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Korean women and the pursuit of peace on the peninsula

Image credit: Jen Morgan (Creative Commons: Flickr)

Given that the questions raised by the #MeToo movement and the issue of comfort women continuing to make headlines in South Korea, women are conspicuously missing from discussions of inter-Korean reconciliation.

The fragments of the story are there - from the attention paid to Kim Yo-jong’s role in the PyongChang Olympics, to tales told by women who have defected from North Korea at international auditoriums, calling for attention on North Korean human rights issues. Yet, when it comes to the politics of inter-Korean rapprochement, media coverage tends to focus on two names – Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un – sometimes expanding the vocabulary to add mentions of Moon Jae-in, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe.

On the one hand, this points to the noticeable lack of female heads of state in the region, following the impeachment of South Korea’s first female president, Park Gyun-hye in 2017. On the other, it prompts a deeper inquiry into the processes that occur on the Korean Peninsula that don’t make it to press – stories of women and their diverse roles on both sides of the 38th parallel.

Women as Politicians and Diplomats

Casting our mind back to early 2018, it is worth recalling that it was Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong who was the first representative of the Kim family to cross the dividing line between the two Koreas. Her role in the PyongChang Olympics, in pushing the peace process forward and helping to ‘humanise’ the North Korean regime thanks to the media spotlight, is an obvious example of women’s diplomatic potential. Similarly, Kim Yo-jong and the other three women that joined Kim Jong-un’s entourage for the Singapore Summit, represent important political figures within North Korea.

However, Summit-diplomacy aside, whilst in the North women must navigate a complex web of socialist empowerment, tempered with conservative social norms, South Korea’s female empowerment likewise suffers many limitations. Although the loss of its first female President to corruption was in part tempered by President Moon’s appointment of Kang Kyung-wha as the nation’s first female foreign minister, the issue of sexual discrimination in top political circles remains unresolved. As only 17 per cent of South Korean National Assembly seats are filled by women, some have pushed for a controversial equal representation bill, fuelling the heated debate surrounding the push for introducing quotas to resolve South Korea’s gender discrimination in leadership roles.

Women as Human Rights Activists

The question of North Korean human rights abuses and their subordination to power politics in Korean Peninsula issues has been recently explored. What is of particular interest, however, to the discussion at hand, is the role of women within this human rights discourse. According to official South Korean statistics from the Ministry of Education, most defectors are women. The international press has focused on discussing the reasons for this trend, and the prominence of certain human rights activists such as Hyeonseo Lee and Yeomi Park serves as an important testimony for the role female defectors play in telling their stories to the world.

Notwithstanding the criticism of story inconsistencies, prominent defectors play an important role in raising awareness of life in North Korea. On another level, they can be seen as important role model figures for other defectors who are struggling to adapt to life in the South, particularly as many defectors remain hesitant to speak out about their experiences.

Women as Athletes

Returning once more to the topic of athletics, it is clear that sports diplomacy adds an important contribution to inter-Korean rapprochement efforts. However, whilst Uiseong’s curling team serves as an iconic example of women’s empowerment, the inter-Korean women’s hockey team at last year’s Winter Olympics was much more controversial.

Adding further complexity to the picture, the South Korean sports industry is currently under fire due to a mass of abuse and rape allegations in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, including accusations from the women’s curling team mentioned previously. This suggests that female empowerment in sports continues to suffer from broader gender issues of Korean society. And although the recent growth of Korean feminism can be seen as a move in the direction of bringing many previously obscured issues to light, the severe backlash is contributing to an increasingly divided society.

Of course, all this simply scratches the surface of the multitude of women’s stories that contribute to inter-Korean rapprochement efforts. The roles played by churches and other women-led non-government groups in promoting human rights in North Korea, as well as the activism of North Korean women in the domestic black market economy and the study of the Moranbong Band, are all fascinating topics in their own right.

The story of the two Koreas has always been bigger than Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. By delving further into the complex dynamics of security and insecurity on the peninsula you will find the often-silenced voices of women. They have a lot to tell - if you're willing to listen.

Kate Kalinova is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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