The Irish Association of Korea are very proud to finally make available to the public the winning essay of the inaugural Irish-Korean Essay Competition.
Our winner, Ms.Paek Jung Won is currently making her plans to travel to Dublin to study for one month in the Emerald Cultural Institute, who have supported this competition from the very start.
We would like to wholeheartedly thank ECI for their generous prize, one month study in their institute (valued at over 1,200 Euro), and also the Embassy of Ireland in South Korea without whom this competition would remain a figment of our humble association’s imagination.
The Irish Association of Korea, on behalf of the Embassy of Ireland and Emerald Cultural Institute, would like to thank all of our competition entrants, without whom we would not be able to award this prize today. The level of enthusiasm which the Korean student body approached this competition was overwhelming and we hope that we can host future competitions in the years to come.
And now, without further delay, our winning essay.
How Korean Women May Learn From Irish Women
by Paek Jung Won
How Korean Women May Learn From Irish Women
People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.1
<Mrs. Warren’s Profession, 1893, George Bernard Shaw>
If God invented soju to prevent the Koreans from ruling the world, then who invented Korea? It wouldn’t be a complicated task for Declan Kiberd to write an alternative edition of Inventing Ireland (1996)2, if he spent some time with Father Patrick James McGlinchey3 who has been combatting poverty in Korea since 1953; Inventing the Ireland of Asia. Although, most of Kilberd’s publications deal with literary colossuses, it isn’t an exaggeration to state that Irish literature is an emblem of Ireland herself. Simultaneously, that is one of the better reasons why common Korean people recognise the Emerald island; Yeats, Shaw, Wilde, Joyce and Heaney being familiar names for many Koreans.4
It may seem absurd trying to draw parallels between two countries that don’t even have a single direct flight between them. Even more absurd when there are just over 800 Irish people in a total Korean population of almost 50 million5, and probably just over 1,000 Koreans living in Ireland.6 However, this makes our journey more fascinating. Prior to researching this essay, other than the aforementioned writers, I just knew about Guinness, U2 and my professor. However, I now know that links and similarities between Ireland and Korea are more qualitative rather than quantitative.
In spite of the long distance between the two nations, they share remarkable analogous geographical conditions, agonizing histories, and vivacious dispositions. Both have had terrible colonial pasts; both countries are divided; both have their own native language7; both have their own traditional music; and each seems to have a liking for alcohol, whiskey for the Irish and soju for Koreans. South Korea8 is roughly the same size the island of Ireland.9 The Miracle of the Han River, can I’m told10, be compared with the Celtic Tiger.
However, there are also other links which are less positive; the many Irish who died in the Korean War, both soldiers11 and civilians12; corrupt politicians in both countries13; the child sex abuse scandals in Ireland, especially those involving Catholic priests compared to the abuse of handicapped children in Korea as seen in the recent movie Dogani14; and the misfortune of having the IMF enter our countries to fix our economies (I hope the Irish economy recovers as quickly as Korea’s did), with indeed, the same man Ajai Chopra involved each time.15
Thus, as we can see there are positives as well as negatives between Ireland and Korea, and it is clear that both countries can learn from each other. “Ireland without her people means nothing to me”16 isn’t only applicable to President Michael D. Higgins’ inauguration speech.17 People are considered the most valuable resources in each country, and it’s on this that I’m going to focus my essay.
As a young Korean woman, an area that interests me greatly is that of gender equality, and it is one where Korea may learn and benefit from the courage and conviction of Irish women.
In the very words of the aforementioned Fr. McGlinchey, “These women sacrificed everything for their children. I had never seen anything like it before.”18 He was referring to women on Jeju Island. Well if this is true, then why are Korean women still treated like second class citizens? Korea has always had great and heroic women who have played a huge part in our development as a “modern nation”.19
Ireland has also had her great women in history.20 Indeed the country itself is nearly always referred to in the female voice. As Edna O’Brien21 puts it,
“Ireland has always been a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and, of course, the gaunt Hag of Beara.”22
However for too many years Ireland’s and Korea’s treatment of their women folk has run along almost parallel lines of gender inequality and discrimination. Many reasons exist for this but it’s no great exaggeration to state that the biggest one in Ireland was the power and control of the Catholic Church, and in Korea it has been inveterate Confucianism. Indeed in Ireland under the constitution “the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.”23
However, in recent times in the case of Ireland there seems to have been a significant move away from the bias that was once held against women towards greater equality and recognition. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for my own country.
In the recent Global Gender Gap report revealed by the World Economic Forum (WEF)24, Ireland ranked in 5th place out of 135 countries whereas Korea ranked 107th. The report revealed that “South Korea’s gender inequality is even worse than that of some Islamic countries.”25 After reading an article by the journalist Fintan O’Toole, “10 things an Irish woman could not do in 1970”26, it is clear that there has been an improvement in the lot of the Irish woman. There are many reasons for this but the one I’d like to examine in this essay is the role that ordinary Irish women have played in this great change because I believe that Korean women can greatly learn from them.
