Korean Sociological Image #89: On Getting Knocked up in South Korea

Korean Births Out of WedlockAs in, how many Korean women are pregnant when they walk down the aisle? How many get married after giving birth? How many mothers don’t get married at all? And how have public attitudes to all those groups changed over time?

I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to find out. It’s been surprisingly difficult, apropos of a subject many couples would prefer to keep under wraps.

It all started with this Arirang news report, thanks to the interesting way it framed Korea’s low birthrate problem:

An aging population and low birthrate — two problems that Korea and Japan have in common and are trying to solve.

And since having children out of wedlock is considered socially unacceptable in either country, the focus is on encouraging people to get married.

So the countries share similar problems, but do the people of Korea and Japan share similar views on marriage?

A report by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs says NO…

(Arirang, December 4, 2014; my emphasis)

My first thought was that a focus on marriage made a lot of sense. From that chart alone, you can guess that there is considerable prejudice against single mothers and their children in South Korea, to the extent that Korea was (and is) notorious for overseas adoption. In 2008, Seoul National University Professor Eun Ki-Soo saw a direct relationship between such attitudes and Korea’s low birthrate problem:

According to the International Social Survey Program (2002) and Korean General Social Survey (2006), Korea “had one of the highest number of respondents who believed ‘people who want children ought to get married.’ The only countries that scored higher than Korea were the Philippines and the United States, but the differences in the scores were not statistically significant….In the face of such strong social norms regarding marriage and reproduction, young people who are unable to marry also may not feel like they can have children. Such a phenomenon is manifested in contemporary Korean society in the form of a low fertility rate”

(Eun, pp 154 & 155; see bibliography)

Likewise, two weeks ago the Park Geun-hye Administration pinpointed the cause of Korea’s low birthrate “to be the social tendency to marry late”, and announced that it aimed “to buck that trend by rectifying the high-cost marriage culture in Korea, increasing the supply of rental housing for newlyweds and expanding medical insurance benefits for couples with fertility problems.” (Note that the number of marriages in 2014 was estimated to be a record low, with 50% of 30-somethings seeing marriage as “dispensable”.) Last week, Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs researcher Cho Sung-ho reaffirmed that “it is necessary to support young people so they can experience dating, marriage and childbirth without too many difficulties”, and that “In order to do that, creating quality jobs and support programs for job seekers must be introduced as part of measures to tackle the country’s low fertility rate” (source, below: The Hankyoreh).Please Have More Babies

Yet in saying young people need support, surely Cho is is just reiterating Korea’s — and other developed economies’ — biggest social problem of the 2010s (and likely 2020s)? And what use is there in making it easier for young Koreans to get married, when married couples aren’t having enough children in the first place?

Simply put, Park Geun-hye’s announcement feels disingenuous, distracting from the difficult reforms of Korea’s patriarchal work-culture needed.

But my second thought was on the Korean women that do get knocked up. Specifically, those that do so before or without ever getting married, the only two groups I’ve ever heard the term used for (quick question: does anyone use it for married women, except in a humorous sense?). First, because that 2.1% rate of out of wedlock births is actually the highest it’s been in decades, albeit by no means because attitudes have softened over time:

Available statistics [Korea Statistical Yearbook #55, 2008] indicate 6,141 illegitimate child births in 1990 and 8,411 in 2007, representing, respectively, 0.66% and 1.69% of the total child births; a percentage rise that seems mainly due to the general fall in child births from 1990 to 2007 (931,602 in 1990, and 497,188 in 2007).

(Payen p. 72, my emphasis; see bibliography)

(For comparison’s sake, there were 403,500 childbirths in the first 11 months of 2014, while a February 4 estimate put the yearly figure at 430,000. Update: a February 26 report put it at 435,300, the second lowest level ever.)

Second, because despite everything I’ve written above, I was surprised that the the rate wasn’t higher still. Why? Partially, because of personal experience, one of my wife’s cousins having a child before getting married, but no-one in her village treating that as unusual or something to be embarrassed about (she later married and had a second child). And mainly, because that lack of a reaction was already explained by the following comment left by @oranckay on my 2008 post, “Why Korean Girls Don’t Say No: Contraception Commercials, Condom Use, and Double Standards in South Korea.” While the post itself has long since been completely rewritten, and the comments deleted (sorry!) because that meant they no longer made sense, you’ll soon see why I decided to save his one:

(Note that it was written in reaction to my surprise and confusion at public outrage at Korean female celebrities kwon sang woo son tae-young pregnancy marriagerevealed to be having premarital sex — how times have changed!(?) — but the lack of any negative reaction to regular announcements of celebrity pregnancies before marriage, one example mentioned in the post being Kwon Sang-woo’s and Sohn Tae-young’s that September {Source, right: Dramabeans}.)

