• Dr Anne Hilty is a scholar-practitioner of health psychology from New York, living in Europe and East Asia since 2005. She has been in clinical practice since 1989 and engages in a variety of research projects for social welfare and cultural preservation. Additionally, she is a well-published writer.

  • ArirangTV video clip

    Profile of Dr. Hilty by Arirang TV, on Youtube (June 2012): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RHfOy0fHo4
  • Headline Jeju article

    Profile of Dr. Hilty on Headline Jeju newspaper (January 2011; Korean only): http://www.headlinejeju.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=107569
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The Story of Jeju, in Pictures

This is the story of an island called Jeju, in the Northern Pacific…

A place like no other, with several thousand years of human civilization in harmony with nature and today the first and only place in the world to receive all 3 UNESCO natural science designations…

And a place in the throes of modernization…

▲…where fields are still cultivated by hand, and labor is nearly always performed communally…not by ‘hired hands’ but villagers who help their neighbor today in the understanding that he or she will in turn be in their field tomorrow, in a system known as mutual aid…

▲…where farms are typically in the benign shadow of an ‘oreum,’ local dialect for the nearly 400 secondary cones that emerged when the central volcano formed this island some 200,000 years ago (last eruption: 1007CE)…

▲…where soil worked for many centuries is now black gold, volcanic soil that once represented hardship because of its stony content, stones cleverly–and laboriously–removed one-by-one to become low stone fences, protecting the soil and plants from the fierce winds that sweep the island–again, cleverly, as the space between stones reduces the wind to a gentle breeze as it passes through the field, and renders the stone wall nearly invincible…

▲…and more black gold at a giant’s feet…

▲…with some creative tilling, always by hand, horse, or hand-driven machinery in these small and often oddly-shaped fields…

▲…where a hiking trail on the ‘oreum’ is likely to require passage through a cow gate…

▲…and one’s trail companions might well be bovine…

▲…where the farmland below can often appear as a beautifully handmade patchwork quilt that tells the story of the people’s lives…

▲…where hiking, and nature, are a daily part of life and the relationship between humans and nature seamless…

▲…where the dead are buried near the living, the gravesite complete with guardians/servants and errand boys, the pillar–one of a pair of grave markers called ‘mangjuseok’ and representing two gates, one for the living and the other for spirit…

▲…an errand boy, one of a pair, called dongjaseok–and the least important of the markers…

▲…a guardian and servant to the deceased, also one of a pair–and the most important of the markers, called ‘muninseok’…

▲…second dongjaseok…

▲…second muninseok…

▲…and the official tombstone, covered in Chinese characters, telling the story of the deceased–identity, accomplishments, and most importantly, lineage, all not so much to memorialize as to introduce the deceased to the spirit world…

▲…and the view from the grave…

▲…and an altar at which to honor the dead…

▲…sometimes, though not often, two family members were buried together, always beneath a grave mound and always surrounded by a low stone fence…

▲…and  at Chuseok, an autumn harvest celebration, the family tends the grave in an annual rite known as bulcho, by cutting and cleaning away the grass and honoring the dead…

▲…and as time passed, the muninseok or guardian/servant was not always included and only the dongjaseok or errand boy and mangjuseok or doorway marker remained–but an errand boy cannot properly serve nor guard the dead…

▲…and in some cases, the dead are relocated to a more propitious site–or, in these modern times, more convenient for the family, and the original grave is left empty…

▲…even though the original site may have been most propitious indeed, with a grand view…

▲…leaving the gravestone, broken, as so much flagstone along a hiking path…

▲…the unsuspecting descendants below…

▲…with the dead overseeing it all…

▲…now with only errand boys and a lineage marker, missing their guardian/servants and the gateway markers of the passage points between the worlds…

▲…and we descend to the world below…

▲…where, sometimes, the trail companions are not bovine but equine…

▲…content, and at ease with humans, a true and faithful companion of Jeju people through the ages, with three varieties: the original Jeju pony; a squat and sturdy horse which is a legacy of the 100-year Mongolian occupation in the 13th century; and, today’s imported thoroughbred…

▲…a place of harmonious existence between human and horse…

▲…where, despite modernization at a breathtaking pace, the ubiquitous stone walls remain…

▲…stone walls that, whether surrounding fields or gravemounds, take some (literal and metaphor) interesting twists and turns…

▲…and, in very modern times, crisply manicured grave mounds all in a row looking sanitized–and segregated from daily life…

▲…inclusive of ‘guardians’ for the patriarch, though now only the decorative sort…

▲…where the fields yet remain rich and fertile…

▲…enriched by the minerals of the volcanic stone and ash…

▲…some graves with modern walls of stone+cement, the wind’s undeniable requirement of passage and the water’s need to breathe forgotten–thus cracking, as is to be expected…

▲…while the ancient techniques of building a stone wall prevail…

▲…and sometimes, though not often, the walls around a grave mound take on a sympathetic circular shape…

▲…a place where that circular shape so common in nature is sometimes reflected in the outline of the fields…

▲…where calves are born in abundance, but sometimes die, leaving the cow (like the one on the right) to bellow incessantly and sniff other nursing calf-cow pairs, in search of her own…

▲…and next to the dairy farm may be the family shrine…

▲…and where graves are typically found in the midst of the fields, sometimes several…

▲…and “crop circles” are merely a farmer’s creativity–and, sense of humor…

▲…where the grave may be the central feature of the field, precisely where a farmer should be laid to rest…and near his family…

▲…where new and old stone fences sometimes meet…

▲…and elaborate family markers are sometimes erected to the dead…

▲…where onions dry in the fields…

▲…and gardens are now sometimes manicured things…

▲…where small farms yet prevail, and garlic dries in mesh bags by the roadside…

▲…and potatoes rest in the field, waiting for the final gathering…

▲…and public schools are elaborate, even in the smallest villages…

▲…where quiet village life is still the norm…

▲…and life has modernized while retaining aspects of the traditional style…

▲…and life in the small village still revolves around the farming fields…

▲…with an occasional home fallen into disuse and utter neglect, reclaimed by nature…

▲…where village life remains behind low stone walls…

▲…and grandfathers spread red algae to dry in the sun, algae likely gathered by their haenyeo (free-diver) wives…

▲…with improvised storage facilities for garlic, potatoes, onions…

▲…and the “olle gil” or walking path found throughout the villages, now lined with cement…which cracks…

▲…a village like so many others on this island, tucked behind stone walls, next to both sea and farm fields, in the shadow of a benevolent giant…

▲…and the small truck used for every need…

▲…and modernized yet small houses retain the flavor of their stone, thatched predecessors…

▲…a place where field work is still done by hand, sometimes augmented by small machinery…

▲…a place where squid is hung on a line to dry, like so much laundry,  the squid boats with their high beams lining up on the sea at night like so many hydro-cars…

▲…and where, at low tide, people comb the seabed for mollusks…

▲…where red algae, a product valued for its medicinal properties, is often found being dried by the sea, in preparation for going to market…

▲…and life revolves around the sea, Seongsan Ilchulbong–a UNESCO-designated 5000-year old tuff cone–presiding in the distance…

▲…an island created by volcano, a world of natural artistry revealed at low tide, where algae and volcanic rock meet…

▲…the red algae sometimes exquisitely colored…

▲…and sometimes looking like a mass of red hair…

▲…with a rocky seabed which, when revealed at low tide, gives strong impression of the ancient lava flow that created this island…

▲…with colorful marine life on a backdrop of volcanic basalt…

▲…and many tiny gold ‘nuggets’, seemingly alive and pliant, which I have yet to identify…

▲…a lone basket left by a haenyeo diving with her ‘sisters’ at sea, her shoes and sundries inside…

▲…sand dunes an uncommon feature in this rock-formed island…

▲…and more mollusk-seekers combing the shallows…

▲…Seongsan Ilchulbong rising over all…

▲…the stunning coastline near Seongsan Ilchulbong…

▲…and a nearby abandoned (house? lookout facility?)…

▲…from which one might peer out to the east through its “eyes”…

▲…which Nature threatens to completely consume…

▲…the local Seongsan Village public shrine/altar, next to the small (house? lookout? altar-keeper?)–and, the sea…

▲…with dual altars inside–and the throngs of Seongsan Ilchulbong tourists kept out…

▲…and the rocky shoreline leading up to what was once a separate tuff cone or parasitic volcanic cone at sea, now connected by land bridge, the majesty of Seongsan evident in the “99” peaks of her crown…

▲…and another haenyeo facility, just west of Seongsan Ilchulbong…

▲…where a grandmother haenyeo watches over drying red algae…or perhaps merely rests after her morning of diving…

▲…a watery pathway leading to the shore and haenyeo facility, a haenyeo diving in its waters, the ever-present cormorant resting nearby…

▲…haenyeo wetsuits drying in the sun…

▲…an island which includes many Buddhist temples, this one at the base of Seongsan Ilchulbong…

▲…a seaside, open-air, working haenyeo facility to the east of Seongsan Ilchulbong, on Gwangchigi Beach…

