Women in South Korea

Women in South Korea

A woman in Seoul, South Korea, 2007.
Gender Inequality Index
Value 0.153 (2012)
Rank 27th
Maternal mortality (per 100,000) 16 (2010)
Women in parliament 17% (2016)[1]
Females over 25 with secondary education 79.4% (2010)
Women in labour force 57.9% employment rate (2015) [2]
Global Gender Gap Index[3]
Value 0.6351 (2013)
Rank 111th out of 144

Women in South Korea have experienced great social change in recent years following the miracle on the Han River. The elevation in social status of women has significantly improved over the last 30 years due to the modernization of society today compared with olden Korea that was deeply rooted in the teachings of Confucius. Today, the social status of women has become practically equal to men’s in social sectors such legal rights, education, and health. There are however still major inequalities in workforce and political participation.

There are still stereotypes surrounding Korean women. Example of such stereotypes consists of the following, having the ability to cook, being obedient to their husband and that giving birth is a duty to be fulfilled.


In traditional Korean society, women's roles have historically been confined to the home. From a young age, women were taught the virtues of subordination and endurance to prepare for their future roles as wife and mother. Women, in general, could not participate in society as men did but, were, instead, expected to support their husband.[4]

During the era under the colonial administration of imperial Japan, Korea women (almost Up to 200,000) were sent to work as comfort women in Japan's military brothels. Until the end of World War II, Korea was under Japanese occupation.[5]

After becoming independent from Japan, the Republic of Korea was established as a liberal democracy. Women who pursued education, work, and public life could now achieve constitutional rights for equal opportunities. For example, several schools were founded for the education of women. Women educated from these schools began to engage in the arts, teaching, economic activities, and engaging other women in discussion of gender equality.[6] The percentage of women has steadily increased in professional fields which has resulted in significant contributions to society, especially in terms of increasing GDP. As they took a larger role in economic activities, the educational level of women also increased, providing additional opportunities for professionalization. Today, Korean women receive high levels of education and actively participate in a wide variety of fields, including education, medicine, engineering, scholarship, the arts, law, literature, and sports.[7] Women's participation in social and economic culture is expected to continue to grow and diversify after the election of South Korea's first female president, Park Geun-Hye. This is partially due to Park Geun-Hye's promise to promote a “women’s revolution” and provide support for child care, increased opportunities for promotion, and salary equality. Furthermore, Park Geun-Hye also promised to make other advances for women, including: increase the representation of women, to facilitate women’s employment and provide support for female workers, to increase educational opportunities for women to be competitive in the labor market, to provide social welfare policies for women, to promote women’s involvement in various social activities. However, not all of these policies have manifested.[8]


In traditional Korean society, women received little formal education. Christian missionaries began establishing schools for girls during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ewha Womans University began as a primary school established by Methodist missionaries in 1886 and achieved university status after 1945. Chongsin Girls' School and Paehwa Girls' School were founded in 1890 and 1898, respectively, in Seoul. Soongui Girls' School was established in 1903 in Pyongyang. Emperor Gojong and Empress Sunheon Realized the imperative need for a learning institution for women created by the Korean people themselves. In 1906, the Royal family founded the first royal girls' school named myungshin girls' school, changed name to Sookmyung Girls' College in 1938, later became Sookmyung Women's University as now. By 1987 there were ten institutions of higher education for women including universities, colleges, and junior colleges; women accounted for approximately 28 percent of total enrollment in higher education. There were approximately 262,500 women students in colleges and universities in 1987. However, only about 16 percent of college and university teachers were women in 1987.

The growing number of women receiving a college education has meant that their sex role differs from that of their mothers and grandmothers. Many college-educated women plan independent careers and challenge the right of parents to choose a marriage partner. The often fierce battles between university students and police during the late 1980s included female participants. A correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review quoted a male student leader as saying that "short girls make great demonstrators, as they're very tough and very hard to catch." Whether politically active South Korean university women will follow their Japanese counterparts, who demonstrated during the 1960s and 1970s, into a world of child-raising and placid consumerism remains to be seen. The number of employed married women, however, increased by approximately 12.6 percent annually in the years since 1977.

