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Solid political credentials, scandal-free and an excellent debater: Sim Sang-jung is one of South Korea’s most established female politicians. But as a left wing feminist from a minor party, she doesn’t stand a chance of becoming president on Wednesday.

In socially conservative South Korea, every president except one has been male and come from one of the country’s two major parties. The next president will also be a man — the front runners are both male.

As a four-time parliamentarian and seasoned labor and women’s rights activist with not a whiff of scandal about her, Sim is a stark contrast to her gaffe-prone rivals — Yoon Seok-youl from the opposition People Power Party (PPP), and Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party.

From Yoon’s suspected links to dodgy shamans to widely reported allegations against Lee of mafia ties, the leading candidates have thrown so much mud at each other on the campaign trail that some local media have branded it the “election of the unfavorables.”

Still, Sim doesn’t stand a chance of winning — her approval rating has never left the single digits.

As a self-identified feminist, Sim is the antithesis of the PPP’s Yoon, who has vowed to abolish the ministry of gender equality — claiming, despite the evidence, that women do not face systemic discrimination.

In socially conservative South Korea, every president except one has been male and come from one of the country's two major parties. | AFP-JIJI
In socially conservative South Korea, every president except one has been male and come from one of the country’s two major parties. | AFP-JIJI

“Sexism clearly exists in South Korean society,” Sim said by email.

Yoon’s stated objectives risk fanning dangerous misogynistic sentiment and will, ultimately, damage South Korean democracy, she said.

“We already know the historical consequences of election campaign strategies that encourage hate,” she added.

‘Patriarchal society’

Despite its economic and technological advances, South Korea remains socially traditional and patriarchal, and has one of the world’s thickest glass ceilings for women.

It has the highest gender wage gap in the OECD club of developed economies and only 3.6% of board members at the country’s conglomerates are female.

Similarly in politics, women hold just 18.6% of assembly seats in parliament — putting South Korea in 125th position in a global ranking maintained by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, just a few seats ahead of North Korea in 130th place.

“Korea is still a patriarchal society, and it is very hard for any female politician to rise to the top,” Gi-Wook Shin, a sociology professor at Stanford University, said.

The country’s sole woman president, Park Geun-hye, in office from 2013 to 2017, “was an exception, who rode on the legacy of her father,” the late dictator Park Chung-hee, he said.

Sim Sang-jung, presidential candidate from the Justice Party (left), Yoon Seok-youl, presidential candidate from the main opposition People Power Party (second from left), Ahn Cheol-soo, presidential candidate from the People's Party (right), and Lee Jae-myung, presidential candidate from the ruling Democratic Party, pose for a photo during a presidential debate at the KBS studio in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday. | BLOOMBERG
Sim Sang-jung, presidential candidate from the Justice Party (left), Yoon Seok-youl, presidential candidate from the main opposition People Power Party (second from left), Ahn Cheol-soo, presidential candidate from the People’s Party (right), and Lee Jae-myung, presidential candidate from the ruling Democratic Party, pose for a photo during a presidential debate at the KBS studio in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday. | BLOOMBERG

Sim’s second key handicap as a viable candidate is that she hails from the small, left wing Justice Party, which holds six seats in the National Assembly.

South Korea, which uses a first-past-the-post election model, has a strong two-party system, and every president has come from that duopoly.

The Justice Party campaigns on issues such as climate justice, as well as LGBT and labor rights — all considered radical in South Korea.

Sim entered politics after spending more than two decades on the front lines of South Korea’s turbulent labor rights movement, going underground as a factory worker to organize unions while a student.

In 1985 she helped lead a groundbreaking strike and was rewarded by being put on the “most wanted” list of the country’s then authoritarian government.

Her key policy as a presidential candidate reflects this background: she proposes a four-day work week, a revolutionary idea in a country where workers endure notoriously long hours.

As a four-time parliamentarian and seasoned labor and women's rights activist with not a whiff of scandal about her, Sim Sang-jung is a stark contrast to her gaffe-prone rivals | AFP-JIJI
As a four-time parliamentarian and seasoned labor and women’s rights activist with not a whiff of scandal about her, Sim Sang-jung is a stark contrast to her gaffe-prone rivals | AFP-JIJI

Polling suggests her strongest support is among women in their 20s, but her overall approval ratings hover woefully low at around 2% to 3%.

She’s a hero to some younger women for managing to “articulate the women’s rights agenda” in the male-dominated labor movement, Vladimir Tikhonov, professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, said.

Long game

But Sim has made costly mistakes: she did not speak out when a key corruption case hit incumbent President Moon Jae-in’s administration, which made her party look complicit, analysts say.

People assumed her party was “a coalition partner of the Democratic Party, rather than a more reform-oriented left wing alternative,” said Yesola Kweon, a politics professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.

Sim herself blames her low approval ratings on her inability to convince South Koreans to see beyond the narrow policy choices offered by the two main parties.

“We couldn’t convince people to believe in possibilities,” she said.

But although Sim has no chance of winning, it’s an “important symbolic stance” that she is on the ballot on Wednesday, said Sharon Yoon, a Korean studies professor at the University of Notre Dame.

She’s seeking to change Seoul’s “two-party system that runs on personality politics and regional loyalties rather than policy interests,” she said.

“She is playing a long game.”

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