After decades of occupation and dictatorship Korea attempted to become a democracy in 1948. A traditionally male-dominant society due to their adherence to the male-dominated religion of Confucianism, the 1948 Constitution guaranteed all citizens equal treatment under the law and that religion, gender and social status no longer could legally provide a barrier to personal and political rights.
As is often the case it took some time for these legal decrees to actually become practiced in the law and indeed there is still a gender equality gap in South Korean society.
The religious influence of Confucianism led to a strictly patriarchal society. Women were expected to maintain and stay in the home and defer to the man of the house on all things. Their rights to own property, even as an inheritance from their husband, were severely limited. The Constitution, through its various forms since 1948, has always guaranteed women the legal right to leave the home, vote and hold positions in business and cultural institutions. Though women have had these rights for decades they have not been put into practice and often the courts reflected the patriarchal attitude as opposed to the constitutional attitude. Women were not generally allowed “out of the house” until later, and this is reflected in their participation in government.
Between the adoption of this Constitution in 1948 and 2004 the percent of women in the South Korean National Assembly was less than three (2.9%), with only three years in that period (1973, 2000, 2004) seeing women elected to over five percent of parliamentary positions. 2004 was the highest percent of any year in that range at 13%, more than doubling the second highest year of 2000 at 5.9%
These low numbers persisted even though several administrations in South Korea pledged to do better. It was not until the election of Kim Jae-jung in 1998 that things truly began to turn around for women in South Korea.
Kim Jae-jung ran on an inclusive platform aimed specifically at women. His campaign was a success on some levels. 50% of voters in his election were women, the highest percentage at the time. He promised to appoint four women to Cabinet positions and to help get elected officials achieve being at least 30% women in parliament.
He also changed several policies and laws to become fairer to women and to reflect their equal standing with men under the nations Constitution. He also passed the Gender Discrimination Prevention and Relief Act in 1999 which resulted in the formation of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, a government organization dedicated to increasing participation by women in all aspects of South Korean culture including politics.
In reality his policies fell short of his promises. Though many legal steps forward were taken in favor of women’s rights government participation fell short. The year Kim Jae-jung promised to have 30% of parliament was 2000, where the percent was only 5.9%.
There has been an increase in women’s participation in government since Kim Jae-jung’s tenure. In local and national elections more and more women enter the political arena by seeking office. They still make up a small percentage of elected of officials but they are exercising their freedoms and their rights by running for office and gaining ground against the patriarchal tendencies of their culture. Women overwhelmingly register for liberal parties, making up 70% of the Democratic Liberal Party in 1995 although general participation in organized parties is minimal.
It is notable that women in South Korea attained suffrage and equal rights under the law without violence. This method is atypical in history.