…I think one needs to take into account that not all pre-marital sex is the same. There is a difference between just having sex and having sex with someone you are going to, or intend to, marry, and traditional/Joseon and even 20th Korea saw this as a big difference. Having sex on the premise of, and as consummation of, commitment, was the normal, socially acceptable way to have pre-marital sex. So valued was a woman’s virginity that a decent man could only sleep with her if he was ready to “take responsibility for her,” as the saying would go, and so on, because that’s what sleeping with her was supposed to imply. Fiction and non-fiction narratives (many known to me personally) are full of this kind of thinking. I know couples that decided not to have sex because they weren’t sure they were getting married, that didn’t have sex because he was going to the military and he wanted to be sure he’d come back alive before permanently “making her his,” as that would be too traumatic for her, and of couples that lived together (and obviously were having sex) before being married and it was acceptable because they were going to marry, had family approval, but couldn’t marry because maybe the girl’s elder sister wasn’t married off yet or they were both still in college but both sets of parents wanted to get them married after graduation, or one of those odd reasons. Maybe no money; whatever.

Anyway, the best example I can think of all this is classical Korean prose fiction (since that’s all I ever think about). There is plenty of premarital sex in traditional Korean prose fiction (“novels”), graphic in only a few exceptions I’m afraid, but we are at least told that it is happening. The reason this fiction wasn’t thrown into the flames at Confucian book burning parties (and there were Joseon poets who did indeed call for novels to be burned for their bad influence) was because whenever there is pre-marital sex the parties always end up married. In fact you know they’re going to marry before you get to the end because they slept together. The most readily available example would be “the most classic, all time” story Chunhyang Jeon. The most “대표적” Korean story of all time and it involves “happily ever after” pre-marital sex. So it’s one thing for a celebrity to have a bulging waistline at her wedding and another for a video to surface of her having a romp with one of her producers, for example, or even to shoot a fully nude bed scene in a feature film.

Update: Via KLawGuru, comes news that there used to be a law that was very much in the same vein, and which was only very recently repealed:

In 2009, a crime called “Sexual Intercourse under Pretense of Marriage” was ruled “unconstitutional.” It used to be a crime for a man to have sex with a woman by deliberately deceiving her into believing that he would later marry her. To learn more, click here.

But to reiterate, just how common are those bulging waistlines at weddings? And (how) have people’s attitudes changed over time? After seven years, it was high time to do a proper follow-up on oranckay’s comment. I hit the books.

Chung-hyan Versions(Sources: left, 나는 수풀 우거진 산에 갔더니; right, Opeloverz)

Unfortunately, I was unable to find much at all about premarital pregnancy and childbirth specifically. Instead, I spent much of the next two weeks collecting and typing up a lot of fascinating, related information about attitudes towards virginity, premarital sex, sexual experience, cohabitation, and contraceptive use, forced as I was to deconstruct and think about all aspects of the phenomenon (read: desperately search for any related topics whatsoever in indexes). Then I realized that I was going about things entirely the wrong way, and should: a) devote a separate post to those next month; and b) rely on someone who’s already done all the hard work for me instead. Sure enough, just a couple of pages of the right book would literally speak volumes:

…In the mid-1980s, cohabitation was not rare. [Yoon Hyungsook, pp. 18-24] writes that three out of ten marriages concerned cohabitating couples, and that all these couples even had children at the time of their wedding. Although these couples were not officially married, it was “only” legally, not in the eyes of the villagers. The important point to mention is the fact that all these cohabitations were approved by both spouses’ in-laws, with the wife fulfilling her role of daughter-in-law as if she was legally married. When the wedding ceremony comes later, delayed because of financial difficulties, it confirms a relationship, ascertains the position of the woman in her husband’s family, and makes the couple fully adults in the eyes of society.

So, cohabitation did exist, was not rare, and was often a living arrangement used by people of poorer classes for whom marrying meant heavy expenses. Kendall (p. 123) writes that “by the 1970s cohabitation before marriage was common among village children who worked off the land and among rural migrants to the cities. It remains a common practice among urban workers.”

Spencer and Kim Eun-shil also delve on cohabitation in their studies about female migrant factory workers. But, while for women of Spencer’s research, this living arrangement was not the norm, it was most common in Kim’s research; a difference possibly related to the 20 years that have passed between the two studies and changes of attitudes and practices in relation to marriage and cohabitation (1970-1990).

