hands with voters while she wore roller blades during the last national election.
Kim Hee-suk produced a campaign banner with photos of herself, her mother and her grandmother during the national election for her party’s central women’s committee last year. Her strategy of stressing the history and origin of the individual candidate might come across as odd to voters, but to the student of Russian literature who wrote her master’s thesis on Russian playwrights durign the revolution, the campaign banner was a natural reflection of her vision for “the politics of imagination.”
“I see politics in the same line as literature, in the sense that we all deal with language,” Ms. Kim says. “I get to learn how language is processed, communicated and expressed in our daily lives, and the difficulties of communicating. The difference is that in politics, language demands a full context to back the speaker’s point.”
Indeed, many women in Korean politics find it difficult to give public speeches.
A special speech class was recently held for female candidates within Uri Party. One woman, Lee Hyo-gyung, who is running for a seat on the Gyeonggi province council, confessed that one of the most difficult parts of the campaign was standing in front of a microphone, talking to a large crowd in an authoritative manner.
Another problem is age: In Korean society, one’s age is even more important a factor than gender, says Ms. Kim.
“I often get mistaken for an introductory speaker when I stand up on a platform to speak to journalists,” says Song Ji-eun, 30, a spokeswoman for Park Ju-seon, a candidate for Seoul mayor from the Democratic Party. Ms. Song says she also wants to run for office. “It’s the kind of bias our society needs to overcome.”
Even with the “women wave” washing over politics, as one newspaper recently described the phenomenon, questions still remain. The fact that the phenomenon is being presented in the news as a curious trend suggests that women are still on the margins.
After all, there is another critical question: How far will this wave go?


by Park Soo-mee
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