Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 1

Canadian Women's Army Corps vs. Apink(Sources: Left, Big Forehead Kisses; Right, 병무청 Twitter. The heading reads, “Thank you for choosing [to join] the military [early],” the subheading, “You are Korea’s real men.”)

What could be more Korean than girl-group members in high heels and camo one-pieces, blossoming with aegyo for their big, strong oppas doing their military service?

What else but deliberately choosing the cutest, most virginal group possible, then making them representatives for your entire military?

Last March, I learned that Apink had been selected as the first female PR “ambassadors” for the Military Manpower Administration (MMA), which administers Korea’s conscripts. Despite everything, it still felt jarring: what was a girl-group—any girl group—doing representing such a male-dominated (and notoriously sexist) institution?

Apink military 1(The subway ad that sparked this post. Source: 23throom)

Not realizing that appointments like theirs actually had a long precedent as I’ll explain, my first thought was to compare their recruitment posters to some of their (Allied) World War Two equivalents. I expected that most that featured women would present sexual access to them as a motivation for fighting, and/or the denial of that access to the rapacious enemy. But to my surprise, most of the posters with women were actually for women, with the purpose of recruiting them for ancillary organizations and factory work. Borrowing “the seductiveness, sass, and self-assurance” of pin-up girls, Maria Elena Buszek explains in Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture (2006), they reminded women of their choices among active, formerly “masculine” paths in the public sphere, “in what must have felt like an abundance of They're all topssubversive opportunities.” And the contrast with Apink’s roles in the MMA’s campaign for men was striking. (Source, right: Pin Up: The Movie.)

For Apink were not just some random girl-group. When they debuted in 2011, only one member was over 18, with another was as young as 14. So, whereas most entertainment companies relied on ever more provocative “sexy concepts” to get their groups noticed, Cube Entertainment emphasized Apink’s cuteness and innocence instead. Those personas came across strongly in the campaign, indicating they likely played a big role in why Apink was chosen.

And that’s where it became problematic.

Not just because I’m a grouch who thinks aegyo should only be enjoyed in moderation. But because the Apink members themselves, by then almost all grown women, increasingly complained about literally not being allowed to mature. Also, because it was disingenuous, those personas being very much at odds with the sexualized manner in which girl-groups are (naturally) viewed by conscripts, and are presented to them in practice. But most of all, because dig past the many, many layers of bullshit that can and probably will be used to disguise and/or justify this instance of Korea’s pervasivelolita nationalism” (a.k.a., samcheon fandom for a cause), then what you’re left with is one damned patronizing, infantilizing vision of female gender roles and sexuality deliberately being promoted to the 250,000 young Korean men conscripted every year.

For years I’ve described Korea’s universal, mandatory male conscription as a profound socialization experience, which practically—and to an extent even legally—has or still excludes a great many groups from effective participation in Korean economic and political life, most notably LGBT individuals, the disabled, mixed-race children, and, of course, women. But sorry—it’s been a while since I’ve given an actual example of how that works in practice. Also, while it’s a still a must-read, it’s been ten years now since Seungsook Moon’s Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea came out, and, in hindsight, she barely mentioned the role of popular culture in supporting and propagating the ideologies outlined therein. So, to compensate for both, here’s Part 1 of a #verylongread below, and one which I hope Apink fans will realize has nothing against Apink themselves…

Supporting the Troops—A Quick History

(Something) For The Boys(Sources: left, @ThemeTimeBob; right, dcinside)

There are many reasons no-one should be surprised by the appointment of a girl-group to represent the MMA. If anything, it’s stranger that it didn’t happen much sooner, because:

1) Korean girl-groups and female entertainers performing for the military in Korea is a significant part of Korean popular-culture, with roots going back to the Japanese colonial and US occupation periods, and with spillovers into performances for schools. So the notion that one such group would come to officially represent the military is hardly a radical step.