(Payen, pp. 87-88. Kendall and Spencer books mentioned are below; see bibliography for Kim.)
Getting Married in Korea Cover Yogong Factory Girl Cover(Source, left: Google Books; right, Amazon)

Of course, I acknowledge that the above is just a indirect confirmation of oranckay’s comment really (although that is still valuable), and I can’t possibly do justice to Payen’s thesis on cohabitation in Korea here, nor on how and why it’s actually become less common since the 1990s. In the comments section below though, Gomushin Girl provides a good summary of one of the most important factors behind that shift:

[One] important aspect here is the socioeconomics of it all . . . earlier research like Kendall’s and Spencer is looking at a Korea that was either still relatively poor or just emerging as a major economy. They’re already reporting a very class-based variance in attitudes towards premarital sex and pregnancy [and cohabitation—James], with higher socioeconomic status associated with lower acceptance. I’m not surprised to see that as Korean wealth increased, people increasingly adopted attitudes associated with wealth.

Also, we shouldn’t be left with an overly sanguine, no nonsense image of attitudes to premarital pregnancy in the past either, as the opening to a Korea Herald article about adoption linked earlier attests:

In 1976, a 17-year-old Korean girl gave birth to her first child. A few months before the delivery, she had been forced to marry the man who raped and impregnated her.

“That was the norm at the time,” Noh Geum-ju told The Korea Herald.

“When you get pregnant as an unmarried woman, you have to marry the father of your baby. Other options were unthinkable.”

(The Korea Herald, 28 January, 2014)

Update: Here’s another example from a celebrity couple, currently involved in a domestic violence case:

Seo Jung-hee [a former model and actress] said her husband [comedian-turned-clergyman Seo Se-won] sexually assaulted her at the age of 19, so she had to marry him, and she had been his virtual prisoner for 32 years. She said she was too afraid of him to seek a divorce and had to endure because of the children.

(The Chosun Ilbo, 13 March 2015)

I also read that, traditionally, if a suitor was spurned by his intended bride, he could consider raping her to secure her family’s consent. Mostly, due to the shame involved, but of course the imperative was all the greater if she became pregnant. I can’t remember the exact reference sorry (I will add it if I do), but I did find the following:

…The “proper” women must remain chaste, and the requirements of being chaste are utterly crazy. As a rule, a traditional Korean woman carried a small silver knife. The knife is for self-defense, but not the kind of self-defense that you are thinking. The knife is there to kill yourself with if you are about to be “disgraced”. Realistically, “disgraced” means “raped”. However, technically “disgraced” meant any man other than your husband touching you.

One story during the Joseon Dynasty speaks of a virtuous woman who, because a boatman held her hand while helping her into the boat, either jumped out of the boat and drowned herself or cut off her own hand, depending on the version. It is unlikely that this story is true, but this was the moral code to which traditional Korean women were supposed to aspire. In a similar horrifying vein, rape-marriages – forced marriage to a man who raped you – happened regularly until late 1970s, since living with the rapist as a proper woman is better than living as a fallen woman.

(Ask a Korean!, December 3, 2008)

But we were talking about attitudes towards and rates of premarital pregnancy in the 2010s. Which, to conclude this post, naturally I would end up learning more about from the following Korea Times article than from my entire 20-year collection of Korean books(!). Some excerpts (my emphasis):

…premarital pregnancy is now humdrum, even among people who are not stars.

In a survey that consultancy Duo Wed conducted between June 1 and June 14, one-third of 374 newlyweds questioned said the bride was pregnant when they married.

Of these couples, 92.1 percent said their babies were unexpected…

Beautiful D-line…Changing perceptions on premarital pregnancy are also affecting other related industries: wedding dress rentals and tourism businesses.

A wedding dress shop director says she has recently noticed more pregnant brides-to-be.

“They look for dresses depending on the number of months they are pregnant,” says Seo Jung-wook, director of Pertelei, in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul.

“Women who are three to five months pregnant fit well into a bell-line dress, while those further into their pregnancy often look good in an empire-lined dress.”

Other dress shops have their own selections of “D-line dresses” in stock because of increased demand [which no longer have to be custom made and bought].

Sigh. I’d always assumed that D-lines were just a joke sideline (no pun intended) to Korea’s body-labeling and shaming craze. I should have known better.

Continuing:

…The tourism industry is also catching up with the trend. Instead of honeymoons, travel operators promote “babymoon” programs for pregnant newlyweds.

These programs avoid placing any burden or stress on the baby or the mother.

Kim Jin-hak, representative director of Honey Island, a tourism agency specializing in services for newlyweds, says the agency’s “babymoon” program is popular with brides…

(The Korea Times, July 23, 2013. Source, above: WStar News)
Babymoon(Source: Lotte Tour)

As always, this is just a start. For many follow-up posts, I plan to look at journal articles (which will probably be more fruitful), Korean-language sources, plus blogs about or often covering marriage and pregnancy in Korea, such as the sadly now defunct On Becoming a Good Korean (Feminist) Wife. Plus, of course, any readers’ suggestions (for books also!), which will be much appreciated.