In 1983 more women—51.8%—were employed in rural areas than in urban areas—37.9 percent. Most of the women working in rural areas were over the age of thirty, as young females (and males) tended to move to, and seek employment in, cities and industrial areas.

Official South Korean statistics indicated that 43.6% of women were in the work force by 1988. Prospects for lower class women, however, were frequently grim. In some cases, they were obliged to become part of the "entertainment industry" in order to survive economically. According to one estimate, brothels, bars, massage parlors, discos, and what are known as "Taiwan style" barbershops (that is, those often employing a greater number of masseuses than barbers) employed as many as 1 million women, though not all were prostitutes. This underworld of abuse and exploitation had begun to be criticized and exposed by women's activists.

Family life

During the Goryeo and early Joseon Dynasty, it was customary for married couples to live in the wife's parents' household. This arrangement suggests that the status of women was higher than it was during the later period of the Joseon Dynasty. Neo-Confucian orthodoxy dictated that the woman, separated from her parents, had a primary duty of providing a male heir for her husband's family. According to this custom, once married, a woman had to leave her parents' household and then become a part of her husband's household. The relationship between wife and husband was often, if not usually, distant, aptly described by the Korean proverb: "By day, like seeing a stranger; by night, like seeing a lover." Joseon Dynasty law prohibited widows from remarrying, though a similar prohibition was not extended to widowers. Further, the sons and grandsons of widows who defied the ban, like children of secondary wives, were not allowed to take the civil service examinations and become scholar-officials.

The duty of a woman to her husband, or rather to her husband's family, was absolute and unquestionable. In the traditional society, only men could obtain a divorce. A husband could divorce his spouse if she were barren—barrenness being defined simply as the inability to bear sons. Even if a husband did not divorce his wife, he had the right to take a second wife, although the preferred solution for a man without a son during the Joseon Dynasty was to adopt a son of one of his brothers, if available. The incompatibility of a wife and her in-laws was another ground for divorce.

In contemporary society, both men and women have the right to obtain a divorce. Social and economic discrimination, however, make the lot of divorced women more difficult. The husband may still demand custody of the children, although a revision of the Family Law in 1977 made it more difficult for him to coerce or to deceive his wife into agreeing to an unfair settlement. The rate of divorce in South Korea is increasing rapidly. In 1975 the number of divorces was 17,000. In the mid-1980s, the annual number of divorces was between 23,000 and 26,000, and in 1987 there were 45,000 divorces.

The tradition of total female submission persisted in Korean villages until relatively recent times. One Korean scholar who came from the conservative Chungcheong region recalled that when a high school friend died of sickness during the 1940s, his young bride committed suicide. Her act was commemorated in her own and the surrounding communities as an outstanding example of devotion to duty.

Traditionally, men and women were strictly segregated, both inside and outside the house. Yangban women spent most of their lives in seclusion in the women's chamber. It is said that the traditional pastime of nolttwigi, a game of jumping up and down on a seesaw-like contraption, originated among bored women who wanted to peek over the high walls of their family compounds to see what the outside world was like. Economic necessity gave women of the lower classes some freedom as they participated in farm work and sometimes earned supplemental income through making and selling things.

