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Politics

South Korea's new feminist party aims to shake up patriarchal nation

The Women's Party is targeting seats in April 15 general election

Women attend a protest as a part of the #MeToo movement on International Women's Day in Seoul two years ago. The new Women's Party hopes to narrow South Korea's gender wage gap and bring feminist issues to forefront of national policymaking.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korea's first-ever feminist party was launched on Sunday's International Women's Day, with its founders planning to pick up seats in the general election on April 15 and bring women's rights to the forefront of national policymaking.

The Women's Party is targeting a minimum of four seats out of 300 up for grabs in the National Assembly. The group hopes to seize on a new mixed-member proportional representation system that aims to give a greater voice to minor parties.

Two parties currently dominate South Korean politics -- President Moon Jae-in's liberal Democratic Party and the conservative United Future Party.

The Women's Party says it will push to close South Korea's gender wage gap -- the highest among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations at 34%, as of 2018. It will also seek to combat a number of issues, including "spycam porn," where women are secretly filmed in public restrooms and elsewhere without consent.

The founders of the new group say the country's major parties have failed to support women, saying the Moon administration "went completely silent" after pledging feminist policies.

"There is no way out unless we have women's collective voices," Lee Jin-ok, one of the three founders of the Women's Party, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "The 21st general election is so important in terms of the feminist perspective."

"Women have been saying on the street that there is no sovereignty for women," said Lee, who also leads Korea Women's Political Solidarity (KWPS), a group that advocates for women's political representation. "The Women's Party is going to be the only option to respond and to be accountable to the feminist movement."

That swelling feminist movement includes such campaigns as Escape the Corset, whereby young women are bucking gender norms by cutting their hair short and throwing away makeup; and No Marriage, whereby they're rejecting society's patriarchal standards that expect them to get married and have children.

Socially conservative South Korea is one of the most gender-unequal industrialized countries in the world, ranking 108 out of 153 on the World Economic Forum's 2020 Global Gender Gap Index. In addition, women made up just 17% of the National Assembly in South Korea, as of 2016 -- well behind the global average of about 25%.

Tired of being marginalized by South Korea's male-dominated society, some women say they are hopeful the new party can bring change.

"A women's party like this is very necessary in our society. In reality, as a woman in Korea, there are not many channels to voice opinions," Jeon Bora, a 26-year-old photographer who documents the Escape the Corset movement, told Nikkei. "It's important to have people involved in politics to represent our voices."

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks at the Blue House in January. The founders of the Women's Party say the Moon administration "went completely silent" after pledging feminist policies.   © Reuters

The Women's Party's Lee said women's policies are not only for women, but should be integrated into every type of policy, from labor to national security. "If we are looking at the political structure and social issues, everything is about women," Lee said. "That is the idea of gender mainstreaming."

It's a message the Women's Party believes will resonate in next month's election, when it needs at least 3% of the popular vote to put candidates in parliament.

The Women's Party isn't the only minor party hoping to gain from South Korea's revised parliamentary system, under which 47 of the National Assembly's 300 seats will be distributed by proportional representation.

A slew of new parties, including a North Korean defector party and an environmental party, have cropped up in recent weeks, with 39 groups already registered and another 22 planning to register with the election commission as of last month, according to Yonhap. This is up from 26 registered parties for the previous general election in 2016.

Some political analysts, however, are skeptical of the new system's potential for impact, saying it is unlikely the framework will shake up the make up of parliament.

"Voters may sympathize with minor parties' campaign pledges. But it is a different matter as to whether voters will actually cast ballots for them," political analyst Ko Jin-dong told Yonhap.

Comments from voters, including some young women, underscore Ko's point. "To be honest, I haven't even heard of the Women's Party," a 34-year-old woman, who asked not to be named, told Nikkei.

But the Women's Party is confident that it can win 2 million votes on election day. Since beginning recruitment efforts three weeks ago, the group says it has garnered nearly 10,000 members.

"We are getting into the National Assembly," Lee said. "That is our goal and we are going to make it."

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