Please pass them on, and/or tell me in the comments about any of your own experiences and observations about premarital pregnancy (and so on) in Korea. Do you personally know any women who were pregnant at their weddings? (Or were you or your partner yourself/herself? By all means, please feel free to comment or email me anonymously!) What were their family’s and friends’ feelings and reactions? Was the couple effectively forced to get married, in a case of “사고 쳐서 결혼” (lit., “marriage by accident,” or a shotgun wedding)? How about those of you with Korean partners? Did your foreignness make a difference? Thanks!

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

Bibliography

— Ki-soo, Eun “Family values changing—but still conservative”. In Social Change in Korea, edited by Kim Kyong-dong and The Korea Herald, 146-156. Korea: Jimoondang, 2008.

— Kim, Eun-shil “The Making of the Modern Female Gender: the Politics of Gender in Reproductive Practices in Korea”, (PhD dissertation, University of California, 1993) [Referenced by Payen]

— Payen, Bruno “Cohabitation and Social Pressure in Urban Korea: Examining Korean Cohabitants’ Behavior from a Comparative Perspective with France” (MA thesis, The Academy of Korean Studies, Seongnam, 2009).

Korean Sociological Image #86: Sex and the Single Korean (Household)

ZigbangAs of last year, one in four Korean households had just one person. That was the same as Australia, and just shy of the US.

Yet just four years earlier, only Seoul was remotely close to that figure, with one in five. That wasn’t expected to rise to one in four until 2030, let alone the rest of country.

It’s a remarkable rise (one of the fastest in the world), and companies have been responding with such things as smaller food portions, more home-delivery services, and smaller appliances. And then there’s the start-up Zigbang (pron. jeekbang) founded in early-2012, which takes the hassle, legwork, and pitfalls (ㅋㅋㅋ) out of finding studio apartments through real estate agents by arranging everything online instead. If you’ve taken the subway recently, probably you’ve seen their ad above, featuring comedian Kim Ji-min (source: Platum).

Much more interesting though, are the ads you probably haven’t seen. Covering everything from the hassles of long commutes and living with one’s parents in your 20s and 30s, to gaining independence and sexual liberation, they provide an interesting look at some of the push and pull factors behind this singles trend. Most are amusing, and some are very, very Korean too. Here’s a small selection from Zigbang’s Facebook page:

zigbang nagging parents(Source: Zigbang Facebook)

Title: “I’m sick of this bloody nagging! I want the independence of my own place!”

Parents:

  • “When on Earth are you going to…”
  • “Because of you, your younger sister can’t get married…[she can’t get married before you do]…”
  • “Look at Mi-sun next door, she’s already had two children…”
zigbang 9pm news(Source: Zigbang Facebook)

“Even if I finish exactly on time, I only ever get to see the 9pm news.”

In reality though, that’s not necessarily because of long commutes:

Continuing:

zigbang sister borrowing clothes(Source: Zigbang Facebook)

“Is she my sister or is she a thief? I have to get my independence before people find out…[how I live]!”

I'm 30, a curfew is unacceptable(Source: Zigbang Facebook)

“I’m 30! A curfew is too much!”

By coincidence, Kim Ji-min is 30 in Korea, or 29 in “Western age.” Apropos of that, these next two ads have a much more adult slant…

zigbang blind dates(Source: Zigbang Facebook; alternative version here)

“I have a 100% success rate on blind dates.” Presumably, because she has her own place to take them home to.

zigbang do you want something hot to eat(Source: Zikgbang Facebook; alternative version here)

I think the text is badly chosen: literally, it says,”Do you want to eat noodles and go?”, which would mean the object of her affections is already at her place, whereas “Do you want to go eat noodles at my place?” would make much more sense (update: actually, the line is from a movie—see below). But either way, the double-entendre is obvious, and if not then a helpful Korean “R18” symbol makes it clear.

Which is interesting in its own right, and a good counterexample to my recent post on Sookmyung Women’s University students being given a dresscode. Because whereas our natural reaction to such news may be to label Korean society as sexually conservative, or to shoehorn narratives of progression onto to it because of these ads, really there’s abundant evidence of both. Also, even if one does find some definitive, profoundly conservative aspect of Korean sexuality, it can be very modern in others—just like everywhere else.

Even more remarkable though, is that those last two yahan ads made it from the confines of Facebook to Seoul subway stations, all the better to corrupt Korean youth. Here’s two photos of them by reader Thibault Deckers, whom I have to thank for inspiring this post:

zigbang blind dates stationzigbang do you want something hot to eatAds don’t necessarily reflect a change in social attitudes of course, nor necessarily spark one, but I think the sheer numbers of single households are surely having effects. One recent article found that 70% of 30-somethings prefer their own company for instance, and I too have noticed that my students will no longer react in horror upon learning that I always go to the cinema alone (I prefer sitting in the front row).