As of February 2015, adultery is no longer illegal in South Korea.[9]

Professional life

According to The Economist's 2013 "Glass-ceiling index" of five indicators of friendliness towards working women, South Korea ranks the lowest of all OECD countries because of its lack of women in senior jobs.[10] Historically, however, a small minority of women played an active role in society and even wielded political influence. These people included female shamans (mudang), who were called upon to cure illnesses, tell fortunes, or in other ways enlist the help of spirits in realizing the wishes of their clients. Despite its sponsorship of neo-Confucianism, the Choson Dynasty had an office of shamanism, and female shamans often were quite influential in the royal palace. The female physicians who treated female patients (because male physicians were forbidden to examine them) constituted another important group of women. Sometimes they acted as spies or policewomen because they could get into the female quarters of a house. Still another group of women were the kisaeng. Some kisaeng, or entertainers, were merely prostitutes; but others, were talented musicians, dancers, painters, and poets who interacted with their male patrons. The kisaeng tradition perpetuated one of the more dubious legacies of the Joseon past: an extreme double standard concerning the sexual behavior of married men and women that still persists. In the cities, however, many middle class women have begun to break with these traditions.

An interesting regional variation on traditional female roles continued in the late 1980s. In the coastal villages of Cheju Island, women divers swam in search of seaweed, oysters, and other marine products and were economically self-sufficient. Often they provided the main economic support for the family while the husband did subsidiary work — took care of the children and did household chores — in sharp contrast to the Confucian norm. The number of women divers was dwindling, however, and men were increasingly performing jobs in service industries. Ancestor worship was rarely practiced while female-centered shamanistic rites were widespread.

The factories of South Korea employ hundreds of thousands of young women on shop floors and assembly lines making, among other things, textiles and clothes, shoes, and electronic components. South Korea's economic success was bought in large measure with the sweat of these generally overworked and poorly paid female laborers. In the offices of banks and other service enterprises, young women working as clerks and secretaries are indispensable. Unlike their sisters on Cheju Island, however, the majority of these women work only until marriage.

There has been a tangible increase in the number of women joining the workforce. In 2014, the number of Korean women in the workforce was estimated to be 57%, whereas in 1995 the number 47.6%.[11] The statistical increase in the quantity of employed women has not correlated with the equality of wage, as the gender wage gap reported in 2013 was 36.3%, the worst of all OECD nations present in the data.[12]

Although increasing numbers of women work outside the home, the dominant conception, particularly for the college-educated middle class, is that the husband is the "outside person," the one whose employment provides the main source of economic support; the wife is the "inside person," whose chief responsibility is maintenance of the household. While it is viewed as a societal norm that women be able to contribute to the finance of the household, the majority of the onus is placed upon men,[13] Women tend to leave the labor force when they get married. Many women manage the family finances, and a large number join kye, informal private short-term credit associations that give them access to funds that might not be obtainable from a conventional bank. Probably the most important responsibility of married women is the management of their children's education.

Women also claim much of the responsibilities of being a caretaker, as half of the women that voluntarily leave their mid-career or senior level jobs do so due to family commitments[14] The college educated women in Korea tend to invest more time and capital to raising their children than individuals without a degree.[15] but due to the declining population in Korea There has been a conscious effort to address these issues by the South Korean government, as "the government gives loans or subsidies to businesses to build child care facilities, and more than half of all businesses now provide these. It also pays subsidies to businesses that offer more than 30 days of child care leave a year, allow women to work less than full time, and re-employ women returning from maternity leave."[14]

Despite these efforts, the number of women who regularly use these support systems compose a minority of the women who find themselves in this position. A major factor that influences these decisions is the declining birth rate in Korea, as Korea's birthrate of 1.19 per family[16] put a greater emphasis upon the quality of education and care upon the one, or two children that the family will take care of.[17]

The Glass Ceiling for women have been tested in contemporary times. In 2012, Samsung promoted three women into executive roles which was unusual for a company of its size.[18] Samsung has also stated that it aims to have at least 10% of its executive positions to be held by women.

in other political careers however they have a female pesident Park Geun hye

In 2013 Kwon Seon-joo became South Korea's first female bank CEO, as the CEO of state-owned Industrial Bank of Korea.[19]


Prostitution in South Korea is illegal, but according to one estimate, brothels, bars, massage parlors, discos, and what are known as "Taiwan style" barbershops (that is, those often employing a greater number of masseuses than barbers) employed as many as 1 million women, though not all were prostitutes. This underworld of abuse and exploitation has begun to be criticized and exposed by women's activists.

