The More Risqué, The More Boring (OR, Something You Didn’t Know About the Horse Dance!)


Sorry, but I just can’t help it: I get very excited when I see the words “성 상품화” (sexual objectification) and “걸그룹” (girl-group) together.

That’s because I struggled for years to find critical Korean commentary on either. Whereas now, I’m just inundated with articles to translate, with or without relying on my “성 상품화” Google News Alert. And, if nothing else, this recent column of Jo Woo-yeong’s I’ve translated below is testament to that greatly increased public interest and discussion.

Unfortunately though, frankly it says little that is new either, and provides no evidence for its numerous assertions. But on the plus side, I did learn of popular-music critic Kang Tae-gyu’s twitter and blog through it. What’s more, in the process of figuring out what on Earth Jo Woo-yeong meant when she talks about Gangnam Style in the 6th paragraph, I also learnt what apparently every Korean over 30 already knew: the word “horse” (말/mal) has sexual connotations in Korean (source, right).

No, I never thought to ask Korean friends their feelings about horses either. And yes, it’s more what the word reminds them of really: the movie Madame Aema (에무 부인; aema buin) to be precise, and/or its numerous sequels. As Andrei Lankov explains in The Korean Times:

In early 1982 Madam Ema, the most explicit of Korean movies ever made, hit the theaters. Not much can be said about its plot which is, for all practical purposes, absent. It was an erotic movie, often bordering on the pornographic….

….To everybody’s surprise, the censors did not ask too many questions. Actually, the only change they demanded was a change in the movie title. The title….was deliberately conceived in a way which hinted at Emmanuelle, the [French] erotic classic which was also a great hit in Korea of the late 1970s….

….Ema was a huge success. In March 1982 the movie was put on at an experimental late night show which attracted a huge crowd. The late night shows were another invention of the military regime which was preparing to lift a decades-old curfew….

….The pioneering Ema had 12 sequels, which were shot until the early 1990s. This makes it the longest series in the history of Korean cinema. It was very successful commercially as well ― the “first” Ema was seen by 310,000 people during the first year, and it became the box office champion of 1982. Some of the copycats were doing almost as well as the original.

I’m a little confused by the censors’ ultimate title-change though (see the article and/or here for details), and would appreciate it if anybody could clarify. In return, for anyone further interested in sexuality and gender roles in Korean cinema in the period, Yu Gina of Duksung Women’s University mentions that (source, right):

The early 20th century, in the movie, <The Vow Make below the Moon, (1923)> the woman has the role of a good wife that rescues her husband from a gambling addiction. The woman dedicates to her husband, and this women’s character became the origin image of a ‘good wife.’ However, the heroin of <Sweet Dream-Lullaby of Death (1936)> is the opposite of that good wife. She resists her oppressive husband and her desire hits her daughter with a car and poisons herself because of the guilt. The ending contains the message that a woman who refuses to be a ‘good wife’ is going to be punished. This flow is maintained in other movies such as <The Ae-ma Woman and Madame Freedom>. These movies imply that women who pursue their desires are punished and vilified.

I’ve highlighted that last part because of its familiarity: as I explain in depth here, that dominant narrative wouldn’t be challenged until the mid to late-1990s, which proved to be a watershed in Korean cinema history. As might all the radical changes occurring today too, at least in terms of censorship, sexuality, and free speech.

And on that note, here’s the translation. Resolving to be more discerning with my choices in future though (even if this one did result in an interesting tangent), this will be the next one, which sounds very interesting according to Lost in Traffic Lights’ description!

점점 야해지는 걸(girl), 점점 식상해질 걸 / The More Risqué, The More Boring

Jo Woo-yeong, E Daily Star IN, 5 November 2012 (duplicated at, 6 November; all images from these 2 sources)

‘란제리룩 의상을 입은 여성이 허벅지에 가터벨트를 착용한 채 봉춤을 춘다.’ 성인용 비디오물에 흔히 등장하는 장면이 아니다. 요즘 섹시 콘셉트를 내세운 일부 걸그룹의 단면을 모아놓으면 이런 모습이라는 얘기다.

Wearing a lingerie-style outfit and a garter belt on the thigh, then pole-dancing, is not a common scene in adult videos. But it has become routine for some girl-groups to do so as part of their “sexy concepts.”

점점 야해지고, 점점 섹시해지고 있다. 속살로 착각을 일으키는 살구색 천이 덧대인 시스루 스타일 의상은 ‘귀여운 꼼수’다. 핫팬츠를 입은 채 다리를 과도하게 벌리는 일명 ‘쩍벌춤’이나 야릇한 상상을 부추기는 교태 섞인 몸짓은 웬만한 걸그룹이 거쳐야 할 필수 코스가 된 지 오래다.

Things are getting sexier and more risqué. Wearing apricot-colored clothing that gives the illusion of skin normally hidden by clothing, faux see-through clothing as it were, is known as a new “cute tactic.” Also, adopting flirty sexual poses that stir up people’s lecherous imaginations, such as dancing with your legs wide open while wearing hot pants (known as the “spread-leg dance”), has long been a requirement of girl-groups.

심지어 남녀간 성 관계 체위를 연상케 하는 커플 댄스도 빼놓을 수 없는 퍼포먼스 아이템이다. 실제 본 무대는 그렇지 않더라도 활동에 앞서 공개하는 뮤직비디오 티저 영상이나 이미지에는 ‘19금’, ‘침대 셀카’, ‘키스’, ‘목욕신’, ‘파격 노출’ 등의 수식어 정도는 붙어줘야 한다.

Worst of all, couple dances with moves that look like sex positions are also performance items. And even if they’re not ultimately done on stage, teaser videos and images beforehand have to have descriptions like “R18,” “photographed in bed,” “kiss,” “bath scene,” “excessive exposure,” and so on attached to them.

애프터스쿨, 카라, 시크릿, 안다미로, 현아, 지나, 걸스데이, NS윤지 등 수많은 여가수가 올 하반기 한 번쯤 선정성 논란에 휘말렸거나 혹은 이를 자처했다. 걸그룹들의 과도한 노출•선정적인 춤에 대한 비판과 이에 맞서 표현의 자유를 부르짖는 목소리는 서로 메아리가 돼 잊을 만하면 돌아온다.