What changes have readers noticed? I’d be especially interested to hear about knock-on changes in attitudes towards cohabitation, given how difficult it was to find a reader to find interviewees for his MA thesis on that just a few years ago (as in so scared of being found out that they would frequently cancel, not that they didn’t exist). Or do you think this is all exaggerated, not least by companies like Zigbang?

Update 1) I forget to mention that despite Zigbang’s focus on 20-30 somethings, most people living alone in Korea remain middle-aged professional men, and elderly women living in poverty. Likely, the latter don’t use Zigbang at all, but it would be interesting to know how much of its business comes from the former, despite being ignored in its marketing.

Update 2) With thanks, a clarification to that confusing line about noodles. It’s from the 2001 movie One Fine Spring Day:

Here’s a video with the scene, and an explanation:

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

Korean Sociological Image #84: What’s that old, fat, bald, white guy doing here?

S Diary Busan Play Audience(Sources, edited: Interpark, Miscellaneous Maddness)

GLASGOW (n.): The feeling of infinite sadness engendered when walking through a place filled with happy people fifteen years younger than yourself.

The Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams and John Lloyd (1983)

Ever been tempted to watch S Diary, because of its eye-catching posters? Don’t. It’s decidedly less raunchy than it looks, even by 2004 standards, and it’s strangely serious for a romantic comedy. Instead, watch it for what it is: “a simple exploration of a woman’s past romantic relationships and how they influenced her,” and for the insights — and confidence in future relationships — that can be gained from doing so. (Also, for Kim Sun-a‘s suburb acting.)

Customer Demographics BusanAs my first Korean play then, and the first night out my wife and I will have had together since we had kids, we could do much worse. But we noticed something strange when we went to check the dates and times: scroll down the page on the ticketing site, and you’ll notice an age and sex breakdown of those customers who’ve already bought tickets online, as seen on the right.

This one is for the Busan play; interestingly, the sex ratio is reversed for the Seoul one (click here if you are reading this after its run has ended). Also, the data may not be entirely accurate: when my wife does buy two tickets, will those be counted as two 35 year-old women in the data (which would make no sense), or will she be asked to—possibly even required to—provide more information about the other attendee?

We’ll let you know, once my sister-in-law tells us when she’s available to babysit(!). (Update: All booked. My wife wasn’t asked for information about the second ticket holder.) Either way, it turns out that providing these statistics may be standard for online booking sites in Korea, as indicated by a similar breakdown for online tickets to the The Fault in Our Stars movie on the CGV website. It gives the same results regardless of the cinema chosen, so I presume that they’re nationwide figures (again interestingly, the male to female ratio is the exact opposite of what you’d expect for a romance movie):

The Fault in Our Stars -- Customer Demographics(Source: CGV)

I’d appreciate it if readers can send any more examples, and/or let me know if they’re also available when booking tickets online in other countries. If not, and they turn out to be unique to Korea and/or (I suspect) the East Asian region, what significance do you think that has? Does it speak to any wider feature of Korean society or culture?

Of course, Koreans are not alone in tending to avoid events where they’re likely to be significantly older or younger than the majority of other participants or audience members. The main question is, why do Korean companies make this information available to them? Is it simply testament to the importance of age in Korean relationships? Is it because more people would go if they felt the audience matched their own demographic, than be dissuaded because it didn’t? Or it is just useful extra information given on a whim, which shouldn’t be overanalyzed? Please let me know your thoughts.

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

Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 6: What is the REAL reason for the backlash?

Misandry Large 1Misandry Large 2Misandry Large 3(Source: Unknown)

Whenever one group suddenly starts competing with another for jobs, there’s going to be a backlash. That’s just human nature.

Especially if one group has any real or perceived advantages in that competition.

In Korea, the targets are young women, who are exempt from doing two years of military service. They are often made scapegoats for young men’s inability to get work, rather than blaming the government which just reaffirmed that it’s only men that must spend so much time out of the workforce, and/or lose opportunities for further education and gaining extra qualifications. Previously, former conscripts were compensated with extra points when applying for jobs with the government or public organizations, but that policy was ruled unconstitutional in 1999, on the grounds that it was discriminatory. Repeated attempts to reintroduce it have failed.

(To clarify, I’d prefer an end to conscription and the creation of professional armed forces instead, despite the difficulties Taiwan is currently having with that.)

Ironically though, the backlash in much of the 2000s was not due to women taking over “men’s jobs”. In fact, it was the other way round, with a significant number of men losing better paid, advancing, more secure, regular work and being forced to compete for the irregular jobs that were—and still are—primarily done by women. You can see this in following slides I used in my last presentation (see here for the source and a more detailed explanation).

