Has Park Geun-Hye's Downfall Changed the Game for Women in Korea?

Has Park Geun-Hye's Downfall Changed the Game for Women in Korea?
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
What you need to know

What does Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment mean for female politicians in Korea?

In one of the more bizarre political stories of 2016, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye found herself in a multilayer corruption scandal related to her connection with Park’s long-term confidante Choi Soon-Sil. The daughter of Park Chung-Hee and the “Queen of Elections,” we wait for the Constitutional Court to decide Park’s date after an impeachment vote on Dec. 9. While the Park scandal is likely to severely hamper the Saenuri Party’s hopes in the presidential election later this year, the potentially long-lasting impact of the Park scandal on female politicians remains overlooked.

Women remain underrepresented in the National Assembly, currently comprising a record high 17 percent of all seats. This is despite requirements requiring 50 percent of party lists for the proportional representation seats to be filled by women and additional incentives to encourage parties to nominate women in district competition. The general pattern remains that women face an uphill battle to even get a nomination in district races, often nominated only when the party does not expect to win.

Park won a by-election for a legislative district seat in 1998, and reelected to the district three times, later serving in a party list seat. Park’s presidential victory in 2012 against Moon Jae-In, is commonly portrayed as an example of growing opportunities for female politicians in non-western democracies, yet this belies the unique circumstances behind Park’s success. As with most female presidents and prime ministers in Asia, with a notable exception of Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in Taiwan, Park benefited from the fact that a male family member ruled before her. Park Chung-hee ruled South Korea from 1963-1979 and in a twist of fate, Park Geun-Hye’s 2012 presidential election opponent was jailed and forced into military service during this authoritarian era. Nor did Park’s presidential election expand opportunities for women in cabinet positions.

Park’s political demise and the gender-based critiques during her fall, however, risk raising the bar higher for future female politicians. If arguably South Korea’s most respected female candidate falls from grace in such a bizarre fashion, what opportunities exist for ambitious female candidates?

Editor: Edward White