After School, Kara, Secret, Andamiro, Hyuna, G.Na, Girls’ Day, and NS Yoon-G are just some of the female singers and girl-groups that have been embroiled in controversy about their excessive exposure and/or sexual provocation at least once in the second half of this year, or have sought it. But if you criticize either, invariably the rejoinder is that it is merely freedom of expression.

대중은 각박한 현실에서 판타지(Fantasy)적인 이야기와 동경의 대상을 찾기 마련이다. 대중은 일탈하고 싶고, 내가 하지 못하거나 할 수 없는 것들을 해내는 연예인을 보면서 대리만족, 카타르시스를 느끼기 때문이다. 앞서 소녀시대, 씨스타, 나인뮤지스 등은 특정 직업 ‘제복’ 같은 무대 의상으로 일종의 ‘타부(Taboo)’와 로망을 절묘히 배합해 대중의 욕망을 건드리기도 했다.

Wanting to escape from their harsh reality, it is natural that the public yearns for fantasies. So, while watching entertainers doing what they can’t do or won’t do, they gain a vicarious satisfaction and feeling of catharsis. Previously, groups like Girls’ Generation, Sistar, and Nine Muses did this by specializing in a uniform look, provoking the public’s desire with an exquisite combination of taboo [breaking?] and romance.

강태규 대중음악평론가는 “치열한 경쟁 속 대중의 이목을 끌기 위한 방송사나 연예기획사가 결국 대중의 판타지를 쫓고 있다”고 말했다. 스무 살도 안 된 미성년자 연예인을 ‘청순 글래머’, ‘베이글녀’ 등으로 성 상품화 하는 세태가 현실이다. 방송 카메라는 무대 아래서부터 위 방향으로 걸그룹 멤버의 몸을 훑고, 신체 특정 부위를 클로즈업해 촬영한다. 그는 “보다 자극적인 것을 요구하는 사회에서 시청률을 추구하는 방송과 ‘생존의 몸부림’ 치는 연예기획사가 성적 판타지를 쫓는 것은 당연한 수순일지 모른다”고 씁쓸해했다.

Kang Tae-gyu, a popular-music critic said, “In an intense war for the public’s attention, the media and entertainment agencies ultimately provide fantasies.” Yet it’s not just 20-somethings that are sexually-objectified with terms like “Innocent Glamor” and “Bagel Girl,” but even teens. Cameras will go over their bodies from bottom to top while girl-groups are on stage, lingering with close-ups on certain body parts. Kang continued, despairingly, Providing sexual fantasies may be natural with the media and entertainment agencies’ relentless pursuit of higher viewer rates.”

일부 매체 역시 어느덧 가수의 음악을 분석, 무대 전체를 평하기보다 그들의 선정적인 의상•퍼포먼스에 주목한다. 그게 쉽고 편해서다. 수요자(대중)와 공급자(방송•기획사)가 서로에게 원하는 것만을 주고 있는 ‘필요악’인 존재가 되어가고 있다.

But almost before we know it, we have some elements of the media not paying ever paying attention to singers’ music or what’s on stage, but only taking notice of sexually suggestive costumes or performances. This is because it is easy and convenient to do so. Both the public consumers and producers (both in broadcasting and in entertainment agencies) are only giving each other what they want, so in effect this is a necessary evil of the music industry.

역설적으로 코믹한 춤으로 세계적인 인기를 끌고 있는 싸이는 보는 음악뿐 아닌 듣는 즐거움까지 안겼다. 국내 가요계의 큰 수확이다. 하지만 싸이의 ‘말춤’ 역시 그 특유의 유쾌함으로 상쇄됐을 뿐 그 안에 ‘말’이라는 동물이 갖는 묘한 성적 상징성이 담겼다. 사실 ‘섹시한’ 매력은 남녀 누구나 갖고 싶은 본능이라 할 만하다.

Paradoxically though, Psy gained worldwide popularity [not by providing something sexual, but] by providing both a funny dance and listening pleasure, and the Korean music industry in general has benefited greatly from this popularity. Yet while Psy’s comedic “horse dance” is unique, ironically even the word “horse” has sexual connotations. Moreover, man or woman, who doesn’t want to be more sexually attractive?

대중음악 가수에게 순수예술을 바라서도 안 되고 그럴 필요도 없다. 퍼포먼스도 실력이고 잘 생기고 예쁜 외모도 개인이 가진 하나의 능력이다. 문제는 그들이 내세우는 ‘섹시’가 얼마만큼의 당위성과 명분을 갖느냐다. 단순히 눈길을 끌기 위해 속살을 드러내고 몸을 흔드는 것이라면 ‘예술’이 아닌 ‘외설’에 가깝다는 비판을 피하기 어렵다.

We cannot expect singers of popular music to only produce pure art, and not be influenced by commercial imperatives. Also, there is nothing wrong with performing well, and/or being physically attractive. The problem is when sexiness is presented where it is uncalled for, with no justification. Simply showing singers dancing in tight and/or faux nude clothes isn’t art but rather obscenity, and isn’t difficult to criticize.

성시권 대중음악평론가는 “국내 대중의 인식이 많이 변해가고 있으나 마돈나, 레이디 가가 등 유명 팝스타들과 지금 국내 걸그룹들을 비교 대상으로 삼기에는 무리가 있다”고 말했다. 음악과 퍼포먼스, 주객이 바뀐 경우가 많다는 게 그의 주장이다. 그는 “퍼포먼스는 음악에 담긴 메시지를 조금 더 잘 표현하기 위한 수단이어야 하는데 일부 걸그룹이나 여가수의 무대가 과연 그러한지 의문”이라며 “몇몇 그룹이 비슷하게 돌고 도는 섹시 콘셉트는 계속 양산되고 시장서 꾸준히 소모되겠지만, 갈수록 식상함이 더해져 그들 스스로를 가둘 것”이라고 평했다. 그는 “그들은 물론 더 나아가 K팝 발전을 위해 방송•언론•평단과 각 연예 기획사의 각자 역할에 대한 고민이 필요한 시점”이라고 말했다.