First, here are graphs showing the percentage rates and numbers of all workers (both men and women) doing regular and irregular work over time:

Korea Regular vs. Irregular JobsTo be clear, the above graphs give no indication that it was primarily men that lost those regular jobs, and were forced to take up irregular ones instead. However, unstated is the fact that women with regular work were already targeted for layoffs in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, with the result that they took up irregular work in droves before 2002. So it’s a safe assumption.

What’s more, there’s the next graph, which shows the the percentage rates and numbers of men and women doing irregular work. As women’s rates barely changed, the implication is that the regular jobs men lost weren’t taken over by women:

Korea Irregular Jobs Men vs. WomenWith rates settling in 2004 though, it’s a bit of a stretch to blame the ongoing backlash in 2014 on the shift (although it certainly echoes in popular culture, with today’s freshmen—of both sexes—espousing the negative stereotypes). Today’s generation of young, job-seeking men are much more used to the difficulties of finding regular work, and certainly have no objective reason to fear or resent working women.

Or do they? See my next slide, a screenshot from this Arirang news video:

Korean 20s Economic Participation Rate 2013 ArirangWhat’s more, Yonhap just reported that the gap has continued to widen—in fact, that the crossover occurred as early as 2010. As translated by koreaBANG (my emphases):

The trend in the employment rate of female to male workers in their twenties over the last 4 years has made a historic reversal. Due to so-called ‘female power’, the gap is getting larger.

According to the National Statistics Office’s statements on the 19th, the employment rate of 20-something female workers last year was 57.8%. This is 2.1 percentage points higher than their male counterparts(56.8%)…

…Since 2010, the employment rate of female workers in their twenties has been higher than their male counterparts.

In 2010, the employment rate of female 20-something workers, at 58.3%, surpassed the rate of males by 0.1%. In 2011, the lead increased to 0.4%, and in 2012, as women lead by 1.5%, the gap continues to widen.

The rate of economic participation of female 20-somethings was 62.5% in 2011, then rose to 62.9% in 2012. Conversely, the men went from 64% down to 62.6%, being surpassed by the women for the first time by 0.3%.

The labor market is changing little by little as women obtain higher levels of education and more positions in the workplace.

In every part of society, the female tornado is blowing strong even in specialized careers, and women are making considerable advances.

A gap of 2.1% hardly sounds like a “tornado” of “female power” to me, and much more like natural variation. But I can understand how news of women’s “considerable advances” might rankle, especially in the context of Korea’s lowest twenty-something employment rates since 2000, and the numbers of students deferring graduation nearly doubling in the last two years. It’s not at all difficult to empathize with a male graduate stuck working at (say) a convenience store, frustrated at how some women he went to university have regular jobs because they gained skills and qualifications during the two years he was stuck in the military.

Still, likely that’s not the only reason he’s angry:

Korean Gender Ratio 1981-2012(Source: Cinnamon Ginger Tea; reprinted with permission)

Put simply, most of Korea’s extra boys are now men, and many of them can’t find girlfriends and wives. Most likely, precisely those who lack the steady jobs and money to be considered good partners.

Yes, I know what you’re all thinking, so let’s not mince words. I mean they can’t get laid.

That may sound facetious, and/or that I’m laughing at them. I’m not. Because fourteen years ago, frankly I was in a very similar situation myself. After graduating, I too couldn’t find a good job, and had to work three part-time ones just to scrape by (when my Doc Martins got holes in them, I had to put cardboard in them every day until I could afford new ones; yes, really). Needless to say, I didn’t have much time for dating, and wouldn’t have been very successful if I did.

I felt trapped.

Fortunately, I had the privilege of being able to take up a well-paying job (for a 24 year-old) in Korea, and, desperate in more ways than one, I took advantage of that just six months after graduating. So, while I can definitely empathize with how my students must feel today, on the other hand I can only imagine what it must feel like to never have the option to escape that I had, with no prospect of a partner or steady job for your entire twenties or beyond.

Still, I wasn’t spewing hatred about New Zealand women back in 2000, and likewise most of Korea’s angry young men (or indeed, China and India’s) aren’t destined to be misogynists in 2014 either. Most do direct their anger at the government and chaebol that deserve it.

Unfortunately though, all too many seem to firmly believe in such charming stereotypes as ‘kimchi bitches‘ instead. Moreover, China and India’s own “angry young males” are already considered huge sources of instability, crime, and sexual violence in those countries. Why would Korea’s be any different?

Also, the data raises a simple but important question: do the statistics about twenty-something men and women’s economic participation rates take into account the fact that there’s actually far more twenty-something men than women out there? That while a greater proportion of women than men are working now, that more men than women may still be working overall?

