South Korea has changed dramatically since the rule of controversial military dictator Park Chung Hee. His grip on power from 1962 until his assassination in 1979 perpetuated a suppression of civil rights in the country and was especially harsh with regard to the role of women in society. Now, in Park Geun-hye, a woman is president of South Korea. Ironically, she is the dictator’s daughter.
Seung-Kyung Kim was a college student in the late 1970s and has since witnessed the changes in South Korea, especially with regard to the women’s movement. She is now Professor and Chair of the Women’s Studies Department and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Maryland. Kim’s first book studied the economic development of young women factory workers in South Korea. She described to VOA’s Jim Stevenson her latest work, The Korean Women’s Movement and the State, as a continuation of her examination of resistance in social movements.
STEVENSON: In just six chapters, you cover some of the seminal events of the women’s movement in South Korea over the past decade. The enactment of the law against prostitution in 2004 was a turning point in this movement.
KIM: Yes. That law in 2004 which many, and I will say maybe most, Korean feminist scholars and women’s movement organization activists all thought prostitutes would embrace this law wholeheartedly. And they were surprised when prostitutes staged demonstration after demonstration, saying that this law does not and is not going to help them. So, given the fact if the law were to be effective, it would have to have a lot more of police force and other ways of implementing this law if the government was really determined to crack down on this issue. But they were not.
STEVENSON: We like to say here in the United States that all politics is local. You write about the personal and family aspects of politics from the mid-2000s on, particularly the abolition of the family-head system and then rolling into the family law and childcare policy.
KIM: Ever since the family law was established in 1948 and onward, women’s organizations wanted to revise the family law. And as you know, household-head system and family law has been a backbone of Korean society and [the] Korean family system. Having this law and abolishing the family-head system was a fundamental change in Korean society. It signaled in a way that there is no going back. The last chapter when I talk about childcare issues; that is what I am talking about “bargaining for change.” The women’s movement was not able to push the public childcare system. As a result, I have to say the childcare system in Korea at this point is a mess, just like in the U.S.
STEVENSON: No matter what the social change and the degrees of it, there is always something to look forward to and something to press ahead with, and that is pretty much your conclusion, that the Korean women’s movement is currently at a crossroads with such issues still needing some work and attention.
KIM: The movement activism will again gather its forces and will deal with the issues that they are facing. I hope this book will be read by ordinary Korean women who want to find out about what happened to those legal changes and who made it happen and who were affected.