Song Shi-kwon, a popular-music critic, said “In Korea, perceptions are changing, but you still can’t really compare them to famous stars like Madonna or Lady Gaga.” But in many cases, girl-groups’ performances are now more important than their music. He continued, “Performance should be a tool to convey the message in the music a little better, but I have to wonder if some girl-groups and female-singers’ stages really do that,” and judged that “by all copying each other in providing a sexy concept, their music and performances will certainly be consumed in the market, but in the process people will becoming bored with it, and so the groups will come to limit each other’s’ development.” Ultimately, “For the further development of K-pop, broadcasters, the media, critics, and entertainment agencies need to seriously think about their own roles in it.”

Korean (Movie) Censors in Retreat?

(Sources, edited: left, right)

With so much attention on restrictive censorship in K-pop these days, it’s easy to overlook how much standards in movies have actually been relaxed in recent years. See my latest column in Busan Haps for more information, especially if you’ve never heard of Shortbus before…

But please let me reiterate here though, that the freedom to show more sex and nudity in popular culture is just one aspect of becoming a more sexually liberal society. For sure, it’s a step in the right direction, and can have positive knock-on effects, just like the first kiss in a Korean ad in 2009 lifted the taboo on PDA for a lot of young couples for instance. (Yes, only anecdotal; but prove me wrong). But on the other hand, with the (re)criminalization of abortion by the Lee Myung-bak administration, recent attempts to limit access to the contraceptive pill, and the continued stigmatization of single mothers, you could reasonably argue that Korea is really just as sexually conservative as ever. No matter how much T&A you can see on the silver screen now, and which is often (usually?) just for financial reasons anyway.

In short, it’s complicated. Anyone that’s been here more than a couple of years, what impressions do you get? And how do you think things will change after the elections?

Real & Presumed Causes of Racism Against Interracial Couples in Korea

(Sources – left: GR X Hermark; right)

Over at a recent post on Noona Blog: Seoul, an excellent blog written by a Swedish woman in a relationship with a Korean man, currently there’s several interesting comments about the sources of racism often directed against Korean female – Caucasian male (KF-CM) couples in Korea.

Many of which were written by Jake of Asian Male Revolutions, who has the admirable and very necessary goal of challenging the racist and emasculating images of Asian men in the US media through that website.

But in the process of – in my view – very much contriving to paint racism against KF-CM couples in Korea in those terms, as well as global racial power relations, I found he made many extremely sexist assumptions about Korean women, which I’d like to challenge. As technical issues prevent me from doing so at Noona Blog directly however,* then – assuming that you’ve already read his comments – I’ll post my original response here instead:

Dear Jake,

it’s difficult not to sound offensive when critiquing someone’s opinions so harshly. But still, however legitimate your concerns about representations of Asian men in the US media are, it’s incredibly naive of you to assume that that these would exist in the same form and degree in the Korean media, or indeed at all.

Argue that they still have a role in expressions of racism against KF-CM couples in Korea nevertheless though, and you end up simply sounding like an apologist.

Much more seriously however, in so doing you also rely heavily on some extremely patronizing and sexist assumptions about Korean women, let alone racist ones against Caucasian men. Let me explain.

I’ll start with your acknowledgment that “there’s no denying that simple male jealousy plays a role in the bellyaching white men…encounter as one part of an interracial couple in Korea.” Naturally I fully agree, and while I consider it a little harsh to dismiss treating that “as simple jealousy from a bunch of Korean/Asian losers” as a “pretty foolish assumption” – after all, you get jerks like that the world over – I also agree that it is wise “to consider the historical and political implications and undertones of various types and permutations of interracial dating” to understand that bellyaching more fully (source, bellyaching pun above).

But what is that historical and political context you identify?

The Western media has a much longer reach than Korean media; in fact all Asian media is to an extent influenced strongly by Euro-centric beauty standards. This has been well-documented by all the plastic surgery, and by the glorification of media figures (singers, actresses) who are selected first and foremost for their vaguely euro-Asian looks (as opposed to supposedly ‘ugly’ Korean features) and then groomed by a team of trainers and managers to become media superstars like Girls Generation, Son Dam-Bi, and all the ‘flavors du jour’ pop-tarts you see on Korean TV shows.

And again I largely agree, having written many posts saying pretty much the same thing myself. But crucially not the “The Western media has a much longer reach than Korean media” part; and as we’ll see in a moment, I feel you have an extremely inflated view of the Western media’s power in Korea.

So given the fact that an embedded system of euro/white-worship permeates South Korean pop-culture, white males have more elbow room to work with in the global dating scene. Many come to the shores of Korea and Asia and have relatively little trouble finding willing women who having seen and internalized images of white beauty standards, would like nothing more than to experience the thrill of dating the mythic “white boy”. And white men who come to Korea are only too happy to take advantage of this fact.

Okaaay…I’ll deal with your warped view of the interracial dating scene in Korea in a moment too (source above: Gusts of Popular Feeling). But first, let’s focus on your views of Korean women which it relies on, which you expand upon in your next comment:

Asian female/white male relationships cannot happen unless both parties are willing to participate in it.

This can only mean one thing – that Korean women, having internalized media messages glorifying white men, are also actively seeking them out to satisfy their own ‘white fetish’. Therefore, we cannot simply categorize white men as “predators” for Asian flesh: instead, a significant number of Asian women are willing collaborators.

Interesting choices of terms you’re using, especially that last. Continuing:

Or at the very least, they are passively open to it – that is, they might not go out of their way to seek white men, but if one does hit on them they are psychologically “primed” to be much more open to their sexual and romantic advances, as opposed to a black or even Korean man.

This is just more evidence of the pervasive white worship in Korean society, and it illustrates just how thoroughly and totally many Korean women internalize this message.

You’ve seen them in the bars and clubs and lounges of Seoul. To them, white boys on their arm are the ultimate accessory to their personal crusade to be the “coolest” chick on the block.

They’re commodifying race – and according to their rather twisted logic, being seen with a white guy the equivalent of having the latest handbag or shoes.


