She calls herself the maid to Park Geun-hye’s princess. She’s the fringe to Park Geun-hye’s mainstream status.
Park grew up in a castle: the president’s official residence that her father occupied for 18 years until his assassination in 1979, to which she returned many years later as president, and from which she was thrown out just three weeks ago.
Sim Sang-jung, on the other hand, was born in a rural town near the border with North Korea, as the youngest out of four siblings, in a family that prioritized the success of the two sons over the daughters. She had to fight her way up in a male-dominated society, unlike Park, who was girded by her father’s halo. Park was the eternal president’s daughter; Sim was nobody’s.
“Park Geun-hye and I really don’t have much in common except being biologically female,” said Sim Sang-jung, who has been a consistent critic of the former president.
Since 2015, Sim has led the Justice Party, a minor opposition party that has just six seats in the legislature. Sim attended every anti-Park weekend rally in Seoul since October. She and her colleagues were some of the first and most vocal proponents of Park’s ouster from office.
Now, she is running in a 60-day race to win the throne that Park occupied.
“It’s exhausting,” Sim said, sitting in her airy office inside the National Assembly compound in Yeouido, Seoul. There was a blank plasma screen TV on the wall, and a recently-finished apple core on her otherwise neat desk. Books lined the shelves: on politics, economics, even one about traveling to Spain.
Don’t be fooled by Sim’s self-characterization as a maid and an outsider. She is not from an oppressed minority, although she claims to fight for those that are. Sim’s father was an elementary school teacher and her mother a housewife. While her parents weren’t wealthy or famous like Park’s, they did manage to send their children to college at a time when only around 20 percent of South Koreans went. Sim attended an elite university — the best in the nation — as did Park, who’s a Sogang alumna. As one of the most prominent female politicians in the country, Sim, like Park, is of a privileged minority.
In a video titled “Park Geun-hye vs. Sim Sang-jung, ‘The Maid That Catches the Princess,'” Sim Sang-jung criticizes Park Geun-hye’s policies on state-mandated history textbooks. (Source: Sim Sang-jung’s official YouTube channel)
Still, Sim did much more than Park to get to where she is. Sim is fierce, intelligent and persevering. She may sugarcoat her image with light, youthful nicknames like “Simcrush,” “Simvely” (Sim + lovely) and “Two-second Kim Ko-eun” (a South Korean actress) — but beneath the smiling surface, she is a fighter.
“She was cute, but she kind of had a dirty mouth,” reminisced Yoo Si-min jokingly on Ssuljeon, a politics talk show on broadcaster JTBC. Yoo is a prominent progressive critic and has been friends with Sim since her days as a labor activist in the early ‘80s.
When Sim tells the story of how she became a labor activist, she says it all started with her following around an activist dude she had a crush on. In interviews she repeats the same light-hearted story, of a clueless university girl who just wanted to be a history teacher, wearing high heels to street rallies against the authoritarian Chun Doo-hwan regime (1979-87).
In reality, her 25 years as a game-changing activist were far from light. Her most famous — or infamous, depending on whom you talk to — accomplishment was organizing the massive strike at Guro Industrial Complex in 1985, which was the first joint strike by workers at multiple companies in South Korean history.
This was a time when Chun Doo-hwan, who took power through a coup d’etat in 1979, was cracking down on organized labor and anti-establishment protests, especially in the aftermath of the 1980 pro-democracy protest in Gwangju, which he brutally crushed.
In her 2008 memoir Confident Beauty, Sim recounted how companies would share blacklists of labor activists they received from intelligence agencies: “They were keeping their eyes wide open for any ‘impure elements.’”
She decided to become an ‘impure element’ herself: At 21, she got herself hired at a firm in the Guro complex in Seoul, working at a cassette tape factory. Unlike her co-workers, who were there to earn money, Sim was there to mobilize. She organized her colleagues to demand a wage hike and better meals, and got fired. She subsequently hopped from job to job and eventually joined Daewoo Apparel’s 2,000-strong workforce. She made fur coats in the middle of summer in a stuffy room without a fan; sometimes, the interior temperature rose above 45 degrees Celsius.
Most of the factory workers at Daewoo Apparel were women, who earned less than 1,150 won in a workday that often exceeded 14 hours (in today’s terms, roughly 5,000 won, or less than five U.S dollars a day). During this era, factory workers at garment factories in South Korea were generally women, many of whom were from the countryside seeking better lives in larger cities.
“Daewoo Apparel had a net profit of 3.6 billion won in 1984,” Sim wrote in her memoir. “But when the workers asked for a 100-won raise, the company hired gangs, turned off all power and committed murderous violence in the dark.”
She could’ve turned back; she didn’t need to be there. She had a viable future in teaching history. She could’ve chosen the easy way out. But she stayed at Guro Industrial Complex for nearly five years. Once she saw the grim conditions of the workers’ lives, she said, she couldn’t turn away. She knew the fight for labor rights would be an uphill battle, further complicated by her being a female leader in the male-dominated world of South Korean labor activism.
