A first for S. Korea: female PM

Wednesday's vote is marred by calls that President Kim's choice was a political ploy.

South Korea votes Wednesday on whether to accept Dr. Chang Sang as its first female prime minister – after two grueling and often hostile days of questioning her patriotism, honesty, and ethics.

Dr. Chang's appointment on July 11 by President Kim Dae Jung brought a roar of approval at many leading women's colleges – institutions here that have long battled for female equality within Korea's stubbornly male-oriented society.

Yet whether Chang can be a symbol of female advancement in a nation with the world's 12th largest economy – but that scores among the lowest on women's rights – is debated here.

Koreans see her selection as a ploy by an unpopular lame duck president to change the focus on his scandal ridden administration, prior to national elections this December.

Yet despite a nagging set of improprieties that Chang apologized for this week, analyst say she's likely to be confirmed for the five-month post, noting a silent desire on the part of many women voters to see her succeed.

"Women haven't dreamed of a position like this before," says Eun Ha Chung, assistant to the president of Yonsei University in Seoul. "When I heard it, I felt it was the only thing President Kim has done right lately. I called a male friend in the prime minister's office and said, 'I think it is good a woman will be your boss.'"

Women's status here is improving, experts say. But Korea, perhaps more than any East Asian country, is rigidly patriarchal. The country still has no structure for child care or family leave, and women often complain bitterly that their pay is lower, that executive positions are closed to them, and that decisionmaking still takes place amid heavy drinking in men's clubs and saunas that they won't – or can't – enter.

Chang heads the prestigious Ewha Womans University, a Methodist school, and is regarded by much of the faculty as a pioneer. She is the first married president of the college, and also the first ordained (Presbyterian) minister to run the school. She is a New Testament scholar who wrote her dissertation on the Apostle Paul, and is an expert on women in the early Christian church.

Ironically, soon after she was appointed, Chang herself was caught in a mini scandal.

Politics in Korea is a take-no-prisoners game, and in recent weeks the press has highlighted several charges: Chang's son holds dual US-Korean citizenship, and reportedly kept it because his US citizenship exempts him from military service. Chang's curriculum vitae listed her as a graduate of Princeton University, rather than Princeton Theological Academy – a translation mistake by aides, she says. And Chang was an investor in a real-estate speculation deal that, while not illegal, is considered improper.

Supporters say the charges against Chang are trivial mud-slinging designed to nullify a shrewd political move by Kim in nominating her.

"She revolutionized the thinking at Ewha, and she is a role model for the students," says one Ewha faculty member who declined to be identified. "She is a serious person. Unlike some of the faculty, she actually attends chapel four or five times a week."

Even some of Kim's leading conservative critics, like Cho Gap Jae, editor of Chosun Ilbo magazine, feel that "going after Chang Sang may backfire in the long run."

In Korea, the prime minister's role is largely ceremonial, though Chang would succeed President Kim in an emergency. The prime minister is also responsible for overseeing two sets of elections, including the national vote in December.

President Kim, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his rapprochement with North Korea – known as the "Sunshine Policy" – began a nose-dive in the polls this spring – amid different scandals involving all three of his sons, as well as close aides. Many Koreans who crossed party lines to vote for Kim four years ago felt betrayed and angry. The sentiment added to discomfort in South Korea with Kim's engagement policy toward the North that has shown little progress. With less than a year left in office, the South's Kim resigned in May as leader of the Millennium Democratic Party.

So the sudden choice of a woman to take over as Prime Minister struck many Koreans as some kind of diversion, or as lacking real meaning.

"Sometimes a symbolic appointment can help," says Jung-Hoon Lee, a professor at Yonsei University. "But this is very late in Kim's presidency to make this gesture toward women."

"If she had a modicum of dignity, she would not accept a job with a politician who has betrayed his followers," says one long-time Seoul journalist. "She just didn't have the courage to say no."

Yet one newspaper executive editorialized that, to the contrary, it takes courage to accept a job under difficult circumstances.

Accepting the first executive position offered to a woman in Korean history "is a step forward no matter what happens," the editor argues. "These positions don't come along often, and you don't turn them down. She is going to be the prime minister for Korea, not the prime minister for Kim Dae Jung."

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