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Ryu Ho-jeong: the future of Korean politics?

By David Tizzard

David Tizzard
David Tizzard
In 1973, South Korean president Park Chung-hee introduced the Minor Offences Act which mandated limits on the length of men's hair and women's skirts. Women suspected of wearing a skirt or dress that finished 17 centimeters or more above their knees were often subjected to public checks and then taken to a police station if they were found to have violated the rule.

His daughter, imprisoned and impeached president Park Geun-hye, sought to reinvigorate a variation of this rule as late as 2013 when a decree was passed at a March 11th cabinet meeting that meant anyone found to have "exposed any part of their body which should otherwise be concealed" would be subject to a 50,000 won fine.

It's no wonder casual foreign observers sometimes get their Koreas mixed up.

Yes, South Korea can be described as a conservative country. It often seems that to really fit in, one shouldn't stand out too much. Get a car in one of the three available colours, wear a suit in one of the agreed upon designs, get your botox and cosmetic surgery done at one of the listed clinics, and away you go: Money, success, stress…and then possibly suicide.

But that would ignore how much the society is, and has been, changing. South Korea is not monolith. And it's not the hermit kingdom that you read about in dated and dry text books, often written from afar.

In the past couple of years, major affiliates of the "Big Four" conglomerates in South Korea (Samsung, Hyundai, SK, and LG) all introduced more relaxed dress codes for their employees and provided greater freedom to their workers. In September 2018, LG Electronics permitted staff to dress "completely casual", meaning that blue jeans and white shirts became a common sight. In 2019, a Hankyoreh reporter noted that 20%-30% of the men leaving the Hyundai Motor Group headquarters in Seoul one summer afternoon were wearing shorts.

The main focus is now being placed on TPO (time, place and occasion). You are allowed to work in clothes that you find comfortable providing they are acceptable for the circumstances and environment.

Thus, President Moon and many in his administration are often seen without neckties. This seems part of an internal policy decision to appear more modern and progressive, to display a more forward-thinking appearance to the general public and shift away from the staid conservativism usually associated with politicians both sides of the political aisle.

On June 21 2017, I took to social media to remark at the pleasant surprise of seeing JTBC anchor Ahn Na-kyung sat at her desk ready to report the evening news while wearing a black company hoody. I wondered whether we were seeing a "New Clothes Movement" (as opposed to the "new village movement" launched in the early 1970s). Perhaps we are?

If so, however, why did a female member of the National Assembly wearing a dress make headline news here in South Korea and even hit the front pages of international papers such as the UK's Guardian?

Sartorial controversies in the National Assembly are not a new thing. In November 1993, the Environment Minister Hwang San-song caused a stir for having the temerity to wear a pant suit and put her hands in her pockets. Imagine the horror!

In 1996, Lee Mi-kyung staged a campaign with her fellow female lawmakers to promote more opportunities for women to wear pantsuits. This too, believe it or not, was seen as troubling at the time. Society going to hell in a handcart.

In 2003, former journalist and known progressive Rhyu Si-min entered the National Assembly for the first time wearing a t-shirt, blazer, and white cotton trousers. He turned up in a suit next time after taking a battering in the press. In 2004 it was about Kang Gi-gap's beard and hanbok and then Dan Byung-ho's jumper. Last year I had to constantly stifle laughter as Kim Jin-tae sought the conservative party's position as presidential candidate while frequently appearing in an American leather cowboy hat. Yes, really. Yeehaw!

Times change and there will always be discussions about what people wear. So Ryu Hyo-jeong appearing in the National Assembly this week wearing a pink dress that finished above the knee naturally caused a stir.

There were some all too predictable and misogynistic reactions to her appearance. It was also disappointing to see certain media outlets place these comments in their headlines and news reports as a way of generating outrage.

There were also disapproving comments based more on conservatism; Some referencing the aforementioned TPO. Others suggesting it was simply a way for a young or aspiring politician to gain attention.

However, most reasonable-thinking Koreans I spoke to about the incident (both male and female) suggested that it is largely irrelevant what Ryu wears. They insisted that the most important thing is that she does her job well.

