Posted : 2009-06-05 15:11
Updated : 2009-06-05 15:11

Gender Equality in Korea

By Choi Yearn-hong

Many women have been elected to the Korean National Assembly. Most notably, Park Geun-hye has become one of the most important female political leaders in Korean politics.

There are many professional women from various walks of life in modern Korea. This is impressive given the historically male-dominant Confucian society. However, sexual equality is still questionable in one area.

Court rulings on women's equality in Korea in sharing family property and its monetary value are evidence of this. Women can now acquire membership and participate in ``jongchinhoe,'' or family meetings, which had previously been only open to men.

The courts have opened the door for women, but have not ruled in favor of women receiving an equal share. Such a ruling is grounded in the fact that males have dominated the jongchinhoe for so long. The court was seemingly unwilling to make a radical decision for sexual equality.

Does this make sense? I don't think so. Since the Constitution and existing civil laws guarantee sexual equality in sharing inheritance, such a ruling should be considered unconstitutional. Under the circumstances, women have been dissatisfied and angry about the old rule, but their legal fight is taking time and money.

One family I know had owned so-called ``green land'' north of the Han River since the last days of the Joseon Kingdom but the land was sold a couple of years ago to the city of Seoul, which needed the green space.

The land generated a sizable income for the family's jongchinhoe. However, the male members were against the equal distribution of the income with the female members.

They cited court rulings to justify their position. Needless to say, such rulings have not reflected the changing times ― a clear and imminent violation of the constitutional law guaranteeing sexual equality.

I don't know what the Constitutional Court is doing these days. Is the highest court silent on such lower court's rulings?

It seems to me that the higher court is not ensuring that lower court rulings reflect the spirit of the Constitution. Such sexually unequal rulings should have been declared unconstitutional long ago.

Where is the Ministry of Gender Equality? Where are the many interest groups seeking sexual equality?

The poor women members found enough funds to hire a lawyer to bring their case to court. They won the case and were able to join the jongchinhoe, but the latter refused to pay the legal fees incurred. And while there are many public interest-oriented lawyers' groups in Korea, when they are truly needed, none seem to answer the call.

The fight for sexual equality requires more than the efforts of one family's female members, it requires national campaigns.

Sexual equality can be achieved gradually in Korea, a nation that has been dominated by men for so long. We live in the 21st century and lower court rulings accepting differential treatment in the jongchinhoe should be declared unconstitutional or illegal.

I am indignant that women's inheritance rights have been adjudged to be only half that of men. Where are the grounds for such court rulings? Are the judges out of their mind? They may be very historical people. Such judges should be placed in an antique shop or impeached.

Allow me to present the case of a hypothetical family. There are 65 members of a family who are beneficiaries of the income from the selling of green land.

The male members are already more than equal: Children of male members are entitled to receive a share of the distributed money, but female members' children are not, because they are not considered members of the family.

So even if sexual equality is guaranteed in this case, it still results in a more-than-equal share being given to the male members. But they do not see this as a biased privilege.

Men believe the women should only receive half of the inheritance income that they do because a court made such a ruling in support of that arrangement. Are women only worth half as much as men?

Since the ruling a couple of years ago, society has made some progress towards equality. Men should be willing to propose that women receive more, perhaps 75 percent of the men's share, given that these women are their sisters, cousins and nieces.

As long as the Constitutional Court does not declare lower court rulings unconstitutional, female family members will still only be entitled to half of what male members receive. Such rulings deserve to be reviewed by the Constitutional Court. Women should receive at the very least 75 percent. It would reflect the progress that has been made in Korea towards sexual equality since the last court ruling.

That no such legal grounds exist to support this is no excuse. It is a mid-point between a half share and a full one. Do you remember that America's Founding Fathers decided that a black man was only worth two-thirds of a white man in 1787?

That was the way black people were treated by white people in 18th century American politics. Most probably, a black man was counted as ``two-thirds'' of a white man as a compromise between the northern and southern states.

Are Korean women not worth two-thirds of a Korean man in 2009? If not, it is sad, very sad. Are Korean women in 2009 deserve to be valued less than black slaves in 1787? Do they deserve to be worth three-quarters of man's value in 2009?

I expect more angry women's rights movements in Korea if the differential treatment of women by the courts continues.

The Ministry of Gender Equality should do something to correct such court rulings. Many women's rights NGOs protest such court rulings. Where are the public interest-oriented lawyers in Korea? Are they all sleeping, or are they all silent?

Outdated court rulings have offered many comforts to the male members of jongchinhoe. When I found out that the green land case originated with a princess, a daughter of King Sunjo, when she married a nobleman from the family in question, my indignation grew stronger.

As it was the princess who brought the land to the family, the men should be more humble and accept sexual equality and share the money from her land equally.

I have a son and a daughter. As a father, I would never discriminate between them and my son would never accept such discrimination.

Human rights are civil rights. Sexual equality is part of civil rights. Is Korea a civil society? I believe so. Then, why do we see sexual inequality in the distribution of property?

Dr. Choi is a retired political scientist after his long teaching career in the U.S. and Korea.
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