They ought to stop and think about the implications of their choices. To them it’s a confirmation of their own belief that “being with a white man = COOL + URBANE + COSMOPOLITAN + TRENDY”… but it’s actually an expression of a colonial mindset – they are psychologically and mentally colonized, dominated, and enslaved.

They’re not setting the tone on what is cool – they’re doing the exact opposite: setting the tone on what is sick, twisted, and unwholesome.

Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming that ALL Korean women with white men are like this. But there is also no denying that a significant number of these women do exist. So please take my comments for what they are, and don’t take them out of context. Thanks.

Hey, no-one is denying that there are some Korean women who seek a White boyfriend for much the same reasons they would a Gucci handbag (or various types of Korean men either for that matter). But a “significant” number of Korean women with White men are like this you say? What percentage of them do you mean by that term roughly? 10? 25? And do you actually have any evidence whatsoever that they represent anything but the tiniest fraction of all KF-CM relationships?

Also, I’m rather confused: what percentage don’t want a White boyfriend as an accessory, but like you say just want to experience the thrill of dating one instead (which apparently is bad, even though we’re all attracted to the exotic)? What percentage are simply psychologically “primed” to spread their legs more readily for a White man “as opposed to a Black or even Korean” one? And finally, presuming you even allow for the possibility, what percentage of Korean women would you say aren’t passive, unthinking dupes of media messages of White male supremacy and are thus able to have genuine loving relationships with White men?

More to the point, have you asked so much as a single Korean woman of what she thinks of your characterization of them above?

I have asked one myself actually, my wife, and I’d wager that her reaction to you on the right is pretty representative. But I’ve asked many many more about interracial dating (including many who only speak Korean), and I think you’d be rather surprised at the far greater numbers of Korean women who have little interest, even a positive distaste at the possibility of dating White men.

Moreover, while global racial patterns of hegemony and privilege certainly ensure that more White guys end up in South Korea than, say, Indian guys, and that  stereotypes of both exist that encourage and discourage Korean women to form relationships with them respectively, it doesn’t automatically follow that Korean women assessing them as potential partners don’t do so by pretty much the same criteria that they do for any men, including Koreans.

Most South Asian men in Korea, for instance, are laborers, which obviously puts them at a big disadvantage to middle-class White teachers. Also, as one Korean female friend put it to me, while White guys tending to be taller has a great deal to do with their attraction to some Korean women (albeit a disparity that is rapidly disappearing), that still isn’t enough to overcome the anticipated language and/or cultural difficulties for most others. And another acknowledged that while White men in Korean tended to have more money (and freedom) than Korean guys in their early-20s, with the ESL industry in Korea being the joke that is, then, financially-speaking, in fact Koreans make much better partners by their late-20s and early-30s.

In short, while the specific mixture of the fish in the sea may well be determined by forces beyond their control, women are very much the arbiters of which ones they reel in so to speak.

To be fair, you do somewhat acknowledge this in your next comment, and which I admit I misinterpreted in the first draft of this post. But still, it is interesting how you force that into a narrative of Korean female submissiveness and White men’s sexual colonialism nevertheless. You say of the relationship between one commenter’s German father and Korean mother’s relationship, for instance:

…until Korean male/German female relationships become just as commonplace as what’s already out there (that is, WM/AF relationships), you can’t exactly hold that up as a ’shining example’ of “colorblindness”. It’s not — it’s more of an expression of racialized power structures and a neo-colonial history.

No, actually it can be colorblind, and both relationships and the people behind them are more then mere expressions of vast, impersonal forces. But if you’d like a more specific critique of your twisting facts to suit your narrative however:

(Source: Baby Black)

It’s the German man’s knowledge when he goes abroad that his country is wealthier and more powerful, compounded with the Korean woman’s knowledge that her’s is less wealthy (particularly back in those days), that makes the Western-male/Asian female (WM-AF) relationship so numerous.

And since women generally look to marry “up” while men look to marry “down” (socially and economically), you can see why the inequality between the white and Asian races makes the WM-AF relationship so easy to forge.

Put simply, I call bullshit on women marrying up and men marrying down: in virtually every society, both historically and today, the vast majority of men and women marry someone within the same socioeconomic group as themselves. Earning much more money than women however, then men are certainly freer to marry down, but that doesn’t at all mean that they aim to do so, or that they don’t aim to marry up any less than women.

But this critique pales in comparison to your reaction to the commenter after that, who wonders where the inconvenient reality of increasing number of Korean male – Caucasian female pairings like her own fits into your diatribe?

If you take some time to analyze our message instead of reacting emotionally, you’ll see just how out of line your thinking is, and how little time and effort you put into trying to understand something that is admittedly *highly, highly* complex. It’s a difficult concept for anyone to wrap his or her head around, so I guess I can’t blame you for taking the lazy way out with convenient and disjointed logic.

But then I said I’d talk about the Western media’s influence in Korea, and so I’ll do so now by contrasting the different impacts you feel it has on Korean men and women (my emphasis):

But the rub for Korean men (in general) is that men in places like Madison Avenue in New York City and Hollywood who control the images that go up on billboards and on TV and movie-screens are white – and they invariably make those images in their own image: White, Male, and BLOWN WAY OUT OF PROPORTION. In short: welcome to the world of Hollywood and the White Male Action Hero.

Keep in mind that while this is happening, Asian males are either completely excluded or used as a foil to make the white male look better in comparison. So Asian males in America or Korean males living in Korea internalize this subliminal message in the media and think that they can’t possibly step up to a blonde girl (or whatever white chick). They live their entire lives being psychologically castrated, in sharp contrast to a white male from where ever, who is emboldened or even arrogantly empowered by the jumbo-sized images made in his likeness, in the embrace of gorgeous white, black, latin, and of course Asian women in movie theatres all over the world.

(Source: Somang Cosmetics, 2003)

Hey, again I completely agree about the representations of Korean and Asian men in the US media. But I’m curious as to how you think this affects Korean males in Korea exactly, and what’s more upon whom you – very tellingly – imply that there is an equal effect as on Asian males in America. Pray, have you actually watched or read any Korean television, movies, magazines, or websites recently? It’s not like they’re lacking for strong, macho images of Korean men getting the Korean girl; or indeed, frequently getting the White girl these days, creating hypersexual stereotypes of them in the process.

