SEOUL, South Korea -- When Hong Sook-ja talks, few people listen.
But that does not discourage the first female presidential candidate in South Korean history from mounting a campaign to bring socialist feminism to a nation dominated by conservative men.
Hong, 54, is an anomaly in both political and cultural life here.
At a news conference announcing her campaign, reporters and party members crammed into a hotel banquet room. Hong was the only woman present.
An outspoken divorcee in a nation where women's rights are, as she put it, 'still in the Dark Ages,' she also is a socialist in a fiercely anti-communist nation.
Because of that, the candidate of the minor Social Democratic Party does not draw large crowds or expectations from political analysts that she could ever win in the Dec. 16 election.
But to Hong, her candidacy means more than becoming president.
'Korean women are politically sleeping. Because of this, Korean democracy is lagging,' she said recently. Her goal from youth, she said, was to awaken women and break down the cultural rules that keep them from participating in business and politics.
The first line of her soon-to-be published autobiography reflects this passion.
'Feminism was my destiny,' the book begins.
'I never thought I was just a girl and that my sole purpose in life was to be married and have children,' Hong said last week after declaring her candidacy in the first direct presidential election in 16 years.
Hong was the first woman allowed to join the Foreign Ministry as a diplomat in 1958, the first female vice consul in New York and an adviser to the South Korean mission to the United Nations.
She resigned from the foreign service in 1969 and took up the banner of the tiny women's movement in South Korea, eventually taking the helm of an umbrella woman's group and becoming president of the International Council of Women based in Paris.
The first step in her political awakening was feminism, she said.
In a recent interview she explained that she was the first child in a traditional Korean family, which made it difficult on her mother because Hong's father and his family craved a male heir.
'I did not have a brother for seven years and I had to witness my mother tortured mentally by her parents and my father to have a boy. She feared he would take a concubine,' Hong said.
'I vowed then to be as good as a boy,' she said.
Her road to Democratic Socialism began at Kyonggi Girls' School, a prestigious Seoul high school attended by the children of public officials and powerful businessmen. Not being from a powerful family, she won entrance through a competitive test.
'The first day of school, the teacher had us raise our hands based on who our father was. First the Cabinet ministers, the congressmen, those whose fathers were lawyers and doctors,' she said.
'I was raising my hand at the end like a criminal with humiliation and I swore I would never subject my children to this kind of humiliation,' she said.
Her socialism is less a hard-core ideology than a belief in egalitarianism of sex and class and does not clash with her support of a democratic government. Nor does it seem to bother government officials who usually crack down swiftly on any form of leftism.
Hong realizes equality of the sexes in South Korea is a long way off, not only because the society is dominated by men but also because many women willingly accept their subservient role and look down on women who challenge the system.
She said many women treated her as an outcast when she divorced her husband in 1960, although she sees the end of the marriage as the beginning of her political awakening.
While spending several years in the United States before her divorce, Hong learned of the women's movement and it changed her life.
'Until then, I thought something was wrong with me. I could not accept my husband's infidelity. It was a matter of my self-respect,' she said.
'When I was going through the agony of my husband's infidelity, I was told to accept it. But I learned that it was society that was wrong, not me.'
The formula for keeping her spirits up in the campaign for women's civil and political rights in South Korea is one part energy and one part ego, which drives her non-stop campaign with the zeal and authority of a social reformer.
'My most happy moments are on the stage. Star quality, I have it. I am like a revolutionary,' she said. 'You will see me do anything in the campaign, short of a striptease,' to bring attention to her ideals, Hong said.
She said her role models are former Israeli leader Golda Meir; Philippine President Corazon Aquino; Gloria Steinem, editor of the women's liberationist Ms. magazine; and Mother Teresa, who she hopes one day to follow into missionary work.
Even in her own party, however, there was resentment at Hong's candidacy.The day after she registered to run, 13 members of her party, including two women, bolted.
'We do have a way to go,' she said.