The presidential election was unprecedented not only for its closeness but for the nonappearance of the leading candidates’ wives in the run-up to the polling. But, of course, we have never seen spouses engulfed with so much scandal that they are reduced to a public apology and completely marginalized.
Upon confirmation of his victory, Yoon Suk-yeol visited his campaign staff and party echelon at the People Power Party, where he made a brief announcement. In the wee hours around 4 a.m., small crowds of supporters welcomed him outside his home and the party headquarters. However, they couldn’t cheer the nation’s next first lady, Kim Keon-hee. She was nowhere in sight.
Underscoring her husband’s intent to abolish the Office of the First Lady, Kim doesn’t even want to be called the first lady. In post-election remarks delivered through party officials, Kim said she preferred to be called the “president’s spouse” rather than the first lady. She also expressed her wishes to “quietly assist” her husband “in the background.” Going forward we may see few if any public appearances normally associated with a president’s wife. Conveniently, that would avoid the risk of opportunistic questioning by reporters and possible negative impact.
At the beginning of the presidential race, allegations and rumors about her career credentials and illegal stock transactions surfaced as well as her private life before marrying Yoon. In her only public appearance connected to the presidential campaign, she publicly apologized for plagiarism in research papers and exaggerating her work experience. But controversies still swirl around Kim, a curator-entrepreneur who runs an exhibition planning firm. Although rarely discussed outright, her opaque past has yet to be explained fully.
Kim Hye-kyung, the wife of ruling Democracy Party candidate Lee Jae-myung, hardly fared better. She participated in canvassing events but stayed out of the spotlight after late January when she was accused of having abused her influence as a governor’s wife. Now that the election is over, she is likely to be investigated on charges of ordering public officials to do private errands for her and misappropriating state funds by using a corporate credit card.
If the past is any guide, it remains to be seen how fairly and accurately the cases involving the two women of rival parties are handled under the new administration. Ironically, while the absence of the wives kept themselves from becoming a campaign risk to their husbands, the role of women in Korean society became a rallying cry and a pivotal issue in the election.
Lee Jun-seok, the 36-year-old chairman of the conservative main opposition People Power Party, sowed the seeds by politicizing anti-feminist backlash. He publicly advocated anti-feminism, taking sides with young men in their 20s who are frustrated with the perceived “reverse discrimination” in the tight job market where they have to compete against women. The messaging helped him take the party helm but understandably united Korean women into an opposing juggernaut.
Yoon embraced the anti-feminist agenda to woo young male voters. He blamed the country’s low fertility rate on feminism, saying that “feminism prevents healthy relationships between men and women.” He called for the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family to be scrapped, insisting that the government agency has “completed its historic mission” and that “gender-based, systemic and structural discrimination no longer exists in Korea.”
Various indicators strongly suggest otherwise. For example, the Economist’s glass-ceiling index, released on March 7, ahead of International Women’s Day, places Korea at the bottom among the 29 OECD member countries. The nation has bottomed out the index for 10 consecutive years, with Japan and Turkey in close ranking.
The OECD Gender Initiative provides detailed data on barriers to gender equality in education, employment and entrepreneurship in both OECD and non-OECD countries. In gender wage gap, Korea ranks last among 44 countries surveyed, with women earning 31.5 percent less than men against the global average of about 21 percent. In the women in politics category, Korea comes fifth from the bottom among 38 countries listed, followed by Colombia, Turkey, Hungary and Japan. Women make up 19 percent of lawmakers in Korea, compared with 27 percent in the United States.
The president-elect’s views on gender issues somehow overlap with his wife’s remarks from her controversial seven-hour taped conversation with a YouTube reporter. Mentioning #MeToo scandals involving former members of the Democratic Party, she said the conservatives didn’t get embroiled in scandals because “we pay people well.” She even expressed sympathy for a former provincial governor convicted for sexual assault on his assistant, saying “my husband feels the same way.”
The potential first couple’s apparent lack of gender awareness and their party’s stoking gender conflicts for electioneering, rather than addressing the painful issue for eventual harmony and unity, dismayed young women. Initially skeptical of Lee and remaining undecided, the young women united at the last minute to vote for Lee. The result: a razor-thin margin of 0.73 percentage point, or 247,077 votes, between the winner and the first runner-up, contrary to earlier expectations of a wider gap.
The election results show a clear split between sexes: Yoon garnered overwhelming support from young men in their 20s, in addition to the traditional conservative support base of men and women aged 60 or older, while Lee earned support from more women in all age groups under 60. Particularly, among men in their 20s, 58.7 percent voted for Yoon and 36.3 percent for Lee; among women in their 20s, 58.0 percent voted for Lee and 33.8 percent for Yoon.
The figures suggest gender polarization -- yet another poignant issue on the shoulders of the incoming administration as well as the larger political scene across party lines. From a positive perspective, the solidarity of young women may portend the evolution of the Korean feminist movement to a level higher. It is hoped they will imbue the famously backward Korean politics with a breath of fresh air.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.