It’s easy enough to mention well-educated and powerful women; the Mary Robinson’s27, the Mary McAleese’s28, the power of the suffragettes, bra burning and all that. However, if you’re not that well-educated, are poor, and don’t have some powerful organisation to support you, and you’re the victim of inequality, discrimination and injustice, what do you do? What can you do? You act like Mary McGee, Josie Airey, and Lavinia Kerwick;29 women who took matters into their own hands and changed the system from the bottom up. I could mention many other Irish women in this regard but these are the three that I’ll focus on as their stories may inspire Korean women to strive for change against gender inequality.
Mary McGee was an Irish housewife with four kids. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to call her a caravan-wife as she lived in a caravan with her husband. She didn’t want to have any more kids but didn’t wish to stop having sex. She couldn’t even refuse to have sex with her husband even if she wished, as this was one of the 10 things an Irish woman could not do in 1970. Marital rape didn’t become a crime until 1990.30 However, in the church controlled 1970’s contraceptives were prohibited, as in the eyes of Catholicism, procreation is only reason to have sex. Mrs. McGee attempted to import contraceptives but they were confiscated by the Irish customs service. She took a law case against the Irish state which went to the Supreme Court, and she won. Her action opened the gateways for contraceptives to be legalized for all Irish adults in 1985.31
Josie Airey was an Irish housewife who wanted a judicial separation from her husband. However, she couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer to represent her. She sought legal assistance from the Irish state but it basically told her to represent herself in court. She did and she failed to get the separation. “With the assistance of the Free Legal Advice Centres, she pursued her case all the way through the Irish court system, being successfully opposed at every stage by the State.”32 Her challenge failed and she went to the European Court of Human Rights which found Ireland to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights because it had failed to provide legal assistance to her. This whole legal battle may have taken 10 years of Mrs. Airey’s life but it forced the Irish government to eventually introduce a civil legal aid scheme in Ireland.
Lavinia Kerwick wasn’t afraid to “lose face”33. She was only 18 when she was raped. At trial William Conry pleaded guilty to this rape. However, the judge adjourned sentence for a year to “give him a chance”. 34 Kerwick was distraught but did something that showed immeasurable courage. She revealed her identity as the victim, regardless of the stigma and shame that might follow. No Irish woman had ever done this before. This brave action brought the whole issue of rape, rape trials and soft sentencing out in the open. The Irish people were incensed by the judge’s action. A Criminal Justice Bill was drafted shortly after the trial that allowed unduly lenient sentences to be appealed. Even though at re-sentencing Conry only received a nine year suspended sentence, Miss Kerwick’s brave action probably resulted in many dangerous criminals spending longer time in prison.
The actions of these three brave Irish women not only affected their private lives but brought change for all Irish women. None of them were rich and I don’t think any of them had a university education. However, their courage and example has encouraged and caused other women to challenge issue of gender inequality and discrimination in Ireland.35Korean women can learn from them.
I’m not saying that gender equality is perfect in Ireland but it is far better than it was forty years ago. My mother and her friends tell me that very little has changed in Korea.
At present, Korea ranks 41st in the gender equality ratio among 45 countries that the World Banks classifies as high-income countries using GNI per capita. 36
Admittedly something is being done in the Korean public sector to improve this terrible situation. 300 laws have been revised to eliminate gender bias since 2005. Our Constitutional Court has struck down provisions in the Civil Code that said that only men could head of the household. Children are no longer obliged to take their father’s surname.37 We had our first Prime Minister, Han Myung-sook in 200738. Yes, certain progress is being made…slowly. However, it all only seems to be in the public sector and from the top down. The following statement seems to confirm this.
“Our strategy has been to change the laws and institutions first so the rest of the society can catch up in changing attitudes and culture in favor of gender equality,” said Chung Bong-hyup, director general at the Ministry of Gender Equality, which was established in 2001.39
A friend of mine had an interview recently for a big company in Korea and she was asked the old riddle about the boy being injured in a car accident. His father was killed and when he was taken to the hospital, the doctor that met him said, “That’s my son”. Why? Obviously, because it was his mother. The possibility of a woman being a doctor seems to be oblivious to some Korean employers. Korea’s four largest conglomerates — Samsung, Hyundai, LG and SK — have less than 2 percent of seats on their boards, while there are almost no female executives at South Korean banks. In 2007, only 60.9 percent of women with college or graduate degree were employed. Women bring in only 52 percent of what men get in wages, according to the U.N. Development Program’s gender empowerment measure.40
These are not very encouraging statistics from a woman’s perspective for the world’s 13th largest economy. And it’s not until Korean women start displaying the same kind of courage and determination as Mary McGee, Josey Airey, or Lavinia Kerwick and many other Irish woman that can I see them ever changing. Only then can Korea said to be a truly “modern nation”.
To conclude, with Shaw from my opening quotation, Korean women need to “look for the circumstances” we want, and if we “can’t find them, make them”!
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English: The Living Dictionary.2003. Essex. Pearson Education Limited.
Voices and Poetry of Ireland.2004. London. Harper Collins Publishers.