▲…unusual rock formations which emerge at low tide, the “gwangchigi” from which this beach derives its name, haenyeo diving in the background, and all at the foot of the queen…

▲…a “4.3” memorial to victims of a 1948 (~’53) period of violence, a cultural wound yet unresolved…one of many mass graves, this one discovered at Gwangchigi Beach and mentioned by French-Mauritian author and Nobel Prize-winning (2008) J.M.G. Le Clezio, who has stayed on Jeju several times and published an article about the island in GEO, March 2009…

▲…site of 1948 massacre, or mass execution, depending upon one’s ideology…

▲…in nearby Seongsan Village, along a highway, a secret passage so low as to be missed entirely…

▲…a tree growing through it, requiring one to bend low–or, to bow–upon entry (the cement, however, a recent addition)…

▲…to be immediately met with the colorful banners of a small shamanic ‘dang’ or village shrine (aka, ponhyang, or ‘original village’), at which the gods, viewed as ancestors (chosang), are worshipped by the indigenous people (chason), their descendants…

▲…and the sacred tree, conduit between the worlds as in all shamanic traditions, a marriage of tree-and-rock so common on volcanic Jeju, with altar naturally at its base including a still-burning candle, indicating the use of the shrine by shaman (simbang) or devotee (dang-gol) that very day…

▲…the shrine nearly invisible to the public, hidden deep within as one of Jeju’s remaining secret places, garden before, modernity looming overhead, construction foremost…

▲…and the threat to Jeju’s past…and possibly, to its future.


This is the story of Jeju Island…

and the story of indigenous peoples and unique, sacred lands…

all over the world.


‘Better to be Born a Cow than a Woman’: Kim Mandeok and Gender Equality

[The following was presented by Dr. Hilty on June 2nd, 2012, at the 7th annual Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity.]

“Better to be Born a Cow than a Woman”

— Kim Mandeok and Gender Equality


Anne Hilty, PhD

Cultural Health Psychologist

Social Science Researcher

Ieodosana Organization

Jeju Island, Korea


The historical figure of Kim Mandeok [Jeju Island, Korea] provides a model for today’s women, with timeless and universal themes such as women’s empowerment, gender equality, and social responsibility in the form of compassionate yet pragmatic philanthropy, for a more equitable distribution of wealth and global poverty reduction. The author begins by discussing the historical and cultural context as well as major themes in the life of Kim Mandeok to establish her universal applicability. Of primary focus is the ongoing cross-cultural need for gender equality, not only as a matter of social justice but also a means of strengthening the workforce, thereby achieving a reduction in poverty. The necessity of consciousness-raising and self-actualization of women as a precursor to same is explored, and the present status of women in the Asian region highlighted. Finally, “Kim Mandeoks” of today are identified — women who are practicing her ideals and assuming positions of socially responsible leadership both locally and across the globe.

Kim Mandeok was a woman ahead of her time. Often referred to as “the first female ‘CEO’ of Korea,” she embodied Jeju’s mythological goddess Gamunjang-Aegi in her self-determined fortune; further, in dispersing her wealth when the people of this island were in severe need, she demonstrated compassion in the form of philanthropy combined with pragmatism.

While it is important to understand her life within its historical and cultural context and can be difficult to separate legend from reality with limited historical record, her self-actualization as a precursor to her selfless charity provide themes both universal and timeless. A global analysis of gender inequality, with a particular focus on Asia, reveals a need for the further empowerment of women, while inequitable distribution of wealth has recently sparked revolutions and demonstrations in many parts of the world.

Applying the message of Kim Mandeok’s life to the present context, we benefit in areas of gender equality and women’s empowerment, particularly that of rural women, as a means to more equitable asset distribution for the purpose of global poverty reduction. In so doing, we can identify “Mandeoks” of today, all across the globe.

Historical and Cultural Context

In order to understand the relevance of Kim Mandeok’s 18th-century Jeju Island life to the 21st-century world, we must first place her within historical and cultural context, for objectivity and in order to discover universal themes.

Kim Mandeok (1739-1812), hereinafter referred according to local custom simply as “Mandeok,” lived during Korea’s Joseon Era, one of the world’s most long-lasting dynasties which revitalized and relied strongly on Neo-Confucian methods of social governance that linger in Korea even today. While this system was strongly predicated on gender roles which were quite repressive for women, it is significant to note that on Jeju Island, the home of Mandeok, Confucian ideals were introduced much later than on the mainland and in many ways rejected, never achieving the same stronghold. The local culture of the island, with a goddess-oriented, shamanistic indigenous religion at its foundation and a traditionally egalitarian, matrifocal culture based on agrarian and marine cultivation practices, had long provided women with greater economic and social independence than their mainland counterparts. Nevertheless, or perhaps in part because of the laborious nature of their lives, a local proverb gave voice to the lament, “Better to be born a cow than a woman” on Jeju.

A culmination of events in Mandeok’s life created for her a unique opportunity relevant to our discussion today. First, she was the middle and only female of three children, offspring of an aristocratic [“yangban”] father in political exile from the mainland according to the custom of that time, and a local commoner [“cheonmin”] mother. According to the laws of the Joseon class system, the children of an “inter-class” union were considered members of the lower of the two parental classes; thus, Mandeok and her siblings would have been “cheonmin”.

Orphaned at age 12 by the successive deaths of each parent, Mandeok was given for fostering to a retired social entertainer, or “gisaeng,” the owner of a “gisaeng house” who provided her with the  profession’s typically extensive education in the arts, medicine and handicraft. Jeju gisaeng in particular were also known for their equestrian skills.

Since the year 1650, gisaeng were considered the property of the government, and classed similarly to the slaves in Korea even though they were also among the most highly educated women; it was said that they “possessed the body of a commoner but the mind of an aristocrat.” The class system was not abolished until 1895, at which time gisaeng and other slaves were given their freedom.

Gisaeng houses were typically in the center of town and near the marketplace which, coupled with her apprenticeship to the gisaeng owner, would have provided Mandeok with a marked sense of business. Gisaeng were also known to have unparalleled access to government officials and knowledge of local affairs, often viewed as a key source of political or court intelligence and sometimes, though unofficially, even wielding political clout. Some were also able to attain considerable wealth.

It is said that at age 22, Mandeok successfully petitioned to have her name removed from the gisaeng registry and restored to aristocracy. The royal record of 1796, however, in mentioning Mandeok’s act of charity to her people and the king’s acknowledgement of same, identifies her as “gisaeng”. It must also be considered that, according to the laws of that time, the offspring of a yangban father and cheonmin mother would have been classified as cheonmin, or commoners, not as yangban, or aristocrats. Women typically became gisaeng by age 15, the age of majority in Korea at the time, following at least 3 years of training; the custom was in fact to retire from gisaeng entertainment work by the age of 22, or at the latest by age 30, after which most continued in the medical or needlework aspects of their profession. In order for a woman to have her name removed from the gisaeng registry, she essentially had to “buy” her freedom with a large monetary contribution to government officials, typically done indirectly through a male patron and after which many gravitated to tavern work or inn-keeping.

Mandeok soon owned an inn for merchants and a commission agency for port trade, among the earliest to do so. By utilizing her extensive government network and powerful connections, taking advantage of varying tax laws, and gaining a monopoly on imported rice and salt exchanged for Jeju seaweed and abalone, she amassed great wealth and by the age of 50 was considered one of the two wealthiest women in Korea. It is of note that great social and economic changes were taking place at this time, particularly in areas of commerce and industry, and there was a marked increase of women in business and trade, including merchants. Jeju became a center of the fishing and maritime industries, complete with port trade and commission agencies. It is also of note, however, that in the Joseon class structure, merchant or trade work was considered lowly, fit for commoners and fallen nobility. Mandeok never married, due to her former gisaeng status, but eventually fostered an orphaned boy, a custom not  uncommon on Jeju at that time.

In the 1794 famine brought about by extreme weather and social factors, ultimately 1/3 of the Jeju population was decimated. Due to local government complications including corruption, food relief was not reaching the people; ultimately, Mandeok took a pragmatic approach and used most of her wealth for the importation and distribution of food, primarily rice, to Jeju people. It is important to note that Jeju is a “society” culture as locals have termed it, and “samchun” [lit., “uncle”] or collective economic societies based on mutual aid have long been the norm. Within this context, while surely hers was an act of great compassion and charity, Mandeok would have been compelled to give what she had to those in need.

When offered reward, Mandeok stated her desire to leave the island in order to visit the king’s palace and make a pilgrimage to the 12,000 peaks of Geumgang Mountain in the mainland, considered a sacred site. In consideration of what was ultimately a 200-year legal ban against Jeju women leaving the island, this seemingly humble request was actually quite powerful: Mandeok was asking for something that only the king could grant, and which distinguished her from all other female residents of Jeju Island at that time. Her request affirmed, the king also ordered people along her route to greet her and provide food, thus creating a “cult of Mandeok” well beyond the grateful people of Jeju. Poems and other works of art and scholarship were created in her honor, a custom remaining to this day.