Also, there is the elephant in the room that is the historical role of prostitutes around US bases, originally with official approval. That’s a far cry from K-pop performances of course. But, if nothing else, it’s indicative of the Korean state’s long-standing, very collusive, and very objectifying view of women vis-à-vis the military.

Here’s Apink performing on a base themselves, shortly after they debuted in 2011:

(Watching the conscripts, no-one can blame them for their over-the-top reactions to, well, females. But it all comes across as a little creepy when you realize they’re professing their love for middle-school girls, and begs the question of what such a young group was doing there.)

2) Just a cursory examination reveals a host of regular, albeit usually temporary “honorary ambassadorships” by girl-groups and female performers for a range of organizations. Examples include the Ministry of National Defense appointing 4Minute as ambassadors for its Korea Armed Forces’ 29 Seconds Film Festival; the appointment of Hello Venus to make the music video/dance/song Soldier for the recent 6th CISM Military World Games;

…the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, which also relies on conscripts to a large extent, appointing BESTIE to make a stirring song about stamping out school violence;

…and the appointment and later promotion of IU as an honorary police officer by the national police agency. Indeed, that was over a year before the appointment of Apink by the MMA, which makes me wonder how far back using women to advertise and promote still overwhelmingly male organizations goes?

I’m thinking probably quite far, given what I’ve just been learning about regular girl-group performances for the police also. Which gives me an opportunity to stan this amazing 2NE1 video by way of example:

3) Korea, along with Japan, has one of the highest rates of celebrity endorsements in the world (among developed markets). This includes being the face of public campaigns and/or for governmental organizations, which sometimes have a profound impact on public opinion.

One memorable example is the National Election Commission’s choice of The Wondergirls to encourage voting in local elections in April 2008, which was somehow best achieved by outfitting them in faux, tight-fitting school uniforms, and despite—notice a trend here?—two members still being of middle-school age (15):

Two years later, Girl’s Generation would do something similar (although by that stage, no members of that group were underage). As described by Yeran Kim in “Idol republic: the global emergence of girl industries and the commercialization of girl bodies” (Journal of Gender Studies, 20:4, 2011):

At Korea’s 2010 national election, the most famous girl idol group, Girls’ Generation was recruited for the campaign to promote citizens’ participation in the vote. Girls’ Generation released a single, album and music video of the campaign song titled ‘LaLaLa’. Girls’ Generation also appeared on TV campaigns in which each girl member was visualized as a Tinkerbell-like mini-sized icon, while the citizen voters were represented by male citizens. Girl idols are equally utilized for important international events; for instance, Girls’ Generation were appointed as Customs Promotion Ambassadors in preparation for the G20 Summit Conference in 2010 in Seoul. The girl idols are, at least in appearance, presented as agents who have the power of motivating, seducing or interpellating citizens to become involved in the project of global nation building.

Also, to get yet another elephant in the room out of the way early on. (With K-pop, they tend to come in herds.) Yes, a lot of the things described in this post were modeled on Japan:

Here’s a cheerleader telling you everything you need to know about Japan’s population trend .. Old people up, young people down.(“Here’s a cheerleader telling you everything you need to know about Japan’s population trend: Old people up, young people down.” Source: Fusion)

4) Though (probably) few in number, there have been some prominent gender-bending Korean ads in recent years. Examples include: Kim Sa-rang endorsing Gillette razors; Hyun Bin endorsing a tea-drink that supposedly gives you a V-line (albeit part of a process to encourage men to get hitherto “feminine” V-lines, thereby increasing the market); various male celebrities endorsing lingerie; and Yoo Yeon-seok endorsing feminine-hygiene products:

Korean Advertising Celebrities(Sources: Nemopan, 초아의 퍼스트드림 이야기)

5) The Korean military currently has one hell of a PR problem. In short, because it is still very much stuck in the 1970s. Let me explain.

