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Pansy Speak 26 April 2006

A warm welcome for a refreshing and graceful Prime Minister

The first woman Prime Minister for the Republic of Korea was sworn in on 20th April 2006 almost sixty years after the Republic was founded. This was a powerful and significant moment for Madam Han Myeong-sook, Korean women and Korea. It's remarkable that this woman has made it to the top job given her disposition, appearance and background.

I met the now Prime Minister Han last August when she was in New Zealand to launch the New Zealand chapter of KOWIN (Korean Women's International Network) in her then capacity as the Minister of Gender Equality and Family. Madam Han's elegance and gentle presence contrasted sharply with the crowd and noise at a steakhouse on Tamaki Drive. Apparently it's her trademark not to court the image of being strong but one of hard work, always being on the move, building close relationships with people and accurately assessing problems to come up with the right solutions.

It's very exciting for myself as an adviser, the local president Holly Huh and members, that the patron of KOWIN NZ is the first woman Prime Minister of Korea. This is a significant morale boost for the network which was originally the brainchild of Madam Han's Ministry in July 2005. In her speech launching KOWIN, she said the network 'aims to contribute to improve the national competitiveness by enabling the knowledge of Korean women residing abroad to be reflected to the domestic women related policy. It will seek appropriate roles for Korean residents abroad, in tune with the era of globalization and reconciliation between North and South Korea'.

KOWIN is an extremely smart initiative because out of the total 7 million ex-pat Koreans 3 million are women. New Zealand's Korean community is relatively small and young. In contrast to figures quoted in the NZ Herald that 40,000 Koreans live here, there were only 19,026 in NZ as at the 2001 Census and predictions are that there will be just over 24,000 this year.

Changes to immigration policy in late 2002 drastically cut the number of Korean people who migrated to NZ from 3,000 to less than 1,000 per year. Difficulties faced by Koreans in gaining employment or starting up a business has led to many leaving, which has resulted in a net loss for the community in the last two years. While integration by Koreans may be perceived as a success, the truth is much different and for many their reward is the academic success of their children.

Madam Han didn't volunteer much about her background or sing her own praises at the launch of KOWIN NZ, so, I was dumbfounded to find out later on that this gentle and elegant woman was jailed for two years for being a political activist during the late 70's. Her husband was also jailed for the same reason for 13 years just six months into their marriage. Madam Han's first love isn't politics but writing which explains her gentle and refined manner. She originally wanted to be a writer and gained her doctorate from Ewha's Graduate School for Women's Studies in 1985 after her jail term.

However, life had other plans for Madam Han who was a late entrant into politics and became a legislator in 2000, the first Minister of Gender Equality and Family in 2001 and the Environment Minister in 2003.

Because I am a Asian New Zealander many think that I am very familiar with Korea. The truth is that my fond feelings for this country and its people took seed in 1998 on my first visit to Korea as part of a Speakers' tour. The then President Kim Dae Joong received our delegation at the Blue House and paid compliment to the fact that NZ had an Asian MP and that our country must be an inclusive and friendly society. I felt proud to earn such a compliment on behalf of our country and judging from the smiles from other tour members, the President has made us all feel proud to be New Zealanders. My evening with Madam Han brought back those precious memories.

I am hopeful that Madam Han's new role, and the scope for increased exchanges between our two countries, will lift the profile of Korean expertise here. If Prime Minister Han is smart enough to use the skills of overseas-based Korean women to assist Korea we should too explore the expertise held by our local Korean community and build stronger networks.


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