WITH A graceful smile and feminine physique, she paves a road scarcely travelled by women in Korea. Lee Yeon-ju (79, Dept. of Political Science & Int. Studies), the chairperson of the Korea League of Women Voters, strives for the development of gender equality and active participation of women in the political world. She is also a member of many other organizations that endeavor to change society for the better. The Yonsei Annals had the chance to introduce Lee Yeon-ju, a beacon illuminating the future for women in Korea.
Annals: What is the Korean League of Women Voters?
The Korean League of Women Voters (KLWV) was established in 1969, and it is the first organization that fostered women’s participation in Korean politics. It strives to foster the rights of women voters and nurture woman leaders in the political field. I think there are three rights and obligation for an electorate. Firstly, they must nurture capable leaders. Secondly, an electorate is the one who chooses leaders. In order to help voters choose the right leaders, we work to present people with a great deal of information about the candidates. Thirdly, electorates are obliged to take responsibility for the leaders they chose. KLWV helps electorates fulfill their rights and obligations by nurturing intelligent and qualified women leaders and by providing lectures and holding seminars in order to instill open-mindedness and an awareness of gender equality. Also, KLWV holds many forums with the candidates to give voters a better idea of what each candidate is supporting and what kind of leader they will be. In addition, the KLWV has played a major role in abolishing hojuje (the patriarchal family registry system) and has been striving for a gender quota system since 1987.
How did you start working at the Korea League of Women Voters?
When I was a junior at Yonsei Univ. I took a lecture provided by a part-time lecturer. It was the year 1981 that I took the class, and somehow, after 18 years, the lecturer contacted me, and told me that he wanted to recommend me as the chairperson of KLWV. The reason was that he heard professors of Political Science & Int. Studies complimenting me at a get-together, and he remembered me. At that time his wife, who was chairman of the KLWV, was looking for a successor, so he recommended me as the next chairperson. I was surprised that he still remembered me after so many years. You never know what ties might lead to others in life. My involvement with the KLWV is also connected with my work as a student activist demonstrating for democracy. At the time, what society most aspired for was democracy, and now that we have achieved democracy, what society needs and pursues most is gender equality. So my job is in line with what I was doing in my college years.
How was your life at Yonsei University?
At the time I attended school, it was tumultuous because of the student protests against President Park Jeong-hee’s dictatorship. I thought I should participate in the student activist movement as well, so I gave up preparing for the civil service examination. Then I joined a student activist coterie, and actively participated. I even carried stones in my pockets for the demonstrations. Once I was arrested by the police, but the policemen thought I did not look like a person who would protest so they let me free. When I got into Yonsei Univ. in 1979, there were only two female students among 230 students in my department. I chose Political Science & Int. Studies because, since I was young, my father always told me to become the Secretary-General of the U.N. to raise national prestige. So I decided to become a diplomat. I was preparing for the civil service examination when I was a freshman, but later I gave it up in order to participate in the student demonstrations. At that time, student activists were the norm.
Besides the KLWV, you are in charge of many other organizations. What is your role in those organizations?
I am a member of the National Unification Advisory Council, the Gender Equality Committee, the National Election Commission, and many more, so I assume many roles. To give one example of my different roles, I am a member of a committee that assesses the cases in the Supreme Court of Korea. This organization deals with how sentences will be carried out for certain crimes. There are 13 members in this organization, but I am the only woman. An organization like this needs a woman’s point of view to improve and prevent being too biased. For example, we discussed what the sentence for sex offenders should be. Currently, the sentence levied on a drunken sex offender is lighter than the sentence levied on criminals who committed the crime when sober. The other members argued that the current structure should be maintained, but I thought the sentence should be heavier or at least the same, so I opposed and argued for heavier sentences for them. And I have now succeeded in getting the matter reexamined. Without my participation in the committee, the situation would have stayed the same. In matters like these, many different views should be considered. Since half of society is comprised of women, the organizations that deal with social matters need the voice and opinion of women to be really beneficial to the society.
What was the most rewarding experience while you were working?
The most rewarding moments are when I see my work taking effect and bringing changes to society. There is a movement that I and KLWV have been pushing forward. Called “The change in policy for women,” it calls for including both men and women in the decision-making process for policy affecting women. And it also calls for the government to put more effort into solving gender equality problems. This year, when the Grand National Party was making policy for 2010, they proposed a policy very similar to what I was promoting. This showed that what I am doing is not just a mere empty echo that does not get heard, but it can and is changing the society little by little.
Do you have any last words for Yonseians?
Yonsei University students are the chosen ones in our society. Therefore they must take interest in their community and learn to sacrifice and contribute to society. Also, because Yonseians have great potential to assume the role of leaders in the future, they must maintain their sense of morality from a young age. Yonseians must also try to experience various things in life because experience teaches us to make good judgments and gives us a sense of values. What is important is that you have a vision for the future to motivate and to lead you. As youths, your vision will change often. However, keeping your sense of values will be a lighthouse that will guide you through the journey on the dark sea.