The independent resource on global security

Language matters: The women, peace and security agenda in Japan and South Korea

General Assembly Meets on Gender Equality and Women’s Leadership for a Sustainable World. UN Photo/Mark Garten.
General Assembly Meets on Gender Equality and Women’s Leadership for a Sustainable World. UN Photo/Mark Garten.

Ninteen years ago today, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1325—a foundational resolution to the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda. Since the adoption of Resolution 1325, global efforts to promote the WPS agenda have advanced but the discussions that shape its priorities have been led exclusively by Western donors. In contrast, the roles of Japan and South Korea—an established and an emerging donor, respectively—within the WPS agenda are poorly understood. Notably, both countries reported their largest increases in aid to gender equality in fragile states and economies during 2008–2015. At a time when a global funding gap is one of the main challenges to the WPS agenda, it is particularly crucial to understand the growing roles and approaches of these two countries. 

In order to examine Japan and South Korea’s approaches to the WPS agenda, this blog sheds light on how they have shaped their development and humanitarian aid policy. It focuses on language such as how the WPS agenda has been translated into Japanese and South Korean contexts and how gender and women have been portrayed within national discussions. The blog post draws from findings of a forthcoming SIPRI Background Paper, that analyses official documents in relation to development and peacebuilding as well as using field interviews conducted in English, Japanese and Korean. 


Lost in translation: What is ‘gender’? 

‘Gender’ refers to the social attributes, roles and opportunities associated with having a gender identity and the relationships between and within genders. It is understood as being part of the broader socio-cultural context thus it is differentiated from biological sex. The term gender is not new to Japanese society. Its use, however, is not widely accepted especially in policy documents due to its political connotations. Alternatively, gender is a relatively new term in South Korean society, with a former leader of the second largest party in South Korea once asking, ‘what is gender?’ during a media conference on women’s policy. 

The term gender becomes more vague when discussed in relation to the concept of gender equality. In South Korea, gender equality is translated in two ways, usually depending on a person’s political ideology—either equality between two sexes (used by a conservative) or equality between all sexes (used by a liberal/progressive). The translation of gender equality into the former—which reflects conservative gender norms—has resulted in non-binary forms of gender being excluded from most policy documents and discourse in South Korea. 

In Japan, gender equality is rarely mentioned in WPS-related foreign aid policy documents. While the English language translation of a policy document uses the term ‘gender equality’ widely, the terms ‘joint participation by men and women’ or ‘women’s active participation’ are often used synonymously with gender equality in the original Japanese text. Joint participation by men and women was introduced in Japan during the 1990s and was advocated by conservative politicians that sought to emphasize equality of opportunity over equality of outcome. Women’s active participation has been increasingly used since the introduction of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s domestic policy which seeks to achieve a ‘society in which women shine’ by increasing women’s participation in the labour force. These terms are becoming more socially acceptable in Japan.


Gender issues = women’s issues = motherhood? 

Generally, it is still common that gender issues are conflated with women’s issues. In both Japan and South Korea, women and girls are the main targets and beneficiaries of gender equality aid programmes. As a result, gender power dynamics and inequality issues are seldom addressed. Men and boys as well as masculinities—the position of men in gender power relations—are usually excluded from discussions. 

The policies of both countries often view women primarily as caregivers and mothers. For example, Prime Minister Abe’s speech to the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly described a case of a fleeing Palestinian refugee mother. Prime Minister Abe noted that when the mother fled she only took items to take care of her daughter, including her ‘Maternal and Child Health Handbook’—a book that Japan distributes in refugee camps. 

This perception of women is observable in data which identifies the main gender equality sectors targeted by South Korean Official Development Assistance (ODA). According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), ‘population and reproductive health’ is the sector where South Korean ODA programmes have the highest gender equality focus. This shows how gender equality is perceived in South Korea. 


Women in need of protection or agents of change?

The WPS agenda has been criticized by feminist scholars for frequently viewing women as victims of violence rather than agents of change. Seeing women as a vulnerable group in conflict-affected settings—instead of political figures or decisionmakers—and advocating for their protection needs has gained support. Japan and South Korea are no exception. Both countries emphasize the protection of women and their needs. 

This can be widely observed in policy discourse; women are often categorized as a socially vulnerable group along with other minority groups that require special attention. For instance, the South Korean Humanitarian Assistance Strategy categorizes women as a vulnerable group along with children and refugees. The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ initiative on the WPS agenda called ‘Action with Women and Peace’, supports such findings. The initiative comprises of two core programmes: (a) hosting an annual international conference on the WPS agenda—the first conference in 2019 will focus on combatting sexual violence in conflict; and (b) supporting conflict-related sexual violence survivors through the provision of ODA. Both core programmes can be seen as a result of a patriarchal protective discourse that portrays women to be passive and supports South Korean gender norms.

In the case of Japan, various policy documents on development cooperation and gender equality emphasize women’s participation and empowerment. However, women are expected to contribute to economic recovery rather than in peacebuilding. At the 13th International Institute for Strategic Studies Asian Security Summit in 2014—following the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in the Philippines—Prime Minister Abe’s keynote address focused on Japan’s assistance to provide women with the ability to make a living rather than on the historical achievement made by the first female chief negotiator. This again reflects how gender equality is translated in Japan. 


What the emerging women, peace and security actors bring to the table

Both Japan and South Korea have ambitions to be regional leaders on WPS-related issues yet they have struggled to achieve gender equality in their own patriarchal societies. The language surrounding the WPS agenda in these countries reflects how they define gender in their societies and the kinds of WPS-related policies they implement on the ground. The concept of gender equality in these contexts is often used to protect ‘vulnerable’ women. Women are often represented as caregivers or mothers, their reproductive roles are emphasized and they are rarely perceived as agents of change. Even when the concept of women’s participation and empowerment emerges, it is primarily in an economic context rather than in the political arena. 

Despite the limitations in their use of language about gender equality, the potential for what these countries could offer to the WPS agenda is growing along with their financial contributions and commitment. In South Korea, various WPS-related initiatives have emerged since 2017, when Kang Kyung-wha, the country’s first female Foreign Minister was appointed. Japan has also strengthened its focus on aid supporting women’s empowerment and has advocated for the need for women’s participation especially in the area of disaster risk reduction and response.

As Japan and South Korea’s roles in the WPS agenda develop, it is time to rethink the use of language in relation to gender. The key question of whether Japan and South Korea’s current use of language can promote the transformative ideas of UN Resolution 1325 on the ground, or if their language acts to reinforce their gender norms, needs to be answered.


Yeonju Jung was a Research Assistant with the SIPRI Peace and Development Programme.
Ayako Tsujisaka was an intern in the SIPRI Governance and Society Programme.