A woman’s touch on city affairs

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A woman’s touch on city affairs

What do the four district offices in Seoul, Busan, Daegu and Incheon have in common?

They are led by women: Kim Yeong-sun (Songpa District, Seoul), Kim Eun-suk (Jung District, Busan), Yun Sun-yeong (Jung District, Daegu), and Park Seung-seuk (Jung District, Incheon).

Korea's first female district office head was appointed in 2002 in Busan, and four years later, women took over in Seoul, Daegu and Incheon.

The women, aged between 50 and 70, have different backgrounds and stories to tell, but in a recent group interview, they exuded the same soft, yet strong, charisma, which is perhaps unique to women leaders.

For instance, Incheon’s Park Seung-seuk, 72, learned quickly that if she was going to succeed in her new post, she had to use that charisma.

One morning during her first few days in office, her secretary burst into her office and told her a man wanted to see her.

“Please escape by the back door,” said her secretary, concerned that the male visitor might be a threat.

Instead, Park instructed her secretary to invite the man in. She bowed politely, expressing gratitude that he had voted for her.

“I didn’t vote for you!” he yelled, jabbing a finger at her and swearing. He had been involved in a prolonged dispute with the government over a compensation claim.

“I knew I had to toughen up, because he obviously thought he could easily bully me because I was a female head,” Park said. “He had brought [paint] thinner to the office and I told him to throw it at me if he dared. He seemed surprised at my attitude and ran away.”

Busan’s Kim Eun-suk, 64, reported similar tales. “I’ve encountered men who were completely inebriated. One even brought a box of excrement with him! It’s too dangerous to dismiss these incidents. We shouldn’t treat them lightly, ” said Kim, who has three women in managerial positions in Busan’s Jung District.

According to Daegu’s Yun Sun-yeong, 56, women must work harder than men to prove themselves.

“You should work at least twice as hard as your male counterparts,” said Yun.

Her latest success is an agreement between her city’s Jung District Office and local street vendors to clean up the area.

The key to making that agreement a reality was taking into account the venders’ side of the story.

“Some street vendors are like an enterprise, earning 1 million won [$646] a day, while there are those who are there literally to survive,” Yun said. The “enterprise-style” street vendors are known to pull the strings of power against small vendors.

According to the agreement, the vendors who are there “for survival” stay in the business, but seek advice from experts - lawyers, architects and design experts - for better management of the area.

Songpa’s Kim Yeong-sun has also set up more female-friendly policies, such as discounts on monthly swimming pool fees that take into account menstruation cycles, more eco-friendly kindergartens for children suffering from eczema and allowing residents to plant trees in their name near Sungnae Stream as part of development plans.

“There should be a balance of views between men and women. For instance, the pavement blocks in Korean streets are unfriendly to women in high heels as well as the elderly with canes,” Kim said.

The four say women should not just criticize society for inequality between the sexes but face reality and work harder.

“We should maintain integrity and fairness to the point where even if we stand naked in the middle of the streets, we are faultless, so to speak,” Park said.

By Koo Hui-lyung JoongAng Sunday [hkim@joongang.co.kr]

From left, Kim Yeong-sun, Yun Sun-yeong, Park Seung-seuk and Kim Eun-suk are the only women who lead district offices in Korea. [JoongAng Ilbo]
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