When Suh Young Kyung joined the Bank of Korea in 1988, officials at the central bank told her to wear a schoolgirl’s outfit. She refused.
Hired with one other woman and 50 men, Suh has risen to be the most senior female executive in the institution’s history. As director of the financial-markets division, she’s in charge of open-market operations to regulate liquidity in the banking system, reporting to Governor Kim Choong Soo and monetary-policy board members.
“They tried to force me to wear the same uniform as high-school graduates while giving money to my male colleagues to buy a suit every season,” Suh said in an interview, wearing a navy tweed jacket and white blouse with black pants. “The BOK was entirely dominated by men when I started.”
It still is. The bank has only three women among about 230 high-level positions. Suh, 49, is the first and only female official who attends monetary-policy committee meetings, sitting with seven members and 15 other key officials -- all men. Kim, 65 and governor since 2010, is trying to change that, promoting Suh and encouraging other women employees.
“You wouldn’t find such a thing in any country in the world,” Kim said in an interview in Seoul. “It doesn’t make sense. Even these three women would not be here without me.”
Suh’s journey to break through the ranks of the male-dominated institution hasn’t been easy. She was one of only five girls out of 200 students accepted to study economics at the prestigious Seoul National University in 1982. All her professors were male.
“I was attracted by economics, as it gives the ability to help understand the complex world much better,” she said in an interview on Jan. 29 in her office.
After graduation she joined the BOK, which she considered the best place to learn how theories can be applied. She worked in the research department before the bank sent her to pursue a doctorate in 2003 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., under a program to give promising staff international experience.
In her thesis, “Three Essays on Trade Specialization and Trade Costs,” Suh suggested a more accurate way to estimate South Korea’s trade, taking into account the rising investment exporters were making in China and other countries to gain cheaper labor and better market access.
Her “work on the effects of vertical integration with South Korean trade will be most important,” Professor Michael Moore, her academic adviser at the time, said in an e-mail. “Production fragmentation, where various parts of the production process take place in different countries, is becoming increasingly important, especially in East Asia.”
While Suh’s focus was natural for an economist from a country where exports represent half of gross domestic product, another global phenomenon caused her to switch direction after she returned to South Korea: the 2007-2009 financial crisis.
Mindful of the 1997 Asian currency crunch that forced South Korea to accept a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, the BOK strengthened its defense against volatile capital flows, adopting regulations Suh championed.
“Suh is brilliant,” said Kim. “She’s well trained both academically and professionally.”
Suh analyzed how the shock sweeping the world’s economies could spread into South Korea and pushed for measures to shield Asia’s fourth-largest economy from contagion.
She “laid out the grounds for safeguards that put a brake on excessive overseas borrowings and prevented capital flight,” said Kim Kyung Soo, a professor at Seoul-based Sungkyunkwan University who co-authored two papers with Suh on capital flows and currency issues. “Foreign capital-flow management is a key to our financial system, as our currency is not used internationally while our economy lives on trade.”
Since 2010, South Korea has capped banks’ currency-forward positions and imposed a levy on domestic and foreign banks’ nondeposit foreign-currency liabilities, with higher charges for short-term debt. It also revived taxes on foreign investors in Korean bonds. The Korean won has appreciated about 24 percent against the Japanese yen in the past six months.
“We should tackle volatile capital flows while keeping the markets open, as it not only causes instability for the economy but also constrains policy measures,” Suh said.
Keeping South Korea’s financial markets on an even keel has its own special challenges.
Suh was in a mid-morning meeting with policy board members on Dec. 12 to prepare for the following day’s rate decision when they learned that North Korea had fired a long-range rocket.
“I was surprised by North Korea’s success,” Suh said. “We launched our emergency monitoring system immediately to take any action if needed.”
South Korea’s markets shrugged off the news. The won traded near a 15-month high, and the benchmark stock index closed at the highest level in two months. The next day, the committee unanimously agreed to hold the benchmark interest rate at 2.75 percent.
“I was relieved,” Suh said.
Today, officials again left borrowing costs unchanged after renewed tensions with the North.
The daughter of a businessman in the textile industry and a housewife, Suh was born in Daegu, the same southern city that was the birthplace of the country’s first female president, Park Geun Hye, who was sworn in on Feb. 25.
Balancing her own family life and career has been one of her biggest challenges, she said.
“I almost quit my job when my sons had a hard time competing with other kids who were under 24-hour-a-day watch by moms with no jobs,” said Suh, who met her husband when she was a university student in Seoul.
Her elder son, 23, is studying economics at a local university, while the younger one, 19, has applied to U.S. colleges to study economics and finance. Her husband, a Finance Ministry official for about 10 years and now chief financial officer at Hankook Tire Co., understands how difficult it has been for her in her career and is highly supportive, she said.
For one thing, there’s the drinking, a traditional feature of corporate culture in the country. Colleagues often gather after work to imbibe spirits such as soju, distilled from rice. Suh initially tried to fit in before learning to manage staff relations with limited alcohol.
“It was really hard for a woman to break into the inner circle,” said Suh, who recently finished reading Bernard Werber’s “Le rire du Cyclope.” “I feel now much more comfortable, as expertise matters most.”
She relaxes by hiking, swimming and working out at the gym or watching movies such as Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” She says she rarely posts on social networking sites because so many people follow her to get a hint on the central bank’s policy direction.
One of her early inspirations was George Washington economics Professor Graciela Kaminsky, a former economist at the Federal Reserve.
“I had never personally met professionally successful women before,” she said.
She now has a staff of 14 women and 34 men, who sit in a room outside her Spartan office. She kept a photo of her family on her desk when her children were younger. These days the surface is covered with papers and reports, and the only decoration on the wall is a traditional Korean landscape painting.
Suh encourages other women to follow her path, visiting her alma mater in Seoul to lecture on the central bank and give advice to female students. The ratio of women in the central bank with a college degree has risen to 20 percent from 17.5 percent in late 2009.
It’s “a great place to establish yourself as an expert,” she said.