Moreover, for a domestic media supposedly at the mercy of the global/Western media and its emasculating imagery of Korean men, it’s just bizarre how nevertheless it still has the ability to effectively censor all expressions of women’s sexual interest in foreign players during the 2002 World Cup; to not allow a single positive representation of KF-CM relationships in advertisements until July this year; to give a free voice to groups that, under the belief that Western men are all diseased sexual predatorswill literally stalk them with the aim of catching them doing illegal tutoring, thereby getting them deported; producing “documentaries” that show that Korean women will invariably get raped if they date White men; and so on.

Am I also “emotionally reacting” in pointing that out?

And simultaneously (being human and all) many white women are conditioned to shoot for white men as the “gold standard”, since all the glorified images of ‘male sex appeal’ feature only white males. Some even view Asian males with contempt or pity, and this of course spills over when white chicks go abroad – though to be fair, I’ve noticed this racist bias more in North American white females than European ones. So it is any wonder we see a “global sexual marketplace” that is DOMINATED by white males (figuratively) ‘raping’ and exploiting these loopholes to their sexual advantage?

Given the above dynamics of a GLOBAL system of media brainwashing that favors white males, is it any wonder that some people in Korea or elsewhere might secretly (or openly, in some cases) resent a white male for doing what he does? It’s not unreasonable, or completely out of the realm of possibility.

Ah. So while Korean women are mere passive dupes of the Western media, in contrast Korean men are savvy, knowledgeable consumers of it, and for whom calling a Korean woman walking down the street with Caucasian male a whore, say, is hence a justified response to their symbolic castrations and emasculation therein? As is the way the Korean media treats Western men?

(See Gusts of Popular Feeling for an explanation of the above video)

To put it mildly, that sounds rather apologist to me. But then considering what you write about White guys in Korea, then what would I know, right?

But here’s the funny thing: to him, he’s just ‘innocently’ going about his personal life – but of course he also doesn’t see (well, probably chooses not to see, that is, ignore) that the entire System is built for HIS personal advantage. It’s custom-built for his white male needs – and that is very racist, no doubt.

And on that note, I’ll put this response to rest. Regular readers may well wonder why I devoted so much time to it: after all, its flaws speak for themselves. But then I’m only human, and I reacted partially because it reminded me of how a commentator on this blog also conflated the 2 issues in an earlier post for instance, and whom I simply gave up reasoning with. Much more though, because it was annoying to spend 60 minutes on a comment only to have it disappear (see below), and finally especially because I was angered by comments on a similar post on Noona Blog not only gushing with enthusiasm for Jake’s comments but also implying that he had “a fact-based academic writing style”, when if anything it’s marked by their complete absence.

Combine that with being a White man married to a Korean woman blogging about gender issues in Korea too, who as a result has had trolls insulting the both of us incessantly for 3 years, or even being sent 3000 word emails patiently explaining that the vast majority of  White men in Korea (but always excluding myself of course) have yellow fever, and that I’m just being emotional in not acknowledging that…then hopefully you can see why I get very tired and angry at hearing that sort of thing sometimes!^^

Update: See I’m No Picasso and Roboseyo for two excellent posts written in response to this one.

Update 2: And now Gusts of Popular Feeling too.

You’ve seen them in the bars and clubs and lounges of Seoul. To them, white boys on their arm are the ultimate accessory to their personal crusade to be the “coolest” chick on the block.

They’re commodifying race – and according to their rather twisted logic, being seen with a white guy the equivalent of having the latest handbag or shoes.

They ought to stop and think about the implications of their choices. To them it’s a confirmation of their own belief that “being with a white man = COOL + URBANE + COSMOPOLITAN + TRENDY”… but it’s actually an expression of a colonial mindset – they are psychologically and mentally colonized, dominated, and enslaved.

They’re not setting the tone on what is cool – they’re doing the exact opposite: setting the tone on what is sick, twisted, and unwholesome.

Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming that ALL Korean women with white men are like this. But there is also no denying that a significant number of these women do exist. So please take my comments for what they are, and don’t take them out of context. Thanks.

*Actually, my original intention was just to leave a comment at Noona Blog, but as soon as I hit “submit reply” then it disappeared into the ether. As the same thing happened on a different post last week however (my first there), then wisely I’d saved it first. Of course, it’s annoying that I can’t seem to comment at all there then, but normally I’d just chalk that up to the idiosyncrasies of  the individual website. Yet then the same thing happened on Seoul Beats yesterday too (thanks for the link guys!), which I have successfully commented on before. Do any technically-minded readers have any possible explanations?  A plugin issue perhaps, or something to do with the most recent version of WordPress? (Switching from Firefox to I.E. didn’t help) Thanks in advance!

Sex as Power in the South Korean Military: A Follow-up

( Source )

As I discussed back in March, the first ever survey on the issue of sexual violence in the Korean military discovered endemic levels of abuse, with roughly 15% of 250,000 conscripts each year experiencing it as either victims or perpetrators. A hugely important socialization experience for Korean men, this had grave implications for Korean society.

On a slight positive note however, I was happy to also read that much of the researchers’ data was obtained by interviews with soldiers in their barracks with the official cooperation of the Ministry of Defense. A sign of changing attitudes towards acknowledging and dealing with the problem?

Alas, I’ve just discovered that that was far too optimistic, as the military still remains one of the least transparent institutions in Korea:

When the Cheonan sank [in March], the initial reaction was shock and sadness, which quickly gave way to rage: with a government accused of dragging its feet, but also with a military that seemed unprepared for a North Korean attack.

But anger with the military runs deeper than over a single event. Mistrust of the institution is widespread because it has failed to open itself up, using the excuse of national security, while the rest of the country has embraced democracy.

