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Wed. July 17, 2024
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Women's Rights and Geopolitics in the Two Koreas
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By Kathambi Kinoti
AWID: This year’s G20 Summit was held in South Korea. How significant is the fact that it held was in the region?

CHRISTINE AHN: The G20 summit in Korea was significant for a number of reasons. For one, it was the first time that a “G-something” meeting took place in a country that was not part of the G-8, but is part of the expanded group of wealthy nations, especially in a country that is among the group of non-western countries, including Brazil, China, India and Russia that are growing in power and influence.

It was also significant to have the meeting in South Korea because it is very important geopolitically to the United States, foremost in terms of the US economic and military agenda. A key focus for President Obama was to clear any remaining obstacles to passing the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which will be the second largest trade deal after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

South Korea is also an important military ally of the U.S.,particularly its goal of maintaining dominance in the Asia Pacific region and challenging China’s growing power. The U.S. currently has 27,000 troops on approximately 75 U.S. military bases—but it also has control over the South Korean military ever since the Korean War temporarily ended 60-plus years ago. The conservative South Korean government has been an important ally of the US at a time when the tide is changing across Asia, particularly in Japan where tensions over the US military bases in Okinawa forced the resignation of Prime Minister Hatoyama, who was elected for his campaign pledge to move the US bases.

Domestically,according to feminist scholars and activists, the South Korean government has used the G-20 as an opportunity to project propaganda to the Korean people that their country has joined the wealthy, developed country club and is now an influential global player. According to Jinock Lee, a South Korean feminist scholar, “The South Korean government seems to regard this opportunity to hold the G20 summit in Korea as a way to upgrade her global status as well as to pacify internal troubles for the sake of 'national' interests.” One way the government has managed to keep out dissident voices is by keeping protesters one mile away from the meeting site. According to Jini Park of the Korean Women Workers Academy, the Korean people don’t even understand the meaning behind theG20. “ The people seem to be regarded only as objects to be mobilized.” She says that there are many criticisms of the G20, including its legitimacy and its definition of development. The South Korean government is proposing a new agenda on development, using rhetoric such as “aid to end aid”, “aid for trade”, and ”how to catch a fish effectively”. According to Park, “It is just growth-oriented development without any consideration of gender equality or sustainability.” Many Korean activists are concerned that Korea might be cast as a model for development without consideration of its many problems, such as the tremendous inequality, lack of democracy and disregard for ecological sustainability.

AWID: What influence does the US have in relation to the politics of South and North Korea?

CHRISTINE: The U.S. has tremendous influence on the politics of the Korean peninsula—in fact it was the United States, with concession from the former Soviet Union, that divided the Korean peninsula over 60 years ago. Most people don't realize this, but in 2000, the North and South Korean leaders met and signed the 6.15 Joint Declaration in which they set out to gradually reunify the country. This set off joint economic projects, like the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mt. Kumgang resort, as well as family reunifications and meetings of civil society groups. Unfortunately this hopeful moment for Koreans on the peninsula and throughout the diaspora coincided with the Bush administration, particularly the notorious “Axis of Evil” speech which cast North Korea as a potential target of US military aggression.

The US wields enormous power over both countries. In terms of North Korea, U.S.-led economic sanctions have severely hampered that country's development. Furthermore, U.S.hostility towards North Korea (as recently witnessed with the US-South Korean war games and admission of US plans to drop nuclear bombs on North Korea) has triggered this frightening militarization of the Korean peninsula, north and south,and naturally of the region. As previously mentioned, the US still has 27,000 of its troops stationed in South Korea, regularly initiates war games, which threaten not just North Korea, but also China. The militarization of the entire peninsula doesn't just impact how governments allocate resources away from social investment—it serves to create cultures of fear and repression. Most outsiders think only of North Korea as the repressive state, but South Korea still has in place the National Security Law, created during the height of the Cold War to silence leftists and progressive voices challenging authoritarian rule and the division of the country.

AWID: What are some of the main women's rights issues that South Korea faces at the moment?

CHRISTINE: Poverty and job insecurity. According to Jini Park of Korean Women Workers Academy, “Women workers can only find low-wage jobs with short term contracts or irregular jobs.” These conditions only serve to make women poorer. According to Park, “Around 70 per cent of women are irregular workers and they earn only a third of the wage of regular male workers.”

Other feminist scholars and activists report that under the conservative Lee Myung Bak, there is a new ‘police state’, which has served to destroy a broad range of human rights.

Women's rights are among the human rights in retreat, particularly women's reproductive rights.According to Jinock Lee, previously, abortion was generally accepted throughout South Korean society. Women's reproductive rights now are threatened by a combination of factors. For one, the low birth rate appears to threaten the growth of the national economy. Another factor is the strong right-wing Christian values President Lee upholds. The interplay of the two factors has led to the criminalization of abortion. Lee says because “South Korean society is still quite conservative about the sexual activity of unmarried youngsters to a large extent and education about contraception is not available to them,” this scenario serves to jeopardize women's reproductive health.

AWID: Are there many women's rights organizations in South Korea? If so, what kinds of issues do they focus on?

CHRISTINE: There are many women’s groups working on various issues such as labor, farmers, sexual assaults, single parents, environment, peace, reunification, policies and laws related to women, counseling, violence, sex work or prostitution, political participation, and religious groups, etc.

According to Jini Park, there are three major blocs in the women’s movement. One is comprised of progressive groups that are mostly members of Korean Women’s Association and Korean Women’ Alliance. Another is made up of conservative groups which are mostly members of the Korean National Council of Women. And the third bloc is of young feminist groups. Due to the conservative environment created by Lee Myung Bak, many progressive groups,including women's groups, have been suppressed. According to Park, “This situation leaves a very small space for women’s groups to raise their issues and demands more actively.”