Seventy-five percent of Korean soldiers are conscripts, which means that “even the most menial task—such as cleaning the pool of the general’s house—falls on the soldiers,” with taking advantage of that massive manpower proving much cheaper and less troublesome than modernization/mechanization. That means it’s long had a reputation for poor living conditions and minimal wages, and its unusually strictly defined hierarchy and secretive nature makes conscripts vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse, which has culminated in a spate of high-profile suicides and killings in recent years. (Including on the very day I typed this.)

What’s more, this unprecedented media scrutiny comes at a moment when it’s increasingly struggling to maintain its numbers, as Korea’s low birth rate begins to make its impact felt. Probably then, the military is now very concerned about softening its image.

(That said, currently it has more men wanting to sign up than there are spaces available, but that’s only because they want to get their conscription out of the way while the job market is so terrible. Indeed, so terrible in fact, that even women are showing interest in the limited—but growing—number of positions open to them, despite the extreme discrimination and harassment they face once inside.)

When the Korean police had the same problem, this was one of their solutions:

Podori, Posuni, Riot Podori(The male is called “Podori,” the female “Ponsuni.” Yes, that’s really Podori in his riot gear on the right. Source, left: Chuing. Right: unknown)

Did I say I was surprised to see a girl-group in camo? I didn’t say that, someone else must have. Because anyone up to speed on K-pop and the Korean media could have seen the time was ripe for a girl-group to represent the MMA. The cutesier, the better.

But Why Apink?

Apink MMA(Source: APinkPanda)

To many of you reading, who are already aware of Apink’s reputation, probably I’ve already answered that question. However, you could argue that Apink was chosen simply because of their popularity at the time. You’d be wrong, but I admit it’s a plausible first explanation. For instance:

Technically though, all of those were after their appointment in March (although they’re still indicative). Possibly more influential then, was their winning the military charts in January, which apparently are a thing. Here’s a video about that and some screenshots of their reactions to the news, which give strong hints of the sort of roles they’d be performing for the MMA campaign two months later:

Apink Military 1Jung Eun-ji: We are like [the soldiers’] little sisters next door…

Apink Military 2…the soldiers must have felt we were familiar…

Apink Military 3Park Cho-rong: (To the soldiers) Girl-groups are like the star candies in the hardtack snack

Apink Military 4…We will try to sing a lot to help keep your spirits up…

Apink Military 5…Cheer up! We love you!

Apink Military 6Further adding to the notion that Apink was chosen simply for their popularity, in the year and a half since their appointment the MMA has been happy to have a range of girl-groups pass on cutesie messages or songs to cheer the troops up. Regardless of where their reputations fell on the virginal-cutesie-aegyo to slutty-sexy-concepts scale:

For example, from 9Muses this September:

From two members of SISTAR (I can’t identify the male rapper sorry):

From EXID in July:

From Hyeri of Girl’s Day:

From GFriend:

Indeed, check out the video history of the MMA Youtube channel, and barely a month goes by without some girl-group making an appearance. Here’s 4Minute in September 2014:

And here’s Ladies’ Code in a video uploaded in December 2014. Somewhat strangely and tactlessly, that was actually two months after two members (2nd and 4th from the left) had died in a traffic accident:

Add that Apink’s popularity rapidly moved on to other groups, the implication of these examples is that any girl-group would have done really, and may well have been chosen if they’d been more popular at the time. And sure, why not? After all, despite the constant bullshit about girl-power from the Korean media, the Korean government, and Korean entertainment companies, most supposedly “sexy” and “mature” girl-groups seem to combine their revealing costumes and erotic dances with off-stage personas that are just as saccharine as their “cute,” “innocent” counterparts.

As one might expect with, usually, everyone but the women themselves telling us how grown-up and independent they are.

But with sexy groups, there is always the danger that their provocative costumes and choreography will overstep the limits of favorable netizen and public opinion. Also, and in particular, at about the same time Apink were appointed, many K-pop groups were beginning to suffer from dating “scandals”—that is, being revealed to be in relationships at all—with the women receiving the brunt of fans’ anger (from female fans for dating “their” male idol, from male fans for not “waiting” for them instead). Without condoning the double-standards behind that backlash, and indeed deploring those fans whose liking of a celebrity is contingent on his or her sexual history, I can appreciate why relationships are a sensitive subject for conscripts, many of whom either split up with their girlfriend before enlisting, or constantly fear that she’s cheating on him while he’s serving. (See the 2008 movie Crazy Waiting for an exploration of this.)

