Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Park Geun-hye: Female President, Patriarchal Society?

I had a short conversation today with someone who wanted to convince me to vote for Park Geun-hye

(If, that is, I had a vote.)

Now, I haven't studied too deeply into the politics and policies of the candidates for Korea's upcoming presidential election.  I expressed my skepticism about Ahn Cheol-su's candidacy a while back, and I usually list to the left politically, but I just have a few things to say about Park Geun-hye and her pop... because it's impossible to talk about Park Geun-hye without referencing her late father. And that works both for her (with one group of people) and also against her (with another group, at least a few of whom have to vote for her, unless Ahn Cheol-su continues splitting the vote on the left, gift-wrapping the presidency for her).

These are my scattershot thoughts -- I just don't have it in me these days to string together long and coherent arguments on teh blarg these days (hell, I can barely be arsed to write a post a month)... but here are a few things about Park Geun-hye's candidacy, and her pop's legacy.

1. Park Chung-hee's legacy will always be mixed. I visited his museum, not far from the World Cup Stadium, last spring, and it was pretty much a hagiography, glossing over things like his training and experience in the Japanese military, or the sketchier parts of his story. The emphasis was economy economy economy. What he set out to do? He did in spades, spectacularly... but at a hell of a cost.

2. What he did was really good for the time when he came along. A leader cast in his mold coming along now, when the world is a very, very different place, just doesn't fly. Remember LMB's grand canal plan? Korea doesn't need a grand canal anymore, because it ain't 1965 anymore. In the infrastructure area... we're good, thanks. Nor does Korea need another president who puts economic growth above everything --Korea's mostly in a good place right now, but some of the other components of democracy, like civil society and social welfare and equality, have a ways to go--, or plays nationalist cards in order to score points in favor of their economic projects, or who continues to stifle civil society and go on with the old tradition of appointing buddies in high government positions, or having two cabinet graft scandals per month, or hobbling civil society, free speech, and human rights organizations. International communication is too good, too instant, and too fast, to try and pull that kind of shit anymore.

3. I hate the way talking about Korea's history is so politicized -- that vast tracts of President PCH's story go ignored according to one's political stripe, and the same goes for many other characters events and entities in Korea's history. It's depressing, because it means people don't listen to each other. Then again, looking at the way different countries talk about the history of the region, it's no surprise there's such a sharp contrast between the stories domestically, along political lines as well.

4. The narrative my conversation partner gave me was this one: That Park Geun-hye didn't get married and start a family, because "Korea is her husband" or something like that. And with that kind of narrative, suddenly it becomes possible for an ultra-patriarchal country to have a female president, but still be ultra-patriarchal. Because clearly, the norm -- what a woman is SUPPOSED to do... is have a husband. To get married and make babies. As if the only way to be a successful female politician is to remove herself from the roles she's "supposed" to do... and just so, even as Korea moves toward possibly having its first female president, even the memes around that woman's becoming president, point a big finger back to the kitchen for women who don't want to become president-- women remain faced with the false choice of either starting a family or chasing success in some other (read: men's) realms.

Now I'm not saying every person in Korea's patriarchal or sexist, or that gender roles are as rigid as they used to be, or that no progress has been made...

but it makes me sad that the narratives surrounding the woman who might become Korea's first female president actually reinforce traditional gender norms, and that along with that, all the "well women in Korea have come far enough, thanks" (mostly) men will be able to pull out the Park Geun-hye trump card as "proof" that Korea is now an equal society, so we don't need to have wacky things like a whole government ministry just for women's equality anymore, and we clearly don't need to develop laws and social programs protecting working or unmarried or migrant mothers, because if we have a female president, clearly women have come far enough!

This might not be the case. This may not be how the narratives around PGH go. I'm almost 100% sure I'm missing something, because I've been busy, and my Korean ain't that hot. Probably, things will continue getting better, faster than the old men in power would like (out come the hospital gowns!) but slower than I'd like to see... but I just really really dislike the "Korea is my husband" meme, because of what follows from it. That is all.