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Cablegate: "You've Come a Long Way Baby:" the Rising Status

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FM AMEMBASSY SEOUL
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INFO RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING 0958
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RUEHC/DEPT OF LABOR WASHINGTON DC
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RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHDC 1521
RUALSFJ/COMUSJAPAN YOKOTA AB JA
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHINGTON DC
RHMFIUU/COMUSKOREA J2 SEOUL KOR
RHMFIUU/COMUSKOREA J5 SEOUL KOR
RHMFIUU/COMUSKOREA SCJS SEOUL KOR
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHINGTON DC
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC//OSD/ISA/EAP//

UNCLAS SEOUL 002392

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PASS HHS FOR OIRH
TREASURY FOR IA/ISA/TRAN AND BUCKLEY
PASS USTR FOR AUGEROT AND KI

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: SOCI ECON PGOV PREL KS
SUBJECT: "YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY BABY:" THE RISING STATUS
OF KOREAN WOMEN

REF: A. 05 SEOUL 1058

B. 05 SEOUL 3215
C. 05 SEOUL 3368

SUMMARY
-------

1. (U) Korean women are better educated then ever before and
are working in greater numbers outside the home, joining
management, becoming professionals, and entering politics.
The entry of women into the public arena suggests that the
ROK is slowly breaking away from its Confucian male-centered
culture. Persistent gender discrimination, such as
chauvinistic views on "men's work" and "women's work,"
however, have offset some of these gains. The ROKG is
currently working on policies to address gender inequality
and to better balance families and careers. Though deeply
entrenched sexist attitudes will not likely disappear easily
or completely, women have made many inroads across numerous
categories and will likely continue to see their status rise.
END SUMMARY.

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MORE WOMEN EDUCATED AND WORKING
-------------------------------

2. (U) Women in Korea are enjoying historically high levels
of education. According to the National Statistical Office
(NSO), of the 1.3 million 18- to 21-year-old women, a record
675,000 were enrolled college in 2004 -- almost 51 percent,
compared to 15 percent in 1985. Korean women are graduating
at the top of their classes in record numbers and passing the
tough civil service exams. Last July, the Civil Service
Commission reported that women outperformed men for the first
time on the foreign service exam. Out of 1,191 applicants,
ten of the 19 successful testers were women. The highest
score went to a woman. Similar results were seen in the
tests for senior civil and judicial officers. Even at
secondary levels of education, girls are finding success. A
2005 Ministry of Education report stated that girls
outperformed or were on a par with boys on the five basic
subjects tested, including math and science, on the National
Academic Achievement Test administered to sixth- ninth- and
tenth-graders.

3. (U) In addition, women are increasingly working outside
the home. The NSO released new numbers showing that almost 50
percent (49.8 percent), or 9.9 million, women were in the
workforce in May. This new record is part of the steady rise
of working women since the NSO first began tallying female
economic activity in 1963: 41.5 percent in 1973, 47.0 percent
in 1990, and 48.8 percent in 2000. The surge of middle-aged
women in the work force has driven up the overall numbers of
working women. In May, 2.7 million women 50 and older were
working, and double income families represented 30 percent of
Korean households. Women in politics and management
increased nearly 90 percent in the last five years, and women
represented 46.3 percent of the nation's total doctors,
teachers, lawyers, scientists and journalists in 2005. Women
employers in the ROK reached 353,000 at the end of September
2005, up eight percent from the previous year, comprising
20.7 percent of all business owners in the country.

WOMEN AND POLITICAL POWER
-------------------------

4. (U) In addition to educational and economic gains, Korean
women have been making their mark in the political arena.
Today the National Assembly has 30 female lawmakers, the
highest number in ROK history, and more women are taking
executive positions in government. The increase of female
political power is best seen through three of Korea's most
celebrated women politicians: Han Myung-sook, Kang Kum-sill,
and Park Geun-hye.

5. (U) Han made history when she became the ROK's first
female Prime Minister in April. A noted activist during the
ROK democracy movement in the 1970s and 1980s, Han had set
previous records by becoming the first female Minister of
Gender Equality in 2001 and later Minister of Environment in
2003. Twice elected to the National Assembly (2000, 2004),
she is known as the "godmother" of Korea's feminist movement
and maintains strong ties to the progressive NGO community.

6. (U) Kang, a former human rights attorney, developed
overnight name recognition when she became the first female
Justice Minister in 2003. She is respected for her
determination to create a truly independent judicial system
and to root out corruption during her 17-month tenure as
Minister. She won the hearts of the Korean public through
her logical, outspoken remarks and for her reform image. The
ruling Uri Party tapped Kang to run for Seoul mayor in the
May 31 local elections and dubbed her the "Joan of Arc" of
the Uri, as party officials pinned their hopes on Kang to
help raise the party's dwindling popularity. Though she lost
the race, rival Grand National Party (GNP) viewed her entry
as a serious threat because of her immense public appeal.

