During the personnel hearing at the National Assembly in May, Kim Hyun-sook, who was nominated as the minister of gender equality and family under the Yoon Suk-yeol administration, affirmed her agreement with the abolition of the ministry at which she was to take office.
Gender Equality Minister Kim Hyun-sook said at the hearing “It is time to make a great transformation to adapt to the new environment,” and “abolishing the ministry does not mean undermining the functionality and roles of the existing ministry.”
At the first press conference after the presidential inauguration in June, Kim reaffirmed her commitment to fulfilling the presidential pledge. Immediately thereafter, the Strategic Department, an organization equivalent to a task force for a Cabinet reshuffle, came into force.
The Korean government announced its plan to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Among the core functions of the Gender Ministry, women’s employment will be transferred to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, and the functions for family, youth, gender equality, supporting the victims of violence will be given to the Ministry of Health and Welfare. It is aimed at better protecting women and vulnerable groups with expertise and infrastructure.
President Yoon Suk-yeol said that the abolishment of Gender Ministry is aimed at better protecting women, family, child, and other vulnerable groups.
Under these circumstances, it appears inevitable for the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family to undergo its first organizational changes since its establishment in 2001. However, it has not yet been confirmed how the reshuffle will take shape. There are also concerns regarding the disruption caused by the abolition of the ministry and the absence of a control tower for gender equality. It additionally requires the consent of the opposition party, which holds a clear majority of seats in the National Assembly.
Kim now marks her seventh month in office. In addition to policies for women, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has been confronted with heaps of pending issues, such as a low birthrate and youth and family issues. These are the fundamental components of wellness. We sought to hear directly from Kim to see whether enough attention has been paid to the pending issues amid the controversy over the abolition of the Gender Ministry.
The Korea Herald: As the first minister of gender equality and family under the new administration, how has your experience been so far?
Kim Hyun-sook: I started with the significant challenge of restructuring the organization. I have been in the office only for seven months, but it has felt much longer.
Since I have previous experience as a secretary of the Gender Equality and Family Committee of the National Assembly as well as the chief of employment and welfare at the presidential office, I was, to a certain extent, aware of the work conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, but there are also many new things that I learned after I joined the organization.
I once again realized how important its duties were as I sought to provide better support for single-parent households, multicultural families and child and adolescent sexual abuse victims, and to devise the measures for enhanced support for the youth inside and outside schools.
KH: Could you tell us the purpose and main details of the amendment to the Government Organization Act to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family?
Kim: The functionality related to female employment will be transferred to the Ministry of Employment and Labor for integrated employment support, and the remaining duties will be carried out by the Population Growth, Family and Gender Equality Headquarters within the Ministry of Health and Welfare to ensure the continuity of the existing duties involving family, adolescents, gender equality and a response to violence in combination with its duties for infants and toddlers, children and the elderly. This will enable a single ministry to integrate the policies for the entire life cycle from infants and toddlers to the elderly to provide the public with better services.
KH: What is the significance of the Cabinet reshuffle?
Kim: It is meaningful in that it fully reflects changes in the policy environment and overcomes previous limitations.
The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has indeed made many achievements over the past 20 years to improve the status of women by abolishing the family head system (2005), enacting the Sexual Violence Prevention and Victims Protection Act (2010), abolishing the category of offenses which cannot be prosecuted without a complaint being lodged by the victim (2013) and increasing child care benefits for single-parent households.
However, the public's administrative demand, the social environment and generational perceptions have also experienced changes.
I believe it is time to make a transition into gender equality policies “for both men and women and all generations” in line with the times. Although the name and form of the organization for gender equality will change, its combination with health and welfare will lay the groundwork for gender equality in more extensive and practical fields encompassing health, medical services, childbirth, child support and children.
KH: To pass the Government Organization Act, you need the cooperation of the opposition party. How do you plan to gain their support?
Kim: Both the People Power Party and the Democratic Party of Korea understand, to a certain extent, the need for a reshuffle since the current Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has certain limitations.
The Government Organization Act reflects the new administration's philosophy on state affairs. I believe it is different in terms of character from other bills. It has been a tradition in the National Assembly to provide cooperation for the Government Organization Act to help the new administration function properly for the people. I believe that the National Assembly will offer its support as the venue of a coalition and discussion beyond political objectives.
I will visit several lawmakers to explain the purpose of the reshuffle and make every effort to facilitate discussions in the National Assembly.
KH: Moving on to policies, you have recently announced two measures related to the youth, marking your related efforts. Could you provide us with the key details on that issue?
Kim: Korea is experiencing the lowest birthrate in the world. Adolescents are an important human resource of the future. It is a national priority of the times to pay a great deal of attention to and provide help for their growth.
However, recent statistics demonstrate that suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 9 to 24 years old here, and it is clear that the youth suicide rate has increased significantly over the past four years. Since the psychological and emotional crises of children and adolescents are on the rise, as the country ranked fourth among the member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of a youth suicide rate, the government needs to provide full attention and support.
KH: Do you have any specific measures in place?
Kim: The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is the ministry in charge of youth policy. Under the concept of a “broader school” where adolescents can grow up healthy and safe, we have come up with the measures to reinforce support for adolescents inside and outside schools and to provide better support for high-risk adolescents.
The measures to provide better support for adolescents inside and outside schools are designed to fully capitalize on the human and physical infrastructure of schools, facilitate adolescent activities and provide welfare and protection.
The main details are to fully associate the various activity programs provided at youth facilities with educational courses at schools, provide support for the youth outside schools without discrimination, protect the youth from harmful environments such as media dependence and facilitate their safe growth.
KH: The mental treatment of adolescents is important in modern society.
Kim: Psychological and emotional crises among adolescents can be cured earlier than with adults if discovered and with intervention at an early stage.
Since prompt and customized support on account of this is a matter of paramount importance, we have developed a plan to provide better support for high-risk youth, with the key goal of discovering youth at risk at an early stage and reinforcing the associated support. We plan to help the youth in crisis regain a sense of stability and grow to be healthy.
KH: It is also urgent to address violence against women. How is the issue being addressed?
Kim: We have made extensive efforts to eradicate violence against women such as developing pangovernmental measures, improving systems and expanding the infrastructure, but since new forms of violence against women, such as stalking, the distribution of illegally filmed sexual materials and the online grooming of children and adolescents, are emerging, a more sophisticated response system is required.
The Yoon Seok-yeol administration continues to unfold policies with a “victim-centered approach” and “tougher penalties” as its basic state affairs as it has set the implementation of a society safe from crime and developed a protection support system for the victims of crime as part of the national agenda.
For instance, after the stalking murder case at Sindang Station, we worked closely with the Ministry of Justice and the National Police Agency to swiftly reinforce measures such as removing the crime of stalking from the list of offenses unable to be punished over objections and tracking the locations of offenders.
KH: How will you deal with issues overall?
Kim: The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has developed a new set of statistics on violence against women by integrating violent incidents against women and the current status of policies scattered throughout different ministries and institutions. We provide emergency housing support and rental housing support and run treatment and recovery programs to reinforce support for stalking victims.
Next year, the ministry will launch an integrated support program for the victims of five types of major violent crimes in association with the 1366 emergency hotline for women, police and the crime victim support center.
KH: What are policies of note that will be updated or launched next year?
Kim: The budget bill for the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2023 was set at 1,550.5 billion won ($1.19 billion), an increase of 85.5 billion won (5.8 percent) from this year.
Amid the government’s continued efforts to maintain fiscal sustainability, the budget was assigned with a focus on the national agenda of making sure no family is left out and creating a society where everyone is on board, and increasing support for marginalized groups such as single-parent households and adolescents at risk to develop a system designed to protect the victims of crimes, extending childc are services and reinforcing support for the victims of crimes such as stalking.
KH: Could you tell us about any achievements you have made in each field or any systems that will change next year?
Kim: We extended the scope of people eligible for child care benefits for single-parent households from the median income of 52 percent to 58 percent in October, and it will see a further increase to 60 percent next year.
Part-time child care service hours will also see an increase from 840 hours to 960 hours a year, and the number of supported households will increase by 10,000. The unit price of menstrual product support for women and adolescents, a vulnerable group, reflected the reality (144,000 won to 156,000 won per year) on account of price increases.
For adolescents at risk of experiencing economic difficulties, the upper limit of welfare benefits was raised (550,000 won to 650,000 won per month).
In response to the recent Sindang Station incident, emergency housing, rental housing and treatment and recovery programs for stalking victims will be launched next year, and a pilot program for the integrated support for the victims of five major violent crimes will be initiated for the first time next year.
We will increase vocational training courses for promising occupations at the Saeil Center (New Occupation Center for Women) and further reinforce the functionality designed to prevent career interruptions.
KH: As the minister of gender equality and family, what would you like to achieve next year?
Kim: Although it has not been long since I took office, my work has largely focused on how to deliver the most suitable services to the public.
It would be rewarding if the measures designed to increase support for adolescents inside and outside schools developed between October and December, the measures to increase support for high-risk adolescents and the plan to revitalize the functionality of family centers come into force to enable the people to feel a difference.
In addition, we will formulate a new five-year master plan for gender equality policies, youth policies, multicultural family policies and single-parent household policies to upgrade the policies for each relevant field.
KH: Lastly, could you share your thoughts on the Cabinet reshuffle?
Kim: The ideal reform bill for the Government Organization Act should be devised to help the people who require it most. There will be nothing more I can ask for if the ministry rids itself of the ministry-centric approach and wraps up the Cabinet reshuffle, and provides practical help to the people who use this service.
By Yang Jung-won (firstname.lastname@example.org)