In 2003, after recovering from a financial meltdown, the unemployment rate for women were 12% in the 15-29 age group. In 2006, women in the age group of 20-29 constituted 40% of the total unemployed population, the figure being roughly around 340,000.[20] The high levels of unemployment for women has attributed to the growth of the Korean sex trade. There are an estimated 500,000-1,000,000 women who partake in the sex trade, that being approximately one in every twenty five women.[21] The prominence of the sex trade have given birth to the "Bacchus Ladies", grandmothers who trade sex and other favours on top of the energy drink Bacchus, of which their name was coined after.[22]

South Korean law first acknowledged women as rapists in June 2013; in 2015, the first woman was charged with rape in South Korea.[23] The woman, only identified with her surname Jeon, was also the first woman to be arrested for sexually abusing a man.[23]

See also


  1. http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm
  2. OECD. "LFS by sex and age - indicators".
  3. "The Global Gender Gap Report 2013" (PDF). World Economic Forum. pp. 12–13.
  4. "Traditional Role of Women". Korea 4 Expats. K4E Consulting. 23 March 2015. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
  5. Li, Zoe (17 June 2014). "UNESCO lists Nanjing Massacre and 'comfort women,' China says". CNN U.S. Edition. Cable News Network, Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. Retrieved 24 April 2015.
  6. Chun, Ye Eun (23 December 2013). "Why Korean Women Opt Out". World Policy Journal Blog. World Policy Institute. Retrieved 24 April 2015.
  7. Resos, Archie (10 March 2014). "The Empowerment of Women in South Korea". Journal of International Affairs. Columbia University SIPA. Retrieved 24 April 2015.
  8. "A Pram Too Far: Women in South Korea". The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Limited. 26 October 2013. Retrieved 24 April 2015.
  9. Greg Botelho and K.J. Kwon, Court rules: Adultery no longer a crime in South Korea February 26, 2015 CNN.com
  10. "The glass-ceiling index". The Economist. 2013-03-07.
  11. Diplomat, Michelle Kwon, The. "South Korea's Woeful Workplace Inequality".
  12. "Gender wage gap - OECD".
  13. KS, Eun (31 December 1969). "Lowest-low fertility in the Republic of Korea: Causes consequences and policy responses.". 22 (2).
  14. 1 2 http://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey%20Offices/Japan/PDF/Women_Matter_An_Asian_perspective.ashx
  15. "Over-heated education and lower labor market participation of Korean females in other OECD countries". Women's Studies International Forum. 48: 1–8. doi:10.1016/j.wsif.2014.10.016.
  16. "Low Birthrate Threatens South Korea's Survival".
  17. Becker, Gary S.; Tomes, Nigel (1 January 1976). "Child Endowments and the Quantity and Quality of Children". Journal of Political Economy. 84 (4): S143–S162. doi:10.2307/1831106. JSTOR 1831106.
  18. http://www.newsweek.com/samsungs-female-executives-shatter-south-koreas-glass-ceiling-65613
  19. KSTDec 30, 2013 (2013-12-30). "South Korea Banks Get First Female CEO - Korea Real Time - WSJ". Blogs.wsj.com. Retrieved 2015-04-05.
  20. Cheng, Sealing; Kim, Eunjung (1 September 2014). "The Paradoxes of Neoliberalism: Migrant Korean Sex Workers in the United States and "Sex Trafficking"". Soc Pol. 21 (3): 355–381. doi:10.1093/sp/jxu019 via sp.oxfordjournals.org.
  21. "South Korea: A Thriving Sex Industry In A Powerful, Wealthy Super-State". 29 April 2013.
  22. "The Korean grandmothers who sell sex - BBC News".
  23. 1 2 "Woman charged with rape for first time in South Korea, AsiaOne Asia News". News.asiaone.com. Retrieved 2015-04-05.

 This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/. (Data from 1990.)

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