The eventful year of 2002 has come to an end. The presidential election, the death of two schoolgirls at the wheels of an armored vehicle driven by the US army, and of course the World Cup, were some of the much talked-about topics in 2002. Among the flood of incidents and events reported in 2002, what caught the attention of Korean women? The Women's News picked ten news stories that had the greatest bearing on women's lives in 2002. In retrospect, 2002 was a year that brought many achievements to women. The problem is that the women's rights felt by each individual was not that promising in 2002. Thus the task that lies ahead in 2003 is to realize the full potential of promises made to women. <editor>
1. Presidential candidate TV debate organized by women elevates the status of women groups
The most important issue for women groups in 2002 was the expansion of women's participation in politics. Women groups launched the Women's Alliance for the Presidential Election (the Alliance) and achieved the tangible result of organizing their own TV debate to invite presidential candidates to talk about their women policies. This was truly a shining achievement in the history of Korean politics. The Alliance, made up of more than a hundred women groups, attracted considerable public attention with its activities such as its campaign exhorting women voters to base their choices on careful scrutiny of each candidate's women-related pledges. The biggest achievement by far was the debate on women's policies attended by the presidential candidates and organized by 78 women groups. Through this discussion, televised nationwide, the organizers succeeded in putting on the social agenda major issues that women have been pushing for, such as abolishing the hoju system, institutionalizing childcare, and establishing women's quotas in political offices. The TV debate was evaluated to have been particularly effective in getting the presidential candidates to earnestly study women's issues and form their positions. Says an officer with a women group, "Women's voting turnout has been low in the past not because women were uninterested in politics but because politicians were uninterested in the lives of women. The presidential candidate TV debate can be considered a success based on the sole fact that it provided women with the opportunity to participate actively in politics."
2. The death of two schoolgirls sparks nationwide campaign for the revision of the SOFA
Hyosun and Miseon, two schoolgirls in their early teens, were hit and killed by a US army armored vehicle, but the US Army refused to acknowledge its responsibility, giving the servicemen responsible the 'not guilty' verdict. The incident was saved from the danger of becoming just another case reconfirming the inequality of the SOFA, developing into a massive candlelight march in a little over a month, thanks to the suggestion of such a demonstration on a media website by an ordinary Internet user. At first the demonstrations were just part of the series of events organized to commemorate the deaths of the two schoolgirls tragically killed by the US Army vehicle, but they soon became the driving force of a campaign calling for the revision of the unequal SOFA. And the campaign has gone on to become a peace movement calling for an end to a war where people of the same nationality have each other at gunpoint on the Korean peninsula. Some politicians claim that certain forces are deliberately encouraging anti-American sentiments, but the candlelight marchers will not stop until they see tangible results, such as jurisdiction over US Army crimes being transferred to Korean authorities, the SOFA being completely revised, and the US publicly apologizing for the killing.
3. Appointment of first woman Prime Minister Chang Sang vetoed by legislators
Chang Sang, former president of Ewha Women's University, became the first woman to be nominated for Prime Minister in the history of the Korean Republic, but her appointment was unfortunately vetoed when she did not pass the public hearing held to consider her appointment. Woman groups heartily welcomed her nomination, even issuing statements to that effect, but only bitter disappointment awaited them in the end. Assessments of why Chang failed to get appointed vary greatly. The male-dominated political and media authorities claim that Chang's failure was a matter of course, since she did not meet moral standards as can be seen through her son's American citizenship and records of her real estate speculation and falsification of academic qualifications. On the other hand, women groups insist that Chang was the victim of a witch hunt targeted at only high-ranking women public servants. The fact that the very legislators and mass media that were so harsh on Chang were overly considerate towards the next nominee Kim Seok Soo shows that the women groups' claims are far from groundless. Says an officer with a women group, "Women public servants have always felt that they are shortchanged when it comes to personnel decisions, and Chang's being denied appointment has heightened their sense of deprivation."
