The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

S. Korean president appears uneasy when pressed on gender inequality

During his campaign, Yoon Suk-yeol had proposed eliminating the nation’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, but has backed off for now

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol gave a halting response when asked about gender issues by a Washington Post reporter. (Video: The Washington Post)
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SEOUL — South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who had said during his recent campaign that he wanted to shut down the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, gave a halting response when pressed Saturday about how he will improve opportunities for women in his country and cabinet.

Yoon was asked during a news conference by a Washington Post reporter about what role he and his administration should play in helping the advancement of women and improving gender equality.

Yoon stood motionless for several moments, took off his earpiece through which he received translation, and seemed to struggle to answer. He then replied, as officially translated:

If you look at the public official sector, especially the ministers in the cabinet, we really didn’t see a lot of women advancing to that position thus far. Probably in various regions, equal. Opportunities were not fully ensured for women, and we have actually a quite short history of ensuring that. So what we’re trying to do is to very actively ensure such opportunities for women.”

An interpreter then quickly announced that the news conference was over.

The exchange underscored the difficulty facing Yoon — and broad sectors of South Korean society — to make significant advances in gender equality. South Korea ranks among the lowest among developed countries regarding gender equality in pay, political advancement and economic participation.

During the campaign, Yoon had proposed eliminating the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. The comment was seen by some as courting young men, particularly those who are part of the “anti-feminists” movement who lashed out against movements for gender equality.

A majority of young women voted for the liberal candidate, who narrowly lost to the conservative Yoon. For now, Yoon has backed off the idea of eliminating the ministry but said he would reshape it with his own appointee.

When a Post reporter asked Yoon after his election victory in an April interview about promoting gender equality, he acknowledged that South Korea “had been rather slow in promoting equal opportunities for women,” and he said the Minister of Gender Equality had mishandled sexual harassment cases.

Yoon’s cabinet is overwhelmingly male, at both the minister and vice minister levels.

“I have a clear principle that we must conform to global standards for social and government activities, and gender issues, and guaranteeing women’s opportunities must also go in line with global standards,” Yoon said during the April interview. “Compared with the United States or European countries, South Korea has been rather slow in promoting equal opportunities for women, because of a lag in awareness, social movements and government actions."

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