Quite an accomplished life, considering her humble beginnings, yet particularly in Joseon-era Korea this could only have happened within the context of her extraordinary constellation of circumstances.

Following her visit to the mainland, the court’s chief-of-staff, Chae Jegong, wrote a biography of her entitled, “Mandeok-jeon.” His rendition of her life story is one of very few documentations of same, and includes these words:

“Mandeok is a highly commendable woman from Jeju: at sixty she has the face of a woman of forty. She paid 1000 bars of gold to purchase enough rice for all the people to eat. Because of this, she crossed the sea and saw the palace for the first time. All she wanted was to see Mount Geumgang just once….”

In the Annals of King Jeong Jo [the “20th year of his reign,” or 1796], an official court record, there is one notation about her:

“The Jeju governor reported that Jeju gisaeng Mandeok used her wealth to save the hungry people from starvation. When she was offered a reward, she refused and instead asked to cross the sea to the mainland and visit Mount Geumgang. His Majesty approved of Mandeok’s request and ordered villagers along Mandeok’s path to provide her food for the journey.”

It is deemed highly unusual for a royal record to include the accomplishment of a woman, particularly a former gisaeng from Jeju Island — thus, triply marginalized.



Beyond these two documents and the poems and artwork in her honor, there is little documentation regarding Kim Mandeok’s life, and separating fact from legend and hyperbole can be difficult. Nevertheless, her story is timeless and universal in its themes, and strongly relates to the issues today of gender equality and global poverty eradication.

Such themes include: (1) abandonment by family and benevolent rescuing of same; (2) independent, self-directed, self-made hero; (3) community aid and responsibility; (4) redemption [from impoverished orphan and lowly gisaeng / slave to wealthy patron with social recognition and the ultimate acknowledgment of royalty]; (5) compassionate pragmatism; (6) success as defined by charity, philanthropy, and humanitarian aid; (7) women’s empowerment despite all odds; and, (8) the valuing of such character traits as diligence, stamina, strength of will, perseverance, and the overcoming of hardship.

We can surely extract from the story of Kim Mandeok and pursue the very worthwhile ideals of charity, philanthropy, and general humanitarian values including social welfare. One such effort is the recent and very laudable openings of both elementary and middle schools in Vietnam, supported by this Foundation and bearing Mandeok’s name. However, it is the theme of gender equality and the self-actualization and empowerment of women, particularly in economic terms as well as leadership, that arguably has the most wide-reaching and long-lasting effects, in particular on the eradication of global poverty.

Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment

In recent demographic shifts of global business, several trends can be identified. Among these is an aging workforce, especially in Europe and Northeast Asia. As a result, companies are more likely to hire women, and in turn, women are entering the workforce in ever-increasing numbers. They are still generally undervalued, however, both as a resource and in terms of compensation and advancement. In those societies with traditional gender roles, such as we can see in Northeast Asia, this is especially true — often coupled with swiftly developing economies yet a rapidly aging workforce, in which case, the need for hiring women is paradoxically the greatest.

“The best stimulus for the economy is to invest in women entrepreneurs” [Lars H. Thunell, CEO of International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of World Bank, at a 2012 International Women’s Day event]. As Irene Natividad, president of the Global Summit of Women, recently reported, the percentage of female entrepreneurs is rapidly growing around the world: 40% of all privately held companies in the US are owned by women, as are 30% across Europe, 40% in China, and 25% in Japan, while across the globe women are the majority in micro-entrepreneurship. Multiple UN studies, according to Natividad, have shown that increased earning among women leads to the increased health and education of their families, and that women’s improved economic status is the key to sustainable development and global economic recovery. She exhorts governments and business leaders to understand the advancement of women not as a social welfare issue but a sound economic imperative, and to place gender diversity and equality at the top of their agendas for strategic market growth.

The eight UN Millennium Development Goals [MDG] as outlined in the summit meeting of 2010 include gender equality, an end to poverty and hunger, and the making of a global partnership for development, among others. According to the latest MDG report on gender equality, men are still universally paid more than women for similar work, while women are not only paid less but with less financial and social security as well, and often in “vulnerable” forms of employment. Only one-fourth of senior officials or managers are women, and in West Asia, South Asia, and North Africa, this is reduced to less than 10%. Women are slowly gaining in political power, but largely due to quota systems and other special measures; as of the late 2010 report, only 9 out of 151 heads of state and 11 out of 192 heads of government were female, and women held only 16% of ministerial posts globally.

UNDP, in its latest Human Development Report released in 2010, cited Asia’s development as one of “swift progress in regard to human well-being,” especially in China, Indonesia, South Korea, Laos, and Nepal. However, in its new Gender Inequality Index, South Asia in particular shows an average loss of 74%, with women lagging behind men in all aspects: economic, legal, and political. The UNDP’s 2010 publication, “Power, Voices and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific,” cites gender equality as a matter of human development “not only for women but for whole societies….”

The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, more widely known as “UN Women,” maintains the economic empowerment of as well as the leadership and participation by women as two of its primary foci. The 56th annual Commission on the Status of Women [CSW], held earlier this year, highlighted three goals: rural women’s empowerment, poverty and hunger reduction, and rural development — all very much in keeping with the themes of Kim Mandeok’s life. Among the seven resolutions determined as an outcome of the 56th CSW is “Indigenous Women: Key Actors in Poverty and Hunger Eradication” which, among many other issues, addresses the multiple forms of discrimination and poverty experienced by indigenous or native women, and “the extreme disadvantages that indigenous peoples, in particular indigenous women, have typically faced across a range of social and economic indicators and the impediments to their full enjoyment of their rights….”

The World Economic Forum of Geneva, with its renowned annual meeting in Davos — of which this Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity strives to be the Asia-Pacific equivalent, released its latest Global Gender Gap Report in 2011. The report includes 4 foci, what the WEF terms its “Four Pillars” of gender equality: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The 2011 report includes 135 countries, and the overall ranking places China at 61st, while Japan is at 98th and Korea lags behind in 107th position. On a positive note, China has maintained its ranking from the previous year, while Korea has moved up from 117th place and Japan from 100th, indicating slight growth toward closing the gender gap. In general, the Asia-Pacific region is at just over 60% in terms of gender equality issues, ranked above the Middle East and Africa but below all other regions.



In April of this year, the Asia Society of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore released its annual report on women’s leadership in Asia, the results of which have been widely reported in the global media. The survey measures women’s status in health, education, economic activity, and political leadership, and indicates the gender gap at its narrowest and women’s leadership the strongest in New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Mongolia, while those most unequal in both economics and leadership include Pakistan, Nepal, India, South Korea, and Cambodia. Overall, the study finds that limits on women’s employment across Asia amount to a regional loss of $89 billion [USD] annually in productivity and human resources.

Key findings include:

ñ      Asia’s increased prosperity has narrowed the gender gap in many countries, and there are indicators of women’s increased political involvement; Asian women are included in the world’s wealthiest and most powerful; cultural and social misperceptions regarding the inferiority of women are changing;

ñ      There is significant variation among Asian nations regarding issues of gender equality;

ñ      Increased development typically leads to an increase in female leadership; however, two notable exceptions are Japan and South Korea, which have the highest human development rankings in Asia but are notoriously low in measures of gender equality, also true to a lesser degree in both Singapore and Hongkong;

ñ      There is a significant “leaking pipeline” phenomenon throughout the region, in which women in mid-level management positions opt out of employment rather than seek senior management (Japan, 70.24%; China, 52.88%; Hong Kong, 48.83%; Singapore, 45.90%);

ñ      Culture and long-held social norms are the primary barriers to women’s leadership.

Citing the 2+ billion female population in Asia, the report indicates the pay gap is most significant in South Korea (51%) and Japan (60%), and narrowest in Malaysia and Singapore (81%) as well as in Mongolia and Thailand (79%), while the global average is at 70-80% in women’s wages compared to that of men. Even greater is the disparity in senior corporate and board of directors positions; in the former, Japan is the lowest with only 5% of senior management positions held by women; Thailand and the Philippines are the highest at 39%, while China has 25% and India 14%. In terms of women on directorial boards, Japan is again the lowest with just 0.9%, South Korea at 1.9%, China at 8.5%, and New Zealand — the highest in the Asia-Pacific region — at only 9.3%, while the global average is 21%.

“To continue in this direction would put in peril Asia’s many achievements,” the report concludes, urging improvements in gender equality to ensure regional economic development.

The Asia Society report also addresses cultural and social norms as “the most intractable barrier” to gender equality. The top three challenges cited include (1) the demands of family life and view of women as the primary or even exclusive caregiver in the home, extending not only to husband and children but also elder parents; (2) policies and practices of organizations which favor men over women; and, (3) cultural barriers, including a devaluation of girls and women as inferior and subordinate with clearly defined and limited social roles. The Social Institutions and Gender Index [SIGI], developed and utilized by OECD to compensate for research bias on the basis of culture, measures 102 non-OECD countries for those cultural aspects which lead to gender inequality, and has identified family code, son preference, physical integrity or safety, ownership rights, and civil liberties as its criteria. South Asia measures highest in terms of discrimination against women, while the results for East Asia and the Pacific region are mixed.



