Women Already Have It Bad in South Korean Politics. The President’s Impeachment Would Make Things Worse.
When Park Geun-hye became South Korea’s first female president four years ago, she won a decisive 52% of the vote—the highest of any candidate since the country started holding direct elections in 1987. Park, who prevailed in a race of six candidates, marked the historic moment by talking about “a new era of hope.”
But more recently, Park’s upbeat language has vanished as her tenure has come under the dark cloud of an influence-peddling scandal involving her shadowy advisor and friend, Choi Soon-sil. The question at the heart of the matter is whether Park colluded with Choi’s alleged fraud, coercion and abuse of power. Choi is accused of using her undue authority in Park’s administration as leverage to collect more than $70 million in donations for the two non-profits she runs.
Park, who’s facing calls to step down after several weekends of protests in response to the scandal, signaled on Tuesday she would be willing to resign in April. But an impeachment vote is slated for Friday, and Park is expected to lose. If she’s impeached, she would have the dubious honor of being the first South Korean president elected democratically to not serve a full five-year term. Park said last week she would leave it to the National Assembly to decide her fate. “I have surrendered everything now,” she said in an appearance at the presidential Blue House, adding that she hadn’t done anything against the law.
No matter how the story ends, the episode does not bode well for the future of female political leadership in the country.
“It’s possible Park’s predicament could be used by those who aren’t big fans of equitable representation of women,” Raissa Tatad-Hazell, deputy regional director for Asia at the non-partisan, non-profit National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Washington, told Fortune. “It is unfair because the lens of scrutiny should focus on the performance of a president—rather than that of a female president. That skewed lens could make it harder for the next woman who tries to go for that office.”
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Indeed, some social psychologists believe it takes two female commanders-in-chief for the paradigm of gender equality to truly shift. More than 60 nations have had female heads of government, but only a third of them have had more than one woman leader. It’s the election of that second woman—a harder feat—that helps normalize female leadership.
Then again, in South Korea, the outlook for women in politics wasn’t all that bright to begin with. Even before Park’s scandal erupted, the country didn’t have a stellar record. In terms of female representation in parliament, South Korea has a National Assembly that’s 17% female, ranking it 111th out of 193 countries tracked by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. (Though it is ahead of neighbor and adversary North Korea, which, at No. 117, has a parliament that’s 16% women.) Therefore, it’s no surprise that Park—like other women in Asia who’ve become presidents and prime ministers—secured office because of her unique familial ties, not necessarily as part of a larger push for gender equality.
“If you look at female leadership in Asia, there are some commonalities,” Yun Sun, senior associate at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, said in an interview. “These female leaders are not self-made. They all came from a political family.”
Park, who has just over a year left in her five-year term, is the daughter of military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled in the 1960s and 1970s before being assassinated in 1979.
Other examples abound. The former female president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga, who served from 1994-2005, was the daughter of two former prime ministers. Likewise, Benazir Bhutto, who served as prime minister of Pakistan for two non-consecutive terms, most recently from 1993-1996, had a father who was prime minister of the country. In addition, Indira Ghandi, India’s first female prime minister who also served two non-consecutive terms, with the last one from 1980-1984, was the daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
That’s a sharp contrast to Europe, where female political leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and the U.K.’s Theresa May did not come from political dynasties. Merkel, who has led Germany since 2005, grew up as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor father and a teacher mother. And May, who became prime minister this past July, grew up as the daughter of a vicar.
The difference has to do with cultural norms and political priorities, Sun says. “Between Asia and Europe, the distinction is the popularity of feminism in politics,” she says. “Asian countries are not famous for their gender equality.” She adds, “Had Park been more successful, it would have helped to confirm women’s competence and capability, but it still would not have turned the tide.”
One bright spot in the region, Sun notes, is the Philippines, which the World Economic Forum ranks as having the best gender equity in the Asia-Pacific region. At No. 7 out of the 144 countries the WEF analyzes, the Philippines has become more westernized than other countries in the region because of its colonial experience and its close relationship with the U.S., Sun says. The country elected its first female president, Corazon Aquino, in 1986.
Overall though, there are few female leaders in Asia today. According to UN Women, of the 17 women currently serving as heads of state and/or government, just three of them are in Asia. Along with Park, there’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh and President Bidhya Devi Bhandari of Nepal. The rest hail from Europe, Africa or South America.