(That said, the girlfriends have equal cause for concern, as it’s not uncommon for conscripts to visit prostitutes.)

So if a cute, innocent, non-dating girl-group was required, why not select the group with the strongest reputation as such, and the least likely to radically change?

Indeed, one so strong as to be blatantly contrived for ajosshi/samhcheon fans? For instance:

  • While promoting their third mini-album in July 2013, Apink told an interviewer that Cube Entertainment suggested that they transition to more mature concepts, but they wanted to maintain an innocent one. They also pointed that several members were underage, preventing the group from doing those sexy concepts. (Although only one—Oh Ha-young—still was as of March 2014, and she turned 18 that July.)
  • In April 2014, it was revealed that 20 Fei yeah rightyear-old So Na-eun had never dated. Yes, technically after they’d been hired by the MMA, but again it’s indicative (I’m sure I could dig up earlier examples).
  • Also in April 2014, and in particular, they claimed that as no members had ever even kissed, then “they [had to think] of their fans while dancing the key choreography moves for Mr. Chu.
  • That was because they described it as “a pop dance song about a first kiss shared with a loved one, featuring Apink’s bolder but still shy way of confessing love.” But not so bold though, as to further stress the sensibilities of delicate fans, who had been concerned about a possible concept change ever since they saw the members wearing—wait for it—red lipstick on the album cover.

That is to say, the Korean media made that last claim, which is never shy of putting the concerns of ajosshi/samcheon fans front and center; click on the GIF to see what (generally quite knowledgeable) Omona They Didn’t commenters thought of all that, and for more examples of the Lolitaesque subtext to Apink’s repeated claims of innocence. I’ll return to those in later posts, as I will the third elephant of the herd: that, all that time, the Apink members may have just been parroting the lines provided to them by Cube Entertainment, as indeed they may have been later when they started expressing their frustrations with their continued infantilization—an issue at the heart of how we judge K-pop, yet something that we usually just don’t know.

But we do know that, whether speaking for themselves and/or their employers, the change in tone is significant, and, having just made a deal with the MMA, not exactly in the latter’s interests. We also know that, even just judging by the campaign alone, that a cute, innocent group was indeed required for it, and obviously so:

Apink military(Source: MMA Facebook Page; left, right)

These poster templates were used often, with the text changed as per necessary. The titles in these ones say:

Left: Those soldiers who make the bold choice to make the army your career (and get paid), we cheer for you.

Subheading: You can also choose to be in the special forces.

Right: Thank you for choosing [to join] the military [early].

Subheading: You are Korea’s real men

Apink Letters(Source: CSBNTV)

The MMA’s tweet reads (the poster is about the same thing):

If you write a letter, you will receive a mobile voucher [you can spend at coffee shops etc.] #MMA So let’s write a letter to the soldiers! #Apink #Nam-ju wrote a letter too!

And Kim Nam-ju’s own “letter” reads (see here, here, here, here, and here for similarly-themed messages in the series from other members):

Hello, this is Nam-ju from Apink! You are having a hard time, right? Aww…But I want you to always cheer up and find strength. Hee-hee. While listening to our songs, always cheer up and eat well and plentifully…I hope you get stronger. Ha ha ha…since friends the same age as me (in our 20s) are also doing their military service I worry more and more (cry cry). Always cheer up! If you laugh, you’ll be happy! Smile! I love you Korean soldiers! (Salute!)

Apink PR MMA Ambassadors(Source: Mogahablog)

Rest assured, there’s much more where that came from.

But why didn’t I just lead with all these examples? Why have I so labored the point that Apink was so well suited to the cutesie MMA campaign, when probably nobody, not even the most dedicated of Apink fans, needed convincing in the first place?