There are many recommendations and paths for improved gender equality. The Asia Society report suggests increased mentoring of women in business, as well as improvements in parental leave, childcare, elder care, and gender-equal retirement packages. Even more important, however, according to this source, is the need for improved access to education for girls and women, the eradication of sex-selection procedures, and an improvement in women’s property and other legal rights.

In terms of cultural and social barriers, broad education and media campaigns are critical, as well as affirmative action policies, laws to prevent discrimination and domestic violence, and access to legal and support services. The report outlines the pathway to women’s leadership with a foundation of survival, health and education, followed by economic participation and opportunity, and ultimately, political empowerment. China, the country in which former leader Mao Zedong famously said, “Women hold up half the sky,” as a reference to egalitarian economic policy development, has 49% female representation in its total population and 46% in the labor force, and a higher percentage of women in top management than many western nations. There are 29 million female entrepreneurs in China, and half of the 14 female billionaires identified by Forbes’ “World’s Richest Self-Made Women” (2011) are from China. The path to equality in China seems to be one of graduating from a top university, working for a time in a large state-owned business, and then launching one’s own business and becoming an entrepreneur.


The World Economic Forum recommends policy frameworks for gender equality that include family leave, childcare assistance, taxation systems, and labor practices. UN Women, in outlining its resolution for indigenous women’s empowerment, cites a number of methods for developing policies and procedures which will better ensure their rights, and emphasizes the need for their full consent and participation in such activities as well as respect for cultural diversity and acknowledgment of their traditional wisdom. UNDP suggests an “agenda for action” to support economic, political and legal empowerment of women: (1) strengthen international commitments; (2) develop gender-sensitive economic policy; (3) provide greater education access for girls and women; (4) increase political participation; (5) develop gender-equitable laws; (6) eliminate legal forms of discrimination; (7) improve data collection and analysis; and, (8) contribute to change in public perception.

Several policy recommendations are outlined in the Asia Society report. There is a call for governments in Asia to act more systematically to ensure gender equality, such as gender-responsive budgeting and affirmative action policies; Japan and South Korea in particular are exhorted to improve women’s participation in employment and leadership. Institutions both public and private are encouraged to support women in making the bridge between mid- and top-level management positions. While women’s participation in agriculture is generally high, their productivity and scale is low, and rural women’s empowerment is the key. Pioneering female leaders are encouraged to “pay it forward” in contributing to the empowerment of other women. Finally, a need for public education campaigns to reduce cultural and social barriers is highlighted.

Women’s Empowerment Principles

Women’s Empowerment Principles [WEP] were co-created by two United Nations organizations: UN Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM; and, UN Global Compact.

UN Global Compact is a strategic policy initiative for businesses around the world which base their economic principles on universally accepted standards of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption. UNIFEM is now a part of UN Women. The WEP were launched in March of 2010 on International Women’s Day, for the purpose of achieving economic equality for women across the globe. They are based on an earlier version known as the Calvert Women’s Principles, developed in 2004.

Many women’s organizations around the world have adopted these principles. One such example is Business and Professional Women International [BPW], an NGO which began in 1930 and now has member groups in 95 countries on 5 continents.

The 7 Women’s Empowerment Principles are: (1) Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality; (2) Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination; (3) Ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all women and men workers; (4) Promote education, training, and professional development for women; (5) Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women; (6) Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy; and, (7) Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality.

These 7 empowerment principles, however, while designed to be globally applicable, cannot simply be applied as is to each cultural setting. It’s imperative that they be made as culturally relevant as possible in order to achieve maximum success in outcome. The principles can serve as goals. The objectives – the steps taken to achieve each of these goals – can and must differ from one location to the next.


South Korea, home of Kim Mandeok, has been repeatedly called upon by OECD and others to actively address its gender inequality, particularly in terms of economic and political empowerment. With a gender wage gap more than twice that of the OECD average, only 8% of women in supervisory roles, 1 female to every 4 male university graduates hired, less than 5% female corporate executives, and one of the lowest female employment rates of OECD nations in 2011, Korea has been widely considered one of the worst of the developed nations in regard to gender equality concerns.

However, there are several recent indicators of progress. Earlier this year, the Korean ambassador to the UN, Kim Sook, was named president of the 41-member executive board for UN-Women, and Kim Kum-lae, Korea’s Minister of Gender Equality and Family [MOGEF], gave public declaration at that time that her ministry is “striving to make Korea a global symbol of women’s empowerment.” To that end, Korea signed an MOU with UN-Women in December of 2011 regarding the development of seminars and workshops to enhance women’s capabilities and prevent abuse of women; Korea also donated approximately $4.7 million [USD] to UN-Women last year. More than 30 cities in Korea from 2009 to date, including Jeju Island in March of this year, have been declared “Women-Friendly Cities” following an evaluation process, a title which carries a 5-year development plan of public and private cooperation for gender equality measures. Korea Institute for Gender Equality and Education [KIGEPE] provides training programs, projects, activities and materials regarding gender sensitivity in policy-making, impact assessment, and more.

In 2006, the first 5-year comprehensive plan for the development of women resources, “Dynamic Women of Korea 2010,” was launched, and the second such, “Dynamic Women Korea 2015,” is now underway with 46 measures for improved social environment. The past few years have seen the creation of 81 employment support centers for women and 77 new employment centers, as well as 90 women’s re-employment centers and a number of women’s resources development centers.

In her statement at the 56th CSW, Minister Kim identified the need to eliminate discrimination against and empower indigenous and rural women, and advance gender equality as a matter of sustainable development. She highlighted Korea’s “Support of Female Farmers and Fishers Act” which was enacted in 2001 with a 5-year framework; it is now in its 3rd version (2011-2015) “to advance the rights and interests of rural women and improve their quality of life” including affirmative action, expanded leadership roles, vocational and leadership training programs, and other targeted initiatives. Kim also discussed the Gender Impact Assessment which has been conducted annually by MOGEF since 2004, and the Act on Gender Impact Assessment, enacted in September of last year, which requires local and national governments to conduct same in order to guide policy-making, a process which began in March of this year.

Gender-sensitive budgeting was implemented in Korea at the central government level in 2010, and will be introduced at the local level this year. The 4th framework for women’s policies, to cover years 2013-2017, will see new policy issues in regard to women’s health, and elderly women’s engagement in society. And in 2010, the Gender Equality Index was implemented, providing statistics by sector for targeted policy-making.

On Jeju Island, home of Kim Mandeok and the newest “Women-Friendly City” in Korea’s recent scheme, the Jeju Women’s Governance Forum was founded earlier this year following a full year of developmental procedures. Along with many other related initiatives on this “Island of Women,” this body of 133 members representing the full professional spectrum is charged with conducting research and providing educational and other initiatives in order to guide gender-sensitive policy-making in the island’s provincial government.

Ultimately, the principles of Kim Mandeok must be applied to gender equality and the empowerment of women first on the local and national level in Korea, and then also as a model to other countries in the region and around the world.

Modern-day “Mandeoks”

There are a number of “Mandeoks” across Asia already, powerful women who contribute strongly to their country’s economy and politics. The 2011 Forbes list, “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women,” includes 12 women from Asian nations, an increase over the previous year’s list which had only 5 from Asia. They are: Indra Nooyi, chief executive, PepsiCo India; Sonia Gandhi, president, India; Cher Wang, cofounder and chair of both the HTC Corporation and VIA Technologies, Taiwan; Aung San Suu Kyi, general secretary, National League for Democracy, Burma; Chan Laiwa and family, chair, Fu Wah International Group, China; Chanda Kochhar, CEO, ICICI Bank, India; Zhang Xin and family, cofounder and CEO, SOHO, China; Yingluck Sinawatra, prime minister, Thailand; Sri Mulyani Indrawati, managing director, World Bank, Indonesia; Margaret Chan, director general, WHO, China; HO Ching, CEO, Temasek Holdings, Singapore; and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder and chair, BioCon, India.

Forbes has also maintained an annual list entitled, “Asia’s 50 Power Business Women,” which includes these and many more throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Four from South Korea have been identified on that list: Romi Haan, founder and CEO of Haan Corp.; Hyun Jeong-Eun, chair of Hyundai Group; Kim Sung-Joo, founder and CEO/chair of Sungjoo Group / MCM Holdings; and, Lee Mi-Kyung, vice-chair, CJ Entertainment & Media.

