South Korean President Kim Dae Jung continues to make history. This month he selected the first female prime minister, a ground-breaking move in male-dominated South Korean society. Predictably, the decision has been derided as a political gesture to shore up the government’s faltering support; opposition members and some politicians have betrayed their chauvinism by questioning the ability of a woman to lead the country. The poisonous political atmosphere in Seoul does not bode well for the Cabinet, or the country, during the next six months.

President Kim selected Ms. Chang Sang, the Princeton-educated president of Ewha Woman’s University, to lead the new Cabinet. The premiership is largely a ceremonial post; most real power is concentrated in the office of the president. Nonetheless, the decision to choose a woman for the job is historic.

Like Japan, South Korea is a male-dominated society in which women are relegated primarily to secondary roles outside the home. A 1998 United Nations report criticized South Korea for its treatment of women. President Kim responded by establishing a ministry of gender equality, increasing the number of women officials in government and strengthening laws against discrimination and domestic violence. The results have not been encouraging.

A U.N. survey of female representation in Parliament ranks South Korea 97th. Fewer than than 6 percent of the seats in the national assembly are occupied by women; the international average is 14.6 percent. Slightly less than half of South Korea’s working-age women are employed, a higher figure than many European countries. However, most are in jobs traditionally held by women, such as teaching and services, and they do not earn as much as their male counterparts. In fact, the pay gap has expanded since 1998.

At the same time, nearly half the country’s university students are women. As Japan’s experience has proven, this is a dangerous combination. The failure to provide women with meaningful work and sufficient compensation will encourage them to go elsewhere to find it. They will either go to work for non-South Korean companies or leave the country. Neither option is in South Korea’s long-term interest.

Predictably, the new prime minister is already under fire. Questions swirl around her curriculum vitae (it says she has a doctorate from Princeton University rather than the institution’s theological seminary), her son’s U.S. passport and some of her real estate holdings. The opposition Grand National Party rebuffed a courtesy call by Ms. Chang, and one GNP member has been forced to step down from a party advisory post for asking whether a woman could govern.

While Ms. Chang is the most controversial face in the Cabinet, she is not the only newcomer. One-third of the ministers have been replaced. The shuffle is designed to give the government and the ruling Millennium Democratic Party a boost in the runup to the presidential ballot in December. Both have been battered in recent weeks. President Kim’s two sons have been charged with influence-peddling and tax evasion, and the defense minister was slammed in the aftermath of the June 29 naval clash with North Korean forces that cost five South Koreans their lives. South Koreans are growing increasingly frustrated with North Korean behavior, endangering the most powerful legacy of President Kim’s tenure, his “sunshine policy.”

Smelling blood, the GNP is stepping up its opposition. That explains in part the hard line taken against Ms. Chang. It also reflects positioning for by-elections to be held Aug. 8 to fill 13 vacant seats in the national assembly. The GNP already has 130 seats in the 273-seat Parliament. This vote could give it a majority. Coming on the heels of a rout of the MDP in local elections in June, the prospects for greater polarization in the runup to the December presidential ballot are increasing.

The difficulties will be compounded by the government’s inability to get political heavyweights to join a lame-duck administration. The opposition has called for a nonpartisan, technocratic leadership, but South Korea (like any other country) needs experienced professionals to get things done.

South Korea was supposed to be basking in the afterglow of its soccer team’s outstanding performance in the World Cup and the country’s excellent job of cohosting the tournament. Instead, politicians are gearing up for a six-month battle for the Blue House. It is unlikely that the rest of the world will wait for South Koreans to sort things out.

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