The year 2000 was an eventful year for women groups in Korea. Some of the news reaffirmed the violent and patriarchal culture of Korean society: "cyber terrorism" by men disgusted with the verdict that giving job applicants additional points for military service was unconstitutional, sexual assaults against disabled women, the fire in Kunsan red light district, violence at home, sexual harrassment by so-called pillars of society... On the other hand, women groups' hard work paid off as well: a record number of women in Congress, the International Women's Criminal Tribunal organized by NGOs, and the inauguration of the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Korea.
- Cyber terrorism and additional points for military service
- Sexual assaults against disabled women out in the open
- Record number of women in the National Assembly
- Chung Sunho's case sheds light on the severity of domestic violence
- String of sexual harrassment scandals involving civil and political leaders
- Lawsuit against the Hoju (family head) system filed with the Consitutional Court
- Inauguration of the Ministry of Gender Equality
- Fire in Kunsan red light district
- Enhanced labor rights for women in irregular employment
- Victory in the International Women's Criminal Tribunal
1. Cyber terrorism and additional points for military service
Additional "push" for expanding the women's movement in cyberspace
At the end of 1999, the Constitutional Court decided that giving civil servant applicants additional points for military service was a violation of the rights of women and the disabled to equal treatment. The official condemnation of the practice as unconstitutional sparked off an on-line controversy. The websites of women groups that had demanded the abolition of the unfair practice and the web bulletins of women's universities came under massive attacks by male net users. The attacks definitely constitute cyber terrorism, and spilled over into the off-line world in the form of stalking of activists. Female net users responded by searching for new strategies to expand the feminist movement on-line.
2. Sexual assaults against disabled women out in the open
Case of Kim from Kangreung leads the way
The plight of Kim was first disclosed through The Women's News (14/1/2000 edition). Kim had been subject to continuous sexual assault from 7 men in her village in Kangreung for 7 years, or since she was in sixth grade. The case brought out in the open the despicable acts of sexual assault against women with mental disabilities. It led to the formation of a 'Committee against sexual assault of mentally disabled women.' The Committee launched a signature-collecting campaign and other demonstrations, paving the way for bringing the perpetrators to justice. The main perpetrator Hong Myungjun was given a two-year sentence, leaving a good judicial precedent. The Committee also hosted a public hearing to study similar cases and search for remedies. This was the first step toward a full-scale public debate on the issue of sexual assaults against disabled women.
3. Record number of women in the National Assembly
Securing 30% quota for women in party charters becomes the next challenge
A record number of women won seats in the National Assembly through the 16th General Elections, held on April 13th. Women legislators took 16 seats, comprised of 5 seats won through direct votes and 11 seats distributed to parties in proportion to votes gained in constituencies. Ms Kim Hwajoong joined the congress belatedly to fill the seat vacated by the newly appointed Culture and Tourism Minister Kim Hangil, raising the total number of women legislators to 17. That is 6 more than the 15th National Assembly's total of 11. Furthermore, of the 5 women who were elected through direct votes, 3 were from constituencies in Seoul characterized by highly competitive electioneering. Despite this small victory, however, women still make up only 6.2% of legislators, which is way below the target of 30%. This leaves women groups with the challenge of getting more women to bid for offices representing their respective local constituencies. Women groups have made this their main objective in the upcoming local elections of 2002, and are demanding that political parties include in their charters regulations stipulating that 30% of their nominees be women. Meanwhile, women groups made history with other Korean NGOs in forming the Citizens' Alliance for General Elections 2000, which brought about a revolution through such efforts as the rejection campaign against unqualified candidates.
4. Chung Sunho's case sheds light on the severity of domestic violence
Chung gets the heaviest sentence possible, a chilling warning to wife-beaters
In April 2000, a victim of habitual wife-beating shared her story and photos through the Internet, shedding light on the severity of inhumane violence in Korean homes. The perpetrator, who suffered from the delusion that his wife was unfaithful to him, had been torturing her in the most despicable way. He tied her up and thrashed her, poured boiling water on her body, disfigured her face with a knife, tortured her with electric shocks, pulled out her teeth with pliers, and stabbed her in the abdomen with a butcher knife.