“Huh, it’s a woman,” labor activist Lee Pung-woo recalled his first meeting with Sim.
“She was petite and delicately pretty, with a lovely complexion as white as rice cake,” Lee, Sim’s former colleague who helped her mobilize workers at Daewoo Apparel, wrote in Sim Sang-jung: Dream or Reality.
But in spite of Sim’s appearance, workers followed her. She had a knack for connecting with people in the factory. “After thirty minutes of listening to her, I became completely absorbed in what she was saying. I forgot about gender. She had a remarkable ability to use not difficult theories and jargon, but words that were easy to understand, words that workers actually used.”
Sim led efforts to form a labor union at Daewoo Apparel. She reached out to workers at other firms at Guro, and led the famous joint strike in 1985, demanding better protection of labor rights. Over 2,000 workers participated. The strike was over in a week. Over a thousand workers were fired, and Sim’s pictures were splashed on national television as those of a wanted woman.
And she remained wanted by the police for nine years. In a recent appearance on Ssuljeon, she laughed about how she once jumped over rooftops to escape police. She laughed on television, but in her memoirs wrote about how difficult the decade was for her family, especially her mother. She doesn’t go into much detail about the difficulties. But one can imagine: A close friend was tortured by authorities to reveal her whereabouts (he didn’t).
When Sim was finally caught in 1993, Chun Doo-hwan was no longer in power, and South Korea had at least formally ended dictatorship by democratically electing a president for the first time. Somehow, in between regime change and the police chase, Sim Sang-jung had managed to get married and start a family. She appeared in court noticeably pregnant, and was sentenced to two years of probation.
“People called me Superwoman,” Sim wrote in her memoir, commenting on her ability to work and raise a family. “I used to be proud to hear that. But after I got married and became a mother, I realized how heavy the burden must be for a woman to be called a superwoman. I realized that the Superwoman ideology is a product of the patriarchy. It misrepresents the tasks that society must address together, glorifying them as [something endurable through the] superhuman-ability of individual women.”
If a woman wants to lead in South Korean society, she must be prepared to fight. For better or worse, she must be prepared to bear the burden of being a superwoman. It’s still a man’s world out there: South Korea has the highest gender wage gap among OECD nations. Women occupy only two percent of managerial positions at the top 100 companies. Sim’s current domain, politics, is also male-dominated: only 16.3 percent of lawmakers are women.
Sim’s battle as a woman has in some ways been slightly easier than Park Geun-hye’s. Sim is married and has a son, which means her womanhood is not questioned as much as that of Park, who is unmarried and has no known romantic partners or children.
Throughout her political career and presidency, Park has been subject to implicit and explicit misogyny. One of the lowest blows came from a psychology professor at one of South Korea’s most prestigious universities. “Just because she has female genitals, that doesn’t mean she’s performing her role as a woman,” Yonsei professor Hwang Sang-min said in 2012.
But Park’s path to political prominence has certainly been easier than Sim’s. Park came from political royalty, and despite her spectacular fall from grace, there are still millions who revere that legacy.
Sim’s support base is tiny compared to the swathes of mainstream conservative voters Park drew her support from. And since Sim debuted as a politician in 2003, all the parties she has been a part of, with the exception of the current one, have broken up. Sim is now the leader of a minor party that pushes liberal policies in an arena that is still predominantly conservative. Even the Minjoo party, the largest faction within the self-professed liberal bloc, is conservative by Sim’s standards, especially in dealing with chaebols — family-run conglomerates like Samsung that dominate the South Korean economy.
Many see Sim’s party affiliation as the main obstacle to her winning the presidency. While she herself is a star, she leads a minor leftist party hampered by its own complicated history and left-of-center politics (still uncommon in South Korea). The Justice Party’s approval rating is only around four to five percent, one of the lowest out of the parties represented in the National Assembly.
To be fair, the party is also limited by a political system that’s not favorable to minor opposition. For example, only parties with at least 20 seats can participate in the legislative negotiation body. Those bigger parties receive more state subsidies and have more power in determining the times and contents of different proceedings at the National Assembly. The Justice Party, with only six seats, is excluded. Not only that, the election system itself puts smaller parties at a disadvantage; general and presidential elections are won on plurality votes, meaning that whoever gets more votes than the others wins. This means it’s more beneficial for minor parties like Justice to throw their support behind — or be absorbed by — a larger one.
In fact, Sim, who ran for presidency twice before already, gave up her bid in 2012 so that the liberal block would be represented by a single “unity candidate.” At that time, this person was Moon Jae-in, running against former president Park Geun-hye. (Moon is again in the race and is the frontrunner in the polls.)
Within the already tough political climate, Justice hasn’t done a great job of branding itself. It’s often criticized for unremarkable policies — what’s so progressive about labor and welfare reforms that aren’t radically different from the more conservative parties? — and more recently, a disappointingly inconsistent stance involving a notorious online feminist group in South Korea. It was a near-fatal blow to Sim Sang-jung, who likes to portray herself as a feminist role model.
