Fashion Chief Rallies to Make Park South Korean President

Sungjoo Group Founder Kim Sung Joo
Kim Sung Joo, founder of Sungjoo Group. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Kim Sung Joo, who refused an arranged marriage to pursue her fortune selling luxury goods, said electing Park Geun Hye next month as South Korea’s first female president would help destroy its entrenched gender gap.

“If she becomes the top leader in Korea, we’ll break through everything -- glass, concrete,” Kim, 55, a co-chairwoman of Park’s election campaign committee, said in an interview on Nov. 15. “That will equalize men and women in Korean society.”

Kim, whose business took off after securing the local Gucci franchise in 1990, and Park are exceptions in Asia’s fourth-largest economy, which has one of the world’s biggest divisions in gender equality. Park is the front-runner and has pledged to appoint more women to ministerial posts while working to increase jobs and reduce a growing income gap.

“In Korea you have no idea what’s out there because it’s such a male, closed society -- a big boys’ club,” said Kim, dressed in black pants, white shirt, and her trademark red scarf and red high-top sneakers.

South Korea ranks 108th among 135 countries surveyed in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report. The country is 116th in economic participation and opportunity for women, 99th in female educational attainment and 86th in political empowerment, according to the report.

The number of women legislators increased to 15.6 percent after an election in April, from 13.7 percent in 2010. There are no female chief executive officers leading the nation’s top-20 business groups, and women make up 6.2 percent of executives in companies with more than 1,000 employees.

Future IPO

Kim’s Sungjoo Group, which owns German fashion brand MCM, isn’t a publicly listed company. Kim said sales approached $400 million last year and may rise to as much as $600 million next year. An initial share sale in Hong Kong may be on the agenda in three or four years, she said.

Park leads in polls ahead of male rivals Ahn Cheol Soo and Moon Jae In for the Dec. 19 election that will determine who leads the nation for the next five years. Thrust into the role of first lady at 22 when her mother was killed in a North Korean assassination attempt on her father, the late dictator Park Chung Hee, she is one of the 47 female lawmakers in the 300-seat National Assembly.

Her critics contend that because she has never married and is childless, she can’t relate to the problems faced by women trying to juggle work, family and child rearing. Empathy and experience combating the “machoism” and “deep patriarchy” of South Korean politics will serve her well, said Kim, who ultimately married a man of her own choice and has a 23-year-old daughter.

Incentives, Subsidies

Ahn, the independent candidate and software entrepreneur, has pledged to increase the number of daycare centers by 30 percent while Moon of the main opposition Democratic United Party wants to encourage men to play a greater role in raising children and would legislate for a minimum of two weeks’ paternity leave.

Park has also said she would offer incentives to companies to increase the number of women in management roles, double the budget for job training for women and add 30 new employment centers for women seeking to join the work force. Government child-support subsidies for single-parent homes would be raised to 150,000 won ($138) per month from the current 50,000 won.

A “Women Talent Academy” would also be set up to nurture future female leaders in business and government, Park said in a Nov. 14 speech. There are two female ministers now serving in President Lee Myung Bak’s administration and the highest government posts to have been held by women previously are prime minister and justice minister.

Amherst Graduate

Park’s support rate is 44.7 percent, compared with Moon’s 28.3 percent and Ahn’s 21.5 percent, according to a poll released yesterday by Seoul-based Realmeter and JTBC, a cable-television affiliate of newspaper JoongAng Ilbo. Ahn and Moon are discussing merging their campaigns, which might be enough to overcome Park’s advantage.

Kim, a graduate of Amherst College in Massachusetts who also studied at the London School of Economics and Harvard University, joined Park’s camp on Oct. 11. She will return to her luxury business and life-long interest in style and fashion after the election.

“Grace does her own hair and make-up every morning because she wants to be herself more than anything,” said Kim, using a nickname for Park the pair use together. “And that is beautiful.”

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