Specific to economic empowerment, the 2011 Fortune list, “50 Most Powerful Women in Business: International” (a list which includes all countries other than the US), 22 women from Asia are highlighted: 8 from China, 6 from India, 3 from Singapore, 2 from Hongkong, 2 from Japan, and 1 from Taiwan. They are: Chandra Kochhar; Sock Koong Chua, group CEO, Singapore Telecom, Singapore; Ho Ching; Yafang Sun, chair, Huawei Technologies, China; Deborah “Deb” Henretta, group president, Proctor & Gamble (Asia), Singapore; Cher Wang; Zhang Xin; Umran Beba, president, PepsiCo Asia-Pacific, Hongkong; Mianmian Yang, president, Haier Group, China; Fengying Wang, president, Great Wall Motor, China; Shikha Sharma, managing director and CEO, Axis Bank, India; Junko Nakagawa, CFO, Nomura Holdings, Japan; Neelam Dhawan, managing director, Hewlett-Packard, India; Yoshiko Shinohara, chair and president, Tempstaff, Japan; Shumin Yu, president, Hisense Group, China; Naina Lal Kidwai, group general manager and country head, HSBC, India; Wei Sun Christianson, CEO, Morgan Stanley China, Hongkong; Li Xiaolin, CEO, China Power International Development, Hongkong; Hera Siu, president, SAP, China; Jing Ulrich, managing director and chair of global markets, China, JP Morgan Chase, Hongkong; Preetha Reddy, managing director, Apollo Hospitals Group, India; and, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw.

Perhaps one of the best examples of a modern-day Kim Mandeok in the Asia region can be found not only in these powerful women but also in someone such as Chen Shu-chu, a vegetable seller in Taiwan who achieved worldwide recognition in 2010 for her philanthropy. First identified by Forbes as one of 48 top philanthropists in the Asia-Pacific region, she was soon thereafter included in Time Magazine’s annual list of Asia’s top 100 influential people, in the category of philanthropy, and was chosen as Asian of the Year by Readers’ Digest Asia. The reason: although she makes little profit from her business and has no measurable power according to society’s standards, she keeps her own expenses as low as possible in order to give her money away to people less fortunate than she.

“Money is worthy only if given to those in need,” she has maintained, and in this way she is Mandeok in a way achievable by every woman — and in a way that women are doing every day in every corner of the world.


Kim Mandeok is unique — in the circumstances of her life, era and culture which culminated in unlikely power and opportunity followed by an extraordinary act of compassion. However, she is at the same time Everywoman, in that the women of the world are achieving empowerment and gender equality in varying degrees and are also committing acts of kindness every day.

Mandeok achieved an enormous accumulation of wealth by overcoming the limitations placed upon most women of her time, followed by social recognition — and, in her later years she was presented with and seized an opportunity to give back to her society, a psychological phenomenon quite common in the 5th and 6th decade of the human lifespan.

The message of Kim Mandeok’s life is both timeless and universal, and while her act of compassionate yet pragmatic philanthropy is to be commended, it is her self-actualization and empowerment that have the potential to inspire and empower women around the world. Like Gamunjang-Aegi, the goddess of fortune in Jeju Island’s traditional mythology who at an early age saw within herself the key to her own fate, Mandeok recognized her self-worth and ability and ultimately found a way to achieve her full potential.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment is the key — to a socially and economically, politically and legally balanced world in which global poverty is eradicated and profound acts of philanthropy can be realized.



Commission on the Status of Women [CSW] (2012).  “Indigenous women: key actors in poverty and hunger eradication.” Retrieved at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw56/resolutions_advance_versions/Indigenous-women-CSW56-res-advance.pdf.

Ernst & Young (2011). “Tracking Global Trends: How six key developments are shaping the business world.” Retrieved at http://www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/Tracking_global_trends/$FILE/Tracking%20global%20trends.pdf.

Forbes (2011). “The Worlds 100 Most Powerful Women.” Retrieved at http://www.forbes.com/wealth/power-women.

Forbes (2012). “Asia’s 50 Power Businesswomen.” Retrieved at http://www.forbes.com/lists/2012/13/power-women-asia-12_land.html.

Fortune (2011). “50 Most Powerful Women in Business: International.” Retrieved at http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/most-powerful-women/2011/global/.

Hausmann, R., Tyson, L.D., and Zahidi, S. (2011). The Global Gender Gap Report 2011. World Economic Forum. Retrieved at http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-2011/.

Kim, K.A. (2003). Feminist Reinterpretation of Kim Mandeok’s Life김만덕 삶의 여성주의적 재해석’, Kim Mandeok Foundation presentation김만덕기념사업회.

Kim, K.A. (2006). The Meaning of Kim Mandeok’s Life in Modern Society ‘현대사회에서의 김만덕 삶의 의미’, Kim Mandeok Power Women Discussion김만덕과 파워여성토론회, Korea Culture and Tourism Policy Institute한국문화관광정책연구원.

Kim, K.A. (2008). Kim Mandeok: Female Entrepreneur Who, Transcending Her Era, Remains Relevant Today ‘김만덕: 시대와 불화하지 않으면서 시대를 뛰어넘은 여성 기업인’, 2008, on Naver Portal Site포털 사이트 naver.

Kim, K.L. (2012). “Statement by H.E. Kim Kum-lae, Minister of Gender Equality and Family, The 56th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women” (February 28, 2012; New York). Retrieved at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw56/general-discussions/member-states/RoK.PDF.

Kim, S. (2001). The Myths and Legends of Jeju Island. Jeju Island, Korea: Tamna Book Company.

Koh, H.K. (2010). The Goddesses of Cheju Island: A Study of the Myths of a Korean Egalitarian Culture [Doctoral Dissertation]. Provided by the author.

Lee, J.J. “Wealthy Female Merchants Did Exist in Chosun Era: Development of commerce and trade in the late Chosun Era paved the way for women merchants.” The Women News. Retrieved at http://www.womennews.co.kr/ewnews/enews28.htm.

Lee, R. “Ministry Strives for Women’s Rights: Minister stresses better childcare at workplaces, safe environment for immigrant wives.” Korea Herald,  January 26, 2012. Retrieved at http://www.koreaherald.com/national/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20120125001024.

Maynes, K. (2012). “Korean Perceptions of Chastity, Gender Roles, and Libido: From Kisaengs to the Twenty-first Century.” Grand Valley Journal of History, v.1 i.1 a.2. Retrieved at http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/gvjh/vol1/iss1/2/.

Ministry of Gender Equality and Family [Korea]. “MOGEF-Jeju Special Self-governing Province signing ceremony for the Agreement on Women Friendly City.” Press Release, March 13, 2012. Retrieved at http://english.mogef.go.kr/sub03/sub03_21.jsp?menuID=euc0200&id=euc0200&cate=&key=&search=&order=&desc=asc&syear=&smonth=&sdate=&eyear=&emonth=&edate=&deptcode=&menuID=euc0200&pg=1&mode=view&idx=6870.

Natividad, I. (2012). “What Women Mean to Business.” Retrieved at http://bponline.amcham.gr/?p=1497.

Nemeth, D.J. (1987). The Architecture of Ideology: Neo-Confucian Imprinting on Cheju Island, Korea. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Shin, B.J. (2001). “Kim Mandeok: The First Female CEO with Humanitarian Insight.” Retrieved at http://www.koreabrand.net/en/know/know_view.do?CATE_CD=0005&SEQ=2457.

Tuminez, A.S. (2012). “Rising to the Top? A report on women’s leadership in Asia. Asia Society, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Retrieved at http://sites.asiasociety.org/womenleaders/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Rising-to-the-Top1.pdf.

United Nations. (2011). Millenium Development Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women [Fact Sheet]. Retrieved at http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG_FS_3_EN.pdf.

United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] (2010). Power, Voice and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific. Retrieved at http://web.undp.org/asia/pdf/APHumanDevelopmentReport2010.pdf.

United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] (2011). Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All. Retrieved at http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2011/.

United Nations Economic and Social Council [UN-ECOSOC] (2012). “Development Strategies that Work: Country experiences presented at the ECOSOC Annual Minsterial Review: Korea.” Retrieved at http://webapps01.un.org/nvp/ctry.action?id=1881.

United Nations Global Compact (2010). “Women’s Empowerment Principles: Equality Means Business.” Retrieved at http://www.unglobalcompact.org/docs/issues_doc/human_rights/Resources/WEP_EMB_Booklet.pdf

Women’s Empowerment: Jeju-style, Part 3

(For Parts 1 and 2, see previous posts.)

And so, we can view the 7 Women’s Empowerment Principles within the context of Jeju’s cultural heritage:

  1. “Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality”: For Jeju, place emphasis on the traditionally matrifocal and egalitarian cultural principles, reviving and even modernizing the goddess mythology;

  1. “Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination”: For Jeju, emphasize the traditional communal labor practices and reorganize them to fit modern society; also, support and increase the current peace and human rights initiatives;

  1. “Ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all women and men workers”: For Jeju, expand upon the “eochongye” model of collective economics which also provides for the well-being of its workers, including retirees and those in need; and, provides support to those of lesser skill;

  1. “Promote education, training and professional development for women”: For Jeju, continue to emphasize the Confucian value of lifelong education; provide a variety of business and leadership courses for women [such as a recent training course for female CEOs and entrepreneurs, provided by Jeju Small and Medium Business Administration];

  1. “Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women”: For Jeju, this is also an expansion of the “eochongye” model, in particular as it relates to the diving women’s economic cooperatives and decision-making processes; additionally, emphasize Jeju women’s self-reliance and independence, and provide networking opportunities;

  1. “Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy”: For Jeju, re-conceptualize the island-wide system of small villages with their local councils, applying ideas of “town hall” and “community” also to city life and provincial governance; secondly, make the best use of strong community bonds known as ‘kwendang’; thirdly, support relevant NGOs and similar structures, and develop new ones as needed;

  1. “Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality”: For Jeju, utilize and perhaps even coordinate the island’s numerous research institutes [NGOs, private and public] and government initiatives.


