This paper examines the politics of family law reform in Korea up to the 2005 revision, when the family head system was abolished. Why did it take so long to abolish the gender hierarchy of Korea’s family law, and what made the family head system so entrenched? Moreover, how was the family head system finally abolished, in 2005, after a long history of conservative obstruction? This paper demonstrates that there have been multiple and conflicting views on gender equality in family, presented by three major actors: conservatives, the Korean state, and women’s groups. Each vigorously defended its view of how gender relations in the family should figure into the construction of the Korean nation. Conservatives attempted to reify gender hierarchy in the family as a core value of the Korean culture, and therefore argued to preserve it. Women’s groups envisioned gender equality as intrinsic to genuine democracy, which could not be achieved if the old family law were preserved. This paper argues that the revisions to the family law were the outcome of changing political relations among these three critical stakeholders. These relations were reflected by changes in the dominant discourse on the social functions of family law at each revision, from a carrier of tradition in the early postcolonial period, to a transmitter of economic development in the 1970s, and finally into a catalyst for democracy in the late 1980s and afterward. The growing political influence of women’s groups in the 1990s and their close relationship with the Korean government and “progressive” social groups finally brought about the abolition of the entrenched gender hierarchy in family law.

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