Korean Sociological Image #72: Girl-group performances for the military

In the commercial above, a conscripted soldier is happy that his girlfriend is coming to visit him. What really gets him and his buddies running though, in a play on the faster downloading speeds of KT’s 4G LTE network, is the arrival of a girl-group on his army base.

With 300-350,000 new conscripts annually, one of the longest conscription periods in the world, and a grisly — but improving — record of bullying and abysmal living conditions, keeping the troops entertained can safely be assumed to have long been a big concern of the South Korean military. Accordingly, televised visits by girl-groups and entertainers have become a recognizable part of Korean popular culture (although they originally performed for US soldiers). Here’s an example with actress Shin Se-Kyung (신세경), performing on an army base as part of the very popular Infinity Challenge (무한도전) show last year (episode 269, aired October 1):

For those many more conscripts not lucky enough to have pretty female celebrities come to their own base though, the blog Sorry, I was drunk provides an interesting, *very frank* insider account of what they thought of girl-groups, as well as prostitution, cheating on partners, Caucasian girlfriends, and marriage. Here’s what the author wrote about the former:

…I knew Korean guys, especially sexually deprived conscripts, liked female celebrities (duh, right?), but I didn’t know how bad that affection was. I learned that Korean conscripts in general are obsessed with K-Pop girl groups, in particular Girls’ Generation. By obsessed, I mean really obsessed. A good example of this is rapper Psy’s description of his military service.

In this show, Psy says he was made to stand guard while watching the TV so he could alert senior conscripts that Girls’ Generation was on it. While it wasn’t that extreme in my unit, it was quite normal to see guys flock to the TV whenever GG or other good looking female celebrities were on air. Every Friday and Saturday, when the major networks have those “music” shows parading group after group, entire units would stay glued to the TV. Guys would watch the same music video or performance repeatedly so they could oggle at the girls. Their bare legs exposed, sexy dancing, and terrible music (not a secret among conscripts either), it was pretty obvious there was only one reason for these “musicians” to exist. These girls are glorified strippers, covered in the thin veil of “music” so it doesn’t seem as creepy and sad as going to a strip club. For conscripts, it’s usually the only form of sexual gratification they’re allowed while on base.

See also:

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here)

12 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #72: Girl-group performances for the military

  1. This is so fascinating, especially good timing since Psy is so popular worldwide for Gangnam Style music video, and the link to frank explanation of military service is very useful for study! Thanks for researching and sharing!

    I heard that in Taiwan there is a very different culture of military service and that it results in a very different sex industry from S. Korea, but should read further. It makes me also curious about how pop culture consumption could be different between Korea and Taiwan, or other countries, on the basis of such connections between military, sex work and pop culture.

    • Thanks, and I’d be very interested in hearing what you find out about the Taiwanese situation if you do read up about it. Because if losing your virginity before starting conscription is likewise considered so important, as is – once you have started – having to constantly assert your sexual prowess in front of superiors etc. (which is what emerged from the readings for that Sex as Power post; it’s much much more than just natural banter about sex between regular guys in civilian life), then it’s difficult to imagine how things could be all that different from the Korean situation.

      Not that I’m disagreeing mind you, just that I’d be interested to learn more!

  2. I am honored to have been mentioned! I sometimes wondered if K-Pop is somehow tied in with the Korean military-industrial complex. With hundreds of thousands of young men deprived of female contact, and probably from sexually oppressed backgrounds, it must be an easy market for the K-pop industry to reach. I also can’t help but suspect those televised performances are part of government propaganda to show viewers that life in the military is good.

    • They were certainly being considered to show North Korean viewers that life was good. Although, alas, nothing came of the idea (although songs were broadcast on the radio), recent news about girl-groups’ popularity with North Korean soldiers mean that the idea wasn’t as crazy as it sounded (but perhaps not necessary, seeing as how their popularity spread organically):

      See here for an explanation of that video:

      The comic music video above is a clip from one of the most popular variety shows in South Korea, MBC’s ‘Infinite Challenge.’ According to a recent report disclosed by a Saenuri Party member, the South Korean comedians in the video may have become just as famous in North Korea as they are in the South. The report claims that South Korean pop culture is extremly popular among North Koreans, including military officers (despite the regime’s efforts to suppress its popularity).

