Women in military becomes gender battleground in South Korea

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) – A heated debate in South Korea about mandatory military service for women is inflaming divisions between the sexes rather than narrowing social gaps, the country’s gender equality minister said.

Chung Young-ai, who leads the Gender Equality and Family Ministry, was responding to a question in a Bloomberg interview about whether young women should be made to join their male counterparts in serving in the armed forces.

The issue has been the subject of wide discussion since April, when ruling party lawmaker and 2022 presidential hopeful Park Yong-jin reacted to local election defeats by suggesting mandatory military service for women would promote gender equality.

Chung said Monday (May 17) the direction of the argument was “problematic.”

“The debate on women serving in the military didn’t come from trying to achieve gender equality, but from voices who are asking women to experience the same disadvantages that men did,” she said.

Park’s proposal touched on a divisive issue that in some way affects almost every family in South Korea, which is technically still at war with North Korea and shares one of the world’s most militarised borders. An online petition to the office of President Moon Jae-in demanding female conscription received almost 300,000 signatures as of Tuesday, surpassing a threshold that requires a response.

Moon’s progressive government has seen support among women erode ahead of a presidential election just 10 months away and is trying to win back the crucial voting block to keep the top office when Moon’s single, five-year terms ends. The trend contributed to the Democratic Party’s defeat last month in mayoral races in Seoul and Busan, South Korea’s two largest cities.

Conscription has fostered employment perks that can benefit men when they complete their military service – and put women at a disadvantage as they start their careers.

The wage gap between the sexes ranks among the largest in the developed world and clouds the country’s long-term economic prospects.

“The way we see it, our youth goes through struggles by serving in the military and we need to improve the environment for serving,” the academic-turned-minister said.

“This includes giving due credit to those that have finished their service. But this shouldn’t justify discriminating against those who did not serve in the military, such as women or people with disabilities.”

South Koreans must focus on solving chronic problems such as income disparity, a low birth rate and systemic gender-based discrimination that rank among the worst in the developed world and put strains on growth, Chung said. The pandemic has made things even more difficult for women, with central bank data showing they have suffered far greater job losses than men.

The government has struggled to meet some of its own goals. Moon, who pledged to be a “president for gender equality,” promised half his Cabinet members would be women.

He never reached that mark and now only has four female ministers in a Cabinet of 19. South Korea ranks near the bottom of the world with only 19 per cent of its seats in Parliament being occupied by women, according to Inter-Parliamentary Union data.

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