Good questions.

The main reason is that to critique the MMA campaign, and specifically to demonstrate that it was disingenuous, you need to show the disconnect between the intent and the reality. But I can’t definitively claim that Apink wasn’t just chosen for their popularity in early-2014 of course. Or, for that matter, that they weren’t just chosen because of some special financial arrangements between the MMA and Cube Entertainment, that simply weren’t offered to and/or possible with other entertainment companies for their own groups. Again, we just don’t know.

What we can say though, is that entertainment companies and the military are joined at the hip. That away from the performances on bases that get most of the media’s attention, girl-groups of all stripes are constantly presenting the same sorts of cutesie messages to conscripts, and acting like children in front of them. That, even if Apink wasn’t necessarily the only group able to fulfill that role on a permanent basis, that it was the most reliable choice to do so. And, lest we forget, that the companies or institutions doing the hiring of K-pop groups that call the shots, and that entertainment companies are only too willing to compromise their groups’ brand images or concepts for the sake of the hard income their advertising campaigns provide. A lesson I personally learned from DSP Media, who quite literally presented a new, very womanly side to KARA through the choreography to Mister back in the winter of 2009, only then to have them acting like my children in a commercial for Pepero by the following spring:

KARA Butt Dance(Source: FLV)

Ergo, the MMA wanted a cutesie, virginal girl-group, and that’s what they got. But how about the conscripts themselves?

I’m sure you can guess. But it’s always best to get first-person accounts, so I’ll provide two in Part 2. Then, because not all of you may share my instinctive distrust of all things aegyo, in Part 3 I’ll consider an interesting perspective on Apink’s from May 2012, which—dare I say it?—demonstrates it can have some positives when done willingly by and for teenage girls…but which makes the negatives of young women performing it unwillingly for men in 2015 all the clearer. Finally, I’ll discuss the alternative gender roles the MMA could have presented in their campaign, as suggested by those World War Two recruitment posters.

I really don’t like making the split, as frankly this post has been a real labor of love for the past *cough* three months, which I feel works best at a whole. But at a combined total of over 10,000 words, it’s a necessary, reluctant concession to reality. Please help me make the best of it then, by adding your own thoughts in the comments, which I’ll consider and maybe incorporate as I finalize the remaining post(s). Thanks!

(p.s. Before it acquired a life of its own, this post was supposed to be the follow-up to Korean Sociological Image #92: Patriotic Marketing Through Sexual Objectification, Part 1.)

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:

Korean Sociological Image #79: The Anti-Communist Hyundai Car

Anti-Communist Hyundai(Source: Moreska. Reproduced with permission.)

As described by the photographer Moreska:

“This bizarre prize giveway ad, with a Hyundai car and hidden-treasure puzzle, circa 1985, features an ‘anti-communism’ prize – first prize, Hyundai car; second prize, set of steak knives; third prize is your fired….oops wrong contest – the first prize is a “anti-communist” Hyundai vehicle and the second prize is a “unification” prize….down the list there’s a Mount Paekdu prize and Mt. Kumgang prize. A really weird one.”

This reminded me of the “Consumption is Virtuous” (소비가 미덕이다) slogan I once read in a Korean newspaper from the late-1970s, back when economic development was explicitly conflated with national security. Previously, I’ve overemphasized how much that sentiment still applies today, not realizing that government and the media actually began to criticize (alleged) overconsumption by the 1990s, in what were really just thinly disguised attacks on women’s new economic rights and freedoms (and important precursors to the “beanpaste girl” {된장녀} stereotypes of the 2000s). This ad though, demonstrates how things were indeed very different just a few years earlier.

Or does it? Moreska, whose Flickr feed is a treasure-trove of retro Koreana, points out how strange it is — so it may have been the exception rather than the rule, even before Korea democratized in 1987. Can any Korean history buffs help out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

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

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)

Sex as Power in the South Korean Military

(Source: anja_johnson)

“All men are rapists”, I read on the back cover of Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975) as a student, and, determined to impress girls with my intellectual and feminist prowess by debunking that quote, I bought the book and doggedly read all 480 pages trying to find it. Twice.