With floods and torrential rains devastating the nation, causing tragic losses of life, livelihoods, and much more, it seems rather wasteful that people bicker over what the elected officials are wearing rather than how well they are working and acting to improve the lives of the citizens they are employed to serve.

And it's hard to disagree with that. It just unfortunately doesn't generate as much seethe or interest online.

Aged 28, Ryu is the youngest member of the National Assembly and the only lawmaker under the age of 30. She serves in the Justice Party and was elected as part of the proportional representation ticket.

She frequently wears jeans, suits, shirts, and various other outfits. All of which are common place at companies, university campuses, and coffee shops around the country. Her fashion choices are – with the greatest respect – not really that daring of deserving of such attention. She's not a "fashion terrorist" as the local parlance has it. She's just being a normal person.

Ryu revealed in an interview with CBS' Kim Hyun-jung on Thursday that whatever she wears, she receives criticism. Sadly, I can believe that that is very much true.

Ryu's current work focuses on the disposal of nuclear waste (particularly in Gyeongju and Ulsan but also vis-à-vis broader national safety), the exploitation of workers, differential voting rights, and issues concerning rape and women's rights.

She finds it disappointing that issues related to sexual minorities, the homeless, zero-hour contract workers, and women all seem to be divided: One party per issue. Instead, as a way of moving forward, Ryu is seeking to create the "first progressive opposition party with a clear voice for the socially disadvantaged."

This will be welcome news to many because despite the international platitudes – deserved in specific relation to the excellent response to the Covid-19 pandemic – the ruling Democratic Party has been embroiled in its own scandals related to sexual controversies and has not yet embraced the anti-discrimination law tabled by Ryu's Justice Party.

This is a different voice. It's still trying to be heard and yet the focus is on a dress?

Her YouTube channel "Ryu Tube" has videos of her in the National Assembly addressing issues of counterfeit items being sold on South Korean home shopping channels and the opposition of a Buddhist monk to development plans in the southern part of the country. There are efforts at transparency and engaging public attention.

This is a long way from her first uploaded video which revealed her past of being a YouTube gamer and streamer. Interestingly, the video revealing her gaming history garnered over 46,000 views; the one in which she discusses nuclear energy and its usage has just over 1,500. A sign perhaps of the citizens' current interests?

Nevertheless, Ryu is working towards what she believes in. Rather than sitting around criticizing people and lamenting hardships, she seems focused on improving the lives of people and is working towards creating a South Korea for the 21st century. A South Korea that her generation can be proud of.

This would be a country that moves beyond the Cromwellian puritan measures of the past and instead seeks results in social justice. It would be a South Korea that looks, dresses, and gives voice to the millions of 20 and 30 somethings currently experiencing continually worsening economic and housing situations.

Of course, many will disagree with Ryu's policies towards a variety of social issues, even those of her own generation. That is more than natural in a democratic political climate. However, to see young people engaging and working hard is surely a positive sign for the future.

In the United States, we see political stagnation and a refusal of the parties to hand over the reins to any of the following generations as two near-80 year olds battle it out in a presidential election marred by distrust and extreme partisan attitudes.

South Korea shouldn't go that route. It should look to the examples of Jacinda Arden in New Zealand, to Sanna Marin in Finland, and to Nayib Bukele in El Salvador.

South Korea already stands as a relative beacon of forward-thinking in the Northeast Asian region. Few, if any, are standing up in the National Assembly in China, North Korea, or Japan and seeking the changes that Ryu is.

It might seem easy to deride her from afar. But I would suggest that it takes a great deal of courage to do what she is doing in a largely male-dominated political environment where traditional attitudes are still prevalent and there is pressure to be seen but not heard.

Citizens deserve politicians that are courageous and patriotic rather than career-oriented and self-serving. Political allegiances aside, Ryu is at least already demonstrating she has one of those qualities.

This is a new Korea. These are new Koreans. They are not monolith. They are divided. But they are here and regardless of what they are wearing, it's probably time for the country to at least start listening to what they have to say.


David Tizzard (datizzard@swu.ac.kr) is an assistant professor at Seoul Women's University where he teaches Korean Studies. He discusses the week's hottest issues on TBS eFM (101.3FM) on "Life Abroad" live every Thursday from 9:35 a.m. to 10 a.m.


