04/21/2006, 00.00
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Han Myung-Sook, a Christian woman now prime minister

by Pino Cazzaniga
Ms Han is the first woman to occupy such a high leadership post in a traditionally male-dominated society. Parliament voted 182 to 77 in her favour.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – On April 19, Ms Han Myung-Sook became the first woman prime minister in the history of South Korea, a traditionally male-dominated society.  President Roh Moo-hyung nominated her as the best person for the post. Parliament agreed by a wide margin voting 182- to 77 in her favour, thus marking an historic step forward in the country's process of democratic development. This, for Grand National Party MP Jin Soo-hee, means that the "age has passed when women were of little value only because of their gender."

Ms Han, 62, is a devout Christian. Her involvement in social issues and politics flows from her faith. Born in 1944 in Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, she escaped to the south as a refugee after the Communists started the Korean War in 1950.

Dreaming of being an author, she entered Ewha Womans University in Seoul as a French literature major in 1963. But her life changed after she met husband-to-be, Park Sung-jun, a pro-democracy activist during the Park Chung-hee government in the 1960s and 1970s. Both were members of a Christian students' club involved in social activities in favour of the poor.

Her husband was jailed for 13 years for his pro-democracy activities only six months after the two married in 1968. Han later followed in her husband's steps and their correspondence became her political and social training.

Han greatly contributed to improving the status of women so much so that she was nicknamed the 'god-mother' of the feminist movement, wrote the daily Joongang in its editorial page.

As a member of the Christian Academy, an institute run by activists and religious leaders to bring educational programs to urban labourers and women, she was arrested, brutally tortured and sentenced to two years in jail. In parliament she said she held no grudge over that experience. Once released, she played a key role in setting up the Korea Women's Associations United.

In the latte 1990s when democracy was well-established in South Korea, she joined the Millennium Party, founded by Kim Dae-jung, a Catholic. 

In 2001 when Kim was president, she became the minister for gender equality and the family; in 2003, she was appointed environment minister under the current president.

In her acceptance speech, Ms Han said: "I will make a voyage of harmony on a ship named Korea, with the governing and opposition parties and the public on board."  These words already indicate what will be her two priorities: party cooperation and reducing the gap between haves and have-nots.

Although South Korea is a presidential republic, the post of prime minister is far from being ceremonial. President Roh Moo-hyun will leave his prime minister in charge of pushing through his domestic agenda.

"A prime minister," she said in her maiden speech as PM, "must make an effort to humbly listen to the voice of the people more than give directives and orders. He or she must put on the shoes of ordinary people to know their difficulties."

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