South Korea’s military dictatorship may be a thing of the past, but the North’s constant saber rattling in the form of nuclear tests, missile launches, spy incidents and the occasional skirmish continue to give Korea’s men at arms an immediate relevance – and an excuse to conceal things from the public. That right to secrecy is enshrined in the National Security Law, which places restrictions even on regular citizens’ freedom of speech for the sake of preventing enemy subversion, but is even more of a cloak for the armed forces. It’s the legal manifestation of the bubble in which the military operates, isolating it from the massive changes the rest of Korean society has undergone. To date, for example, no civilian has ever been named defense minister.

Every year, a report is quietly released titled, “Military deaths caused by accidents.” In 2008, there were 134 names on that list, including 75 suicides. The suicides are usually explained by a “failure to adjust to military life.”

That explanation is unacceptable for Joo Jong-woo, whose son, Pvt. Joo Jung-wook, committed suicide in 2001 at age 22…

Read the rest at The JoongAng Ilbo, including about “its emphasis on tight ideological control of its conscripts” resulting in its banning of left-wing books like the works of Noam Chomsky, and the expulsion of military legal officers for “arguing that the military’s regulations are unconstitutional”. Meanwhile, the Korean military still refuses to recognize conscientious objectors and so imprisons them (see here also for a podcast on the development of the concept of conscientious objection in the West), the National Human Rights Commission is ineffective, and the maintenance of the conscription system as a whole is one reason why the Korean Military remains  “a 1970-vintage force structure, designed around a 1970-vintage threat, equipped with 1970-vintage weapons.”

( Source: anja_johnson )

As for the images of mascots, please note that I post them not to be facetious though(!), but rather to show how facile such attempts to soften the image of institutions like the police and military are in light of reports like this. But nothing against the mascots themselves of course, and see here, here, and here for more information about Podori (포도리) in the riot gear!^^

Update, October 2010: Unfortunately, this recent incident demonstrates that little progress has been made since this post was written.


Korean Sociological Image #41: Mothers of Warriors


A quick question: who would you choose to sell hormone-treatment and anti-depression medication to middle-aged women?

Barring Bae Young-joon (배용준) above, notoriously popular among them, then I’d wager that middle-aged women themselves were your most likely answer. And your least likely? Probably men in their early-20s, which begs the question of why they’re the only ones actually speaking in the following commercial from Dongkook Pharmaceutical (see below for a translation):

Of course, the reason the young men are featured at all is because Korea has universal male conscription, which makes parting scenes like those featured above a normal part of the Korean life-cycle. So while the leaving ceremony itself may be unfamiliar to most Western observers, a company encouraging consumers to associate its product with it is really no different from a bank using imagery of, say, children’s university graduation ceremonies to sell retirement savings plans.

Still, that’s not to say that it’s just any old commercial. For in relying on an emotional event for Korean mothers and sons to sell its products, but quite literally denying only the mothers a voice in that, Dongkook Pharmaceutical has ironically provided an apt illustration of Korean women’s expected role in any public debates about military conscription. Which is in short, to be seen and not heard, their opinions taken for granted by others.

For instance, in 1997 the Korean media revealed that the sons of Lee Hoi-chang (이회창), the then presidential candidate of the then ruling Shinhangukdang (New Korean Party; 신한국당), had been exempted from their military service due to medical grounds; popularly believed to have used his wealth and influence to secure this, the backlash against Lee for failing to fulfill his paternal and nationalist responsibilities was so intense that his political career was soon over. And yet according to Insook Kown in A Feminist Exploration of Military Conscription: The Gendering of the Connections Between Nationalism, Militarism and Citizenship in South Korea (2001), even in the midst of all that:

…women were voiceless. Those who accused Lee, answered the accusations, reported the matter, and contributed articles were all men. In public, the conscription scandal seemed a matter for men only. Sometimes, mothers were used by men as a reference symbolizing a certain group of women only concerned about the welfare of their sons. Many male editorial writers represented the angry emotions of mothers to show South Korean popular opinion. One editorial writer in the JoongAng Daily (22/08/97) described the anger of many mothers of sons. According to him, these mothers wrote a slogan on the calender for Election Day: “Let’s never forget the exemptions of Lee’s sons”.  (p. 43)

(Source: anja_johnson)

And later another editorial writer in the same paper (27/08/97) illustrated the emotional background of the issue by using a motherly perspective:

People did not deal with the exemption by making accusations of immorality or illegal intervention in the exemption, but with emotional anger like, why did your sons not have to go into the army, while my son is suffering in a life-or-death crisis. What made women angrier than anyone else, was caused by this kind emotion. (p. 43)

Kwon argues that the Korean state has always very much had a stake in accepting feminized forms of self-sacrifice in its name, whether as factory workers, prostitutes to the US military or Japanese tourists (a crucial source of foreign exchange in the 1960s and 1970s), or mothers of conscripts. Focusing on the latter here, consequently they have so far lacked:

…room to represent their own sacrifices in public. Mother’s concern and pain over their son’s conscription has remained hidden under the taken-for-granted necessity of military conscription for national security. Their voices have been deprived of a space for expression; and because their emotional attachment to their sons has been translated into a private matter, they have not mobilized as a group. (p. 37; tenses have been changed)

Not that this lack of representation means that mothers are necessarily opposed to conscription. For example, Cynthia Enloe, who has written extensively on the subject of “patriotic motherhood” narratives constructed by militarized states, argues that in fact they can have attractions for women whose mothering role has been evaluated as personal and private. Indeed, it can be a chance for them to completely revalue their maternal duty:

Some women feel deeply validated when some politician goes on the call for mothering to be defined as a vital contribution to the nation’s war effort, because warfare has been imagined by many to be the quintessentially public and national activity. (Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, 2000, p. 11, quoted in Kwon p. 46)

Moreover, what are these “sacrifices” referred to exactly? Kwon’s analysis is a little weak on this point, as although she provides a comprehensive and convincing demonstration of how in fact all women suffer from the conscription system (a subject taken up in this series), there is little evidence that mothers specifically suffer beyond that aforementioned “concern and pain over their son’s conscription”. As the commercial demonstrates however, that may be rather more than a Western observer might expect.