By David Tizzard

David Tizzard
David Tizzard
In 1973, South Korean president Park Chung-hee introduced the Minor Offences Act which mandated limits on the length of men's hair and women's skirts. Women suspected of wearing a skirt or dress that finished 17 centimeters or more above their knees were often subjected to public checks and then taken to a police station if they were found to have violated the rule.

His daughter, imprisoned and impeached president Park Geun-hye, sought to reinvigorate a variation of this rule as late as 2013 when a decree was passed at a March 11th cabinet meeting that meant anyone found to have "exposed any part of their body which should otherwise be concealed" would be subject to a 50,000 won fine.

It's no wonder casual foreign observers sometimes get their Koreas mixed up.

Yes, South Korea can be described as a conservative country. It often seems that to really fit in, one shouldn't stand out too much. Get a car in one of the three available colours, wear a suit in one of the agreed upon designs, get your botox and cosmetic surgery done at one of the listed clinics, and away you go: Money, success, stress…and then possibly suicide.

But that would ignore how much the society is, and has been, changing. South Korea is not monolith. And it's not the hermit kingdom that you read about in dated and dry text books, often written from afar.

In the past couple of years, major affiliates of the "Big Four" conglomerates in South Korea (Samsung, Hyundai, SK, and LG) all introduced more relaxed dress codes for their employees and provided greater freedom to their workers. In September 2018, LG Electronics permitted staff to dress "completely casual", meaning that blue jeans and white shirts became a common sight. In 2019, a Hankyoreh reporter noted that 20%-30% of the men leaving the Hyundai Motor Group headquarters in Seoul one summer afternoon were wearing shorts.

The main focus is now being placed on TPO (time, place and occasion). You are allowed to work in clothes that you find comfortable providing they are acceptable for the circumstances and environment.

Thus, President Moon and many in his administration are often seen without neckties. This seems part of an internal policy decision to appear more modern and progressive, to display a more forward-thinking appearance to the general public and shift away from the staid conservativism usually associated with politicians both sides of the political aisle.

On June 21 2017, I took to social media to remark at the pleasant surprise of seeing JTBC anchor Ahn Na-kyung sat at her desk ready to report the evening news while wearing a black company hoody. I wondered whether we were seeing a "New Clothes Movement" (as opposed to the "new village movement" launched in the early 1970s). Perhaps we are?

If so, however, why did a female member of the National Assembly wearing a dress make headline news here in South Korea and even hit the front pages of international papers such as the UK's Guardian?

Sartorial controversies in the National Assembly are not a new thing. In November 1993, the Environment Minister Hwang San-song caused a stir for having the temerity to wear a pant suit and put her hands in her pockets. Imagine the horror!

In 1996, Lee Mi-kyung staged a campaign with her fellow female lawmakers to promote more opportunities for women to wear pantsuits. This too, believe it or not, was seen as troubling at the time. Society going to hell in a handcart.

In 2003, former journalist and known progressive Rhyu Si-min entered the National Assembly for the first time wearing a t-shirt, blazer, and white cotton trousers. He turned up in a suit next time after taking a battering in the press. In 2004 it was about Kang Gi-gap's beard and hanbok and then Dan Byung-ho's jumper. Last year I had to constantly stifle laughter as Kim Jin-tae sought the conservative party's position as presidential candidate while frequently appearing in an American leather cowboy hat. Yes, really. Yeehaw!

Times change and there will always be discussions about what people wear. So Ryu Hyo-jeong appearing in the National Assembly this week wearing a pink dress that finished above the knee naturally caused a stir.

There were some all too predictable and misogynistic reactions to her appearance. It was also disappointing to see certain media outlets place these comments in their headlines and news reports as a way of generating outrage.

There were also disapproving comments based more on conservatism; Some referencing the aforementioned TPO. Others suggesting it was simply a way for a young or aspiring politician to gain attention.

However, most reasonable-thinking Koreans I spoke to about the incident (both male and female) suggested that it is largely irrelevant what Ryu wears. They insisted that the most important thing is that she does her job well.

