Korean Candidate Battles a Male-Dominated Society

Times Staff Writer

Hong Sook Ja, 54, remembers having no brother until she was seven years old.

“My mother was getting neurotic over having no son,” she recalled in an interview this week. “Relatives were constantly coming to our house and telling her that they must arrange a concubine for my father.”

So dominant are men in this society, with its Confucian tradition, that South Korea still enforces a Family Law that places special significance and privileges on the male succession. Mothers without sons are considered incomplete, imperfect persons. And custom dictates that a woman obey her father, her husband and even her son.

But not Hong Sook Ja.

‘Playboy Husband’

She committed the ultimate blasphemy against male dominance by divorcing, as she put it, “my playboy husband . . . (and) being proud of it.” And she sees no reason to obey the dictates of her son.

“Why should I? I am better educated and have more experience than he does,” said Hong, the holder of a Ph.D. and two master’s degrees.


She also said she has never cooked a meal--"we had housekeepers” when she was married--and doesn’t even know how to make kimchi , the Korean national dish of pickled vegetables.

It was the childhood memory of the pressure put on her mother to bear a son, which ended only with the birth of her younger brother, that made her want “to prove myself,” she said.

“Unless I was the top in my class, I wasn’t happy,” she said.

Hong became the first woman ever to be awarded a master’s degree at Ewha Women’s University and the first South Korean female diplomat. Now she is the first woman ever to run for president of the country.

Known as the nation’s most ferocious advocate of feminism--some say she is South Korea’s only true feminist--Hong is rated as a fringe candidate in the Dec. 16 election pitting authoritarian President Chun Doo Hwan’s handpicked nominee, Roh Tae Woo, against three main opponents. The vote shapes up as a test of which candidate the voters consider best suited to transform South Korea into a democracy while retaining stability and continuing economic progress.

Hong knows that she will attract little attention and hardly any votes.

“I’ll do everything possible--except a striptease--to get votes,” she said over lunch at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club.

Her Party Little Known

Her Social Democratic Party, although a member of the Socialist International, holds no seats in the National Assembly and is virtually unknown. To the party, her candidacy has only one meaning.

“The institutionalized mass media don’t report our policies,” complained Kwon Doo Young, the party chairman. “This will be an opportunity to get our policies known.”

While interested in promoting women’s rights, Hong made it clear that, for the moment, her principal goal is to promote democracy in South Korea. Although her candidacy is doomed to failure, her observations often hit the mark.

Although all major candidates have been sidestepping the issue, Hong said bluntly that anti-Americanism is growing in South Korea. She cited a public perception, by South Korean youths in particular, that the United States is supporting Roh, as evidenced by a photograph of Roh and President Reagan taken in September when Roh visited Washington. The picture is being used prominently in the ruling party’s campaign.

“Some of the dissident groups believe that the United States has given the military-backed dictatorship one-sided support too much, too openly and too long,” she declared.

U.S. pressures on South Korea to open its markets, she said, also have led Koreans to believe that Washington is “asking poor Korean workers, (low) wage-earners and farmers for too much, too soon.” The pressure is viewed as unfair, she said.

She accused all four of the major candidates of mimicking each other in enunciating the same campaign pledges, “confusing the voters without adding any personal color.”

Hong said that Roh, who like Chun is a former general, could win only through a campaign “riddled with money, violence and abuse of power” and that a Roh victory would invite “national catastrophe.” If Roh wins with a plurality of 40%, “the 60% who opposed him will unite to accuse him of an unfair election,” plunging South Korea into chaos, she said.

“The next five years will be a period of transition,” Hong predicted, referring to the term of the president who will take office Feb. 25. “Some say the next government will not last more than a year.”

She also bemoaned the way in which South Korea’s opposition parties seem to be organized to promote not policies of interest to the people but rather the personalities of their leaders. Even her own party, she admitted, suffers from factionalism, with “forces still working against my candidacy.”

“Our opposition must develop a new political maturity,” she declared.

Despite the downtrodden image of women in South Korea and her own bleak prospects in the election, Hong is convinced that change is coming in South Korean society, and she hopes her candidacy will promote it.

“Newspaper editors, who are all men, now write editorials supporting revision of the Family Law,” she said. “That would never have happened 10 years ago.”

In the presidential election, South Korean wives “will vote differently from their husbands,” she predicted in defiance of a common belief to the contrary.

“I think the next National Assembly election will have many women candidates, and many of them will get elected,” she added. The legislative election is expected to be held by April at the latest.

Even in the military, “there is a change in generations,” she insisted. “They don’t want coups any more.”

Her son, a major in the army, already has been pressured to vote for Roh, she said, and he told his superiors that he is not going to support the military-backed candidate.

“He said that he was going to vote for his mother,” Hong said with pride.