We hosted two parties at our home the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, one for 90 people from the Embassy, and the other for 60 people from my Toastmasters clubs. We decorated, others handled the R.S.V.P's, and our housekeeper Aya cooked up a storm of green and orange food. For each party we ordered a 5-foot-long sub from the Dragon Hill deli, and Irish sushi from Fuji’s restaurant. (What? Sushi isn’t an Irish food?) My chocolate meatball cookies became miniature Blarney stones. Everybody enjoyed themselves, and we even got our Korean friends to sing “Danny Boy.”
A few days later, Ambassador Kim gave a speech I wrote to CEOs and professors at a Sejong Forum breakfast about the U.S.-Korea relationship. As always, he did a great job, and we all posed for a quintessential line-‘em-up photo. I’m the one in beige stockings in the front row.
I took a taxi from the breakfast to a coffee at the Seoul Club, changed into my costume in a little bathroom, and spoke to the British Association of Seoul about the Shakespeare authorship mystery. Then I returned to work and edited the Econ Newsflash, a compilation of news stories we put out every day, and got things ready the next day for the seventh meeting of the Embassy’s new Toastmasters club, of which I’m president. That day a friend told me that my face was twitching—a sign of stress! I took that Friday off from work and did nothing…
Yesterday I attended a “Womenomics” Forum at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, about how to increase women’s participation in the workforce. The main speakers were Minister of Gender Equality and Family Cho Yoon-sun, and Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs in Japan, who has written extensively on the subject. Korea and Japan have so much in common in this regard. Both have really low birth rates and rapidly aging populations. Both realize that at this point, the best way to increase GDP is by getting more women to work. Both have cultures that encourage female education and where most women work during their 20s, but that also discourage married women and mothers from working until their kids enter college, and then it’s really difficult to get back into the swing of things.
A survey shows that it’s less about mothers not wanting to work, and more about dads rarely helping at home, office cultures where you’re not supposed to leave before your boss does (he leaves at 10:00 p.m., you leave at 10:01), and other factors that “push” women away from work. Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, established a Ministry of Gender Equality and Family headed by a Colombia Law School-trained female which is working hard to change things, including certifying certain companies as “Family Friendly,” which, it turns out, boosts the number of job applicants at these companies by a factor of ten. The ministry is encouraging companies to offer part-time employment, giving counseling to women seeking to reenter the workforce, and even sends someone along with a job seeker on the job interview, to provide moral support.
Speaking of Korea and Japan, the heads of these two countries haven't been on speaking terms for quite a while because Japan's Prime Minister Abe and his conservative friends seem to have a tin ear when it comes to the suffering Japan caused others during World War II. This is especially true for Korea. A particular flashpoint relates to those euphemistically called "comfort women," Korean women Japan forced to "service" its troops. Japan and Korea are key allies for the U.S., and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and the rest of the U.S. diplomatic corps have been working really hard to get these two together. A low point was when Prime Minister Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine to honor Japan's war dead, which includes Class-A war criminals, and an even lower point was when Abe said Japan would revisit the 1993 Kono statement, wherein Japan acknowledged that it had coerced foreign women into prostitution.
Abe finally said he would not revisit the Kono statement, paving the way for President Obama to hold a trilateral with Presidents Park and Abe together on the sidelines of the international nuclear conference at the Hague last week. Phew! They agreed that a united response was very important in dealing with the missile and nuclear threats from North Korea.
North Korea responded by firing off two medium-range ballistic missiles, which the United Nations has prohibited it from doing. And the Japanese minister of education said Prime Minister Abe's decision to stand behind the Kono statement was "not a unified government position," which got the Koreans upset all over again. Things are never dull in this neck of the woods.