If not, then that “tornado” of “female power” may prove to be nothing more than hot air. Which makes you wonder why the media seems so full of it…

angry-chinese-man(Source: GR × HERMARK, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Either way, of course I’m grossly overgeneralizing in this post, so please feel free to call me out on that, and add any important information I’ve overlooked (I acknowledge I’m no great statistician too, and would appreciate any additional sources of data). But I think these demographic realities do significantly add to the many, often quite legitimate reasons for many young Korean men’s sense of anxiety in post-crisis Korea (which is not to say that things are any rosier for young Korean women), and it’s also fair to say that anxiety seems to be manifesting itself in excessive, distorted, and/or caricatured critiques and stereotypes of women. So at the very least, I hope knowing about all the extra men out there provides some much-needed context to current employment statistics and women-blaming. In hindsight, it’s extraordinary that any discussions of either wouldn’t take them into account.

What have I missed?

Update: Meanwhile, note that Korean women’s overall employment rate remains one of the lowest in the OECD, and that this is one of the main reasons for its equally dismal birthrate. However, as reported by Asian Correspondent yesterday, the Korean government is not about to upset gender norms by making life any easier for working parents. Lest that sound like an exaggeration, recall that the previous Lee Myung-bak Administration also (re)criminalized abortion in order to raise the birthrate, a policy continued by Park Geun-hye (my emphases):

In a nationwide survey conducted by the Federation of Korean Industries in 2010, marriage was the leading cause for South Korean women to quit their jobs – not childrearing. According to the poll, females in general have a 37.8 percent higher chance to give up work after getting married than if they were single – a percentage that shoots up to 58.2 for those in their 20s. The likelihood, however, of married mothers to leave their jobs was only 2.9 percent higher than married women without children. The federation explains these statistics by saying it is due to the foundational social belief that females should be full-time homemakers…

…Despite these numbers, measures to change cultural expectations – that it is not only the woman’s responsibility to care for children – are being opposed. In January, the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance rejected one of President Park’s campaign promises: mandatory paid paternity leave, or “Father’s Month.” Ministry officials quoted potential financial problems such as the depletion of employment reserve funding for the opposition against the bill. They added that they will work towards a resolution but are unsure how they will initiate it.

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

Reader Request: Looking for people to share stories about relationships in Korea

Couple ShoesI’ve been asked to pass on the following:

Looking for people to share stories about relationships in Korea

*********Have you fallen in love in South Korea? Battled cultural differences and other pressures to be with someone you never would have met anywhere else? Found the freedom to do things, meet people, or be someone you wouldn’t have dared to at home? Kept things going long-term and long-distance? Decided that dating in Korea is just too daunting and put that side of your life on hold while you’re here? Worn a couple shirt?

If you have a great story you’d like to share about dating, relationships and sex in Korea, I’d love to hear from you.

I’m making a documentary about how living in Korea can affect relationships, and I’d like to interview people with experiences that been delightful and difficult, wonderful and weird, sour and sweet.

It would be great to speak to partnered and single, cis- and trans-gender people, from a variety of backgrounds, and with a range of preferences and interests, including:

  • Korean people with experiences with other Korean people and people from other countries;
  • Non-Korean people with experiences with people from Korea and other countries;
  • People in monogamous and non-monogamous relationships with one or more partners;
  • People happy or unhappy not to be in a relationship;
  • People who have made their homes in Korea;
  • People who are in Korea on a temporary basis.

The film will be inclusive, non-judgemental and sex-positive, allowing the stories to act as an honest look at the unique experience of looking for, holding onto and losing companionship in Korea. To this end, and because I intend it for gallery screenings, the film probably won’t be a traditional talking-heads documentary. Instead, I’ll try to respond creatively to the themes of the stories people tell me, especially when the storytellers wish to remain anonymous. If you’re happy to appear on camera, that’s great, but if you’d like to share your story and would rather not have your face, voice or name be part of the film, I’ll find ways to accommodate those wishes.

I hope to collect stories in December and January, and am happy to travel anywhere in Korea to conduct interviews.

If you’d like to know more, or if you’re interested in taking part, please get in touch at relationshipsinkorea@gmail.com

Ben

Korean Sociological Image #78: Multicultural Families in Korean Textbooks

Korean Mulitcultural Family Korean Ethics Textbook

Over at Korean Circle and Squares, Emanuel Pastreich has scanned some pages of the Korean ethics textbook currently used in Korean elementary schools. He comments that the very existence of such an old-fashioned class is remarkable (as part of the daily program no less), and was especially struck by the efforts to address multicultural issues and the children of “multicultural families.” For example, the page above-right:

…relates a diary entry by Jeonghyeon, an elementary school student whose mother is Vietnamese. Jeonghyeon says she has no memories of her Vietnamese grandmother and grandfather and seems not to actually live in that complex multicultural family. Nevertheless, it is a tremendous improvement to create this space in which multicultural kids can exist within the official textbooks.