Megalia is an online community that aims to mirror the misogynistic language of Ilbe, a mostly male-driven gathering of internet trolls. Megalia uses exaggerated, at times satirical language that many see as going too far, to show men what it feels like to be subjected to hateful language. (Their logo, for example, makes fun of small penises).
To make a long story short, last summer some lawmakers within the Justice Party criticized a company that fired a voice actress who wore a Megalia T-shirt; that criticism led to a massive outcry from those who felt that the party was implicitly endorsing the controversial community. Over 500 members withdrew from the party, which incidentally has only 18 women among its 68 officials.
“We oppose hatred of all kind,” Sim wrote on her Facebook at the time. “As a female leader, I feel great responsibility for not demonstrating a clearer ability to act on gender issues.” It’s a politically apt apology, intended to soothe over the outcry that tarnished both her and her party’s reputations. But it was disappointing. As someone who promotes herself as a feminist leader, Sim seemed to lack a nuanced understanding of Megalia and the witch-hunt against the community that is now generally synonymous with “hatred” and “feminazi” in South Korea — a connection that, in spite of the overwhelming public sentiment, still leaves room for debate.
Despite the Megalia scandal, Sim still embraces feminism as one of her most distinguishing traits. The first policy she announced as a presidential candidate was the “Superwoman Prevention Law.” She pledged to decrease the “superwoman burden” — which she emphasizes is not just a “female problem” — by increasing both paid maternity and paternity leave, among other measures.
She’s also the only presidential candidate who openly supports the LGBT cause. Others — even Ahn Hee-jung, who gained short-lived cheers by cozying up to the country’s most recognizable gay celebrity, “Top Gay” Hong Suk-cheon — are shying away from endorsing a long-stalled bill that will legally protect sexual minorities from discrimination.
The churches wield considerable political power in South Korea. “Going against the pastors will really affect the elections,” Sim said in an interview with online news outlet Newstapa. “But the most fundamental reason why I do politics is for human dignity. If I changed my values and philosophy based on political advantage I would have lost my self-legitimacy.”
Sim’s husband, Lee Seung-bae, said in an interview with a magazine Woman Donga that he learned about gender equality from his wife. Lee is Sim’s most enthusiastic champion, and their relationship illustrates their family’s real embrace of progressive ideas about gender and family roles.
“I always worried about how he really felt inside, about taking care of domestic duties and supporting me,” Sim said. “But I had never asked him point-blank how he felt.”
And Lee is at least outwardly comfortable with his public role as the spouse of a politician. “When people call me ‘Sim Sang-jung’s husband’? Well, so what? What an honor!” Lee said in another interview. Like his wife, Lee is also an SNU alumnus and former labor activist. He worked in publishing before Sim entered politics; when Sim’s profile rose, he devoted most of his time to taking care of the family and helping his wife’s political career.
“The center of my being could very well be to assist my wife, so she makes positive contributions to society,” Lee said. “I’m only human, so I am sad about certain things. But it was all a natural choice.”
There are currently less than 40 days left until the presidential election. Sim’s already full schedule as party leader has been made even busier with campaigning. She hardly sees her family these days; leaving home at 5:30 in the morning and usually returning around midnight. Her entourage carries around boxes of her shoes and clothes in the campaign van.
“I’m happiest when I can get some sleep in the car in between destinations,” she said. “The presidential race took away my morning exercise, too. I’m wondering how I’ll survive the remaining days,” she said.
It’s an ironic situation, for a presidential candidate whose main platform is to advocate more humane working hours and conditions. Her biggest campaign slogan is “Labor Democracy,” and in addition to passing the Superwoman Law, she wants to raise minimum wage, dramatically decrease irregular hires in five years, give greater power to the Labor Ministry, and reduce South Korea’s long work hours.
She’s urging the entire nation to ease the superhuman burdens on workers. But she herself is still forced to be the Superwoman — and one, unfortunately, that is not likely to win the power to save the nation.
Failure is not new to her. Fearlessness toward failure is how she defines herself: as someone who carries on without the guarantee of success, taking on a difficult road without having the “establishment power.” This fearlessness was how she endured as a female leader for over two decades in the notoriously male-centered world of labor activism. That was how she endured, and is still enduring, as a minor progressive politician in South Korea. That is how she will continue to live even after May, when someone else replaces Park Geun-hye as president.
Sim’s approval rating in the presidential race is low, between two and four percent. But she is still hopeful about the future. Her impressive victory last year — she won her seat by a big margin in the parliamentary election against a ruling party candidate — gave Sim Sang-jung confidence that her party, however minor, can persevere. And she sees Park Geun-hye’s ouster as a strike for democracy, as well as a new opening for progressive parties like hers.
“I have experienced failure with my entire being,” she said. “But I am certain that Sim Sang-jung’s politics is the politics that South Koreans want.”
Cover image by Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé.