Los Angeles Times,
October 16, 1989, Monday
Korea: It's Suffer, not Suffragette
Economic progress and democratic reforms have done little to break men's
centuries-old domination of the society.
By KARL SCHOENBERGER, Times Staff Writer
SEOUL -- After centuries of abuse and discrimination, South Korean women
decided to draw the line last year when a homemaker was convicted of assault
for biting off part of the tongue of a man attempting, with an accomplice,
to rape her in an alley.
A district court in provincial Taegu gave the woman a six-month suspended
prison sentence for using "excessive self-defense" against her two
attackers. The male judge reasoned that in the end, she only had lost a
kiss, while one of the men had lost a third of his tongue. The court also
handed down suspended jail terms for the would-be rapists.
Astonished and enraged, a hodgepodge of radical and conservative women's
groups banded together to fight the chauvinism behind the verdict.
With legal backing from the feminist coalition and moral support from a
sympathetic husband, Mrs. Pyon, as she is identified in the local press,
established her innocence on appeal. Prosecutors still advanced the case to
the Supreme Court, which issued a ruling exonerating Pyon in August.
Yet the battle of the sexes is far from finished in South Korea. Critics say
the kind of mentality that resulted in Pyon's public humiliation remains
stubbornly entrenched in society, despite nominal gains for women amid the
recent whirl of economic advancement and democratization.
The focus of controversy is the Family Law, which institutionalizes Korea's
own brand of Confucian ethics, a rigid tradition of male ancestor worship
that was imported from China in antiquity but survives here as nowhere else.
Under the law, members of the same clan are forbidden to marry each other no
matter how remote their blood ties. Women are denied the right to become
head of their households, a condition with profound implications for
divorce, child custody and communal property ownership.
"I see the gap between the sexes widening rather than closing," said Lee
Kyung Ja, a fiction writer and outspoken advocate of sexual equality. "I'm
trying to show people that the problem is in the structure of society and in
institutions that hate women."
In a promising sign of relaxing attitudes, Lee's collection of short stories
dealing with the problems of contemporary women, "Half Failure," was
dramatized last month on prime-time television. Some of her extreme polemic
was weeded out of the screenplay, but Lee said there has been an outpouring
of viewer response. Both wives and mothers-in-law told her they wept over a
segment on their primordial family conflict.
"Of course, they have different reasons for crying," Lee said, referring to
the typical mother-in-law's habit of advocating a son's male prerogatives.
"I was hoping they would cry together."
Men, meanwhile, are not standing by idly while their value system comes
under attack. Although women have been trying to revise the Family Law since
1975, they have made no discernible progress. Recent proposals to take
action on the issue in the National Assembly have prompted mass rallies by
the nation's Confucianist lobby.
"Contrary to the common belief, women are not discriminated against in South
Korea," said Kang Jung Hee, chairman of the traditional learning committee
of the National Institute of Confucian Studies. "Not only do they have equal
rights, it's the men who are dominated."
Kang, an elderly scholar who works out of a ramshackle pagoda-style building
on the campus of Sung Kyun Kwan University, had some difficulty citing
examples of how South Korean men have been oppressed by their women. During
the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910), he noted, men did backbreaking agricultural
labor while their wives relaxed at home. He only smiled when it was pointed
out that today, women frequently do the lion's share of farm work.
Confucianists do not oppose women joining -- or rising in -- the work force
or participating in politics, Kang said. But they fear the "erosion of
traditional morals" symbolized by the effort to revise the Family Law. The
principle that only a man can be the head of any household must be
immutable, he said.
"We're not discriminating against women here," Kang said. "We just favor the
man because he's more active in society and better able to serve as the
master of the house."
What has resulted is a milieu in which a widow's son becomes her master, or,
if she has only daughters, a paternal in-law takes charge of her legal
affairs. Divorced women can and often do reside with their children, but the
ex-husband maintains legal custody through the official family register.
Assets and real estate, technically, belong only to the male head of the
house, and divorce courts tend to favor the men.
"In the Confucian scheme, fathers transmit family honor and ancestral virtue
to their sons through an unbroken line of male-linked kin," Laurel Kendall,
an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, wrote last year
in a monograph that pondered the "moral inferiority" of Korean women.
"Sons repay their debt of gratitude through filial piety; sons accept the
father's authority for the sake of family welfare and reputation," Kendall
said. "Sons support aging parents. Sons sustain the living family's link
with the past through periodic offerings of wine and rice to the family's
ancestors, and sons sustain the family's links with the future through the
provision of male heirs."
A Korean woman who fails to produce a healthy son is in a serious
predicament. In Lee's case, she forced the issue by undergoing a tubal
ligation -- without her husband's knowledge -- after bearing two daughters.
Her husband, a bank executive, is the eldest son and heir in his family.
"You can imagine the pressure," Lee said. "Even if I had seven daughters, I
could go to a fortune teller and be told I have no children. Daughters don't
count. Under Korean custom, my husband could drive me from my home and
deprive me of my status as a wife."