Each principle can be supported by an existing or traditional feature of Jeju’s culture, if highlighted and enhanced for this purpose. This also reorders features of Jeju’s traditional culture in modern terms, which may serve the purpose of cultural preservation and encourage a renewed value of traditions.

There is no need to invent new ways of empowering women. Nor is it appropriate to import methods from another, remarkably different culture.

Rather, a strengths-based model such as this begins with an analysis of the culture within which women are to be further empowered, looking at both positive and negative features of that culture.

Then, for maximum results and cooperation among both women and men, we must creatively build upon that foundation – finding methods to strengthen women’s position in the society which draw from the attributes that women already have, and other methods to understand, decrease and ultimately eliminate those features which stand in their way.

The most important consideration should be the cultural features to be found in each region.


On Jeju, it has been said for some time that Seolmundae Halmang, the island’s giant, grandmotherly, yet all-powerful creator Goddess, is sleeping.

In the words of Korean scholar and mythologist Koh Hea Kyoung, from her nationally recognized 2010 book on Jeju’s creator goddess Seolmundae, “In the Beginning was the Goddess”:

“Discovering great goddesses from the beginning of the world and reviving them in today’s world is my dream as well as the path to a new era – when reason and emotion, humans and nature, and men and women can co-exist in true harmony.”

For the empowerment and equality of Jeju women, to the benefit of both women and men: it is time to awaken Seolmundae Halmang.

Women’s Empowerment: Jeju-style, Part 2

(For Part 1, see previous post.)

There are several dominant influences in Jeju society which must be considered in order to achieve true empowerment for Jeju women: Goddess mythology, Shamanism, Neo-Confucianism, collective labor practices, invasions and assaults, poverty and recent affluence.

The first consideration is the conflict between the relatively recent emphasis on a Neo-Confucian, patriarchal social structure and a much older heritage of Goddess mythology and shamanic practices. The latter, coupled with the labor tradition of the diving women, had once resulted in an egalitarian and even matrifocal traditional culture.

Jeju Island’s creation myth is that of a giant goddess, the grandmother of all, Seolmundae Halmang. Numerous other goddesses can be found in the mythology of Jeju’s traditional culture, indicating the psychological underpinnings of the Jeju woman’s strength.

In the Neo-Confucianism that took particular stronghold in Korea approximately 5 centuries ago, and on Jeju more recently, the woman is relegated to a secondary role in the society. The hierarchy of this social structure also carries over into the workplace, which keeps working women at an artificially lower status.

On the positive side, Confucian ideals support lifelong education, something valued quite highly throughout Korean society.

Communal labor methods in the villages, a requirement for survival in this once harsh landscape and climate, represent a second consideration. A variety of practices such as anchovy harvesting, fishing and diving, farming, millstone grinding, and more resulted in strong community bonds and required women to work side-by-side with men. With modern technology and the decrease in these practices, there is far less need for communal labor and economic cooperatives, though the legacy remains.

Korea’s emphasis on militarism since the war of the mid-20th century, coupled with Jeju’s multiple historic assaults including mass executions in 1948~53 by Korean military forces, have exaggerated the insularity of this island community. It is valid to say that Jeju’s society is inwardly focused, somewhat resistant to outside influence, and self-reliant as a result. A powerful commitment to peace and human rights initiatives has also emerged.

In Korea, including Jeju, corporations and government are typically modeled after the military system to which all young men are conscripted and of which women for the most part have no knowledge or experience – a distinct disadvantage for women in the workplace.

Finally, Jeju has historically been an impoverished island, largely as a result of its isolation and harsh climate. In modern times, due to both industrial and technological advances as well as a shifting economic focus, this is no longer the case. The conflict between poverty consciousness and frugality versus relative affluence and comfort is another factor for consideration.


Several initiatives are underway to improve the status of Jeju women.

A women’s special committee has existed in Jeju government for several years. Since 2006, when Jeju became a more self-governing region, women have been appointed to five council seats out of the 44 in total. Recently, a women’s special committee has also been formed within the council. The Seolmundae Women’s Center, named for the island’s creator goddess, is a government-sponsored facility.

Jeju has a longstanding NGO women’s association which focuses on policy, and another which provides shelter and counseling to women in need. There is a center for single mothers with multiple supportive features. A branch of the YWCA provides many programs for women; a variety of private women’s organizations also exists, including a branch of BPW which places emphasis on the Women’s Empowerment Principles as designed by the UN.

One exciting new government initiative, the Jeju Women’s Governance Forum, includes members from a variety of sectors and is focused on education, research, networking, and policy determination.


(Part 3 to follow.)

Women’s Empowerment: Jeju-style, Part 1

I’d like to talk to you about Women’s Empowerment Principles, within the context of culture.

Women’s Empowerment Principles, known as WEP, were co-created by two United Nations organizations: UN Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM; and, UN Global Compact.

UN Global Compact is a strategic policy initiative for businesses around the world which base their economic principles on universally accepted standards of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption.

UNIFEM is now a part of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, known as UN Women. The six focus areas of UN Women include prevention of violence against women, peace and security issues, leadership and participation, national planning and budgeting, economic empowerment, and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

The WEP were launched in March of 2010 on International Women’s Day, for the purpose of achieving economic equality for women across the globe. They are based on an earlier version known as the Calvert Women’s Principles, developed in 2004.

Many women’s organizations around the world have adopted these principles. One such example is Business and Professional Women International, known as BPW, an NGO which began in 1930 and now has member groups in 80 countries on 5 continents.

The 7 Women’s Empowerment Principles are:

  1. Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality;
  2. Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination;
  3. Ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all women and men workers;
  4. Promote education, training, and professional development for women;
  5. Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women;
  6. Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy;
  7. Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality.

These 7 empowerment principles, however, while designed to be globally applicable, cannot simply be applied as is to each cultural setting. It’s imperative that they be made as culturally relevant as possible in order to achieve maximum success in outcome.

The principles can serve as goals. The objectives – the steps taken to achieve each of these goals – can and must differ from one location to the next.

Thus, as a so-called “western woman” living in Asia, as a professional with a keen interest in culture and how it affects the individual and societal psyche, I would ask each of you: when contemplating how best to achieve these very worthy goals in your country: how can you work within your own cultural matrix in order to effect change?


Jeju women have a longstanding reputation of strength. “The Strong Jeju Woman” is legendary. Feminists in Korea’s mainland point to Jeju women as an example of indigenous feminism. Words like “matriarchy” and “amazonian” have been frequently – if erroneously – employed.

On Jeju, scholars, feminists, and professional women question this identification somewhat.

It’s surely true that the women of this island – and, without a doubt, those of many societies that have endured hardship – share qualities of diligence, fortitude, and courage.

It’s also true that, within the societies of Jeju’s famed diving women, highly structured economic cooperatives and collaborative labor practices have long existed, and women have historically been the backbone of Jeju’s economy.

Thus, Jeju women value independence, individualism, strong will and a certain freedom of thought in ways that differ from their mainland counterparts.

As an example, Jeju women grow up expecting to work – and state that they feel they would be a disappointment to their parents, grandparents, and in-laws, if they did not. They also typically continue working well into their elder years. This is a marked cultural distinction from peninsular Korea.

Women within Korean society, and certainly in Jeju, also wield a great deal of power in matters of the household.

And so, to an outsider, this can look like economic equality. The diving women once represented a primary occupation of Jeju, their history stretching back approximately 2000 years. While it is very difficult and dangerous work, these women of Jeju nevertheless have historically enjoyed a good deal of economic equality and even superiority to men.

This, however, does not represent true equality.

Aside from the labor collectives, Jeju women have not yet attained substantial positions of leadership within the society. Indeed, even within those collectives known as “eochongye” which govern the work of fishermen and diving women and typically have more female than male members, fewer than 20% of the top leaders are female.

In Jeju society, there are also comparatively few female CEOs or top-level managers in corporations. In the several hundred villages throughout Jeju Island, women are also not made chiefs of the village councils.

In government, there are very few females in management positions. And no woman has ever actually been elected to public office, though Jeju legislation now provides for the appointment of five women to the Provincial Council.

Further, although Jeju women have historically contributed strongly to the economy of Jeju, today women throughout Korea are ranked in last position of OECD member nations for the status of women in business, in categories of gender-based wage gap, employment of women, and senior management positions held by women.

According to recent surveys, Jeju is ranked first for the greatest wage gap between men and women among Korea’s 16 provinces, and 10th for the percentage of women in council or public administration.

Therefore, even for such strong women, there is still a great deal of progress to be made before it can be said that any true measure of equality and economic sustainability has been achieved. In actuality, as Jeju’s economy has shifted away from agriculture and fishery to one of tourism and industry, the economic power of Jeju women has diminished.