At which point it is prudent to provide the translation of it(!). Below, the text featured on the screen is written as normal text below, while everything spoken by the conscripts or in the voiceover I’ve put in quotation marks. I’ve also provided the commercial again to make it easier to follow along:

엄마…..그동안 받기만 해왔습니다

Mother…..(I’ve) only ever received things (from you)

엄마…이제 처음으로 엄마품을 떠나네요

Mother….this is the first time I’ve left my mother’s (your?) bosom”


Mother…thank you

듬직한 대한민국 군인이 돼서 엄마가 믿고 의지할 수 있는 아들이 되겠습니다

I will become a reliable, trustworthy Korean soldier whom you can trust and depend on

이제는 우리가 엄마를 도와드릴 차례입니다

Now it’s our (my?) turn to help our mothers

어머니 잘 다녀오겠습니다. 사랑합니다. 사랑해

Mother, I will do well before I return. I love you (formal). I love you (informal)

엄마, 사랑합니다. 충성!

Mother, I love you (formal). Loyalty! (Fealty?) (Devotion?) [James: whatever the exact meaning, it is said when saluting]

대한민국 갱년기 어머니들의 10명 중 8명은 다양한 갱년기 증상으로 힘들어하고 있습니다

Out of every 10 mothers of the Korean public who experience menopause, 8 suffer from various symptoms

(Above, left and right): 여성 갱년기 극복 갬폐인 & 동국제약

Female Menopause Conquest Campaign & Dongkook Pharmaceutical

엄마에게, 사랑의 마음을 전하세요. 훼라민큐가 함께 합니다

Tell your mother the love you feel in your heart. With HeraminQ.

이제, 엄마의 갱년기를 도와주세요. 훼라민Q.

Now, please help with mothers’ menopause. HeraminQ.

(In very fine print): 의사, 약사와 상의하십시오. 부작용이 있을 수 있습니다

Please consult with a doctor or pharmacist. Side effects are possible.

Update: Seamus Walsh has provided a slightly more accurate translation (with explanations) in the comments.

(For another post: the impact on sisters and girlfriends of conscription? Movie poster for The Longest 24 Hours, (기다리다미쳐, 2007), a lighthearted look at military service from the perspective of conscripts’ girlfriends; also known as Crazy4wait. Source)

While this may sound a little hypocritical at first, let me begin my discussion on the subject of the mothers’ feelings by highlighting those of the men; actually, that is the original reason I wanted to write this post, for let me stress that you were seeing men in their early-20s crying at the thought of leaving their mothers. What did that make you think of them?

Well, at risk of sounding insensitive, personally I found them to be pathetic. Not that I was all that mature at the same age of course, and in many senses my reaction may simply be because of cultural differences. Like Brian in Jeollanam-do once put it:

…everything in Korea tries to be cute, in the same way everything in the States is “Xtreme” and too cool for school. Korea uses a cartoon to advertise where the US would have a gravelly stoner voiceover, and Korean videos often feature cuteness exaggerated to a sickening degree where American videos would lots of brooding and feigned indifference.

And not unrelated is how different average Koreans’ and average Westerners’ life-cycles are at that age, although 30-somethings like myself should be wary of projecting their own experiences onto today’s 20-somethings. Nor do I want to make light of the hardships conscripts have to endure either.

(Source: anja_johnson)

But then I’m not:  in that commercial at least, thinking about those hardships is not why they’re crying. Moreover, to describe the crying as a simple cultural difference underplays the extent to which this practice is unique even within Korean culture itself, as beyond obvious cases such as funerals, my (Korean) wife for one could think of no other situations in which it is so socially acceptable for a man of that age to cry publicly. That they can and do then, is partially because a) the vast majority of Koreans don’t actually think of any male as a “man” until he has fulfilled his military service, and b) this uniquely strong bond between mothers and conscript-sons. Indeed, there is:

…a widely held popular belief that a father should encourage his son to go into the army, and to fulfill his national defense duty to achieve real citizenship. In this gendered construction, mothers represent emotional attachment such as compassion and pity toward their conscripted sons. In other words…the emotional part of the work of conscription….

…At the most emotional step of the conscription process, the father disappears. For instance, in two recent guidebooks published for pre-conscripts, the authors, both male, make almost no mention of fathers. The only ‘object’ for whom male soldiers are expected to feel concern about in the family is the mother. (p. 44)

And as you might expect, this is well-represented in popular culture, and in addition to commercials like the above I have frequently seen conscripts brought on to the stage after a girl-group has performed on an army base to wax lyrical about their performance and their attractiveness…only then to break down in tears and leave a very emotional message to their mothers watching back home (indeed, often they’re literally choking on their words so much that Om-ma “mother” is the only word you’re able to discern).

Unfortunately for readers however, this is yet another case of something interesting to outside observers that is unremarkable to Koreans themselves, and so I’ve spent over an hour unsuccessfully looking for examples to post here (videos of girl-group performances typically finish just before the soldiers are brought on stage). If any readers find any I would appreciate it if you could pass them on, but in the meantime let me finish by passing on what Kwon says about the program Ujeongdui Mudae (우정의 무대), or Stage for Friendship, the only program about conscripted soldiers in the 1990s, and which had:

…one famous section, ‘Yearning for Mother’. An unidentified  mother talked about her son from back stage. Following her talk, a lot of soldiers ran on the stage shouting “Mother” and insisted she was their mother. Finally, the mother appeared on stage and hugged her son. Finally, the mother appeared on stage and hugged her son. Accompanied with deeply moving music, both mother and son cried, as did other soldiers and everybody watching the TV show. (p. 44).

For your interest though, I did find this 2008 commercial with Moon Geun-young (문근영) for GS Caltex (칼텍스), which features a mother visiting her son during his military service (and impressed with how much of a man he has become):

And for the record, Dongkook Pharmaceutical did produce more “normal” commercials for HeraminQ with middle-age women, here, here, and here, as well as another one in the “life-cycle” series featuring mothers’ high-school children taking their life-determining university-entrance exams:


(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here; for more on the effect of conscription on Korean society, see here and here)

Korean Movie Review #1: Peppermint Candy (2000)

Peppermint Candy Korean Movie 3( Source )

For the fledgling movie reviewer, revealing one’s inexperience with cinema is never a wise move. And adding that this inexperience stems from an at best indifferent, at worst active dislike of the subject? Positively suicidal, at least in terms of becoming known as an authority on it.

