The women's movement in Korea began with the national liberation struggle against the Japanese colonial regime. After the division of Korea in 1945 and the Korean War, the women's movement in South Korea was dominated by conservative/elitist women's organizations. The women's movement stagnated and adapted itself to the status quo in South Korea. At that time, the "loyalty and service of women to the nation" took priority. During the period of industrialization in the 70s, the movement received new impulses from women workers who began organizing themselves and fighting for their rights.
The women's movement at that time began to struggle for a democratic society which would meet the needs of the majority of women workers, both in factories and on farms, and of the urban poor. In the last few years, the women's movement has become one of the most significant forces of the South Korea's national- democratic movement. What's more, it has regained its heritage from the women's movement from the days of the national liberation struggle. Presently, the women's movement is fighting against various forms of exploitation in South Korea: the military dictatorship, foreign interventionism, and patriarchal family structures.
Ever since the splitting up of Korea, South Korea has developed and "export-oriented" economic system which is totally dependent on foreign capital and technology. This export-oriented industrialization is, without exception, the official economic policy of South Korea, and it puts the exploitation of women workers and farmers above all else.
This exploitation especially effects women workers, since they make up a majority of the workforce in the export-industries such as textiles, shoes, and electronics. A study by the KWAU (United Women's Association of South Korea) placed the monthly salary for a woman worker at $243 in 1987, that is 50.9% lower than their male counterparts. In order to make a subsistence-level income, women have to work 60 hours per week. They also labour in poor working conditions, since maximum profits require that costs be kept at a minimum.
In 1990, however, the women workers were able to get the "Labour Equality Act" passed. Ever since the 70s, the struggle of women workers has been an integral part of both the women's and workers' movements. Women have engaged in various forms of courageous struggle, including hunger-strikes, sit-ins, and demonstrations. This struggle continues today, especially against U.S. multi-nationals such as Tandy and Pico Korea.
Women agricultural workers have no better working conditions than do their urban counter-parts. South Korea's agricultural policy has kept crop prices low and has forcibly opened up land to corporations, causing many farmers to go bankrupt. The men and sons ho off to the cities in search of work, but the women have to remain behind to tend to the fields.
Due to the collapse of the agricultural sector and the increased pressure form import-liberalization, women agricultural workers began organizing themselves in the mid-80s. Along with other agricultural organizations, the women began calling for a new agricultural policy and for self-determination against the U.S. government.
The already low position of women in South Korea's male-dominated society has been made even worse by the U.S. military presence.
There are approximately 43,000 U.S. troops in 40 bases in South Korea. Since the beginning of the U.S. military regime in 1945, cities housing U.S. military bases have become full of bars, bordellos, and prostitutes. There are approximately 18,000 "registered" prostitutes for the GIs. the women in the vicinity of the U.S. military bases are subjected to sexual exploitation, racist degradation, and social estrangement. The South Korean regime has consistently stood by the American claim that prostitution at the U.S. military bases is a "necessary evil".
In Korean society, the women's movement has offered a social criticism of this situation and stands in strong support of the women affected.
Although South Korea has achieved great economic strength, the resulting wealth has not been distributed justly throughout the society. There are no adequate structures in place to provide housing, health care, education, child care, etc. In 1990, 30% of South Korea's Gross National Product was used for the military, to protect the country from "the threat of North Korean aggression". In contrast, only 10% was spent on social programs. For every 1% reduction in military spending, 5 times as many infant centres could be built.
Women's organizations have taken up the issues of peace and demilitarization, Women, in fact, are most affected by the militarization in the society. So the women's movement has struggled against the construction of new atomic energy plants, against U.S. military spending. Women play an active role in the National Coalition of Anti-Nuclear Peace Groups which was formed in March 1991.
In Korean society, Confucianism instructed women to be subservient and obedient. Patriarchal authority has made women second-class citizens in the society. This domesticity-cult is pushed by conservatives and based on an "anti-communist" analysis. Women in South Korea have been struggling for a revision of the family statutes, which discriminate against women, for over 30 years. But the government has refused to revise them, since this would interfere with national security. Because of this, the women's movement has not yet had much success in reforming the family statutes.
Since 1983, dozens of women's base-groups have formed across the country. The most significant of these are: the Women Workers' Organization of South Korea, the Council of Families for Democracy, the National Committee of Women Agricultural Workers, and various other women's groups in all other sectors of the national-democratic movement. In 1987, the United Women's Association of South Korea (KWAU) was formed with 25 member-organizations. With a socially-critical vision and with organizational strength, the women of South Korea are fighting for women's emancipation and for the furthering of democracy, peace, and a reunited Korea.
For more information, contact: Young Korean Movement of Europe, Friesengasse 13, 6000 Frankfurt 90, Germany