  3. Thanks for the link to my blog. I was surprised to see a dramatic spike in visits to my blog and it led me here.

    On the topic of this entry, naturally it was the same when I was in the service. This was pre-Girls’ Generation. The favorite at the time was Ivy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFVwHUtau9E
    It’s sad and I realized it at the time but never missed those shows when they were showing. The Korean Army makes men into miserable human beings. I often wonder how many of Korea’s social ills would be resolved if there was a reform of the conscription system.

    Cheers.

  4. Pingback: Songun Mini-Skirt: Ri Sol-ju, the Moranbong Band, and North Korean Fashion Norms under Kim Family Rule « SINO-NK

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  6. I find it really great that you zoned in on this as a Sociological Image – being embedded in kpop fandom for so long, even I have a tendency to take these types of observations for granted, like, “yes, young conscripted men going crazy over girl groups? That’s so normal.” Thanks for shaking me out of complacency, haha~

    You may want to be interested in these links – there are reports of a North Korean “Girls Generation” entertainment troupe forming – http://www.koreabang.com/2012/pictures/north-korean-girls-generation-used-as-army-morale-booster.html

    http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/01/whats-behind-the-video-of-korean-soldiers-freak-out-over-girl-group/251212/ <- A video of Korean soldiers freaking out over SNSD – This also blew up all over the internet a while ago. I remember seeing replies "of course" and "that's so cute" to these, haha.

    There was also a news article about PSY and other MC/comedians discussing how SNSD would be talked about in the military, saying that 'girl groups are a religion.' http://omonatheydidnt.livejournal.com/5078936.html (Original Korean + ALLKPOP source listed in entry)

    And finally, and this is probably an interesting historical note, a discussion of the history of girl groups including "Kim Sisters," the one that first performed for US troops (like you mentioned.) From KBS World – http://world.kbs.co.kr/english/program/program_trendkorea_detail.htm??lang=e&current_page=&No=41850

    Hope this is useful!

      • Apologies (a little too late) for how strange these articles are (especially the pro-Hallyu KBS World and Chosun Ilbo English report on the NK GG…). After reading these articles thoroughly and feeling my brain numb, I appreciate even more now how your blog is specifically nuanced – it definitely takes the edge off of the absurdity that is present in the materials that you introduce to us.There’s probably a threshold between “I give up” and “I give up but I can’t let it go” and your efforts definitely hit on the latter! (although please do take care of your health.)

        Actually, a question – for your posts, do you just detach yourself and observe first, and then write articles about it, or have something in media perk your interest and do sociohistorical research on it afterwards? It’s never occurred for me to ask about the specifics of your methodology before. Thanks!

        • Sorry for taking so long to reply, and no need to apologize for the strangeness of the articles: truth be told, I don’t have the time to properly read most of the links I post in my Korean Gender Reader posts, and occasionally commenters that do make me regret ever posting them (hence the “Links are not necessarily endorsements” disclaimer!).

          As for my “methodology” though, I don’t really have one, and wouldn’t say I ever consciously detach myself. On the other hand, it’s true that it can be a bit of minefield for a Caucasian male writing about Korean social issues, so – although I sometimes forget – I do try to step back and consider how other groups may consider what I’m writing, what baggage I’m bringing to my observations, if I’m over generalizing, and so on.

          As for topics, I generally have a good idea of what I’d like to write in the next month or so, mostly chosen out of personal interest, although in practice it’s a great month if I manage to do just half of what I’d like; and almost always I’ll choose something I feel qualified to write about (otherwise, why should anyone read it?), although that raises the problem of being a little repetitive. Frequently though, things will come up (like this one) which I just intend to write, say, a brief paragraph about, but read or learn about so much in the process of writing that 500 words easily become 3000. And of course there’s always news stories to react to and place into wider context and so on.

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