Meeting one of Korea’s influential women  


ILOILO – It’s been over a week since I left Seoul and if there is one memory I cannot forget, that is the day when I met the famous Korean woman leader Moon-Ja Jeong of Saemaul Undong (New Village Movement) on April 1.

The 76-year-old Jeong is considered as one of the women reformists of Saemaul Undong who successfully transformed their poor and quite village into a progressive community today.

I had this chance to meet her face-to-face during our ten-day training on Saemaul Undong, a rural modernization campaign that greatly contributed to South Korea’s rapid economic growth since 1970s.

Jeong once followed her mountain-loving husband, Jang Young, in Dakbakgol, an obscure village in Imsil, North Jeolla Province, South Korea in 1963 before they moved to nearby Oryu village eight years thereafter.

In Dakbakgol, their house was like a hut made of soil and you could practically see the sky through the roof. All they have at that trying times were a piece of blanket, a chest, an iron pot and some bowls.

With her two kids, she chose to cultivate his husband’s land although she has no experience in farming. Despite that, however, the determined couple worked very hard.

Without complain, they could only eat after their work was done and the only food in their table was barley rice, soy sauce and kimchi, a traditional Korean dish made of seasoned vegetables and salt.

Jeong revealed that she had a secret which she kept from her husband after their marriage. That was the ₩150,000 she saved since she was a maiden and she continued to save money little by little.

“Our life is really difficult at that time but I never thought of hating it,” Jeong told us in Korean.

From planting crops, they then started a cattle business through a loan from Imsil County Office and an Agricultural Cooperative. But some of those cows got ill and they spent a whole year nursing them until they became healthy again.

Jeong faced another hardship when she found out that her husband’s cold was actually a heart disease. After six months of intensive care, her husband’s illness showed improvement.

In 1971, she convinced her husband to leave the isolated village and using the money she secretly saved, they settled down in Oryu.

In that village, there was a women’s organization known as “Mothers for Families” which was then composed of ten homemakers. The group insisted Jeong to join and she did. Eventually, because Jeong was educated, she was elected as the new president of the organization.

From an initial capital of C70,000, the group decided to raise ₩4-million by 1975. In order to reach that goal, the members were set out on the road to sell socks. They bore the shame and humiliation of selling socks and made ₩4,000 after three days of hard work.

They also began receiving orders for clothes. Part of the income they accumulated was saved and the rest was used in creating new savings account for its 40 members. Each account had ₩50 in it just enough to buy snacks for their kids.

Jeong was also successful in convincing the members to donate ₩100 and one sack of rice every month to the village’s welfare bank.

A volunteer committee was also organized to raise more money by doing small jobs (e.g. weeding the fields) and other income-generating projects (e.g. planting and selling medicinal plants).

With the help of the organization, the village was slowly transforming, improving and becoming wealthier. On February of 1972, Oryu village was selected as Saemaul Undong model village.

Jeong then received 2,000 chestnut tree saplings and with the help of all the villagers, they creaed a chestnut tree complex that helped them earn ₩4-million a year. A factory run by the women was then built in the town.

Traditionally, women in Korea lived with the ideology of male patriarchy. But that changed when Saemaul Undong empowered women.

Banking on the principles of diligence, self-help and cooperation, the movement gave women the opportunity to lead and be part of developing their villages and among those was Jeong. (Jezza A. Nepomoceno/Capitol News)

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