With floods and torrential rains devastating the nation, causing tragic losses of life, livelihoods, and much more, it seems rather wasteful that people bicker over what the elected officials are wearing rather than how well they are working and acting to improve the lives of the citizens they are employed to serve.

And it's hard to disagree with that. It just unfortunately doesn't generate as much seethe or interest online.

Aged 28, Ryu is the youngest member of the National Assembly and the only lawmaker under the age of 30. She serves in the Justice Party and was elected as part of the proportional representation ticket.

She frequently wears jeans, suits, shirts, and various other outfits. All of which are common place at companies, university campuses, and coffee shops around the country. Her fashion choices are – with the greatest respect – not really that daring of deserving of such attention. She's not a "fashion terrorist" as the local parlance has it. She's just being a normal person.

Ryu revealed in an interview with CBS' Kim Hyun-jung on Thursday that whatever she wears, she receives criticism. Sadly, I can believe that that is very much true.

Ryu's current work focuses on the disposal of nuclear waste (particularly in Gyeongju and Ulsan but also vis-à-vis broader national safety), the exploitation of workers, differential voting rights, and issues concerning rape and women's rights.

She finds it disappointing that issues related to sexual minorities, the homeless, zero-hour contract workers, and women all seem to be divided: One party per issue. Instead, as a way of moving forward, Ryu is seeking to create the "first progressive opposition party with a clear voice for the socially disadvantaged."

This will be welcome news to many because despite the international platitudes – deserved in specific relation to the excellent response to the Covid-19 pandemic – the ruling Democratic Party has been embroiled in its own scandals related to sexual controversies and has not yet embraced the anti-discrimination law tabled by Ryu's Justice Party.

This is a different voice. It's still trying to be heard and yet the focus is on a dress?

Her YouTube channel "Ryu Tube" has videos of her in the National Assembly addressing issues of counterfeit items being sold on South Korean home shopping channels and the opposition of a Buddhist monk to development plans in the southern part of the country. There are efforts at transparency and engaging public attention.

This is a long way from her first uploaded video which revealed her past of being a YouTube gamer and streamer. Interestingly, the video revealing her gaming history garnered over 46,000 views; the one in which she discusses nuclear energy and its usage has just over 1,500. A sign perhaps of the citizens' current interests?

Nevertheless, Ryu is working towards what she believes in. Rather than sitting around criticizing people and lamenting hardships, she seems focused on improving the lives of people and is working towards creating a South Korea for the 21st century. A South Korea that her generation can be proud of.

This would be a country that moves beyond the Cromwellian puritan measures of the past and instead seeks results in social justice. It would be a South Korea that looks, dresses, and gives voice to the millions of 20 and 30 somethings currently experiencing continually worsening economic and housing situations.

Of course, many will disagree with Ryu's policies towards a variety of social issues, even those of her own generation. That is more than natural in a democratic political climate. However, to see young people engaging and working hard is surely a positive sign for the future.

In the United States, we see political stagnation and a refusal of the parties to hand over the reins to any of the following generations as two near-80 year olds battle it out in a presidential election marred by distrust and extreme partisan attitudes.

South Korea shouldn't go that route. It should look to the examples of Jacinda Arden in New Zealand, to Sanna Marin in Finland, and to Nayib Bukele in El Salvador.

South Korea already stands as a relative beacon of forward-thinking in the Northeast Asian region. Few, if any, are standing up in the National Assembly in China, North Korea, or Japan and seeking the changes that Ryu is.

It might seem easy to deride her from afar. But I would suggest that it takes a great deal of courage to do what she is doing in a largely male-dominated political environment where traditional attitudes are still prevalent and there is pressure to be seen but not heard.

Citizens deserve politicians that are courageous and patriotic rather than career-oriented and self-serving. Political allegiances aside, Ryu is at least already demonstrating she has one of those qualities.

This is a new Korea. These are new Koreans. They are not monolith. They are divided. But they are here and regardless of what they are wearing, it's probably time for the country to at least start listening to what they have to say.


David Tizzard (datizzard@swu.ac.kr) is an assistant professor at Seoul Women's University where he teaches Korean Studies. He discusses the week's hottest issues on TBS eFM (101.3FM) on "Life Abroad" live every Thursday from 9:35 a.m. to 10 a.m.




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