SAN FRANCISCO -- Three years ago South Korea introduced a new note into its currency, the first bill to feature the portrait of a woman: acclaimed 16th Century artist Shin Saim-dang. Some saw her appearance on the 50,000 won note as a step forward for women in a country long dominated by patriarchal Confucian traditions.
Others said it reinforced existing stereotypes.
As the country now prepares to inaugurate its first female president, Park Geun-hye, 60, who claimed victory in this week’s tightly contested presidential race after defeating her liberal opponent Moon Jae-in, many are again wondering what this might mean for women’s rights.
For Korean women in the Bay Area, the answer isn’t clear.
“I don’t see Ms. Park as a woman,” says Young-joo Jung, 39, a stay-at-home wife and the mother of two children in San Francisco. “I see her more as someone from a privileged background … she didn’t earn the position.”
Jung, who arrived to the United States in 2001, returns every year to her hometown of Pusan, located in Gyeongsang Province, where Park originally hails from. The area has long been a bastion of support for conservative candidates, going back to Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, who ruled Korea for 18 years starting in 1963 until his assassination in 1979.
Many credit him for the country’s astounding economic success, though he continues to be reviled by more liberal-minded Koreans for his harsh rule and numerous human rights violations.
“Electing the daughter of the dictator is a huge step backward for Korean democracy,” says Hyung-im Lee, a 46-year-old Seoul native who came to San Francisco a decade ago to live with her American husband. She argues that Park’s policies will only drive a deeper wedge between the two Koreas. “If South Korea wants to achieve true democracy, we have to again become a unified country.”
Korean Americans’ views of the new president reflect South Korea’s longstanding political divisions.
“After [Park Geun-hye’s] mother was killed by a communist agent in 1974, the young daughter served as acting First Lady for five years,” notes Jacqelin Choo, 76, a Bay Area resident and self-described conservative who says she and her fellow Korean seniors are “delighted” to see the daughter now taking the helm.
“Park [Geun-hye] learned political lessons from her father. She knows the role of the presidency … she will provide strong leadership and stability,” explains Choo, adding that Park “went though a lot of pain because of her father’s legacy.”
Indeed, Park’s victory over Moon – she won 51 percent to his 48 percent -- was in large part due to elder voters, many of whom voiced concerns over economic stability and relations with North Korea. Park’s campaign promised a continuation of her predecessor Lee Myung-bak’s market-oriented policies as well as more “tailored welfare” programs. She also took a tougher stance on North Korea than Moon, though she has promised a shift away from the hard-line approach taken by the last president.
Park will be sworn into office in February.
Yoon Duk-woo, a professor of social welfare at Gumi University in the Korean city of Daegu, worked closely on the Park campaign. He says her victory shows “Korea is no longer a male-dominated society.” The United States, he points out, “still hasn’t elected a female president.”
Yoon also points to changes in South Korean society that are taking place closer to the ground. “Look at the numbers of graduate students in recent years,” he notes. “There’s a lot more women applying than men. And the preference for sons over daughters is also on the wane.”
Even in traditional society, Yoon notes, women exercised a degree of power, albeit in the home overseeing family finances and education. It’s that narrower view of gender roles that some fear that Park, like the artist Shin, will help to perpetuate.
Born to a well-to-do family in 1504, Shin gained fame for her paintings and calligraphy, a rare feat for a woman in a country then laying the foundations of a rigidly patriarchal legal and social system. Known affectionately as “Wise Mother,” Shin was also revered in later centuries as the model of Confucian virtue, which maintains strictly defined roles for men and women.
When Seoul announced in 2009 that her face would appear on the newly minted 50,000 won note (about $36), critics worried it would strengthen these traditional gender boundaries that many see as being at odds with the country’s headlong leap into modernity.
Today, as TIME Magazine recently noted, South Korean women earn about 40 percent less than their male counterparts working the same jobs. Earlier this year, the country ranked near the bottom -- 108 out of 135 – of countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum for gender equality. Only 2 percent of executives there are women.
“As a fulltime working mom, I expect financial assistance for child care and educational support,” things that are not easily available in South Korea, says Sung-hee Park, 43, a registered nurse in San Francisco.
A single mother, she says she still considers possibly returning to live in South Korea, though she notes treatment of nurses in hospitals there leaves a lot to be desired. Doctors, for example, openly and routinely treat female employees as inferiors, unlike her experience here, where she says she is “often solicited by doctors for her advice.”
Whether such attitudes will soften with Park’s election remains to be seen. A quote from earlier this year suggests the president-elect’s own views on gender may be more closely aligned with traditional roles.
“Faced with the possibility of another global economic crisis next year,” Park told reporters in November, “we should now establish a feminine, motherly leader who may sacrifice all for the sake of the people.”
Still, despite misgivings, some are greeting the new president with a guarded optimism.
Seung-hye Lee is a senior research associate in her early 30s who works for the pharmaceutical giant Genentech. While she acknowledges that South Korean society continues to discriminate against women, she says she is hopeful that Park’s victory will begin to turn the tide. “I hope Park sides with the weak and with women … and that she contributes greatly to the expansion of women’s rights.”