Shin Ji-ye and her aim to challenge sexism in Korean politics

Al Jazeera speaks to 28-year-old Shin, who ran for Seoul mayor in June, about sexism and obstacles in politics.

shin ji-ye korea politics [Nahm Eeo-jin/Green Party Korea]
Shin decided to run for Seoul mayor just six months before elections took place [Nahm Eeo-jin/Green Party Korea]

Seoul, South Korea – When South Koreans went to polls for location elections in June this year, out of the 71 candidates vying for 17 local government positions, only six of them were women.

Two of the female candidates were from Green Party Korea which was launched in 2012 and has no members in the National Assembly.

Shin Ji-ye, another of the female candidates, ran for mayor of Seoul, one of the most important political positions in the country.

Shin launched her campaign only six months prior to the elections. Her feminist stance attracted huge opposition, including cyberbullying, online threats and her campaign posters were destroyed.

She finished fourth in the race, winning almost 83,000 votes (1.67 percent).

Al Jazeera spoke to the 28-year-old about Korean politics, the male dominance and the obstacles that block aspiring female politicians from coming forward. 

Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to enter politics?

Shin Ji-ye: I started my journey in 2016. I realised that certain laws needed to change and, in order to do that, I wanted to become a politician, change the laws and make people’s lives a bit happier. In the beginning, I thought we needed a typical politician, someone middle-aged with experience. But then I thought, in Korean society, in 2018, we don’t need that.

The most important task in politics today is about equality, including gender. Until now, Korean politics was focused on economic growth and that needs to change.

Al Jazeera: So you’re saying the current politicians are not doing what the country needs right?

Shin: I can’t say it’s going the right way. We’re still fighting discrimination law, abortion law and the like. We’ve been fighting but the laws are not changing.

Al Jazeera: What obstacles did you face when you announced you were running for Seoul mayor?

Shin: I gained so much attention because I’m young and female. Everybody treated me like a young girl. They asked me how old I was and what my mother’s job was. In Korea, at this age, females usually do supportive jobs. So, I had to explain why I was capable and why I can do this. Also, running in the elections is very expensive here in Korea.

I also experienced a lot of cyberbullying, got threats online – someone threatened to cut off my breasts – and my campaign posters were ripped off. People around me were scared but I never had second thoughts about it. 

Al Jazeera: Female candidates weren’t able to win any positions. Their numbers are the highest in the National Assembly but still low in comparison to the rest of the world. Why is that?

Shin: In Korea, men have more power in politics. Our politics is centred around these men. The dominant parties are not really interested in gender equality. Also, because of the recommendation system, women can’t get in easily. It’s made up of mostly men. If you resist or appeal, they won’t recommend you the next time. You can try and complain but it usually doesn’t work. Nobody takes it seriously and the democracy within the parties is not working.

Choo Mi-ae (former ruling party chairperson) was a judge and was selected by Kim Dae-jung (former president). That’s a typical route for females to get into politics: a powerful male selects a woman and she becomes popular.

According to Shin, she got so much attention because she was a young female candidate [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
According to Shin, she got so much attention because she was a young female candidate [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera: Does Korea have enough female politicians?

Shin: Right now, we have the highest numbers in the National Assembly (17 percent). We’ve been fighting for our rights for a long time. Our aim was to get up to 30 percent. There’s a long way to go but because I ran for the elections as a young woman, I heard more females are now interested in politics.

If you get into the internal politics of a party, it’s not easy for female politicians and for those who want to fight back. If they want to go higher, it’s not very easy. The structure doesn’t make it easy for female politicians and female alliances to fight back.

Even if there’s a strong demand in society for more female politicians, the request goes into the party and gets sidelined due to internal politics. One solution is to have someone inside who can make the change. Otherwise, the country needs a party fighting for women’s rights to get into the National Assembly.

One reason why I think the feminist movements can’t get bigger in Korea is because of strong male alliances in society. It’s going to take a while, maybe 100 years, until society has gender equality.

Al Jazeera: One hundred years? Why continue if you think it won’t change in your lifetime?

Shin: The reason why we are where we are is because of people before us. They made it possible. It’s our duty to improve things for the next generation. It’s going to be a long fight. It’s a matter of persistence. Strategically, in the short term, my joining the DPK (ruling party) would’ve been better but I’m with the Green Party because of the system and culture.

Al Jazeera: Why did you not join the DPK?

Shin: Because if I’m part of the DPK, I feel like I’m part of the current system. And it’s that system that needs to change. And it wouldn’t have been easy for me to change that system being part of the DPK.

Al Jazeera: What does Korea need more of? What’s your message?

Shin: We need a change in the paradigm. Our main focus has always been economic growth. Female, LGBTI and poverty-related issues have been sidelined. Korea has a very high suicide and elderly poverty rate.

I want to suggest a paradigm of equality. A country where citizens can be happy. Some people have called Korea hell. I think it’s time for a miracle of equality.

Translation by Min Jung Kim.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Source: Al Jazeera