Fortunately however, that is not my aim with this post. Rather, it marks the first of many movie reviews I’ll write as I personally struggle to see Korean cinema in a new light from now on, hopefully providing readers with an entertaining and informative guide in the process.

I won’t bore readers with the combination of personal factors that led me to under-appreciate Korean cinema for the last 9 years here then; suffice to say, many had little to do with the quality of Korean cinema itself. Hearing of them though, no less than a professor of Korean popular culture, a professor of Korean literature, and a published science-fiction writer all recommended Peppermint Candy (박하사탕) for me to start with (the latter even loaned me his boxed set of director Lee Chang-dong’s DVDs with which to do so), so I had high expectations for this movie. And even if you’re not blessed with such uniquely knowledgeable friends yourself, it doesn’t take long to learn that it has a strong place in Korean popular culture (it was the first domestic movie chosen as an opening film for PIFF for instance), and the screenshot below in particular.

And yet for all my friends’ high praise, for all the accolades, I found this to be a bleak, deeply frustrating movie. Feeling that perhaps my own inexperience was to blame, I forced myself to watch it again, this time with my wife. But unfortunately I gained nothing from the benefit of hindsight – more things to critique in fact – and indeed my wife even fell asleep well before the end.

Peppermint Candy Korean Movie( Source: mamimisama )

The film opens in spring 1999, with main character Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu {설경구}) joining a 20-year reunion of his old factory social group on the banks of a river. Quickly revealed to be bitter and angry, his behavior extremely erratic, within a few minutes he’s welcoming his death from an oncoming train on a nearby railway bridge, screaming the now classic line “I want to go back!” (또 다시 돌아갈래). Then it’s 3 days earlier (the first of 6 backward jumps in the story), and we see him buying a gun, then toying with killing himself. Soon it emerges that despite appearances, he’s virtually penniless, and that this is the result of his former business-partner stealing his money, a loan shark charging exorbitant rates of interest, and possibly his ex-wife also (played by Kim Yeo-jin {김여진}).

Then it’s 5 years earlier, and we see him as a successful business-person, and I anticipated seeing the events that led to his financial downfall. Instead, only the dissolution of his marriage is portrayed, for which both partners prove to be at blame. At which point that I began comparing the movie to Clerks.

Yes really: the 1994 budget US comedy. Please bear with me for a moment.

Easy to miss amongst all the jokes, towards the end of Clerks there is a scene where the main character Dante Hicks (played by Brian O’Halloran) complains about everything that has happened to him that day, as, indeed, he has been doing throughout the entire movie. What sets this scene aside from those though, is that in response, Randal Graves (played by Jeff Anderson) points out that everything he’s complaining about is in fact entirely his own fault. And with those 10-15 seconds and 2 or 3 lines, for me the movie was transformed from merely a good but ulitmately forgettable comedy – I find it difficult to laugh at today – to something with a clear moral, and one that I have taken to heart ever since.

Granted, at the age of 18, one is probably more inclined to deliberately seek out such morals from movies than at the age of 33, imaginary or otherwise. And as the events that transformed Young-ho from a very innocent and dreamy young man to the bitter and twisted individual that commits suicide 20 years later are revealed, undoubtedly there is much in this vein to be gained from Peppermint Candy also, particularly with such suburb acting from Sol Kyung-gu, Kim Yeo-jin, and Moon So-ri (문소리), playing his first girlfriend.

Peppermint Candy Love Motel( Source: momo369 )

Most of the important ones however, such as how he came to lose all his money, why he joined the (then notoriously brutal) police, why he married his wife despite not loving her, and why he treated his first girlfriend so appallingly, are simply never answered. And therein lies the rub: these gaps are simply inexplicable in a movie about so focused on the linear, chronological development of a single character (albeit in reverse), emphasized cinematographically throughout by footage of trains between each segment in the story, and also – noticeable after a second viewing – the sounds of trains passing in many important scenes. Just like Darcy Paquet of then, I too found that

…ultimately the main character remains out of our grasp. Lee denies us any easy explanations for our hero’s character, or excuses for his behavior. The film frustrated me as I was watching it for the first time; I wanted greater access to the hero’s feelings.

Unlike him however, I wasn’t “shattered” upon reaching the end of the movie: more exasperated. And I thoroughly regret watching it twice.

Perhaps as if to subconsciously compensate for these gaps in a movie that they otherwise clearly thoroughly enjoyed though, I have noticed many other reviewers of this movie (particularly Anthony Leong and Thomas Spurlin) finding Young-ho’s character to be both a product of and metaphor for the turbulent 20 years of South Korean history that the movie covers. But this is simply bogus: having a knowledge of that history doesn’t add anything to the movie, nor does the movie in any way educate you if you lack it. Moreover, Young-ho’s financial troubles for instance (vague as they are), are by no means related to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, and what happens to him during his military service in Kwangju May 1980 could have happened at any other time before Korea democratized. Indeed, given that the movie’s narrative would have worked equally as well in 1969-1989 or even 1959-1979, I’d argue that in fact its setting is almost irrelevant.

Peppermint Candy Moon So-ri( Source: momo369 )

While I ultimately don’t recommend seeing this movie then, readers that already have may well disagree with my take on it, and I’m more than happy to be persuaded of its virtues. And I do, again, acknowledge the superb acting, and should also point out that the movie is also interesting for its depiction of Korea in the 1980s, for which I highly recommend the book Yogong: Factory Girl by Robert F. Spencer (1988) also to get a sense of just how different daily life was in Korea then.

But however naive and unsophisticated it sounds, I still apply the same standards to movie today as I did when I was 18. And lacking any readily discernible moral then, nor educating viewers about an issue or giving me a fresh new perspective on a previously well-known one, I failed to see the point of this one.

Next week: A Good Lawyer’s Wife (바람난 가족; 2003), which coincidentally features two of the same three main actors.