Yes, I was rather naive about the whole dating game, and you can imagine how I felt when I learned years later that she never actually said that: rather, it was a big misinterpretation of her statement that rape “is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation, by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (p. 5), albeit an understandable one. Indeed, it’s probably what she’s became best known for, an enduring catch-phrase of pop-feminism that publishers would knowingly exploit to sell the book to me 2 decades later.

Which is a shame, because along with Menachem Amir, she was instrumental in overturning long-held conventions that rape was simply a spontaneous act of lust, instead demonstrating that it is more “a deliberate, hostile, violent act of degradation and possession on the part of a would-be conqueror, designed to intimidate and inspire fear…” (p. 439). Or in short, it’s due to her that surely all reading this are aware that sexual violence is all about power, and not surprised to hear this reaffirmed by the survey “Sexual Violence Among Men in the Military in South Korea” by Insook Kwon et. al., Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 22, No. 8, 1024-1042 (2007), the subject of today’s post.

The first comprehensive survey of its kind, in English or Korean, it was prompted by the suicide of a Korean soldier in July 2003, which received tremendous attention in the media because sexual violence by his superiors seemed to have played a role; after all, with 250,000 men forcibly conscripted each year, any implication that it wasn’t an isolated incident meant that there were far more victims. And in point of fact, with the proviso that the authors’ (undefined) notion of “sexual violence” appears to be much broader than a layperson’s as I’ll explain, they did indeed find that 15.8% of respondents experienced it during their time in the military, either as perpetrators or victims.

But before discussing the implications of that however, and especially what it says about the role of the military in the socialization of Korean men, let first provide an overview of the survey so you can make your minds (with a nod to copyright, I won’t upload the survey itself here sorry, but please feel free to email me if you’d like your own copy). And so, without any further ado:

The survey was conducted from November 2003 to February 2004, with researchers meeting 2 groups: 362 postconscripts, then students, at 6 different colleges; and 409 current conscripts, 115 at bus and train stations while they were on leave, and 294 in visits to their barracks with the official cooperation of the Ministry of Defense. From each group, there were 266, 111, and 294 valid samples respectively, giving a total of 671 valid samples out of 771 soldiers surveyed (the bulk excluded being postconscripts, and because more than 3 years had passed since their military service). They also conducted in-depth interviews of 8 perpetrators in army prison, and 3 victims.

Highlights of the results include (all emphases mine):

Of 671 valid respondents who participated in this survey of victimization, perpetration, and observation, a total of 103 people (15.4%) answered that they were directly victimized, 48 people (7.2%) answered that they had direct experience as perpetrators, and 166 people (24.7%) answered that they witnessed sexual violence in the military.

Excluding eyewitnesses, a total of 106 soldiers (15.8%) directly experienced physical sexual violence, either as perpetrators or victims in the military. A very high number of soldiers also indicated they experienced sexual violence as perpetrators and as victims: 59 soldiers (55.7%) were victims only, 39 soldiers (36.8%) were victims and perpetrators, and only 8 soldiers (7.5%) were exclusively perpetrators. Among perpetrators, 83% had experienced sexual violence in the military when they had been lower ranked soldiers. This feature of high number of perpetrators having previously experienced victimization themselves could be seen as the most unique feature of sexual violence among men in the military. (p. 1028)

(Source: anja_johnson)


Victims named higher ranking soldiers (71.1%), junior officers (7%), and officers (3.1%) as their perpetrators, totaling 81.2% of victims who responded that someone of a higher rank forcibly imposed sexual contact….

