February 2013 was a huge moment for South Korean women as the nation swore in its first female leader.
As Park Geun-hye assumed the presidency of a decidedly patriarchal nation, she laid out an ambitious empowerment agenda. She shocked the gray-haired men dominating the economy by choosing a woman, Kwon Seon-joo, to head state-owned Industrial Bank of Korea and shaming companies hiring too few females. Park’s gender-affairs minister cajoled companies to release data on female executive ratios. In 2014, Park devoted about 5.5 percent of public expenditure increases to promoting flexible work schedules and affordable child care.
But three years on, South Korea’s “womenomics” moment is proving to be more rhetorical than substantive.
That damning assessment comes from Korean Women’s Association United, the umbrella organization speaking for more than 30 empowerment groups. In a statement ahead of this week’s International Women’s Day, KWAU is now shaming the nation’s great feminist hope and urging her to fulfill her pledges. Yet in doing so, the organization is highlighting how Park is broadly failing to revitalize Asia’s fourth-biggest economy.
Granted, Park has had an action-packed 1,107 days in office. North Korea’s antics alone limited time for the domestic restructuring and building the “creative economy” on which Park campaigned. Kim Jong Un’s government even has a propensity for hurling sexist comments Park’s way, complaining about the “venomous swish” of her skirts and calling her an “old, insane bitch.”
But data are hurling their own bromides Park’s way. In the World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap report, South Korea now ranks 115th, lagging Burkina Faso and Maldives (24 places behind China and 14 behind Japan). In 2012, as South Korea was holding the election Park won, the nation was ranked 108th. Three years into Park’s term, South Korea still sits near the bottom of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development tables, too.
The Korean Women’s Development Institute reckons that underutilizing the female workforce squanders more than $13 billion annually in lost output. As of the end of 2014, labor participation among twenty-something women was 63.8 percent compared with 63.3 in 2004. For women in their 30s, the rate rose to just 58.4 percent from 54.5 percent a decade earlier. It’s great, of course, that Park has shone a spotlight on the problem and allotted fresh researches. Yet, as The Korea Times reports, “no noticeable progress was made under Park’s watch.”
Unfortunately, this topic is a microcosm of Park’s failure to address South Korea’s mounting challenges. Empowering women is the lowest-hanging of economic fruits. Nations that tap their entire labor pool, not just the male end, are more vibrant, innovative and productive — without fail. In neighboring Japan, South Korea’s development inspiration, Goldman Sachs says gross domestic product would get a 15 percentage-point boost if female labor participation approached those of men. South Korea, arguably, would get an even bigger jolt.
As Moody’s analysts Shirin Mohammadi and Tom Byrne wrote in a December 2014 report, progress by Park in narrowing the gender gap is “credit positive.” It would boost the potential growth rate and offset the aging-population dynamic imperiling competitiveness. Trouble is, Park’s government has been big on speeches and targets, small on clear policies that increase diversity in male-dominated executive suites and politics.
Of National Assembly members, only about 16 percent are women, according to The Korea Times. That’s well below the 19 percent average in Asia and 22 percent average globally. Park could help by prodding more women to run for office and entrusting them with key cabinet jobs — including the foreign affairs and finance portfolios. Why not irk North Korea’s Kim by sending female negotiators his way? Early on, Park directed her government to build a female-talent database targeting about 100,000 female workers. Time to start using it?
What worries the KWAU is how some changes afoot in Seoul may exacerbate the problem. Take proposed labor-reform legislation that feminist groups fear will enable companies to increase non-regular workers. These more informal gigs, which pay less and offer fewer benefits and less job security, go disproportionately to women. “About 60 percent of all female workers are non-regular workers — this policy will only make the problem of job instability worse,” KWAU said. “The government is also trying to make it easier to fire workers as part of its labor reforms. Women, who may have to take maternity leave sometime in their careers, will remain more vulnerable to change.”
South Korea’s birthrate is already low. So is national growth rate as China slows, Japan remains in perma-recession mode and U.S. demand remains modest. South Korea expanded just 2.6 percent last year, down from 3.3 percent in 2014. But 2016 could be gloomier years, as evidenced by the 18.8 percent plunge in exports in January and another 12.2 percent drop in February.
Park has relied more on central bank rate cuts and short-term spending spurts than regulatory changes to make South Korea more vibrant. Her early pledges to revitalize the small-to-midsize companies and catalyze a start-up boom amounted to little. The same goes for talk of reining in the family-owned conglomerates that tower over all walks of corporate and financial life. Creating more good-paying jobs, particularly for women, means generating them from the ground up, not the top down. That means cultivating a new generation of innovative companies that play to South Korea’s strengths in services, not in old-economy manufacturing.
Time isn’t on South Korea’s side. China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and other upstarts are rapidly altering the Asian pecking order. Yet South Korea has arguably already entered the realm of developed nations. Whereas many in Asia need to improve infrastructure, efficiency and education, South Korea must reinvent itself. South Korea has much about which to be proud: beating the middle-income trap, avoiding the worst of the 2008 crisis, creating names like Samsung, Hyundai and LG, electing the first female leader in North Asia. But Seoul has a worrisome rest-on-its-laurels quality at a time when it must recalibrate a model no longer raising living standards.
Park’s failure to tackle even the most obvious of headwinds — like gender inequality — bodes ill for her broader reform plans. South Korea’s female masses deserve better. Its economy, too.
William Pesek is executive editor of Barron’s Asia. www.barronsasia.com