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Iceland's culture minister shares key to gender equality

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Iceland's Minister of Culture and Business Affairs Lilja Alfredsdottir poses at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Nov. 23. Alfredsdottir visited Korea on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Iceland. Courtesy of Ewha Womans University
Iceland's Minister of Culture and Business Affairs Lilja Alfredsdottir poses at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Nov. 23. Alfredsdottir visited Korea on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Iceland. Courtesy of Ewha Womans University

By Kwon Mee-yoo

Iceland's Minister of Culture and Business Affairs Lilja Alfredsdottir said Iceland and Korea can cooperate in the field of soft power during her visit to Korea.

From Nov. 22 to 24, Alfredsdottir visited Korea leading a delegation to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

On Thursday, the minister gave a special lecture at Ewha Womans University, where she studied Asian Studies as an exchange student in 1994, to share Iceland's efforts to achieve gender equality.

"Iceland is very well-known for its gender equality. We have been voted the best place for working women by The Economist (glass-ceiling index)," the minister said during a phone interview with The Korea Times, Nov. 23.

The minister said the women of Iceland have had "very strong role models" as the country has the world's first woman to be democratically elected as president ― Vigdis Finnbogadottir.

"She was elected in the 1980s, like 40 years ago. So as a result, we've always had a role model. Then we have very strong policies that facilitate women's participation in the labor market in place," Alfredsdottir said, mentioning the completely subsidized daycare system, paternal leave for both parents and a legal framework that requires private companies with more than 50 employees to have at least 40 percent of both sexes on their executive board.

"I think gender equality is as important as economic policy. It's for the greater good of society. And if you want to have gender equality, you need to invest in it... We've been on this journey for the last 50 years. This is not a coincidence. This is based on good policymaking," she said.

The minister is particularly interested in South Korea's success after the 1950-53 Korean War because the choice of the social system resulted in dramatic differences. She even discussed it during her speech at the United Nations General Assembly speech in 2016.

"I was focusing on liberty as the key to economic progress and good governance. You have two countries here (on the Korean Peninsula) ― one that is a liberal democracy and a market-based economy and the other, with communist rule for three generations," she said as she explained the lessons learned when comparing the two Koreas.

"So as a result of these policies, you can't even compare the life expectancy of people, the economic growth, and prosperity (of the two countries). So basically, policies matter. If you have good policies in place, you will have greater prosperity both in terms of the economy and happiness."

Iceland's Minister of Culture and Business Affairs Lilja Alfredsdottir delivers a lecture on the country's key to achieving gender equality at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Nov. 24. Alfredsdottir studied Asian Studies at the university in 1994. Courtesy of Ewha Womans University
Iceland's Minister of Culture and Business Affairs Lilja Alfredsdottir delivers a lecture on the country's key to achieving gender equality at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Nov. 24. Alfredsdottir studied Asian Studies at the university in 1994. Courtesy of Ewha Womans University

Her visit was packed with meetings with cultural, creative and tourism industry officials such as the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) and Korean entertainment giant CJ ENM.

"They really went over their strategy of how they build up the tremendous power of Korean culture through soft power ― in films, gaming and music. So it was a really productive meeting," the minister said.

"And of course, we are promoting Iceland as a location to film because the nature is particular. We just recently approved a film refund incentive to 35 percent, so everyone that makes a film in Iceland over a certain amount gets a 35 percent refund of the (production) cost."

Her ministry oversees culture and business affairs, which might seem like an unlikely combination, but minister Alfredsdottir said these two are intertwined closely, especially for a country where tourism is one of the main pillars of the economy.

"Iceland is a growing tourist destination. Oftentimes people see a movie that was shot in Iceland and they see the spectacular nature and then they come and visit," she said.

"So we are promoting Iceland through soft power ― through Icelandic films, through music, through visual arts and more. Iceland, like Korea, has a very rich culture, so we're combining the two things and we want people that visit our country to enjoy both nature and culture."

The number of Korean tourists to Iceland was on the increase before the pandemic, but it was hit by the global health crisis and hasn't picked up yet. But minister Alfredsdottir is positive that more Koreans will visit Iceland.

"We are yet to see what the results will be, but I think there is a growing interest (in Iceland)," the minister said.

"Iceland has geysers and waterfalls plus a spa called the Blue Lagoon. We have the largest glacier in Europe, which is extremely beautiful ... We have black beaches, blue sea and green mountains. And the Northern Lights, of course, are a big attraction."

Currently, both Korea and Iceland do not have resident embassies in each other's countries.

"I think in the future, we are going to see growing trade and growing tourism from both countries. When we see the result, there might be an increase in the interest (on establishing resident embassies)," she said.


Kwon Mee-yoo meeyoo@koreatimes.co.kr


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