Is South Korea ready for "Madam President"?

SEOUL Wed Dec 12, 2012 5:16am IST

South Korea's ruling Saenuri Party's presidential candidate Park Geun-Hye (C) dances with election campaigners of the party, during her campaign in Seoul December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

South Korea's ruling Saenuri Party's presidential candidate Park Geun-Hye (C) dances with election campaigners of the party, during her campaign in Seoul December 7, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Lee Jae-Won

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SEOUL (Reuters) - If Park Geun-hye wins South Korea's presidential election this month, as looks increasingly likely, she will become the first woman to hold the country's top office, challenging stereotypes in a nation that is largely run by men in blue suits.

A conservative who has 15 years experience as a top legislator and who has been dubbed "The Queen of Elections" for turning around the fortunes of her political party in a series of polls, Park says she took to politics to help save her country from the devastating Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

Park, 60, is the daughter of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee and has never married or had children, something her opponents have sought to highlight in a bid to cut back her lead in the polls ahead of the December 19 vote.

"Candidate Park has no femininity. She has never lived a life agonising over childbirth, childcare, education and grocery prices," Park Kwang-on, a spokesman for her left-of-centre opponent, Moon Jae-in, said recently.

While South Korea has risen from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War to become the world's 14th richest nation in a generation, and large numbers of women attend its top universities, it ranks just 108th out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum's 2012 index of gender equality.

As a whole, women earn 39 percent less than men, the largest gap in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) group of developed nations.

Just half of South Korean women with a university degree are in the workforce, in part because of policies that discriminate against mothers due to the country's seniority-based pay system.

But Park, at least according to the policies she has spelt out in her campaign, is not going to tackle these issues aggressively, or make a big difference to South Korean women, especially those who have to juggle work and children.

In the long-term, the failure to address the role of women in the labour force could hamper growth.

Her offer of free state nursery care until 10 p.m. to help working families would appear to exacerbate Korea's long-hours culture, while providing free university education for a third child is not an issue for most people in a country with the lowest birth rate in the OECD, of just over one per woman of childbearing age.

According to a study by management consultants McKinsey, if South Korea wants to break into the top 10 in the OECD in terms of income per capita, it will need to create another 3 million jobs, of which 1.2 million will be for professionals.

With no room to expand male graduate employment, the country needs to transform the way in which women are treated in the labour market, McKinsey said.

"She needs more reformative policies. For example, policy tools that guarantee the same number of men and women in the cabinet or the same wages for men and women," said Kim Eun-ju, head of the Center for Korean Women and Politics.

Kim's centre and the Women's News newspaper recently published a scorecard on the main presidential contenders' policies on jobs and rights for women and found that Park's male opponent, Moon, scored better.

GLASS CEILING IN THE REPUBLIC OF INEQUALITY

Park has said her presidency would be a "remarkable start to break the glass ceiling in our society". But her critics say that is purely rhetoric.

Moon, who trails Park in opinion polls, has pledged to increase maternity pay to 70 percent of regular salaries as part of a package to boost rights.

"Although she sets an example of female leadership for the conservatives, I don't see Park Geun-hye as a symbol of gender equality," said Kim Eun-hee, head of the Korean Women's Political Solidarity civic group.

At times, Park has portrayed herself as the South Korean Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady" who governed Britain in the 1980s and pushed through tough economic reforms, or an Angela Merkel for Asia, seeking to emulate the German chancellor who is effectively the most powerful leader in Europe today.

She has even cited England's "Virgin Queen", Elizabeth I, who saw off the Spanish Armada in 1588, as a role model.

In contrast to the image of those role models, Park's campaign at times appears to have undermined her message that she is a serious woman who is capable of navigating through a tough economy and of dealing with a hostile North Korea.

A campaign song based on a hit compared her policies with a woman's "S-line", slang for a woman's curves, and played the lyric "Park Geun-hye is killing it", referring to her sex appeal.

Her New Frontier Party pulled the song after complaints it was demeaning to women but missteps like that have contributed to weak poll ratings among women in their 20s and 30s.

"Just the fact that she is biologically a woman isn't convincing enough," said Ma Ji-hye, a 25-year-old female college student in Seoul.

(Editing by David Chance and Robert Birsel)

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