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Korean gender equality

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Courtesy of Tim Mossholder
Courtesy of Tim Mossholder

By David A. Tizzard

After gaining its independence in 1948, Korea's newly-established constitution introduced legal equality between the sexes, prohibiting political, economic, and social discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, or social status. It is interesting to note that whereas in other countries such rights were fought for, in Korea the legal rights were largely given. And at the legal level at least, this produced a fundamental change in the way society was supposed to operate.

The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) was one characterized by its emphasis on distinction: distinction between subjects, between family members, between members of a social "caste" system, and between men and women. The term for this is "byul" and relations between men and women were guided by the idea that men and women should remain distinct from each other. This distinction to be adhered to was both physical as well as cultural.

Korean men adopted the public sphere and so in order to maintain the distinction, Korean women were thus pushed into the private sphere. This created an "inside-outside" mentality that was in accordance with the traditional values of the time: one was night and one was day; one was heaven and one was earth. It can even be seen in the indigenous origin myths how the woman Eungyo ascended to the level of human form by transforming from a bear having demonstrated her ability to endure time inside a cave while the men were descended from heaven. The combination of these two produced the progenitor of all Koreans: Grandfather Tangun ― the male head of the Korean ethno-nation.

Upon arriving in Joseon, many foreign observers were quick to point out how notable women in society were because of their absence. Hattie Heron remarked, "All Korean ladies (except dancing girls) are kept in the strictest seclusion." George Gilmore added, "Social evening gatherings where both sexes meet to chat, and sing, and play games, are entirely unknown." When women were found outside, the "jang-ot" was sometimes worn to conceal the face and body when walking in public.

There wasn't a singular experience during the Joseon Dynasty for either men or women because class and opportunity brought as many differences among the genders as it did between them. Nevertheless, the focus on distinction relegated most women to a subordinate position and separate from the positions of public power or influence. While the distinction was originally designed to bring harmony and unity among society, it manifested in very extreme and unequal ways over time ― particularly following the fall of the Ming Dynasty in China and the rise of the Qing Dynasty overseen by the Manchu people.

Japanese colonialism brought its own great divergence in experiences. For some, talent, education, and productivity began to emerge as factors of distinction and success rather than gender. A class of "new women" emerged who were distinguished by their education, individuality, and their changing fashion ― notably the adopting of bobbed hair and short skirts. The former in particular served to blur distinctions and challenge previously ordered gender roles. These women were now educated and in public, something which had been denied for so long. But at the same time that this new class emerged was the devastating and heartbreaking realities of comfort women and enforced sexual slavery at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army.

With liberation and sovereignty finally claimed, the number of women active in the economy increased from 2 million in 1960 to 6 million in 1985. Many of the industries in which women worked (textiles, clothing, shoes) were crucial to the country's success and have been labeled by some as the "engine" of Korea's economic development. Despite playing such an important role, positions of power were still largely out of reach as were more fundamental issues such as wage equality. The post-war experience was also largely influenced by a version of "wholesome modernization" which constructed rigid ethical norms, particularly applied to women.

Whether Korea's postcolonial modernization was a liberating force for gender equality in and of itself, or whether it requires specific attention placed on the women's experience is debated by some. Others take the position that the very nature of the capitalist system itself is problematic and forces people, particularly women, into subordinate roles so as to drive a machine that does nothing for them in return. The arguments as to how best achieve gender equality are diverse.

"Conservatism" in Korea is currently centered on the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. The conservative opposition are seeking to abolish the institution created in 2001 as presidential candidates and politicians claim that treating women as a minority only serves to reinforce conflict, and that the solution is a more liberal approach where there is less distinction between men and women. This has brought harsh criticism from those on the other side of the aisle who accuse the conservatives of seeking to erase women.

Gender equality needs to be understood not only in terms of its specific historic context but also by understanding on what principles one is working from in the present day. There are various approaches to the question of gender, including (but not limited to) liberal feminism, standpoint feminism, post-colonial feminism, post-structural feminism, and Marxist feminism. All of these take vastly different stances on fundamental issues so one needs to establish one's own understanding of society and gender, as well as then understand the position of others if there is to be genuine communication and the search for answers and solutions.

These conversations on gender will be Korean conversations as they continue to create a new Korean society for themselves, but one can only hope that people are not simply used as the objects of government policy and political fighting. People in society are not categories of nouns to be studied and experimented on with policies and actions. This is to deny their agency. We need to speak "to" people rather than simply "about" people. People are subjects in their own right: individuals who are to be understood and communicated, with not simply the recipients of welfare or those who should be administered to. Narratives are easy when people are grouped together as a class or collective but much more complicated when individual voices are raised. The cacophony is deafening, hard to navigate, and many will seek to compose the music in their own direction, but every member deserves to be heard and valued in their own right.

Dr. David A. Tizzard ( has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies. He is a social/cultural commentator and musician who has lived in Korea for nearly two decades. The views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.


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