AWID: North Korea is a pariah right now in much of the rest of the world (especially with former US president George W. Bush having put it on his"axis of evil." ) South Korea with its free market, capitalist economy and democratic orientation is often contrasted with its northern neighbour.What effect does this comparison have on women's rights ?

CHRISTINE: The division of the Korean peninsula has gravely impacted the human rights of the Korean people,north and south. Not only have both governments invested significant amounts of public wealth and resources towards the militarization of the societies, the so-called threats created by the division have led to severe repression both sides of the demilitarized zone. It is well-known that North Korea expects loyalty to the regime, but a similar form of nationalism also creeps up in South Korea because of the division. According to Lee, national security is always a top priority and there is never any room to challenge it. “Consequently, individual rights have been left aside,” says Lee. She says that the current aggressive neoliberal government is combining national security with economic interests.

For example,according to Park, the South Korean government and conservatives in the south tend to use the argument that South Korea is better off than North Korea to use against those who might critique conditions in the south. Not only are those who are critical of South Korea considered as ungrateful, this binary view of the two Koreas tends to hinder healthy criticism of South Korea. According to Park, the former minister of Foreign Affairs allegedly stated that youth who voted in June against the ruling party in local elections should be sent to North Korea because through their votes, they revealed their preference for North Korea. Any criticism of the free-market neoliberal system is couched as an apologism of Communism. In this way the Cold War is very much alive on the Korean peninsula. “North Korea has been used as an excuse to suppress demands for human and women rights in the name of national security,” says Park. This stems from a long standing fear that is deeply rooted in common people’s perceptions of socialism, Marxism and other progressive theories. As a result, “progressive or radical voices demanding democracy and rights of people have always been regarded as something propagated by North Korea” with the intent of destroying South Korea and therefore effectively quashed.

As for the impact on women in North Korea—we don't fully know. Based on my visits to North Korea,women have played a very central role in the narrative of North Korea's nation building as women do in communist and socialist societies. I'm not completely convinced by their narrative, but I do think that like the women in South Korea, they are strong and have dealt for very long with a hyper-patriarchal and gender-normative society. The militarization of both countries has also served as a dangerous development in both societies as violence is used as a means to resolve all conflicts, including within the home.

I do think that women are differently impacted by the division of the Korean peninsula. For one, the overwhelming majority of migrants from North Korea are women. They go mostly through China, many trafficked and enduring dangerous terrain emotionally, physically, psychologically. When I asked humanitarian aid workers why so many refugees are women, they say that it's because women have greater latitude in North Korea to leave because they aren't serving in the military or in a factory. They less under the radar, so that gives them greater freedom to leave.

AWID: Do outsiders tend to overlook the situation in South Korea because of the situation in the North? Is the capitalist, economically progressive model of the South necessarily accompanied by human rights and democratic ideals?

CHRISTINE: Certainly South Koreans are enjoying far better human rights than in North Korea, but that doesn't mean that South Koreans are living in a model democracy. According to the feminists I've spoken to in South Korea, the democracy the people enjoy today was born out of militant struggles by democratic movements in civil society. As Lee puts it, “There are a lot of people who had to sacrifice under repressive regimes.”

But many point to the decline in democracy under neoliberalization, particularly after the economic crisis in 1997. Inequality has significantly grown and has started to erode the base of democracy. According to Lee, South Korea's economic growth hasn't necessarily been accompanied by the advancement or guarantee of human rights or the practice of democratic ideals. For example, while the world remains mystified by South Korea's economic growth, at the same time, gender empowerment indices place South Korea in 60th place globally while its GDP places it in number 15. Last year I recall reading a World Bank report that said that women in South Korea worked the hardest of all advanced industrialized societies because of their triple burden—working in the marketplace, caring for children and male partners at home, and caring for the elders and other dependent family members. There is definitely an expectation of South Korean women to be super-bee workers—not just in Korea but here in the United States as well.

AWID: What role does South Korea - with its tremendous economic and human resources - play in the region?To what extent does its position as a cultural and geographical neighbour to North Korea affect its role in regional politics, and its foreign and internal policy?

CHRISTINE: South Korea plays a role as a model for capitalist economic growth—but without also recognizing the tremendous problems that my sisters in South Korea have so well articulated. It is also a site for militarization, which is also fuelling the arms race in the region. Does this have solely to do with South Korea? No. After all, the US has militarily occupied South Korea since it first landed on the peninsula at the end of the Second World War and put in place a military government that was led by Japanese collaborators during Korea's colonization period. As Lee puts it, “Does South Korea have an independent voice over its relationship with North Korea, when the Korean penisula has been the battleground of the unfinished business of the Cold War?”

But I also think that the militant democratic social movements in South Korea have served to inspire not just the peasant and worker movements in the region, but across the world. If you look back at some of the key struggles against the WTO, Korean movements have been a vital and courageous force,whether in Cancun or in Hong Kong. Many social movements look to South Korean civil society for inspiration in bringing about greater democratization. In fact, many women worker organizations especially from the Mekong delta region have reached out to the Korean women workers to help train them in organizing informal workers and build women's trade unions. Despite its thorny road to greater democratization and the current struggles under a hyper-patriarchal and hyper-capitalist society, South Korea is an inspiration to many movements across the world.

* Christine Ahn is an analyst with the Global Fund for Women and the Korea Policy Institute

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