Also, the eight perpetrators and three victims who agreed to be interviewed, as well as six cases recorded by the Korean Sexual Violence Relief Center and reports by military judiciary officers, confirmed that victims of sexual abuse were in lower ranks than their perpetrators. All victims had been victimized by higher ranking soldiers, and eyewitnesses reported likewise. In sum, sexual violence among men in the military in South Korea was committed primarily by a higher ranking solider against a lower ranking soldier. (p. 1029)

The types of abuse, as reported by victims and witnesses (p. 1031; multiple answers permitted):

As reported by the perpetrators (p. 1033):

Also note that 22.1% of victims (but only 7% of perpetrators) reported that physical violence accompanied the sexual violence, and that 71.8% of victims and 90.7% of perpetrators responded that the acts of sexual violence when others were watching (I’ll return to the latter point shortly).  And in particular, eyewitnesses reported that 22.5% of the sexual violence they saw involved touching genitals, and 5.1% involving anal penetration (or the attempt), nearly 2 and 5 times higher than victims reported respectively.

Reflecting on the discrepancies, Kwon et al. found that:

…people tended to feel more comfortable talking about what might be considered part of a general sexual culture—such as kissing, hugging, and telling sexually explicit jokes—but answers were less forthcoming when concerning sexual violence of a more serious degree. (p. 1032)

Which for a long time I simply didn’t understand: how on Earth was that the “general sexual culture” of the military? Well, first consider that:

When asked, “In the military, have you ever been forced to talk about sexual experiences, even when you did not want to?” almost one third (32.7%) of the 667 respondents answered affirmatively. To the question, “Have you ever experienced negative consequences either because you did not have any sexual experiences or because you refused to discuss your sexual experiences?” a total of 218 soldiers (32.7%) answered that they had been forced to talk about sexual experience. (p. 1028)

And that this mandatory disclosure of sexual experience has long been regarded as “an essential part of sexual culture in the military” is corroborated by numerous references in Korean movies to the practice of virgins visiting a prostitute before starting one’s military service, of which I highly recommend the satirical comedy The First Amendment of Korea below.


Next, there is the fact that victims of sexual violence tended to interpret it as:

…intimacy or playfulness, because identification as a victim of sexual violence would imply one’s fragility and vulnerability. This tendency to minimize and trivialize injury was clear in cases where abuse continued for a long time, and in situations where a clear power dynamic between the perpetrator and the victim made resistance much more difficult for the victim. (p. 1033)

Moreover, perpetrators:

…did not force sexual contact on their peers with whom they had even closer relationships [than inferiors]. The intimacy in question was strictly an intimacy from the position of the higher ranking soldier.

Kwon et al. further discuss the natural difficulties victims had in refusing advances by a superior, and crucially, why the third most common form of sexual violence was touching a victim’s genitals. But why, particularly when only 5.4% of victims thought that their perpetrators were genuinely homosexual? Well, as one victim noted:

…unlike in the general society where one could not treat another person with complete disregard for age, educational level, or class, in the military, higher ranking soldiers could treat lower ranking soldiers as one pleased—including touching their genitals. (p. 1035)

And after a discussion of the right to control and abuse the body being a very useful method for militaries to reaffirm its hierarchical order, and of the role of the penis as a symbol of power and authority throughout history, they note that, hence:

…teasing or forceful contact with one’s penis becomes a way to prove the victim’s lack of power.

(Source: Journey to Perplexity)

Needless to say, the effects of this are amplified if done in public settings, and indeed 90.7% of perpetrators responded that people were watching when their sexual violence occurred, with the vast majority of witnesses either actively engaging in it in some way (23.7%), passively consenting by simply watching (57.9%), or pretending not to see (10.5%) rather than attempting to stop it: hence a “general sexual culture.”

