Guarantee divorce equality
There can be no doubt that in the nearly 20 years since the so-called “Miracle on the Han,” the social and economic status of South Korean women has undergone a transformation nearly as miraculous. More Korean women are attending college, pursuing professional careers, delaying marriage and motherhood, and having fewer children.
On the other hand, two recent decisions by the Supreme Court involving the division of public-employee pensions in divorce cases have ominous implications for women who are either satisfied with traditional female roles or unable to escape them. In one case, the high court upheld a lower court’s award of 35 percent of her ex-husband’s $2,976 monthly public-employee pension to a 60-year-old woman. The couple were married for 22 years, during which the wife raised their two children and never worked outside the home.
In the second, the court awarded 50 percent of a man’s public-servant pension to his wife of 31 years. Judges said she was entitled to half because she had operated a fashion boutique that generated income for the household.
“The longer your marriage and the more you contribute to the household economy,” said attorney Lim Chae-woong of Bae, Kim and Lee LLC, “the more you can get from your spouse’s pension.”
What’s wrong with this reasoning? It rewards the generation of outside income, while disregarding the value of work performed - almost always by women - inside the household. Worse, it perpetuates the perception of women as junior partners in the marriage relationship and second-class citizens in society at large.
These two decisions by our highest court carry outsize influence as they are the first since this same Supreme Court on July 16 overturned a 1995 judicial precedent that excluded future pension and severance payments from jointly held marital assets subject to division in the event of divorce. Interestingly, the case involved a woman initiating the divorce and her husband seeking a piece of her pension as a public school teacher.
What the court failed to do was set a guideline for how pension income should be divvied up. That, unfortunately, will apparently be decided on a case-by-case basis, and if the aforementioned rulings are any indication, women will continue to be shortchanged. While it’s true that Korean women have steadily increased their presence in the nation’s economy, the overarching reality is that they remain at a disadvantage because of cultural and social - not to mention spousal - pressures.
The faster a country develops, the greater the mismatch between men’s expectations of a wife and women’s career hopes, Hwang Ji-soo, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate, told The Economist. Korea’s rapid development means that economic prospects outside the home are significantly better for married women today than they were for their mothers, she said, and “the opportunity cost of being a housewife is much greater.”
For its part, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) cites the marginalization of women as a key weakness of the nation’s economy, which is stuck in a slow-growth rut. A big reason for that is bearing and raising children, which remains a burden overwhelmingly borne by women and a formidable obstacle to career success. Korea is the only OECD country where female college graduates have a lower rate of employment than those with only a compulsory education, according to The Diplomat magazine. In addition, the percentage of women in the Korean workforce who have part-time jobs is more than double the average for all OECD countries.
So despite making strides, Korean women today are still far more likely than men to stay at home or interrupt their careers for domestic reasons, resulting in lost wages and lower-paid positions if they return to work in their 40s. That means women in long-term marriages are far less likely than men to be financially ready for their senior years in the case of divorce.
A standard 50-50 division of assets in marriages of 10 years or longer should be the law of the land. Marriage should be a union of equals, whose contributions - financial and otherwise - must be valued equally. To allow individual courts to do otherwise is an injustice to both partners, but especially to women, whose contributions to their families and society are priceless.
*The author is the business news editor at the Korea JoongAng Daily.
by Bertil Peterson