7. (U) The most well known female politician in Korea is
Sisa Monthly's "Woman of the Year" and the Monthly JoongAng's
"Most Influential Woman in Korea," Park Geun-hye. Park was
elected the GNP's Chairwoman in 2004 and is credited with
having reversed the GNP's downward spiral in the weeks before
the April 2004 general elections. She surprised skeptics
with her leadership and charisma and ensured the party's
emergence as a viable opposition, securing 121 of the 299
National Assembly seats. She first joined the GNP in 1995
and won a seat in the 15th National Assembly in the 1998
by-election. She was re-elected by a wide margin in 2000 and
2004. She stepped down as Chairwoman of the party in June,
which many believe signals her ambitions for the party's
nomination for the 2007 Presidential Elections. The former
GNP Chairwoman is a strong contender and, because of her
enormous popularity, stands a real possibility of becoming
Korea's first female president.

PARADIGM SHIFTS AMONG WOMEN
---------------------------

8. (U) The psychological changes Korean women have undergone
are most evident in Korea's young women whose outlook on life
is markedly different from their predecessors. Donduk
University's 2005 nationwide survey on childbirth, revealed
that 24.4 percent of women in their 20s and 30s viewed
raising children as optional. The percentage was higher among
double-income couples, highly educated people, and
high-income earners. Other polls show as many as 50 percent
of women preferred to stay single, compared to 35 percent of
men. Marrying shortly after high school or going to college
to meet a spouse, as previous generations had done, is
increasingly considered anachronistic. Korea's young women
foresee a career after graduation, then marriage, followed by
children if time and money allow.

9. (U) These changes in attitude have resulted in high
employment among women in their twenties. The end of 2005
saw almost 2.2 million young women employed, outpacing their
male counterparts (1.9 million). In the first quarter of
2006, young women continued to outpace men, 2.3 million
compared to 2.1 million. Recruiting companies such as Job
Korea have found that young women are more aggressive then
men in their studies and job search. They are better in
languages and in job interviews, which has benefited them as
the interview is steadily becoming more important than
grades. Women are also more willing to adapt to today's
tight job market -- more willing to relocate, work for
smaller companies, and, if necessary, lower their own
expectations.

KOREA BEHIND WORLD STANDARDS IN GENDER EQUALITY
--------------------------------------------- --

10. (U) Although Korean women are enjoying new levels of
education, income, and influence, gender equality in Korea
continues to fall short by international standards. In 2005,
the World Economic Forum (WEF) published "Women's
Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap," which assessed
the gender gap by measuring the extent to which women in 58
countries -- all 30 OECD countries and 28 emerging markets --
have achieved equality with men in five critical areas:
economic participation, economic opportunity, political
empowerment, educational attainment, and health and
well-being. Sweden took top honors; the ROK was ranked 54.
Only four countries -- Jordan (55), Saudi Arabia (56),
Pakistan (57), and Egypt (58) -- fared worse in gender
equality. By comparison, the U.S. was 17, China 33, and
Japan 38.

11. (U) In the WEF rankings, the ROK came in 55th out of 58
in "economic opportunity," which spotlights the institutional
discrimination Korean women face. A 2005 Korea Labor
Institute (KLI) research found that women in their 50s are
most discriminated against in the job market. Personnel
managers and CEOs from 1,000 ROK companies revealed that
between two equally competent applicants, older, married
women only had a 33.7 percent chance of getting hired.
Married women in general stood a 36.9 percent chance, and
women overall had a 37.1 percent chance. Companies view
women as investment "losses" because some 60 percent of
Korean women end up leaving the workforce after giving birth
due to poor childcare support, thus putting women at a hiring
disadvantage. Prospective employers frequently ask single
women when they plan to marry and if they will continue to
work after marriage.

12. (U) Attitudes on "men's work" and "women's work"
persist, as demonstrated by the division of household duties.
A 2005 NSO report found Korean women spend on average 237
minutes on housework per day. Korean men spend 32 minutes.
By comparison, American women and men spent 192 and 110
minutes, respectively, on housework.

13. (U) Chang Jiyeun of the Korea Labor Institute (KLI)
explained to poloff that Korean women had made significant
gains over the years. However, that did not mean women had
attained parity with men. Men's economic participation rate
was 75 percent, compared to 50 percent for women. Moreover,
many women, especially older women, entered the job market to
offset rising living costs or to supplement their husbands'
low retirement income, not to pursue careers. As a result,
they were concentrated in low-skilled and low-wage jobs,
creating an income gap between men and women. Double-income
families in Korea earn only KRW 720,000 (USD 757) a month
more on average than single-income families. Chang further
pointed out that while the National Assembly had more women
representatives than ever before, the 30 women only make up
13 percent of the 299 parliamentarians, short the world
average of 15.7 percent of female lawmakers. In some
countries, such as Mozambique and Argentina, women comprise
30 percent of parliament. Even in the education arena, Chang
noted that 80 percent of Korean men go to college compared to
51 percent of Korean women.

