( Alone with my friends by Kr. B. )
While spending all one’s free time searching for stories and images related to Korean sexuality would probably be considered somewhat of a peccadillo for most people, one advantage(?) of having written extensively on the subject is that after a certain point it morphs into legitimate research instead, this week sending me to wait in vain at an intersection for a good shot of one of ski resort Eden Valley’s (에덴벨리) notorious advertisements on the side of a bus for instance (but not unlike this, and by coincidence they’re looking for a new model), and the next day walking along the whole length of a subway train trying to relocate this advertisement for an advertising agency seen through the windows as it passed by the platform (surely it wasn’t simply a silhouette of a breast? Was it really that inane?). Frankly then, it was somewhat of a relief to simply stay in one place and cut out the Korea Times article on plans for a nudist beach that is the subject of this post, albeit in full view of my boss and colleagues.
With such audacity comes great responsibility however, and I was definitely remiss in ultimately rejecting that as an…er…fluff piece, not noticing the links that fellow blogger and frequent commenter Brian did between those plans and Koreans’ often flawed and exaggerated notions of Westerners’ sexuality and attitudes towards nudity too. So, I highly recommend reading his short post on the subject before continuing, and assuming that you have, here I’d like to concentrate on those points of his that I think are a little more nuanced and/or should have been put more forcefully, starting with why we both read primarily “Westerners” where the article states “foreigners.”
One reason is that while Brian suggests that there may be “pockets of interest among visitors from neighboring countries,” I doubt that personally, or at least that they would ever be sufficient to significantly influence visitor numbers, as Jeju Island where the nudist beach is to be established can’t really compete with other Pacific destinations in terms of a consistently pleasant and sunny climate nor a liberal social atmosphere conducive to public acceptance of nudist beaches. (source right)
This is despite Jeju island being well-known for both in Korea itself, but I think that the latter is actually quite exaggerated, partially because of older Koreans growing up to images of scantily-clad female divers, and partially because mainland Korea has moved on a great deal (although by no means fully) since the days of, variously: arranged marriages; relative lack of premarital sex (at least amongst those classes concerned about status and appearances); and finally Jeju being the only place affordable for newly middle-class couples to have their honeymoons, all of which would have naturally combined to give it a not entirely undeserved notoriety, encapsulated now perhaps in the (oft-mentioned) presence of sex theme park “Jeju Loveland.” But the 1970s this ain’t, and while Jeju’s society as a whole certainly does still have a uniqueness and independent streak that sets apart from the rest of Korea, you could just as easily argue that it is by this stage actually quite conservative in its sexual mores, the current soaring birthrate for boys there for instance, over a decade after the problems with that convinced mainland Koreans that their preference for sons was misplaced, pointing to a much more patriarchal and therefore less liberal place than the rest of Korea.
So I very much doubt that Northeast Asians will ever be particularly attracted to the idea of stripping-off on an island where it often rains and even snows, and in a conservative part of country already well known for its conservatism too(!). Which begs the question of where the impetus for the whole idea came from in the first place:
Jungmun Beach, a favorite summer vacation spot among Koreans, has reportedly attracted ”undressed” foreigners who apparently wish to enjoy the sun while naked.
At risk of sounding like a stuck record, the Korean English-language media is notorious for its lack of professionalism,¹ and so in the absence of any actual reports then I’m much more inclined to believe that, well, they don’t actually exist, and that Jeju government officials came up with the idea completely independently: after all, actual tourists and their needs do seem to be the last things actually considered in initiatives like these. Moreover:
During a recent meeting, most residents were reported to have shown a positive response to the [idea], based on the assumption more foreign tourists would visit the island.
However, experts remain cautious. Jon Huer, a sociology professor at UMUC-Asia, said there still seems to be a gap between the idea of a nude beach and the Korean reality.
”I am sure it will attract foreigners and congregate curiosity. But I am not sure whether Korea is ready for it. It won’t modernize Korea, nor make it an open place,” he said.
Given his overseas experience, then Jon Huer should really know those “foreigners” better (update: actually, it seems he’s notorious for his ignorance). But a group of people that likes to strip off in public, more advanced than Koreans by virtue of their not being ready for this modernization and opening? Forgive my ignorance and naivety, but as far as I know Northeast Asians aren’t exactly well-known for any of those, at least not by Koreans. Moreover, there is actually a strong culture of single-sex bathhouses here, and hence in that sense a much healthier attitude towards nudity in Korea than in many more puritanical Western countries, so I’m rather confused as to why any Koreans would think that a solitary nudist beach would attract Westerners, well, at all really. Because they lack such freer attitudes towards nudity at home? Or because that’s the sort of thing more sexually liberated/perverted foreigners do? I’m much more inclined towards the latter, as I’m rather at a loss as to what else are nudist beaches supposed to “modernize” about Korea exactly, and one can’t help but notice the irony of those so coloring Koreans’ perceptions that they think that Westerners have more of a fixation with nudity than they do themselves.
So, as Brian notes, nudity at beaches has indeed been “conflated with sex, implying that the point of the former is to stimulate one’s appetite for the latter,” and which stems from:
…a pretty base assessment of the tastes of foreigners and foreign tourists. My first thought was that this plays into the image of the hypersexual, promiscuous Caucasian; after all, they always use foreign lingerie models on TV, and often use bikini-clad foreigners in advertisements and in the newspaper.
But although I don’t think Brian would disagree with me here, I’d stress that the ubiquitous images of scantily-clad Caucasians in the Korean media aren’t necessarily a reflection of those stereotypes, although they certainly do feed into them. With apologies to long-time readers for briefly mentioning this subject again – although in fairness its been a long time, and without knowing myself than I have – and I imagine many others would – (slightly) misinterpret the significance of ubiquitous images of semi-nude Caucasians, those are actually just as much if not more the result of the internal politics of the modeling industry, Korean female models often disdaining bikini and/or lingerie modeling because of the large numbers of Korean porn stars that have worked in that particular niche (as discussed here, here, here and here for starters!). Hence my inclusion of the rather Caucasian-looking cartoon figure above for instance, reflecting the use of overwhelmingly Caucasian models in the marketing of a new lingerie line by Korea’s best known designer.
(Update: There’s also a discussion on the subject going on at the Marmot’s Hole here)
(¹) To be fair to the Korea Times though, despite the flaws with the specific article that I critique here, the newspaper has actually been devoting a great deal of attention to general criticisms of the Korean tourism industry recently in addition to that article mentioned in the text. See here and here for instance.