The Inchon branch of Korea Women's Hotline took charge of the case and launched an on-line signature collecting campaign. It collected a daily average of 1,000 signatures, succeeding in putting the eradication of domestic violence on the social agenda.
Women groups had demanded that the perpetrator be charged with attempted murder, but the Inchon District Court sentenced the man to 15 years imprisonment for violence. This is the highest sentence that can be given for domestic violence that does not result in death.
5. String of sexual harrassment scandals involving civic and political leaders
Proof of leaders' insensitivity to women's human rights
The year 2000 saw a string of scandals involving high-ranking government officials and civic leaders, the so-called pillars of society. Young politicians were caught partying with hostesses on the night leading up to the ceremony in commemoration of victims of the Kwangju massacre. This was followed by reports of civic leader Chang Won being charged with sexual assault of a college student. Then the Commissioner for Environmental Dispute Coordination and Foreign Minister Joung-binn Lee were heard making sexually derogatory remarks regarding the Minister of Women's Affairs during drinking binges. The shameful record stands testimony to civic and political leaders' lack of respect for women and their insensitivity to sexual harrassment or violence.
The Korea Women's Associations United (KWAU) demanded the resignation of Minister Lee and sent protest mail to the Foreign Ministry website. Korea Women's Hotline set up a hotline for victims of sexual harrassment by government officials during the Week to Eradicate Violence against Women. Another breaking news was the 100-member committee that was launched to root out sexual harrassment from the civic movement. The committee disclosed a list of male activists guilty of sexual harrassment, taking civil society by storm. Women groups claimed that civic and labor organizations should carry out sex education and related publicity activities so that sexual harrassment and gender discrimination can be put to an end in the civic and labor movements.
The Presidential Commission on Women's Affairs also took up the issue, sending letters to more than 60 government bureaus regarding the prevention of sexual harrassment during the year-end merry-making. It also held special sessions to brief department and section chiefs on how to prevent sexual harrassment at work.
6. Lawsuit against the Hoju (family head) system
Petition draws enthusiastic response, collecting over 30 thousand signatures
The Citizens' Alliance for the Abolition of the Hoju System, with participation from not only women groups but an array of NGOs, finally filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court against the Hoju system on November 28. The Alliance is currently waiting for results regarding the petitions it lodged with the Family Court objecting the Hoju system and asking for a ruling on the unconstitutionality of the system. If the Family Court accepts the petitions, the Court will petition the Constitutional Court for a ruling. But if the Family Court rejects the petition, individuals will have to file petitions directly with the Constitutional Court.
Despite backlash from the old generation including confucian scholars, the general public has shown great interest in the campaign to sue the Hoju system. Over 30 thousand people signed the petition for the abolition of the system. The hotline that had been set up on July 21 for victims of the Hoju system received a few hundred calls, with many of the callers wanting to participate as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
7. Inauguration of the Ministry of Gender Equality
The making of a small but significant ministry
On December 27, the Ministry of Gender Equality was inaugurated, realizing a long-denied dream of women groups in Korea.
As a central administrative body with both legislative and voting rights, the Ministry will direct the planning, coordination and execution of women's policies. The Ministry's work will be based on six related laws: namely, the Basic Act for Women's Development, the law on gender discrimination and remedies, the law on punishment of sexual violence and provision of shelters for victims, the law preventing domestic violence and protecting victims, the Anti-prostitution Act, and the law governing financial support for victims of sexual slavery during Japanese colonial rule.
Women groups are confident that despite its small size, the Ministry will establish itself as a substantial government body that actively implements women's policies.
8. Fire at Kunsan red light district
Human rights of women in prostitution takes the spotlight
A fire broke out in September in a brothel in Kunsan, taking the lives of 5 women in their twenties. The disaster served to highlight the sexual slavery that was still going on in Korean society. Discovered at the site was the diary of one of the victims, which went on to become a testimony to human rights abuse in the flesh trade. Civic organizations including the KWAU, People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and the Catholic Priests' Association for Justice organized a rally calling for the punishment of public officials and police officers involved in the Kunsan fire. Minbyun (Lawyers for a Democratic Society) formed a lawyers' team to sue the state for abetting prostitution.
