SEOUL — Vice President Harris and her team laid out the goals of her four-day trip to Asia before she left the United States: honor Japan’s assassinated former prime minister Shinzo Abe, bolster America’s partnerships with Japan and South Korea, and promote America’s economy and security.
But a more sensitive and politically charged goal was left largely unstated: burnishing Harris’s role on the potent issue of women’s rights, a sensitive mission in two male-dominated countries that lag starkly behind other developed nations on gender equity.
It was a balancing act for Harris. Japan and South Korea are strong allies that the United States considers pivotal to countering China’s growing aggressiveness, and she came to strengthen ties with the two countries, not alienate the men who lead them. But at seemingly every turn, the vice president sought to highlight the chasm that exists between genders here and provide living proof that a more equitable path exists.
“I do strongly believe that when women succeed, all of society succeeds,” she said at a roundtable featuring South Korean women on Thursday. “I also believe the real measure of the state of a democracy is measured by the strength and standing of women. … If we want to strengthen democracy, we must pay attention to gender equity and put in the hard work of lifting up the status of women in every way.”
Beyond the merits, the issue gave Harris an opportunity to burnish her credentials on a subject she has seized on politically at home. Harris has struggled to find an issue that would stamp her as a forceful leader, and in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision she has become a more visible advocate for abortion rights and women’s issues. The Asia trip provided a way to make the case without ruffling feathers at home — but the diplomacy was tricky.
At nearly every stop, the lack of women on the Japanese and South Korean side was strikingly visible. At a business roundtable in Japan, Harris and an aide were the only women participating at an event filled with male Japanese CEOs dressed in near-identical suits. The attendance at Abe’s funeral was so male that local reporters wrote about the snaking lines for men’s bathrooms and the nearly empty women’s bathrooms.
Exhibit A of Harris’s gender argument was, of course, Harris herself. She has made history as the first woman to hold a nationally elected office in the United States. On Thursday, she became the highest-ranking American woman to tour the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula, the latest in a conveyor belt of firsts during her 20 months as vice president.
Japanese and South Korean societies are among the most male-dominated among the world’s leading economies. They consistently rank last and second-last, respectively, among industrialized democracies on gender parity in society, health care, pay equity and professional development. Observers often note the paltry support for women seeking careers past their early 30s, when they face social pressure to drop out of the workforce.
While the U.S. Congress is 27 percent female — still hardly a reflection of the population — women in Japan make up less than 10 percent of the 465-member parliament. There are two women in Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s 19-member cabinet, falling short of the record of five women. Women are rare in corporate boardrooms in Japan.
Gender was an even more closely watched issue ahead of Harris’s trip to South Korea, where women’s rights was a key topic in this spring’s presidential election.
Harris brought up the broader issue of gender inequality in private talks with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address a delicate conversation. “In the room, it seemed that Yoon understands this was an issue, understood the priority we place on it, and seemed genuine in expressing that he wanted to work with us,” the official said.
Yoon’s office says he raised the gender issue with Harris himself. Ahead of Harris’s roundtable with women leaders in South Korea, the presidential office said Yoon told Harris that he hoped the event “produces a valuable outcome” for his country.
South Korea elected its first and only female president 10 years ago, the daughter of a former president who was later impeached and removed from office for corruption.
During his campaign, Yoon vowed to abolish the country’s Ministry for Gender Equality and courted so-called “anti-feminist” male activists for their support. He has said he does not believe systemic “structural discrimination based on gender” exists.
But he has faced increasingly powerful challenges to that view. During President Biden’s trip to Asia in May, Yoon stumbled over his response to a question about whether South Korea can be a world-leading democracy if it is so hard for women there to advance.
He stood motionless for several moments, took off the earpiece through which he received translation, and seemed to stumble through his answer.
“If you look at the public official sector, especially the ministers in the cabinet, we really didn’t see a lot of women advancing to that position thus far. Probably in various regions, equal,” he said, according to the official translation. “Opportunities were not fully ensured for women, and we have actually a quite short history of ensuring that. So what we’re trying to do is to very actively ensure such opportunities for women.”
A few moments later, an interpreter announced that the news conference was over.
Days later, Yoon nominated two female experts to fill open cabinet seats and another woman to be co-head of the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.
South Korea’s record creates a particular culture clash with the Biden administration, whose Cabinet includes a record number of women, including the first female treasury secretary and the first female intelligence director.
Biden administration officials and American diplomats have previously looked for more or less subtle ways to point out the disparities to the South Koreans.
Harris’s husband, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, came to South Korea in May for Yoon’s inauguration, and he spoke to the Korean Joongang Daily about the impact of Harris’s role.
“I was just here at the embassy meeting, the folks that work here and the women in the military, all coming up to me, some with tears in their eyes, grabbing my hand, telling me to make sure I tell her what she means to them,” Emhoff said. “The fact that my wife was able to go from district attorney to attorney general to senator to now vice president of the United States of America shows women all across our country, but all across the world, what is possible.”
In July, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen visited Tokyo and Seoul with a clear push for women’s professional and leadership advancement, making the case that economies are stronger when they allow women to enter, thrive and lead. “Even among the world’s most advanced economies, it is still far too uncommon for women to rise to the top,” a statement on her Twitter account read in part.
For Harris this week, gender equity was not the only issue that brought together domestic politics and foreign policy. Harris spent the four-day trip doing what Biden had done nearly four months before, attempting to bolster America’s security and economic interests in areas such as electric vehicles and semiconductors.
Japanese and South Korean officials have voiced concerns about Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which gives tax credits to people who buy U.S.-made electric vehicles, and Harris sought to allay those worries. And on her last full day in Tokyo, Harris met with Japanese tech leaders and said the United States is looking for new investments and partnerships in semiconductor manufacturing.
The importance of semiconductor chips was underlined during the pandemic as the coronavirus outbreak disrupted the supply chain, creating shortages and driving up the cost of consumer goods. The United States is trying to increase domestic production of the chips as well as bolster tech partnerships with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
“The citizens and the people of our countries rely on products without even knowing sometimes how reliant those products are on semiconductor chips,” Harris said during a meeting at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Later that day, in a speech on the USS Howard destroyer, Harris pledged to intensify “unofficial ties” with Taiwan, days after Biden said his administration would use military force to defend the island if China invades.
“China has flexed its military and economic might to coerce and intimidate its neighbors,” Harris said on the deck of the destroyer, during a visit to the largest U.S. Navy installation outside the United States. “And we have witnessed disturbing behavior in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea, and most recently, provocations across the Taiwan Strait.”
Harris also stressed security during her tour of the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula, citing an “ironclad” commitment to advance South Korea’s security goals.
But she also made a point of convening privately with female leaders in South Korea, listening to them talk about their struggles and how they had managed to succeed despite the obstacles.
“There are a number of systemic cultural issues have made progress slow in [South Korea],” the senior administration official said. “From the first woman TV news anchor in the country to a female CEO struggling with child care, the conversation focused on barriers to success. But it was an optimistic tenor, as each woman has overcome such barriers.”