4. The first inter-Korean Women's Reunification Rally since national division
Women representing various sectors of North and South Korean society came together for the first time in 57 years since the national division. It was at the North-South Korea Reunification Rally held on August 16. It was a short meeting that lasted a little over an hour, but the participants agreed that women should become actively involved in the reunification movement and confirmed their mutual sisterly love as women of the same nationality. The women's meeting, which took place on the third day of the Reunification Rally, was attended by 6 representatives from the North led by National Reunification Democracy Front Chair Yeo Won Gu and 20-odd representatives from the South led by the Liberation Day Joint Festivities Women's Chair Lee Hyun Sook. The Rally is considered to have provided a valuable opportunity for North and South Korean women, hitherto left out in the reunification movement, to confirm their oneness and search for ways they can contribute to realizing peace on the Korean peninsula through the reunification process. The women participants also agreed to meet again on Mt. Kumkang from October 16 to 17 for the 'North-South Korea Women's Reunification Rally' and to join forces in the reunification movement to realize the June 15 Joint Declaration adopted during the inter-Korean Summit.
5. Korea's birth rate of 1.3 the world's lowest
The National Statistical Office announced in August that the average number of children that Korean women in their productive years gave birth to was 1.3. This record - compared to the US's 2.1 and France's 1.9 - is low enough to make the Korean government's birth control policies of the past quite meaningless. Women groups interpret this poor record to be the negative outcome of the burden of birth and childcare being concentrated on women. In a reality where there is no one to take care of their children and no place they can confidently entrust their children with, women's response was a firm resolve not to have children at all. The unfairness of having to take care of her child by herself and the fear of being unable to go back to work after the child is grown has made today's average Korean woman steer clear of pregnancy. To women who have to feel guilty about taking the legal three-month paid maternity leave, a two-year childcare leave is just a faraway dream. Even the three-month maternity leave is a luxury for the casually employed workers who form the majority of the female workforce. All this is a reflection of the backward state of the childcare system in Korea.
6. Birth of the Committee on Women's Affairs as a National Assembly Standing Committee
The birth of the Committee on Women's Affairs as a National Assembly Standing Committee in April is another big accomplishment for women groups in 2002. The Special Committee on Women's Affairs that was first established in 1994 in the National Assembly did not have any practical authority such as rights to recommend or pass bills, rights of audit and inspection, and rights to preview budgets and accounts. Also, even after the inauguration of the Ministry of Gender Equality, inspection of the Ministry was undertaken by the National Policy or House Steering Committee because there was no standing committee in the National Assembly dedicated to women's affairs. With the birth of the Committee on Women's Affairs however, it has become possible to recommend or pass bills, carry out audit and inspections, preview budgets and accounts concerning women's affairs. 2002's audit of the Ministry of Gender Equality focused on such issues as the hoju system, women's employment and sexual violence. Legislators on the Women's Committee chided the Ministry for being too inactive in pushing for the abolishment of the hoju system, and even called for the abolishment of the system of giving extra credit to public servant candidates for military service. It is a sad state of affairs if issues that are taken for granted in advanced countries are still major controversies in Korea, but the birth of the Committee on Women's Affairs has at least paved the way for public representation of issues championed by women groups.
7. Anti-Prostitution Act proposed at the National Assembly
The bill for the prevention and punishment of mediating prostitution proposed in July was withdrawn and replaced by two bills in September. Taking into account the fact that the majority of victims of prostitution are women, it was agreed that the Ministry of Gender Equality should be in charge of policies to protect victims and prevent prostitution, so that policies can be made from women's point of view. It was also agreed that in order to heighten effectiveness, the Ministry of Justice should be in charge of criminal punishment of those found guilty of employing sex workers. It was through such consensus that the original bill was divided into two separate bills. The Anti-Prostitution Bill pending at the National Assembly stipulates that it is the government's duty to offer special protection for foreign sex workers and to prevent international prostitution. The bill also introduces the term 'person who has been prostituted' to replace existing terms such as 'hostess' or 'prostitute.' This is a reflection of the viewpoint that the person who has been prostituted is a victim who needs government support and protection. If the bill is passed, the deportation of foreign sex workers can be postponed during relevant investigations and court proceedings, and they are offered the same welfare services as Korean nationals during their stay. However, the Women's Emancipation Alliance points out that "the bill still has problems, such as punishing the victims of prostitution as criminals and not specifying foreign women who qualify for protection." Claims the Alliance, "An Anti-Prostitution bill that does not stipulate punishment of victims must be proposed and passed as soon as possible."