OLD HABITS ARE HARD TO BREAK: VIOLENCE AND CHAUVINISM
--------------------------------------------- --------

14. (U) Meanwhile, domestic violence continues to plague
Korean society, although official statistics and anecdotal
evidence suggest a decline in frequency. According to a 2005
report released by the Ministry of Gender Equality, one in
six married women has suffered domestic violence. The
survey, conducted by Gallup Korea, showed that 21.7 percent
of husbands with a male authoritarian view of marriage used
physical violence against their wives, more than double that
of husbands who said they viewed their wives as equals (9.9
percent). Forty-two percent of the 6,156 respondents (3,701
men, 3,085 women) have suffered mental and verbal abuse and
another seven percent sexual assault. Almost half (44.3
percent) of the respondents said reporting to the police
would not be helpful.

15. (U) Traditionally, Koreans have considered domestic
violence a private matter. Old Korean proverbs, such as
"samjongjido," which instructs a woman to obey her father
until marriage, husband until his death, and sons until her
own death, have kept women largely silent on the issue.
Other folkloric expressions such as "women and dried pollack
should be beaten every three days," reflect a deep-rooted
psychological acceptance of male dominance of women through
violence in Korean culture. Though gender equality is
promoted today, many in the older generation, both men and
women, hold onto such "traditions." This existential
worldview is one reason the hojuje -- Korea's family registry
system that only recognized men as legal heads of households
-- took 50 years to abolish (REF A).

16. (U) Other sexist views toward women persist, as
highlighted by the case of a senior Korean politician, Rep.
Choi Yeon-hee. Choi, a three-term legislator is accused of
sexual harassment for fondling a female reporter's breasts in
February during a drinking session. Choi initially excused
himself by saying that he thought he had grabbed the
restaurant owner; later he apologized and claimed to be
drunk. Other male legislatures came to Choi's defense
explaining that Choi is a "well-mannered" man. Even
opposition lawmakers like Rep. Hahn Kwang-won (Uri) explained
on his web site that it was "natural that everyone who sees a
beautiful flower is tempted to enjoy its smell and touch it."


17. (U) Outraged women legislators led the fight to censure
Choi and demanded that he leave the Assembly. The measure
passed 149 to 84 in April. However, Choi refused to step
down, stating he would let the courts determine his fate.
The reporter filed a lawsuit against the legislator, and the
case went to court June 15 where Choi blamed alcohol for his
behavior. Public opinion against Choi remains negative. His
next court appearance is scheduled for July. Although some
skeptics believe that Rep. Choi will "get away" with his
sexual assault, the National Assembly's censure of Choi
indicates the increasing level of influence women now hold in
Korean politics and society and, more importantly, spotlights
the changing attitudes toward gender relations and workplace
behavior.

LOW BIRTH RATE: A BLESSING IN DISGUISE FOR WOMEN
--------------------------------------------- ---

18. (U) The ROK has one of the world's lowest total
fertility rates (TFR). According to a preliminary 2005 NSO
report, the 2004 record low of 1.16 children per childbearing
woman (age 15 to 49) dropped to a new low of 1.08. One of
the reasons women have consistently said they preferred not
to have children was because of the discrimination they face
in the job market if they wish to maintain both a career and
family (REF B, C). As a result of the low birth rate, the
ROK's core labor force of 25- to 49-year-olds is expected to
decrease by 200,000 every year starting in 2008. Ironically,
the growing need for labor could impel greater gender
equality in the employment market as the nation will have to
turn to women to supplement the shortage of workers,
according to Chang of KLI.

19. (U) For example, Assistant Director Kim Soon-rim of the
Ministry of Labor's Equal Employment Bureau explained how the
Affirmative Employment Improvement Measure incentivizes
public corporations and large private companies to improve
their hiring practices and maintain a certain ratio of women
in management. Companies with strong records of female
employment would receive benefits such as tax breaks and
financial support for its human resource departments.
Women-friendly companies would also have an advantage when
bidding for government contracts. Plans are also underway to
double the number of state-run childcare centers to 2,700 by
2010, so that women are less compelled to choose between
children or careers. Additionally, state-run unemployment
insurance will cover 90 days of maternity leave for small and
medium companies that only provide 30 days to further support
women in the workplace.

CONCLUSION: KOREA ON THE (SLOW) PATH TOWARD GENDER EQUALITY
--------------------------------------------- --------------

20. (U) Older women, with more economic power, are less
tolerant of unhappy marriages, leading to an increase in
"twilight" divorces -- marriages that end after 20 or more
years. Most Koreans support female employment and more
Koreans place greater emphasis on quality family time over
long hours at the office and late night drinking sessions
with the boss and co-workers. These changes bode well for
gender equality. Although deeply embedded sexist "norms" in
Korean culture are not likely to disappear quickly, easily,
or completely, Korean women appear poised to continue to make
gains toward social, economic, and political equality with
their male counterparts.
VERSHBOW

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