In the past two years, according to regional statistics, the percentage of Jeju women in the workforce has actually decreased.

And the daughters, the next generation of Jeju women? As the element of hardship and adversity decreases in this increasingly affluent and modernized, technologically driven society, mothers express concern that their daughters want easy lives and lack the strength of their forebears.

(Part 2 to follow.)

Jeju Women’s History

[My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly. Photos added.]

A Look at Jeju Women’s Lives Throughout Time

The history of Jeju women’s culture

Part 1 of a 2-part series

The history of the “strong Jeju women” is significant to understanding the women’s society of today.

At the core of Jeju women’s culture is the island’s mythology, beginning with a goddess-oriented creation myth and including multiple other goddesses. The longstanding shamanic religious tradition, of particular importance to women and including many female shamans, supports this mythology.

A two-volume book series on the topic of Jeju women’s history has been published online by the Jeju Development Institute (JDI) under the guidance of its president, Yang Young-oh. Following extensive research involving multiple scholars, together the books constitute more than 1,500 pages, with volume I addressing pre-Joseon era to 1910 and volume II covering 1910 to 1945.

Moon Soon Deok, senior researcher at JDI and an expert on Jeju women’s culture, led a 23-member research team for the second volume which was published earlier this year.

Several key events throughout history have contributed to the constitution of Jeju women’s society.

For more than a hundred years around the time of the 12th century, Mongolian troops occupied this island. According to historian and mythologist Kim Soonie, Jeju representative of the Cultural Heritage Administration, this was actually favorable to Jeju women as the Mongolians viewed women in a relatively egalitarian manner. During this time, a majority of Jeju women participated in the labor force and even learned to ride horses according to Mongolian custom, for example.

Confucianism became the guiding social system of the mainland under the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), and was introduced to Jeju as well. It took hold primarily in the farming and mid-mountain villages where political exiles and other mainlanders typically settled, but was largely ignored by the coastal communities. The diving women, long devotees of the island’s shamanic traditions, rejected Confucianism’s hierarchical and male-centered ideals.

This resulted in two nearly distinct women’s cultures, according to scholar and author Han Rimhwa, in that women of the inland villages, with their newly adopted Confucian ideals, viewed the free and independent ways of the coastal women as “low-class” and “vulgar” behavior. These inner and outer regions seldom permitted intermarriage and had little to do with one another beyond trade of goods, according to Han.

For 200 years during this time, the people of Jeju were not permitted to leave the island. Scholars Moon, Kim, and Han all cite this period as particularly significant regarding the changes it brought to Jeju society, especially to its women.

A number of local women became common-law wives to the political exiles who were banished to the island. It was a source of pride, according to Kim, to bear a son who was the first to bring a new name – a new family line and registry – to Jeju.

“When the exile husbands returned to their original lives – and wives,” Kim described, “the Jeju women remained here with their families and community.” There was no stigma against them, and they were free to remarry – or not, as they chose, their children were typically supported by their absent father. A certain number of these exiles chose to remain on Jeju Island with their new families.

Several notable women emerged from this era, in particular the legendary entrepreneur and philanthropist of the 18th century, Kim Man Deok. As early as the 16th century, the renown of “medical women” Jangdeok and Gwigeum of Jeju reached the royal court. The “yeachong” were women who served in the military during the time of the Joseon dynasty.

Following this era came the period of Japanese colonization which, according to Kim, was also favorable to female workers as the Japanese included women equally in the labor force. However, according to Moon, there was “not much work for women” during this time due to various restrictions, and many women went to Japan to work in factories – and some as “hostesses” in bars and the equivalent. Many also ran “cottage industries” or home-based businesses organized by the Japanese during this time.

There are no documented “comfort women” from Jeju, those forced into sexual service to the Japanese troops, as can be identified on the mainland. However, there is speculation among many scholars, including Moon, Kim, and Han, that this was inevitably the case but that, as Jeju is a very small society, none have ever reported it in order to avoid the shame it would bring upon their families.

Notable women of this time, featured in the small museum at the Seolmundae Women’s Center, include Kang Pyung Guk, an educator and advocate for women’s rights; Choi Jeong Sook, first female superintendent of the Jeju education authority; Kim Shi Sook, leader of the independence movement on Jeju; and, Koh Su Seon, Jeju’s first female physician, among others.

Part 2 of a 2-part series

The women of Jeju are notoriously strong of body and mind – and will. Often considered “natural feminists” by scholars from the mainland and elsewhere, there is no denying that Jeju is historically an egalitarian and matrifocal culture in which women have been at the center of their homes and communities, and a driving economic force.

Is strength of character woven into the Jeju woman’s DNA? Is the famed “Strong Jeju Woman” born – or made?

The era known as “Sasam” or “4.3” followed the Japanese colonial period, a time of political unrest throughout Korea which resulted in violent anti-Communist crackdowns by the military and police forces and counter-rebellions by citizens, with the ultimate demise of up to one-tenth of Jeju’s population.

According to scholar and author Han Rimhwa and many others, the women’s experience of this time represents a multi-layered tragedy.

“Men and boys were typically the target of execution,” Han reported, “and the women had to bear not only the terror and hardship of that time but the loss of their husbands and sons as well.”

She elaborated, “Women were often raped, and many offered themselves sexually in trade for their family members’ lives. One woman I interviewed told me, ‘at that time, I wanted to kill myself – but I lived, for the sake of my family.’”

Han further recounted that many women went to the mainland or to Japan as refugees during this time, following the deaths of their loved ones, in a vain attempt to escape the violence and sorrow they had experienced. “They couldn’t forget the images, though,” she said, “and some committed suicide as a result.”

Historian and mythologist Kim Soonie, Jeju representative of the Cultural Heritage Administration, reported that women often volunteered for duty in the navy during this time, in a belief that this display of nationalism would protect their family members by counteracting any accusations of “communist” or “insurgent” which were being applied, often arbitrarily, to the people of Jeju.

In this modern era, much has changed for Jeju women.

Sudden change came to the community structure of Jeju Island in the 1970s, according to Han and others, due to the central government’s “Saemaeul” or New Villages economic movement as well as the advent of television and other media.

Highways began to crisscross the island, bringing increased mobility and interaction between regions, and tourism became a major industry on Jeju during that time.

Today’s women are more highly educated and professionally oriented than their ancestors. The haenyeo and farming women’s communities have shrunk considerably, and a majority of Jeju citizens, including women, live in the capital city – or off the island.

In this modern era, when traditions are rapidly disappearing and the definition of community and women’s roles are undergoing great change, identity has become the critical issue.

“Jeju women need enlightenment in order to improve Jeju,” Kim said. “We are selling our souls for tourism and money – but there’s more than this. We need soul healing,” she expressed.

“Young Jeju women are strong, but less so than their ancestors,” Moon opined, stating that she felt upset by this.

“What does it mean to be a Jeju woman today?” Han mused. “We have a new identity now – but we don’t know what it is. We need to rebuild Jeju women’s society – and take care of each other.”

Shamanism as Folk Psychology

[My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly]

Jeju Shamans, Healing Minds and Hearts

Shamanism as Folk Psychology

Part One of a 2-part Series.

Three mourners sat before the shaman as she placed her hand over each one’s heart in turn, pounded on their upper backs, blew air onto the crown of each head, and draped a cloth dipped in sacred water over their shoulders, all the while chanting a story of consolation.

They were the ones who had discovered the body of their drowned colleague and friend, and who now sat before the presiding shaman, Suh Sun Sil, at the funeral ritual. Suh, in a rite universal to all such traditions across the globe according to philosopher and shamanism expert Mircea Eliade, was helping them to retrieve the part of their souls that had been lost as a result of their shocking experience.

Earlier that day, words of consolation from the deceased woman to her colleagues, her haenyeo (female diver) sisters, poured from the mouth of Suh as she became a conduit between the living and the dead. In the early evening, Suh and three other shamans would accompany the husband and haenyeo sister-in-law of the deceased to the nearby shore where her body had been recovered, in order to call her spirit from its watery grave and give offerings to the Dragon King and water spirits in return.

▲ Shaman Suh Sun Sil performing memorial ritual for ‘keun-simbang’ (Grand Shaman) Lee Jung Chun. Photo by Hong Sunyoung.

On the second of the two-day ritual, Suh simbang (shaman, in Jeju dialect) would provide an elaborate rite to console the spirit of the dead woman and, in the role of psychopomp, usher her to the Otherworld.

In addition to soul loss and retrieval, universal themes of shamanic traditions according to Eliade include altered states of consciousness, travel by the shaman and spirits between material and immaterial planes, ecstatic states, delineated ritual space, sacred center and conduit and the concept of a quest, among others.

Four cross-cultural healing techniques of the shaman include the deliberate use of singing, dancing, storytelling, and silence, according to cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien. Scholar Malindoma Some, in his 1997 book, “Ritual: Power, Healing and Community,” described the shamanic rites of his Dakara tribe in Burkina Faso as an opportunity each time for the healing of all members, not limited to those directly affected.