A tragedy last February underscored the depth of the male-superiority ethos.
Four sisters, ages 6 through 11, took rat poison in a suicide pact,
intending to lighten the burden on their impoverished family so that their
3-year-old brother could receive the best possible education. The youngest
"I think Koreans are all a little bit insane, especially the females," said
attorney Kang Gui Won, who until a few years ago was one of only three women
practicing law in South Korea. "Women live like dogs at home. You can live
like that for a short period, but after a while you become very sick."
Kang, a conservative former judge who assisted with Pyon's legal appeal in
the tongue-biting incident, is not related to Kang, the Confucian scholar.
Nevertheless, had the two been closer in age and chanced to catch each
other's eye, they most likely would have been forbidden to marry. They share
the same surname.
That's another tenet that Kang, the Confucianist, insists must be protected
at all costs.
"If the law is changed, soon we'd be allowing cousins to marry each other --
there'd be no control," he said. "Can you imagine having to carry around
your genealogical records to screen people before falling in love? This
isn't just custom, it's science."
The present law does not bar distant cousins from marrying if it is their
mothers, instead of their fathers, who are related. And in fact, the
government grants occasional amnesties to paternal kinsmen who have been
living in sin because of the name game. But critics of the law say it lends
official credence to a stifling social atmosphere.
"Our men will never understand," said Kim Yung Chung, a second state
minister for political affairs and the only woman in President Roh Tae Woo's
Cabinet. "We don't really have racism in Korea -- the only discrimination is
by sex. Men ridicule us when we bring up the subject of affirmative action
or revising the Family Law. They laugh it off."
Kim, a former history professor at Ewha University, a prestigious women's
college, said she still suffers from a double standard in her political
career. She can't always have a cigarette when the urge arises, for
"If I smoked in front of men," she said, "my reputation would be very bad."
While women in nearby Japan are experiencing a surge in political power,
sparked in part by the charismatic chairwoman of the Japan Socialist Party,
Takako Doi, participation of South Korean women in the electoral process
remains a sad state of affairs. Not a single candidate was successful among
the 14 women running for district seats in April's National Assembly
election. The six members of the chamber's female caucus were on
The Korean Women's Development Institute recently started a training program
aimed at preparing candidates for local assembly elections expected sometime
next year. But at last count, women account for only 1.1% of the country's
career civil servants, compared to 26.5% in the United States and 6.8% in
In employment, too, the downtrodden women of Japan appear liberated by South
Korean standards. Women make up about half the work force here, yet they
earn on the average about 40% what men take home. Women university graduates
complain they can't find work. Young and dispensable female laborers remain
the backbone of much of the nation's export-oriented light industry, such as
textiles and electronics, toiling until they reach marriage age.
Kendall, the anthropologist, observed that "an unprecedented number of young
women began to come to the cities in the late 1960s. Without this pool of
cheap, educated and initially docile female labor, the Korean economic
miracle could not have taken place."
An Equal Employment Opportunity Law enacted last April 1, on the eve of the
National Assembly election, corrected on paper many of the injustices in the
workplace, but Kim, the Cabinet minister, said the new law is so ideal that
it is unenforceable. Kang, the attorney, sits on a special committee
empowered under the law to take appeals in job equality disputes in the
Seoul area. No cases have come up so far.
"We're watching, but they say they solve all the cases in the workplace,"
Kang said. "We feel women don't come to us for fear they'll lose their jobs
if they fight against their employers."
A range of grave social problems persist for women. The conventionally timid
South Korean press, freed from censorship only last year, has published
disturbing accounts of young women being kidnaped by gangsters and forced
into prostitution rings, where they remain virtual slaves because social
shame thwarts their return to home and family.
The situation is so threatening that one married woman, a senior reporter at
a financial newspaper in Seoul, said she stopped taking walks alone at
"The kidnaping cases we hear about are only the tip of the iceberg," said
Lee Jong Mok, a male official at the International Human Rights League of
Korea. "A lot of girls don't come forward, because under the Confucian moral
code their lives are completely destroyed. The problem won't go away until a
lot of attitudes are changed."
Domestic violence is another menace. Lee Kye Jong, publisher of Women's
Weekly, a feminist newspaper that sponsors a battered women's hot line, said
her staff conducted a poll and found that two out of every three homemakers
claimed they had been beaten at least once by their husbands. The survey
suggested that more than 40% of the respondents suffered regular physical
"I can't walk down the street now and see a man without suspecting that he
beats his wife," she said.
Wife beating was one of the taboo topics taken up by Lee Kyung Ja, the
feminist writer, and she believes the dramatization of her fiction on the
government-owned Korean Broadcasting System had a "collective catharsis"
effect on many ordinary women.
"Television dramas portraying women have been so isolated and out of touch
with reality that viewers thought they were about other people's lives. But
women have been calling me asking how I learned about their families, their
own stories," Lee said. "The men, on the other hand, are feeling a little
uncomfortable. My husband was blushing when he watched."