The power of Korea’s women

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The power of Korea’s women

On a recent visit to Seoul I heard a lot of debate about what will make Korea a more powerful and successful country. Some said “nuclear sovereignty”; others said “dialogue with North Korea”; still others said “economic democratization.” What will make Korea a more powerful country? My answer: Korean women.

I am not talking about President Park Geun-hye, who is undeniably a successful Korean woman. But she is also sui generis: in a category by herself. I am talking about all women in Korean society.

First, women are the key to unlocking long-term growth in Korea’s slowing economy. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development recently lowered Korea’s growth projection for 2013 to 2.6 percent from the 3.15 percent growth figure the organization had predicted last November. There are many reasons for this slower growth, but there is one clear solution. The World Economic Forum Global Gender Index ranked Korea 116th in the world in terms of female participation in the work force in 2012. Labor force participation by women in Korea is among the lowest of the industrialized countries at 53 percent (compared with 75 percent of men) and has barely changed for two decades. The gender pay gap in Korea is the highest among industrialized countries at 39 percent. Multiple econometric models demonstrate that increasing women’s economic participation will add significantly to any country’s GDP growth, and Korea’s comparatively large gender gap suggests there is even more of an opportunity to add fuel to the Korean economy. For example, Goldman Sach’s detailed “Womenomics” study on Japan showed that closing the gender gap there could add as much as 15 percent to GDP; and Japan is ranked 102nd in the world in the Global Gender index (in other words, with less room for improvement than Korea).

Second, women are the answer to Korea’s longer-term structural demographic challenge. Korea’s population “replacement rate” is now at 1.2 - almost the lowest in the world and well below the 2.1 level needed to add enough new people in the work force to help pay for every couple retiring. With such a low replacement rate, social welfare costs for an aging society can be crippling. And as my colleague at Georgetown University, demographer Betsy Stephens, has shown, this low birthrate can affect everything from military recruitment to economic innovation. The public policy challenge is how to encourage increased participation in the workforce by women and at the same time support a higher birthrate.

Right now, surveys suggest that many women in Korea decide not to have children because it is so expensive to educate them and find day care. These are areas that government policy can address, as other countries in the OECD have demonstrated.

Third, women’s overall empowerment in society is critical. If society respects women’s choices in terms of work and home life balance, and provides real opportunities for advancement and leadership, then women will be more productive on both fronts. The recent scandal involving charges that Presidential spokesman Yoon Chang-jung sexually harassed a female Korean-American intern in Washington has been playing in the media in terms of the politics, but the real issue for debate should be about respect for professional women and women in general. This is hardly a uniquely Korean problem. The U.S. military is under intense scrutiny by members of the U.S. Senate because flag-rank officers have been choosing not to prosecute or even reversing serious sexual harassment charges against men under their command. But the Yoon scandal demonstrates the tip of an iceberg that Korea must also deal with.

Many pundits dismiss gender issues as deeply ingrained in traditional culture. Culture obviously matters. Yet Korean society has outpaced Japan and many other Asian neighbors in terms of welcoming immigrants (an issue where the United States continually struggles to find a consensus). Korean progress on immigration was in part due to the activism of NGOs and to the overall globalization of Korea. At one point pundits argued that the “Hermit Kingdom” would not open to immigration, yet the progress has been impressive.

Women’s empowerment in Korea is not just a question of equity or justness, it is a pathway to greater national strength and prosperity.

* The author is a senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael J. Green
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