Hwengyeong-ri, Doam-myeong, Pyeongchang-gun, Gangwon-do. The district of Doam has shelved its duty of appointing the woman that the villagers of Hwengryeong-ri voted to be their village chief, sparking off a confrontation between the villagers and the administration officials.
On December 13 last year, the villagers of Hwengye-13-ri decided to dismiss their former chief C because of his incompetence and inability to get along with the villagers. The villagers voted for supermarket owner L to be their new chief, and requested that the district chief formally appoint L as the chief of their village. The district chief, however, refused to give his approval during a meeting with the villagers.
Villagers say, "We voted for her, so approve her appointment"
A resident of the currently chief-less village who attended the meeting says, "The district chief refused to approve our new village chief, saying that there has never been a woman chief in the whole of Gangwon province, and that one woman in the midst of the 22 other male village chiefs may affect the atmosphere in meetings."
When the villagers protested, accusing the district of "discrimination against women," the district continued to hold out, saying, "The supermarket run by L is illegally occupying parking space in the basement of an apartment, and she still hasn't done anything about it despite being ordered to leave." As of January 16, a month has passed since the villagers asked the district for formal appointment of their new leader.
"All the other village chiefs in the district are men, and a woman would make things awkward"
A village chief, whose job is to assist the district chief in administrative affairs, is picked by the residents of the village and then appointed by the district chief. A village chief has to do a lot of work, but all he or she is given is 120,000 won (approximately US$90) a month, 100,000 as monthly allowance and 20,000 for two village meetings. In other words, a village chief is pretty much a non-paying volunteer job.
When the district continued to use L's refusal to move her supermarket as an excuse not to appoint her, the villagers collected more than 150 signatures on an appeal to the district chief, asking him to "leave the supermarket where it is for the villagers' convenience."
A villager explains, "The whole village freezes up in winter, making it dangerous to use climb down stairs to reach the basement, and furthermore, if the supermarket is put in a building with no other shops around, there's the danger of robbery."
But the district office continues to refuse to reconsider, saying, "How can we appoint L to be part of the administration when her husband refuses to obey administrative orders? As soon as L's husband removes the illegal supermarket, we will appoint her as village chief."
A villager who met with the district chief says, "Because of the district's repeated demands to remove the supermarket, we asked the district chief outright if all he would appoint L as village chief as soon as the supermarket is removed, to which he replied that he would think about it, proving that the supermarket is just an excuse not to appoint a woman as village chief."
When the delay in appointing a village chief led to growing discontent among the residents regarding the administrative hold-ups in the issue of compensation for apartment holders, the district suggested "the villagers pick someone else as village chief."
To which the residents of the village replied, "L is a capable and trust-worthy person, and furthermore we went through legitimate procedures in voting her to the office. We cannot accept the district's refusal to appoint her just because she's a woman. We will continue to fight for her appointment."
"Refusal to obey administrative orders is just an excuse; the district is shelving the appointment because L is a woman."
Complains a villager, "I can no longer put my faith in an administration that uses 'principles' in one case and 'residents' sentiments' in another as an excuse not to give us a village chief."
Another villager explains, "The district office is haggling over principles, but the one that received the administrative order is L's husband, not L. And now the district is refusing to appoint L citing bad influence on residents' sentiments. They are using us as an excuse not to appoint the person we picked. They have not done anything about the supermarket until now, and then of all times they pick now to take issue with the administrative order, making us suspicious about their real intentions."
Yet another villager adds, "At first, when the villagers opposed the idea of moving the supermarket to the basement of another building, the district office claimed that they never gave such orders. They said that all they want is to get the supermarket removed to any other place. There is no other place suitable, and furthermore, the alternative place that the district office suggested is illegally occupied at the moment by other shops. There's a lot of work to be done regarding the compensation for apartment holders, but the district is insisting on one hand that the necessary papers can be handed to only the village chief, while on the other hand refusing to appoint one. For whose benefit does the district office work for anyway?"
L, caught in the middle of this dispute, says, "I had no wish to become the village chief, but was willing to do my part in solving the apartment compensation problem that involved all the villagers including myself. But when I visit the district office these days, they treat me like some power-hungry woman who can't wait to get her hands on the village chief office. I have a supermarket to run and children to bring up. What would I gain from being a village chief?"
To add to the problem, the former village chief C has been harassing the woman with threats to "do harm to her children" and "kill her." Because of C's continued threats, L's husband has collapsed once, and L herself lives in constant fear for her children's safety. L is currently getting ready to take tape recordings of C's threats to the courts in a lawsuit.
"At first I chose to bear with him, not wanting to bring harm to a government official who is furthermore my neighbor, but now that I've been snubbed simply because I'm a woman, I am going to work with the villagers and fight for my appointment as village chief."
In the midst of the relevant authorities' stubborn and so-called principled refusal to accept the residents' demands, the civil versus governmental gulf continues to widen.