Sensitive to public opinion, the Prosecution announced plans to bring to justice six people including the owners of the building and the brothel and related public officials. However, punishment was doled out to only the low-ranking public officials, inviting criticism from women groups that the Prosecution was merely going through the motions in order to pacify the public.
The high-profile Kunsan case served as the grounds for the KWAU to launch an anti-prostitution campaign calling for the replacement of the useless Anti-prostitution Act with a new 'Special Act on the Prevention of Sex Trafficking.'
9. Enhanced labor rights for women in irregular employment
All-out efforts to revise the Labor Standard Act for the benefit of all workers
The most important agenda for women workers' organizations in 2000 was the enhancement of labor rights for women in irregular employment. During the Korea Women Workers' Assembly in March, the 'Committee Advocating Labor Rights for Women in Irregular Employment' was launched. The Committee has been carrying out activities such as a signature-collecting campaign calling for the Labor Standard Act (LSA) to be applied to women working in special employment conditions.
Of the woman workers in Korea, 70% are in casual employment. Typical examples are caddies in golf clubs, tutors in companies that publish students' study guides, and insurance saleswomen. These woman are not protected by the LSA, and are denied basic labor rights such as the right to get paid on time, the right to be protected from unreasonable dismissals, gender discrimination and other unfair acts, and the right to maternity protection.
Women groups such as the Korea Women Workers Association United, Womenlink Korea and the KWAU joined hands with 10 major labor and civic organizations to set up a 'Committee on the promotion of basic labor rights and the prevention of discrimination against irregular workers.' The Committee has spearheaded an all-out effort to revise the LSA so that it benefits all irregular workers.
The women themselves formed a national trade union to gain recognition as legal workers under the LSA and the Trade Union Act. Among the achievements of this union was the formation of a trade union of golf caddies in Kyongki-do. The caddies succeeded in getting the administration to acknowledge them as proper workers. Another trade union was formed in October by more than 2,000 insurance saleswomen from 45 insurance companies.
10. International Women's Criminal Tribunal 2000
'Trial of the Century' a complete victory for women
The International Women's Criminal Tribunal 2000, organized by women from 10 countries who had been drafted for military sexual slavery by Japan, was held in Tokyo from December 7 to 12, creating quite a stir. The international panel of judges found Japanese emperor Hirohito guilty as charged, and ordered the Japanese government to take the liability for the system of sexual slavery during World War II.
The international panel of prosecutors that indicted the Japanese government said that the Japanese army's system of sexual slavery would not have been possible without the silent approval of the Japanese government. Thus, Japan has clearly breached international treaties including the Hague Convention on crimes against humanity, the Slavery Convention, and the ILO's Abolition of Forced Labor Convention. The prosecutors asked the judges to deliver the guilty verdict on commanders of the occupying forces who had been deeply involved in the operation of sexual slavery, as well as emperor Hirohito, who had aided and abetted the inhuman crime.
Particularly noteworthy is the prosecutors team comprised of both North and South Koreans. This shows that the women's movement has played its part in facilitating inter-Korean exchanges.
Although the mock trial's ruling is not legally-binding, it is expected to influence actual tribunals that may be set up in the future regarding wartime sexual slavery. The trial is a milestone in that it publically condemned the perpetrators of sexual slavery who had evaded conviction during the Tokyo Tribunal held shortly after World War II. The trial also served the purpose of proclaiming to the world the honor and dignity of the victims. It is expected that the trial's ruling will serve as a standard for future tribunals on sexual crimes in times of war and armed conflict.
The 1,100 seats were filled to capacity throughout at the six-day tribunal, with over 400 participants including 80 former comfort women, and over 300 journalists from major news agencies such as ABC, CNN, and BBC. However, the Japanese government refused to appear in court, and Japanese journalists were lukewarm in their coverage of the event, inviting criticism from the participants. The panel of judges will be delivering its final verdict on March 8, 2001, Women's Day.