On Dec. 9, 2016, South Korea’s National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye, a decision upheld by the Constitutional Court in May of 2017. She was later sentenced to 24 years in prison on bribery and associated charges.

The daughter of the former dictator, Park Chung-hee, Park’s own electoral success as the “Queen of Elections” elevated her among female politicians. Park’s initial popularity was bolstered due to her connection with her father and the tragic passing of her mother in 1974. Park’s election as president initially was seen as a breakthrough for gender equality in Korea, though such views quickly declined as she appointed only two women to cabinet positions, fewer than her predecessor, and did not promote women-related policies in a consistent manner. More broadly, South Korea remained low on most measures of gender equity.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye arrives at a court in Seoul, South Korea, August 7, 2017.

With Park’s impeachment, concerns quickly turned to her broader influence on women in electoral office. Women remain underrepresented in political office in South Korea, comprising only 17 percent of legislative seats, and if the most popular female politician could fall from grace so spectacularly, what would this mean for the chances of female candidates, especially those without the familial connections or name recognition as Park?

To address the impact of Park’s fall from grace, from Nov. 11-15, we surveyed 605 South Koreans using quota sampling in a web survey conducted by Macromil Embrain, a leading Korean online polling company. Respondents randomly were assigned to one of two versions of a question regarding Park’s impeachment and its influence on candidates, before being asked to evaluate the prompt on a five-point Likert scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree.

The versions were:

Version 1: After Park's impeachment, I examined the candidates more carefully in last year's presidential election and this year's local elections.

Version 2: After Park's impeachment, I examined the female candidates more carefully in last year's presidential election and this year's local elections.

Through this format, we wanted to identify whether the fallout of Park’s impeachment fell more harshly on female candidates. Surprisingly, we found that a clear majority of both men and women agree with the first version about candidates in general, while little more than a third of respondents agree with the statement when the focus is on female candidates specifically.


What might be motivating this discrepancy? Several explanations are plausible.

Firstly, perhaps respondents are simply unwilling to state that they look at female candidates differently in the wake of Park’s downfall and give the more socially acceptable response. This phenomenon, defined as the social desirability bias, references that, even when self-reporting anonymously, people often inaccurately report to present themselves in a more positive light.

While, ostensibly, South Korea has made significant strides for women in politics, deep-rooted gender inequity remains. For example, the World Economic Forum ranks South Korea 115th out of 145 countries in gender equality, while women comprised only 2.3 percent of corporate executive positions in the largest South Korean companies.

Additionally, nine out of 10 Korean women believe that women are not treated as equally as men in South Korea. It is plausible that both male and female respondents simply wanted to appear less discriminatory when answering the question relating directly to gender. If respondents are giving the response they feel is more socially acceptable, the challenge ahead for any female presidential candidate in the future is even more daunting. It is not until South Korea is successful in electing a second female president that the idea of women in such a leadership role will be normalized rather than be connected to Park’s initial success and subsequent downfall.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

A supporter of South Korean ousted leader Park Geun-hye holds a sign in front of a court in Seoul, South Korea, May 23, 2017.

Secondly, as small parties with little chance of winning significant seat shares are more likely to nominate women, respondents may not have considered female candidates viable regardless of Park’s impeachment. Current law requires that half of those listed for National Assembly proportional representation party seats must be female, while additional incentives are meant to encourage the nomination of women into National Assembly district races.

However, parties typically only nominate women to districts in which the party has no realistic chance of winning. Further, in the 2018 elections, only 10.5 percent of all nominated candidates were women. Meanwhile, no female candidates outside of the four major political parties successfully won a seat. Even among the 17 percent of women represented in the National Assembly, there is a definitive glass ceiling and very few women are represented in high-ranking internal party positions.

The only party which currently has a female leader is the Justice Party, a minority progressive party with six seats in the 300-seat National Assembly. Some sources have asserted that the typical route for females to become involved in politics is for powerful men to select women who later gain their own popularity, as was seen with Park Geun-hye. It is also typical for women to first be elected through a party seat listed on a proportional representation ballot, and then be reelected in a single-member district, using their experience from the previous experience to help them compete for the more competitive political positions.

Third, in the wake of the corruption scandals surrounding Park’s predecessor Lee Myung-bak, now serving fifteen years in prison himself, respondents legitimately may not view Park’s fall from power through a gendered lens. South Korea currently ranks 51st out of 180 countries in the 2017 Corruptions Perceptions Index published by Transparency International. Lee Myung-bak is the fourth former South Korean president to be incarcerated on charges related to corruption. Former president Lee embezzled nearly US$22 million and accepted bribes from Samsung among other companies. Perhaps, in light of broad concerns of ties between government and business leaders, it is important for South Koreans to more regularly monitor corruption among government officials. As one can view from the survey results, the majority of respondents have already begun to examine candidates at multiple levels of government more closely.

If the results are interpreted in this non-gendered lens, this only rules out that women are viewed differently after Park’s impeachment. The survey does not explain if female candidates are examined more closely in general or for different variables, such as experience or education levels.

The survey used in this article was funded by the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2018-R05).


Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University.

Andi Dahmer is an Honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in Economics, International Affairs, Spanish, and Asian Religions and Cultures.

Erin Woggon is an Honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in International Affairs and German.

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Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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