8. Passionate response of women the biggest contributor to a successful World Cup
The World Cup undoubtedly got rid of the prejudice that football is a men's passion. Wherever there was a cheering crowd rooting for the Korean team during the World Cup, you could see women wearing the Red Devil T-shirt and waving the Korean national flag and screaming for all they were worth.
How to interpret the passionate response shown by women during the World Cup games? Women groups say that the World Cup was an opportunity for women, oppressed and marginalized as the weaker sex, to join hands with the rest of society in public and relieve their stress. In other words, the square in front of City Hall that was filled with tens of thousands of cheerers was not simply a place for cheering but a place of liberation where oppressed women could "let it all out." Some go as far as to say that it was the women who played the most important role in concluding the World Cup on such a successful note. That there were hardly any casualties despite the stomping and madly cheering crowd that shook Seoul is all thanks to the influence of women who brought their families and children to cheer on the streets. Instead of the male chauvinist style of cheering that employs pretty cheerleaders, women football fans have created a new culture of entire families clapping and cheering together.
9. 'Cyber Mentoring' campaign initiated by the Ministry of Gender Equality opens a new chapter in the women's movement
The 'cyber mentoring' campaign - bringing together seniors (mentors) and juniors (mentees) in cyber space to share their experiences and wisdom - continues to gain popularity. Since the online counseling program pioneered by the Ministry of Gender Equality in June through the public website 'Women-Net,' many other organizations have joined the campaign, coming up with similar programs such as the 'e-Good Friends' by the Making Good Friends Campaign, the 'Cyber-Mom' campaign by Naeil Women's Center, and the Next Generation Foundation by Daum Communications. The expansion of cyber mentoring has dissolved the prejudice that women lack mentors, and has provided a foundation for women to share their wisdom and courage online. In particular, this campaign is credited for having opened a new chapter in the women's movement by introducing the Internet - a tool whose power was proven beyond doubt during the presidential election campaign - into the women's movement. Women who have participated in the campaign say that "the mentoring has been a great help because participants receive one-on-one counseling regarding career choices and working life." They recommend that "publicity be strengthened so that women who are still unaware of this program can benefit from cyber mentoring." With the cyber mentoring program being so well-received, the Ministry of Gender Equality is planning to increase the number of mentor-mentee pairs from the current 105 to 200 in 2003. The Ministry is also planning to diversify its program to include group mentoring that groups together one mentor with several mentees, and peer mentoring that groups together colleagues or women with similar occupations.
10. VAT-exemption on sanitary napkins becomes a public issue
Women have long protested that the price of sanitary napkins is far too high. The number of sanitary napkins used by an average woman in her lifetime adds up to some 11 thousand, costing a total of 3.3 million Won (about US$2,750). Womenlink Korea, the women group that first made the exemption of VAT on sanitary napkins a public issue, claims, "Sanitary napkins are products necessary for social reproduction, and should therefore be exempt from VAT for the sake of maternity protection." Womenlink Korea adds, "Considering that social changes have led to the increase of manufactured goods exempt from VAT, sanitary napkins should also fall into this category since it is also a daily necessity for women." Women have expressed their full support for this campaign, saying that "levying VAT on sanitary napkins is going too far, as if menstruation is some crime." The campaign got off the ground in October when 22 legislators including the Democratic Party's Chung Bum Gu proposed a Tax Benefit Restriction Bill that includes women's sanitary napkins (menstrual pads) in the list of VAT-exempt products.