“The role of the shaman,” according to senior simbang Lee Yong Ok of Jeju City’s Chilmeoridang shamanic society in a recent interview, “is to comfort the client or community in abnormal circumstances, usually through song and dance.”

After ensuring her clients’ initial comfort, Lee then assesses through the use of divination whether the client’s circumstances can be effectively addressed through ritual or require medical or other intervention. She prefers seeing clients in their own homes if possible; otherwise, she meets them at the seashore.

Lee’s husband Kim Yoon Su, one of only two remaining keun simbang (grand shaman) on Jeju, expressed his concern in conversation last May over the lack of intergenerational transmission of Jeju shamanism. Fearing that modernization might soon bring an end to this practice, he allowed that he has no immediate successor as his own children did not follow in the family profession, unlike the generations before them.

▲ Shamans Kim Yoon Su and Lee Yong Ok in ritual. Photo provided by Chilmeoridang Yeongdeung-gut Preservation Society.

Rhi Bou Yong, neuropsychiatrist and Jungian psychologist, wrote his doctoral thesis on “Shamanism and the Korean Psyche” in the late 1960s at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich. Now retired from Seoul National University and currently the founding director of the Korean Association of Jungian Analysts in Seoul, he has published numerous related articles.

In our conversations in 2005 and 2006 as well as email communication of last year, Dr. Rhi repeatedly emphasized the importance of Korea’s shamanic tradition in defining as well as treating the collective Korean psyche.

Shaman Kim Keum Hwa agrees. A mainland shaman of North Korean heritage who bears the nationally designated title Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 82, she holds an honorary doctoral degree and is considered a national treasure.

Initiated as a shaman at the age of 17, this now 83-year old mudang (mainland term for shaman) who has performed ritual in more than 25 countries and maintains a shamanic training center on Ganghwa Island, recounted one story after another regarding the effects of ritual on the clients who come to her for individual sessions. (Personal communication, 2005 and 2006.)

Kim traveled to Jeju in early October of this year to perform a public ritual with the well-known contemporary dancer, Hong Sincha, for the good of Jeju Island and its people.

The scientific foundation of indigenous psychology has been well established by scholars Kim Uichol and Park Young-Shin (Inha University, Incheon), among many others.

Koreans’ innate psychology has been explored in detail by Seoul scholars Choi Sang-Chin (Chung-Ang University) and Kim Kibum (Sungkyunkwan University), in particular the phenomenon of “cheong” or “shimcheong” [sic] which might be described as a feeling of close relationship that includes shared meaning in a context of community, and which is supported by the shamanic ritual.

Other examples of mental-emotional constructs within Korean culture include han, nunchi, and kibun, among others, all used to describe aspects of the Korean psyche which are not easily translatable into English nor precisely duplicated elsewhere.

The American Psychiatric Association’s manual on mental disorders, DSM-IV, includes a section on “culture-bound syndromes” – a constellation of mental-emotional symptoms which are only found in a particular culture and are most successfully addressed within that cultural milieu. It includes two from Korea: hwa-byeong and sin-byeong, the latter of which is experienced by those being called by the spirit world to become shamans.

Shamanism, in modern as well as historical eras, provides many of the same functions for Jeju society as does psychological counseling. Its form is flexible and adaptable, integrating modern elements as needed in order to maintain its relevance.


Part Two of a 2-part Series.

Shaman Lee Yong Ok, of the Chilmeoridang shamanic society, presided over an unusual memorial ritual earlier this month.

In remembrance of Yang Yong Chan, a student activist who became a martyr by self-immolation 20 years ago, the ritual was held in a park in Seogwipo along with other activities of remembrance and the dedication of a memorial stone.

Considering the circumstances of his death, the Chilmeoridang shamans combined two rituals in a new form likely never before performed in quite this way. Integrated were elements of both the traditional funeral ritual and the rites to the fire gods normally performed when a house has burned down – to ensure the safety of rebuilding on the site.

▲ Shaman Lee Yong Ok conducting memorial ritual for Yang Yong Chan. Photo by Anne Hilty.

In a moving display, the ritual had been constructed according to need, indicating the tradition’s flexibility and ability to continue to comfort and address the needs of a modern society.

In April of this year, the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation sponsored a national conference entitled, “4.3 Trauma, Seeking Healing.” In addition to specialists in the areas of history, psychiatry, and psychology, Jeju culture expert Moon Moo-Byung and Seoul scholar of religious studies Kim Seong-nae (Sogang University) spoke on the use of shamanic ritual for healing.

Kim, who has published considerably on Jeju shamanism, refers not only to its healing capabilities but also its role in determining the collective narrative, or cultural identity, thereby relating it to psychology in yet another way.

“…the shamanic epics and legends articulate the rhetoric about…the identity of Cheju [sic] people as tragic heroes and ‘frontier exiles,’” Kim has written.

The renowned Swiss psychiatrist and father of analytical psychology, Carl G. Jung, wrote extensively in the early 20th century on the parallels between shamanic practices and psychoanalysis, in particular regarding his theories on archetypes and collective unconscious and the role of the psychologist as a skilled facilitator of same. His contemporary, accomplished mythologist and prolific author Joseph Campbell, also exploredsuch parallels in detail.

Shaman Suh Sun Sil recounted, in an interview earlier this month, the story of a schizophrenic man brought to her for consultation.

Referring to his “fragmented spirit” and marginally successful prior medical treatment, she described her use of ritual to bring “comfort to his mind” in what might be termed “reintegration” by a psychologist. Following the ritual, he continued his medical protocol with greater success.

Shaman Suh also told of her use of dance and song to alleviate clients’ depression, ritual for the transformation of ‘han’ which is a constellation of suppressed emotions

▲ Shaman Suh Sun Sil in repose during ritual.

Photo by Brenda Paik Sunoo, author of “Moon Tides”. 

including resentment and unresolved grief and loss among others, rites for alleviating the delirium tremens and hallucinations of alcohol detoxification, and the facilitation of broken relationships “by repairing the spirit.”

Citing the power of words and her need to choose them carefully when designing and conducting rituals, Suh also identified the loss of ritual in modern society and the increase in stress and stress-related illnesses as a result.

Michael Winkelman (Arizona State University, USA) is considered one of the foremost scholars on shamanism today. Referring to shamanic practice as “neurotheology and evolutionary psychology” in his 2002 article in American Behavioral Scientist, he identified the psychophysiological effects of altered states of consciousness, neurotransmitter responses resulting from the combination of ritual and community, and the relationship of concepts regarding “spirit” to those of individual and group psychodynamics.

In his 2010 book, “Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing,” Winkelman elaborated on the “shamanic paradigm” as “self-empowerment” which “strengthens individuals’ ability to take an active role in their health and well-being” and “enhances the [full] use of [the] brain, conscious and unconscious” in its emphasis on the “vital connection with community and the spiritual dimension of human health.”

Shaman Lee relayed in a recent interview the 40 year-old story of a Jeju physician with chronic migraines who, after all treatment failed, was scheduled for brain surgery in Seoul. Prior to surgery, he consulted Jeju shaman Moon Ok Sun, who was the mother of Kim Yoon Su, keun simbang (grand shaman) and leader of the Chilmeoridang shaman society – and Lee’s husband.

During the ritual, Shaman Moon discovered that the physician’s brother had been executed during the 1948 turmoil on Jeju and mourning rituals were never performed because they were forbidden at that time.

Shaman Moon performed rituals to comfort the dead and the living, and the physician’s migraines were resolved without surgery. Later, in his clinical practice, he was known for referring treatment-resistant cases to the shamans for ritual.

“Jeju society today still has unresolved trauma from that time,” voiced Shaman Lee, “and Jeju people are not comforted.” Citing mass graves and ongoing identification of the dead, she proposed the need for public funeral rites and soul retrieval.

She also described her work with “heartbroken” clients, divorcing couples, and those experiencing depression “as a result of being blamed unjustly by others.”

The shaman, like the psychologist, pursues an extensive period of formalized training, often in the form of apprenticeship to a senior practitioner and internship under supervision. The concept of “wounded healer,” referring to the shaman – or psychologist – who can deeply empathize as a result of his or her own earlier experience with pain, is common to both professions.

All shamanic ritual follows a standard format. Beginning with a clearly delineated purpose and rites of preparation and purification, the facilitating and supporting shamans shift their consciousness to that of a trance state, invoke the spirits, and request their beneficence. The main task is then addressed in a variety of rites, participants or clients express their gratitude by making offerings, the spirits are then dismissed, and the ritual brought to closure. Ultimately, the boundaries of the sacred space are opened once more, the ritual bond between shamans and participants is released, and all return to their everyday lives.

The counseling session between psychologist and client follows a near-identical basic pattern.

Sharing features with such traditions throughout the world’s cultures, Jeju shamanism provides comfort to a number of the island’s native people. While the shamanic rites are not offered as frequently today as they were 50 years ago, according to shamans Kim, Lee, and Suh, the practice of shamanism remains a vital element in the health of Jeju society, worthy of preservation.