South Korean 'superdads' on paternity leave break with tradition

Chung So-yool (centre) and Chung Young-joon play with their father at their apartment in Seoul on, Dec 16.
Chung So-yool (centre) and Chung Young-joon play with their father at their apartment in Seoul on, Dec 16.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - It's a weekday morning and Chung Sang-hoon, 34, is at home with his two small children, classical music playing in the background.

Fathers like Chung, who has taken a year of paternity leave from his job in sales with a big foreign company, were once so rare in male-dominated South Korea that they are called"superdads". But their ranks are growing.

"Everything is definitely worth it, from preparing breakfast for the kids to doing the dishes, because I can live for the sake of values I find important," said Chung, whose wife is a teacher.

South Korean women have long believed employers punish them with lower wages and by passing over them for promotions because they're likely to take time off to have children.

That concern among women has contributed to the lowest birth rate among countries in the OECD group of rich nations.

South Korea also ranks 115th of 145 in the World Economic Forum's gender equality index.

President Park Geun-hye has made paternity leave a priority to address the declining birth rate and give a boost to women's careers, and this month she unveiled a multi-billion plan to combat the grim demographic outlook.

Even though mothers and fathers are entitled to equal amounts of childcare leave, just 3,421 men took advantage of the right in 2014. Still, that was double the 1,790 in 2012 who put down the laptops to pick up the children on a full-time basis, according to the labour ministry.

"The entire economy is out of balance," Na Yeong-don, a senior labour ministry official, told Reuters. "Women are highly educated and work efficiently but take the whole burden of household chores and childcare while men work very long hours."

In the first half of this year, the number of paternity leave-takers surged 40 percent to 2,212, but men still made up just 5 percent of the parents taking leave in conservative South Korea.

The government has set a goal of increasing the ratio of men taking leave to 30 per cent by 2030, changing a culture in a country where men are notoriously aloof from child-rearing and housework.

Reality television shows such as Return of Superman featuring male celebrities taking care of their children are credited with helping lure fathers into being more hands-on.

The government plan includes expanding incentives for stay-at-home dads and strengthening financial support for small- and medium-sized enterprises in exchange for letting men take parental leave.

But it remains to be see how much such incentives will help change thinking in a demanding, top-down, male-driven workplace culture that includes after-work drinking sessions.

"The culture of long work hours needs to be improved so as to allow more time for men to get involved with childcare and family," said Hong Seung-ah, a fellow at the Korean Women's Development Institute in Seoul.

The Korean Women's Development Institute found that 64 per cent of men were willing to take paternity leave but only 2 per cent had done so.

Chung said his manager needed convincing as he did not have a sick child or other emergency at home. His paternity leave was the first in his 100-person office.

At home in Seoul, Chung helps his kids put on their socks before heading to a day-care centre, and comforts his crying two-year old after his big sister refuses to share a toy.

Chung appreciates how different this is to the home he grew up in.

"The reason I took childcare leave is I want to be different from my father's generation," he said.