Korea: The Elections and Sexual Violence

Against the Current, No. 87, July/August 2000

Terry Murphy

IN THE APRIL 13 South Korean parliamentary elections, the closest the Democratic Labor Party came to victory was in the Hyundai company town of Ulsan.

Their candidate was defeated by a small margin (43% to 41.8%) by the Grand National Party, the traditional party of the military dictatorship, anticommunism, and Kyongsang chauvinism (Ulsan is in South Kyongsang Province). The combination of money, regionalism and boss politics still exerts influence in the working class.

The low voter turnout should also be noted: Koreans have a traditional distrust for politicians, and recent revelations about those currently in power have seemed to inspire as much voter apathy as a determination to unseat the corrupt.

The DLP also ran strongly in several other Kyongsang constituencies. Nonetheless, the fact that this was not a presidential election makes the failure of the Democratic Labor Party to win even a single seat a serious disappointment.

On the positive side, as one writer on the elections makes clear: “The biggest winner of all was the coalition of civic organizations that forced changes in archaic election laws and then went on to recommend that voters reject candidates they deemed unqualified for office. Of these eighty-six blacklisted candidates, fifty-nine, or 70%, were defeated.

“Women candidates won five local constituency seats compared to two in the 1996 election and none in 1992. Women also won ten seats (on the basis of proportional voting), making for a total of fifteen, or 5.86% of the total, almost double the 3.01% in the last National Assembly.”

Jang Won, a prominent environmental activist and spokesman for the Citizens’ Solidarity for the 2000 General Elections — the civic group that waged the “blacklist” campaign — was arrested in May on charges of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old college student. This is the first time a member of the so-called 386 generation (in their 30s, students in the `80s, born in the `60s) has fallen from grace. The case also points up some of the limitations of civil organizations: their undemocratic and hierarchical structures and their weakly developed feminist consciousness.

Around the same time Jang was arrested Lee Sun — who had been head of the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade (a state think tank) — resigned his position after allegations surfaced that he had sexually harassed several Institute employees.

Choi Young-ae, director of the Korea Sexual Violence Consultation Center pointed out that “Sexual violence by leading social figures, who abuse their power to harass women employees, is rumored to be a widespread and growing problem.” The Center hopes to gather details of such high-profile cases and has encouraged women who have kept their harassment secret to come forward.

ATC 87, July-August 2000