A South Korean politician has sparked anger after he criticised the female nominee for head of the country’s fairtrade commission for “failing to fulfil her duty to the nation” by not having children.
Jeong Kab-yoon, a member of the conservative opposition Liberty Korea party, was widely condemned after suggesting to Joh Sung-wook, an economics professor, that she had focused on her career at the expense of the country’s birth rate.
“I’m aware that you are still single and the biggest problem in South Korea is that women are not giving birth,” Jeong told Joh this week at her confirmation hearing to lead the commission, according to Yonhap news agency. “You have a great résumé but please fulfil your duties to the nation,” he added.
Joh, a professor at Seoul National University and the first female nominee for the position, reportedly smiled awkwardly but did not respond. Social media users, though, accused Jeong of violating her rights, with one asking: “Would a male nominee have been asked this question?”
South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, despite government attempts to encourage couples to have more children by investing billions of dollars in child-rearing subsidies and daycare services.
The country’s fertility rate – the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime – fell to a record low of 0.98 last year, or less than one baby per woman. That rate is far short of the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population.
Many women, however, say they are reluctant to have children, citing the high cost of raising families and a conservative work culture that makes it difficult for parents of young children to balance their jobs with family life.
Jeong later apologised for his remarks, claiming that he had only wanted to highlight South Korea’s demographic crisis and had not meant to insult Joh, according to the Korea Herald.
Female MPs from the ruling Democratic party of Korea said Jeong was unfit to serve in the national assembly. “[He] seems to believe women giving birth and rearing children is the only way for them to contribute to the country,” they said in a statement quoted in the Korea Times. “He is unqualified to be a lawmaker in today’s society.”
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.