According to the UNDP's Human Development Report of 2002, the percentage of women in Korea's National Assembly is just 5.9%, ranking 131st among the 161 countries surveyed. The percentage is 5% in the legislative branch, high-ranking administrative offices and private business, placing Korea 67th among 68 countries.
Those who are well aware of these results will not be surprised that Korea's women power index is 0.378, placing Korea 61st among the 66 countries in the ranking.
Why then has Korea gotten such a bad reputation as a backward nation when it comes to women's rights? Because Korean women are less educated than the men? The Korean women's education index is 0.95, 18th among 173 countries. At the heart of this unsettlingly wide gap between Korea's world-ranking women's education index and world-stinking women power index lies Korean society's 'traps' that hold Korean women captive, such as the hoju system, compulsory military service and discrimination in employment.
Women groups have consistently pointed to the hoju system as one of the major roots of gender discrimination in Korea. The call for the abolishment of the hoju system dates back as early as 1960, when the Civil Code took effect in Korea. But the general framework of the hoju system remains intact to this day - thanks to the resistance of Confucian advocates who claim that the abolishment of the hoju system will "bring about the downfall of the traditional family system" - much to the exasperation of women groups.
The hoju system, literally meaning the 'family head' system, ranks successors to the family head status in the order of son, daughter, wife, mother, and daughter-in-law. This not only encourages male chauvinism but also runs against the spirit of gender equality written into the Constitution. Under the current hoju system, even if a divorced mother holds parental rights and custody over her child, the child still remains in her ex-husband's family register. The same goes for unwed mothers. If an unwed mother chooses to register her child in her own family register with the knowledge of the child's biological father, the father's name must not be recorded in her family register. This naturally obstructs the democratization of family relations and creates serious problems in terms of gender equality and children's rights. And the problems do not stop here. The patriarchal hierarchy on which the hoju system is based leads to even greater preference for sons, which in turn results in the gruesome reality where 30 thousand unborn baby girls are aborted every year in Korea.
Women groups are united in their claim that "the hoju system was imported from Japan, where it was abolished in 1948 for being detrimental to gender equality." Opponents of the hoju system are calling in one voice for the "speedy abolishment of the hoju system in Korea."
With the presidential election around the corner, politicians seem to be moving towards the introduction of systems governing biological parenting and child adoption before phasing out the hoju system. This is a noteworthy turn of events, but women groups are still apprehensive, suspecting that such measures will once again turn out to be an empty pledge that is all talk and no action.
Cho Sun-Hee, a novelist and the former editor of Cine 21, regards the system of compulsory military service as the reason for Korea's backwardness in terms of women's rights. In an article she wrote in Hankyoreh 21, Cho comments, "I believe that you cannot find the ultimate solution for women's problems unless you deal with the issue of the military. The primary victims of compulsory military service are the young men drafted, but the perpetual victims are women, who have to live with the damages for life."
Pointing out the problems with compulsory military service with keen insight, Cho goes on to say, "Before being released to live as civilians, young men are collectively trained for over two years to live as a different race from women. The State mobilizes young men and provides them with lifetime compensation, while women are mobilized to provide that lifetime compensation for the men."
"Military service, regardless of whether women wish to enlist or not, is something that lies beyond their choice, leaving them with nothing but the obligation to accept their status as second-class citizens." From this comment by Cho, it can be seen how negatively compulsory military service affects women's rights in Korea.
The first time that society throws gender discrimination at women in the face is usually when they are seeking employment. In this regard, employment inequality is another serious problem faced by women. It is all too common to see women with equally high grades and linguistic skills as their male competitors being passed over by prospective employers. The field of pure science and engineering is particularly notorious for not accepting women.
Even if women succeed in getting employed, the working life that awaits them is no bed of roses. They have to slog down the thorny path of job allocation, training, personnel management and so on. It is the not-so-obvious discrimination in the process that evokes greater fear.
Marriage and motherhood are also significant stumbling blocks in women's employment. In short, women who are married or have children not only find it difficult to get employed but also have to face the danger of losing their current jobs. It has long become common practice for companies to silently pressure female employees who get married or give birth to "get the picture and hand in their resignation." Women who ignore this unspoken rule will be branded 'thick-headed' and their company life could turn into a living hell.