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Hotspot – South Korea

Namdaemun City Gate, Seoul, South Korea Namdaemun City Gate, Seoul, South Korea Shutterstock
01 Jul
As the visit of South Korean president Park Geun-Hye to the USA is overshadowed by controversy, Klaus Dodds tries to understand the underlying social issues and imbalances still affecting South Korea

Regular readers of this column will know that I typically focus on spaces that are in the grip of urges to control, possess, administer and exploit. But geopolitical hotspots can embody broader social issues. Women and children often end up bearing the brunt of civil wars and violence. How this violence is justified, legitimised and, indeed, normalised also reflects and manifests underlying power structures and ideologies. So, gender can play a powerful role in geopolitics, whether on the home front, the battlefront or in
the diplomatic arena.

So what can we learn from an episode during the first official visit of South Korea’s president, Park Geun-Hye, to the USA, when a young Korean–American intern who was assisting the presidential visit accused one of President Park’s spokesmen, Yoon Chang Jung, of touching her inappropriately?

Yoon maintains that there was no harassment or sexual assault, blaming ‘cultural differences’ and a failure to understand ‘American culture’. But a few days after the story broke, President Park fired him and issued a public apology.

However, the apology did little to stem the flood of criticism in South Korea. Critics, including members of the Democratic Party in Seoul, have called for a more thorough investigation, not only of the disgraced spokesman, but also of other government officials who were involved in the incident and its immediate aftermath.

Needless to say, North Korean state media were swift to join in the chorus of condemnation. And within the US Korean community, there has also been anger at alleged attempts by the Korean Cultural Center to downplay the allegations.

President Park took office in February last year. The daughter of Park Chung-Lee, who was president between 1963 and 1979, she’s a controversial figure in South Korean politics, and this scandal has provided further ammunition for those who’ve criticised her judgment when it comes to her senior appointments.

However, the scandal sheds light on a broader issue in South Korean society – as does an earlier incident involving serving and former diplomats in the Korean consulate in Shanghai. In March, the officials were accused of issuing visas without carrying out proper checks and verifications in exchange for sexual favours from Chinese women. Initially, there were concerns about possible Chinese espionage, but the South Korean authorities concluded that the men involved were simply abusing their positions of power.

Critics contend that the two scandals reveal a culture in which powerful men believe that they can behave in any way they like towards women with impunity, pointing in particular to the fact that the disgraced presidential spokesman was encouraged to get on a plane and leave the USA as quickly as possible.

More generally, there are complaints about the strikingly large pay gap between men and women – women’s pay is on average 39 per cent lower than men’s – the biggest among members of the OECD.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index places South Korea 108th out of 135 countries – below other East Asian societies such as China and Japan – on the basis of criteria such as pay gaps, equal opportunities and promotion of women’s rights. A survey of public workers carried out by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and released last December found that more than ten per cent of female workers reported being sexually harassed. The report acknowledged that this figure was almost certainly an underestimate.

President Park has announced that a full investigation will be launched into the incident in Washington DC. It will attempt to determine why the president wasn’t told immediately about the incident and why a senior official decided to send the spokesman home. The president has also promised to co-operate closely with US authorities.

But the next time a news story breaks about the Korean Peninsula, it may be worth taking into account the gender imbalance in this geopolitical hotspot. Both Koreas are patriarchal societies, albeit with very different levels of opportunity and freedom, and the election of a female president in the south, however historic, is certainly no guarantee that entrenched gendered assumptions and practices will change overnight.

On the face of it, this was a story about an allegation of sexual assault in a hotel room in Washington DC (although we know that there have been other such stories involving hotel rooms in New York). But this story derailed an important presidential visit and at the same time revealed entrenched attitudes about how powerful men treat women in private and public spaces.

Klaus Dodds is a Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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