The Ministry of Gender Equality is the first-ever Ministry in Korea to take charge of women's policies. The first person appointed to head this new Ministry is Millennium Democratic Party's Han Myongsook. The 57-year-old Minister Han used to head the Presidential Commission on Women's Affairs, and is also a co-representative of the Korea Women's Associations United (KWAU).
This is the first time that a progressive women's rights activist has won a post in Korea's Cabinet. The Women's News met Minister Han to hear about her blueprint for the Ministry.
Q: When The Women's News was founded, the majority took issue with the "Women's" part. Many are showing the same response to the Women's Ministry. Could you give the public an easily understandable explanation of the Ministry's job?
A: The Ministry's official name in the Ministry of Gender Equality. A bird that has one strong wing and one weak wing cannot fly freely. For this bird to take flight, you must strengthen its weak wing and strike a balance between both wings. Likewise, the Ministry's role is to eliminate gender discrimination from all corners of society and to create an egalitarian environment, thereby helping men and women live as equals.
Q: What kind of Minister do you want to be?
A: Rather than give off a strong image, I'd like to be hardworking, always on the move. I want to get close to the lives of women from all walks of life, accurately assess problems and come up with the right solutions, so that all women can benefit from the Ministry's work.
Q: Do you intend to stand up to the other ministries if there is a difference of opinion on an important issue?
A: Coordinating women policies between the other administrative branches is an important part of my job, so there will be times when I have to take a stand on certain issues. But it is also important to have a balanced viewpoint in cooperating with men.
Q: Many pending issues await the Ministry. For example, there is the abolition of the hoju system, which women groups regard as a major task. But the past Presidential Commission on Women's Affairs was criticized for its lukewarm attitude. How will the Ministry respond to this issue?
A: Personally, I am for the abolition of the hoju system. So is the Ministry. We will make our position clear on this issue and launch publicity activities and other public campaigns to form public consensus.
Q: Your son bears your surname as well. It seems that for quite some time, you have joinedthe campaign by anti-hoju activists to encourage people to use both parents' surnames.
A: It was something I had always wanted to do as a women's rights advocate, and so when my son was born in 1985, I tried to do that, only to be refused at the birth registration office. So I named my son Hangil, so that my surname would be included at least in his given name, This was probably the beginning of the campaign to use both parents' surnames.
Q: Any issues you personally think are especially urgent?
A: We have to pass maternity protection laws as soon as possible, to create a better working environment for women. The fertility rate in Korea stands at 1.42 babies per woman, which is lower than the world average of 1.56. A growing number of women wish to remain single. All these reflect the difficulties Korean women face in making a family and having a job at the same time. It is a pity that the management of child-care services was not transferred to the Ministry, but we will try to tackle that as the Ministry expands its size and duties. I am also interested in the proper utilization of the female workforce, and women-to-women exchanges between North and South Korea. Although the latter is my biggest interest, I am not about to make detailed plans yet. For now, I will make modifications and recommendations within the framework of the government's master plan for reunification.
Q: A sufficient budget is vital for a strong ministry. What are your plans in this regard?
A: Currently, the Ministry has a starting budget of about 30 billion won. The small budget is a measure of the Ministry's weak executive capabilities. But I believe that 'where there's a will, there is the money,' So increasing the budget depends on how hard we work for it.
Q: Partnership between the officers in charge women policies posted in 6 administrative branches is essential. How will you bring this about?
A: First of all, we must appoint such officers in all the administrative branches. Then comes the task of strengthening the coordination capacities of each officer, which we are planning to achieve by forming a network including regular meetings with the Ministry. When the Presidential Commission was in charge, it was hard to form a relationship with the local governments. But now that we have a proper Ministry, I plan to establish direct connections between the Ministry's policies and the local governments.
Q: The Ministry owes its existence in large part to the efforts of women groups. But reality will not permit the Ministry to accept all their demands. How are you going to handle possible clashes of opinion?
A: It is important for the government to collect the opinions of women groups. But there will be differences in the levels set by each side even as we head in the same direction. When that happens, we will have to adjust our levels. We are also planning to hold workshops with women from all walks of life in order to set the direction that the Ministry should take.
Q: Anything else you wish to say to the readers of The Women's News?
A: I am determined to give our juniors and daughters strong and balanced wings. But resistance from vested interest groups will not be easy to ignore, So I plan to do things one step at a time: quietly, but always making a difference.