Ethnic Nationalism in KoreaClick on the image for more examples. Also remarkable about them is how, just 5 years ago, textbooks stressed how important it was that Korea remain ethnically homogenous instead. As described by Matt of Gusts of Popular Feeling in December 2008:

Korea’s ethics textbooks are to change, however — in part due to Hines Ward’s first visit to Korea after being named MVP in the Superbowl in 2006 — and North Korea, which has taken these ideas to frightening extremes, was not happy:

The words themselves take a knife to the feeling of our people, but even more serious is that this anti-national theory of “multiethnic, multiracial society” has already gone beyond the stage of discussion. Already, they’ve decided that from 2009, content related to “multiracial, multiethnic culture” would be included in elementary, middle and high school textbooks that have until now stressed that Koreans are the “descendents of Dangun,” “of one blood line” and “one race,” and to change the terms “families of international marriage” and “families of foreign laborers” to “multicultural families.” This is an outrage that makes it impossible to repress the rage of the people/race.

More recently, these issues again gained prominence with the election of Ms. Lee (born Jasmine Bacurnay in the Philippines) to South Korea’s National Assembly in April last year, the first naturalized citizen — and the first nonethnic Korean — to do so. As Choe Sang-hun wrote in The New York Times, public opinion is still is still far behind official policy:

And this year, for the first time, South Korea began accepting multiethnic Korean citizens into its armed forces. Before, the military had maintained that a different skin color would make them stand out and hurt unity.

But if government support has improved, Ms. Lee says, popular sentiment seems to have cooled. Korean men who sponsored foreign women as brides, only to find themselves abandoned by women who exploited them to immigrate to and work in South Korea, have organized against the government’s multicultural policy. Meanwhile, low-income Koreans accuse migrant workers of stealing their jobs.

The government itself stands accused of fostering xenophobia by requiring foreigners who come to South Korea to teach English to undergo H.I.V. tests, but not requiring the same of South Koreans in the same jobs. Last year, an Uzbek-born Korean made news when she was denied entry to a public bath whose proprietor cited fear of H.I.V. among foreigners.

Korean Woman's DNA DifferentThe Korean media also has some way to go, Matt noticing (in 2010) the headline “Korean Women’s DNA is Different” for instance:

Well now, I guess that may explain why Roboseyo “personally was told “foreign blood and Korean blood together has problems” [by] one of the nurses at a blood clinic[.]” It all makes sense now – Koreans’ DNA is different. What a simple, obvious explanation.

Actually, while the article tells us that “Questions arise each time Korean female athletes accomplish great things on the world stage,” it (sadly) does not follow up on the promise of the headline, instead dwelling on more mundane cultural and social influences. Mind you, the fact that “Korean women’s DNA is different” was a headline on the front page of a newspaper should go to show that the idea of genes and bloodlines was dominating the writer (or editor)’s thinking, and that they figured others would agree.

Fortunately, my Korean wife and I have met very few Koreans (openly) expressing that idea of pure genes and bloodlines, and fewer still that harassed us for mixing them. Also, as one of those “muliticultural families,” we’ve benefited from our youngest daughter jumping ahead in the waiting list for a place in a state-run kindergarten (albeit something which “ordinary” Korean parents may justifiably resent), and both our daughters receive a great deal of friendly attention when we’re out with them (not so much when they’re just with me — you’d never guess they had a Korean mother). Part of that is likely because half-Korean celebrities were very much in vogue a few years ago, but this popularity may now be waning.

How about any readers in interracial relationships or multicultural families? What positive or negative experiences have you had specifically because of this bloodlines-based view of nationalism, and/or related government policies?

Update: If you’ve come this far, I recommend following-up with The Culture Muncher’sA Multicultural Korea: Inevitable or Impossible?” also.

Update 2: Thanks to @dacfrazer, who passed on the must-read “There is more to my son than the fact he’s a ‘half’” at The Japan Times.

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

Going Solo in Korea

Korea Single Households(Sources, edited: left, right)

Family may be everything in Korea, but by last year more than 1 in 4 Koreans were living alone, beating rates in (supposedly) more individualistic societies like the US and Australia.

While this provides a lot of opportunities for companies, there’s also a dearth of suitable accommodation. And most of those singles are not carefree youth, but either middle-class 30 and 40-something men, or women in their 60s and above living in poverty. With rates set to become 1 in 3 by 2020, this is set to become a huge political, economic, social, and cultural issue in Korea’s near-future.

For a heads-up, see my latest article for Busan Haps, which includes entirely too much information on why I split up with my first Korean girlfriend…

Update: Also see Sorry, I was drunk for a deconstruction — and demolition — of the oft-cited claim that Korean society is more communal than Western societies.