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No. of Female Staff in Foreign Ministry Rising

Posted November. 22, 2008 09:32,   


The presence of women in the government has skyrocketed, especially in the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry. Twenty three out of 35 people (65.7 percent) who passed the foreign service exam in June were women, including one who topped the test.

A number of changes have occurred in the ministry after the sudden increase in female staff.

○ Dispatch to Africa from August

Five to six years ago, the majority of female diplomats worked in multilateral diplomacy, which requires high proficiency in foreign languages and presentation for international conferences.

Things have since changed. Female staff have spread their influence in the ministry’s North America and Northeast Asia divisions in bilateral diplomacy as well as in a task force for the six-way talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear program.

At ministry headquarters, more women can be seen working in more offices. The Korean Embassy in Washington had an unwritten rule of taking on male staff only, but received a female official in 2004.

Since August this year, women have begun to display their diplomatic skills in the southern central region of Africa, which was once a barren land for female diplomats. They have gone to the Korean embassies in Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

Despite the ministry’s personnel management principle of rotating diplomats from advanced to underdeveloped countries, female diplomats had been exempt from serving in that region of Africa. The ministry has since lifted this exemption.

Junior female diplomats also say they reject preferential treatment. “The diplomat has to answer the call wherever he or she is asked to go. I believe women should also gain various hand-on experience on an equal footing with men,” said Kim Jeong-yeon, 29, the first female secretary to a vice minister after entering the ministry’s North American division in 2006.

The Diplomat Wives’ Association changed its name to the Diplomat Spouses Association in October last year to allow the husbands of female diplomats to join. This reflects the growing number of female diplomats.

○ Being a married diplomat

Diplomats are reassigned every three years. The biggest problem for female diplomats is their accompanying family. “Considering that double income families are now very common, this is not just a matter for the Foreign Ministry,” said Kim Hyo-eun, 41, the head of the ministry’s climate change and environment division. Her husband works for the Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

The number of diplomat couples is also rapidly growing. The first couple appeared in 1987 and the number has since increased to 16. The first couple was Kim Won-su, special assistant to the United Nations secretary general, and Park Eun-ha, counselor at the Korean mission to the United Nations. They have had to live apart three times since 1987.

Kim once lived in New Delhi, India, while Park was in New York and their child in Korea. “Before being a husband, I’m a diplomat. Therefore, I have to endure the pain of separation,” Kim said.

Each time the ministry rotates diplomats, it faces difficulty in relocating diplomat couples. Juggling the “humanitarian principle” of allowing couples to live together and the “no privilege principle” is difficult. The ministry used to allow diplomat couples to serve at the same diplomatic mission or neighboring posts, but will no longer do so, a ministry official said.

○ Lingering prejudice against female diplomats

“No matter how fairly personnel decisions are made, we are bound to feel pressure if the host country doesn’t welcome a female diplomat,” said one high-ranking ministry official. “Even the United Arab Emirates, which is considered the most open country in the Middle East, hesitated to accept a female ambassador when the appointed U.S. ambassador to the country was a woman three consecutive times.”

“There are many tough and difficult jobs to assume in foreign missions. Some have only two or three staff. When a female diplomat goes on maternity leave, male diplomats have to take over her duties,” said a senior diplomat in his 50s.

“Female diplomats receive high test scores and are passionate and meticulous in work. It is difficult for them, however, to break the prejudice against women because they try to avoid difficult tasks requiring late night work.”