Asia Pacific / Politics | FOCUS

There's a radical plan to make South Korea's legislature 50% female

by Jihye Lee

Bloomberg

Some South Korean women are so frustrated by the country’s stubborn gender pay gap that they are seeking a radical shift: equal political representation.

A proposal recently introduced to the National Assembly seeks to fill half the body’s seats with women — compared with 17 percent now. Under the measure, parties that fail to put forward female candidates in at least 50 percent of the districts they contest would face fines.

While few expect the measure to pass this session, the bill is fanning an already intense debate over gender and political representation in South Korea. Supporters are wiring money to the office of the bill’s author, Park Young-sun, and posting screen grabs of the bank transfers, accompanied by the hashtag #남녀동수법 (#malefemaleequalnumberlaw).

“Our society is a male-centric one,” Park, who represents a western Seoul district, said via email Wednesday. “There have been a variety of movements pushing for gender equality, but it’s still not enough.”

The backlash has been almost as strong, with some men attending discussion groups to criticize the proposal and what they see as feminist overreach.

The debate could have ramifications for President Moon Jae-in, a progressive who vowed to make South Korea a “safer place for women to live in” after helping impeach the country’s first female leader, conservative Park Geun-hye. Although the promise helped Moon’s popularity among women — with 48.5 percent of women in their 20s approving of his performance — only 29 percent of men of the same age group express support, according to Real Meter.

The bill has 16 sponsors, including four male legislators.

South Korea has long lagged other developed economies in terms of pay equity and women’s participation in the workforce. The country has the worst gender pay gap among the 36 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The gap extends into politics, with women holding about 17 percent of South Korea’s assembly seats, according to statistics from the Inter-Parliamentary Union. That compares to 48.2 percent in Mexico, 39.6 percent in France and 23.7 percent in the U.S.

Park said her bill was inspired by France’s parite legislation passed in 2000 and Mexico’s gender quotas for political candidates. Currently, South Korea’s Fair Election Law requires at least one woman to be nominated for each constituency and recommends that female candidates make up at least 30 percent of the total slate in running in an election.

South Korea already fares better than neighboring Japan, which has the second-largest gender wage gap in the OECD. Just over 10 percent of the members of the Lower House are women, and only one out of its 19 Cabinet ministers is female.

Still, the proposal has touched a nerve among some younger men, particularly those age 25 to 29 who already lag women in employment.

The criticism was strong enough for one male lawmaker supporting the proposal, Pyo Chang-won, to host a seminar to “listen to men in their 20s” at the National Assembly on Wednesday. The few dozen men who attended told him they were concerned about “reverse sexism” and complained that South Korean feminism was “going too far.”

“The men in our generation cannot empathize with the discrimination that women say they feel,” Choi Jung-won, 27, told the gathering. “The government is being unfair by giving women more say.”

The bill’s sponsor, Park Young-sun, said she hoped the debate would spur policies to increase female representation in parliament, even if the legislation didn’t pass.

“I don’t agree that this is reverse sexism,” she said. “There should be qualified people in politics, but women who are qualified aren’t given the chance. So I want to make sure that chance is given.”