What do South Korean women really want?

Seoul, South Korea, is touting its 'new paradigm' for a women-friendly city that improves life from the workplace to the washroom and makes Seoul the happiest place in the world. Some women are skeptical.

Suddenly, this sprawling metropolis of approximately 10 million people is advertising itself as "women friendly" – and that's not a come-on to the millions of men for whom the term might have quite another connotation.

In a culture where men dominate offices and women by tradition are relegated to home and family (or bars and brothels), Seoul's metropolitan government has laid out its "visions and challenges" in a dozen categories ranging from "women-friendly restroom" to "women-friendly workplace."

"We have developed a new paradigm for urban policy, a women-friendly policy," is the bold claim of the city's deputy mayor, Ra Jin-goo, who happens to be a man but isn't letting that detail interfere with his sense of mission. "For the first time, we have introduced women-friendly policies in all areas of design."

Mr. Ra, at a forum sponsored by the city that drew several hundred women from dozens of foreign countries as well as Korea, said his government had established "a women-friendly matrix" and wants "to make certain we do not leave any loophole behind."

Women have learned to be skeptical

For all the fine words, however, Korean women tend to view the plans with skepticism, observing that most of them are not only unfulfilled but hidden from view except in showcase projects.

"Personally I don't know where those 'women-friendly' places are," says one Korean woman working in an office near city hall. "I never see them."

Women ask whether Korean culture can ever shed its macho image and wonder if Seoul's mayor, Oh Se-hoon, has come up with the program in a bid for the female vote if he runs for president in 2012.

"Women's rights are talked about mostly by activists," says Shin Hei-soo, a professor at Ewha Woman's University, whose 10,000 students make it the world's largest all-female institution of higher learning. "Of course, there is the political ambition of Mayor Oh. And there are different perceptions between what men see and what women want."

In fact, the role of women outside the home has increased immensely over the past century – and especially since the Korean War. Women fill offices and campuses and have come to assume certain managerial positions – though many are just as likely to quit their jobs after getting married.

The figures suggest the problems.

"Women get 64 percent, on average, of what men earn for the same job," says Ms. Shin, and 300,000 women in this country of 48 million are estimated to work in hostess bars, massage parlors, and "barbershops," despite much-publicized campaigns to get rid of red-light districts.

Lee Ji-won, international coordinator at the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family, questions whether a law passed three years ago to protect the rights of women is making much difference.

"Institutionally, we have the relevant law," she says, "but in our daily life the pattern is not really changed." She says the law "protects women from sexual violence and discrimination," but for many women the right to work means they really have two jobs.

"We have to work in the labor force," says Ms. Lee, "but traditionally we have the same roles as daughters and mothers, cooking and cleaning and taking care of the home."

Still, Seoul officials seem dead serious about addressing women's concerns when it comes to everyday issues like restrooms and parking areas.

"In terms of the urban environment, there is still a lack of respect and consideration for women," says Park Hyun-kyung, president of the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family. "Women have always been at the forefront and center of urban collaboration, but society has failed to consider them accordingly."

Consider the restroom, long a sore point for women around the world. Seoul's guidelines: "Provide enough numbers and area for practical use of toilet and improve inconvenience to wait longer than necessary," begins the official English translation. "Avoid odd situations to face each other in front of the bathroom between different gender by placing the entrance in different direction."

Then it's on to "women-friendly parking area," with plans, among other things, for "women-privileged parking lot [with reserved spots for women], "security and alarm system," "comfortable underground parking area" – and, of course, "women-friendly restroom in parking lots."

Women complain, however, that the "women-friendly" program exists largely in the imagination of city planners – and in showcase parks and neighborhoods. Somewhat defensively, city officials plead for more time to carry out reforms.

Regardless of superficial changes, for Korean women who have grown up overseas, immersion in the culture and society of their parents and grandparents can be a shock.

"When I got here, certain parts of life here were not so friendly," says Linda Behk, raised and educated through college and graduate school in New York. The problem, she says, goes far beyond the reach of elaborate "solutions" from Seoul City Hall.

"People are more self-conscious about how people see them," she says. "And there is some bias in work. There are certain age limits. Some places feel a little down on women, and women feel self-conscious about them."

Younger generations have changed

For all such sensitivities, however, attitudes are shifting.

"In my generation, women were always intimidated by aggressive men," says Won Hyeon-suk, showing a group of foreign women around the Kyongbuk Palace complex on a tour that emphasizes the historic role of women. "Now, my son says he's intimidated by aggressive females."

As evidence of the change, she notes that 36 percent of those who passed the rigorous Korean bar examination this year were women in comparison with less than 1 percent when she was in college 30 years ago.

She spends extra time on the tour visiting the palace of a king whose wife, Queen Min, died tragically in a vicious 19th-century power struggle. Suspecting her of plotting with Russians, Japanese assassins murdered her in one of the royal palaces in 1895 – a precursor to Japanese defeat of the Russians and takeover of the country a decade later.

At City Hall, Cho Eun-hee, assistant mayor responsible for women and family policy, is confident that "Korean men are changing." President Lee Myung-bak, a former mayor, "gives more meaning to the empowerment of women," she says. "Old men cannot change their minds, but men under 60 have changed already. Korea is changing rapidly."

The goal is "to make Seoul the happiest place in the world," says Lee Jong-suk, former president of Sookmyung Women's University, another major women's institution here. "If women do not feel happy in the city, the city is not viable."

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