But continuing with why:

…violence feminizes victims of sexual violence in two ways. The victim is reduced to a sexual object, like many women typically face in society, and as the powerless victim of violence, he is further feminized. Men who are victimized by sexual violence, then, become someone whose masculinity is lacking or damaged. Hierarchical order reasserts itself amid all this, and men collectively try to be on the offensive to affirm their aggressive masculinity. (pp. 1035-36)

And finally, the testimony of a perpetrator himself on why he did it, who said that he used sexual violence in lieu of physical violence sometimes, forcing sexual contact by “not hitting every time, and not joking around but harassing them”:

[Like harassing them…] Yes, I can’t hit them every time . . . and it’s not just joking around, but harassing them. . . . For instance, making them clean things repeatedly. Stuff like that. . . . If they were from wealthy families . . . or had a lot of education themselves . . . the superiors are ahead only because they came to the military before them . . . honestly . . . when you don’t have much to show for, and if they kiss ass to superiors who intimidate them . . . and if they think you’re not all that . . . well, you can’t beat them and so I kept thinking about ways to give them hell in the military, legal ways . . . and that’s how I ended up. (pp. 1036-37)

({2-365} Tick Tock by Dee’lite)

But what to make of all this?

At this point, it seems appropriate to point out my own complete lack of experience with the Korean military, as well as not even having any close relationships with any Korean men from whom I could learn about their military service, and so I would be very grateful to hear from those that have either. But then my own inexperience is essentially irrelevant here, as I’m largely passing on the results of renowned experts in the field (scroll down to note #32 here for more information on Kwon for instance); moreover, my own interest in on what is implied for Korean culture and sexuality as a whole, and so let me pass on the following description of military life provided by Ask a Korean, in his own excellent series on military service in Korea:

For some of today’s Korean young men, who have gone soft since the days of their fathers, military experience can be unbearable. Physical exercise is grueling, the superiors can be arbitrary and insulting, and your squad mates could shun you if you are responsible for putting the whole squad in trouble. Given that these guys, just like any other soldiers in Korea, can access guns and grenades, it should be no surprise that recently there has been a string of incidents in which a draftee shoots up his squad or toss a grenade in the squad room, killing many….

….[But there are definitely good life lessons to be learned from the experience, although it may be debatable whether learning those lessons is a good use of 2 to 3 years of young men in their prime. To put it bluntly, the military experience builds Korean men’s tolerance for all the life’s bullshit. As the Korean described so far, there is no shortage of bullshit – some of them perhaps the worst to be encountered in life – in the military. Exhausting physical training, insults and condescension from the superiors, and wasting time on arbitrary and trivial errands are all part of the experience. For young Korean men in the military, there is no choice but to simply grin and bear them. Once they finish bearing it, they know that most difficulties in life would be easier than what they already went through. The combination of such tolerance and insight, some may call it maturity – because, as anyone who has had a regular job can tell you, life as an adult has a lot of crap that we must simply grin and bear.

(Band of Brothers by The U.S. Army Photostream)

And in the next post in that series (my emphasis):

…one can argue that the military culture neatly coincides with traditional Korean culture – in both cultures, seniority automatically commands respect and loyalty. It is not surprising, then, that Korean workplaces are often run just like a squad in the military. You do what your boss tells you to do, and you are supposed to grin and bear it. Your time will come because Korea, like Japan, had automatic advancement by seniority at least until 1990s. Once you are the boss, you can order people around, much like the way you can order people around once you put in the time and became a sergeant.

I happened to work in such a place when I wrote the first post in my own series on gender and militarization in South Korea, and in which I noted that Korean corporate life often requires such a level of personal sacrifice for one’s superiors that, tellingly, even the Samsung Economic Research Institute acknowledges that “many workers…take it for granted that they have to tolerate anything in return for getting paid.” I should note however, that many readers thought my workplace was the exception rather than the rule, but be that as it may, the purpose of many of those things to be tolerated there boiled down to no more than the demonstration (and abuse) of superiors’ authority…and so too does sexual violence clearly emerge as one means – albeit, and I stress, only one, uncommon means – of doing so in the Korean military.

But I will further cover the effects on Korean gender relations and sexuality in great detail as I belatedly continue that series next month. In the meantime, let me leave you with the following passage from Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search For Who We Are (1993) by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan to ponder, a book which had a great effect on my worldview and which frequently came to mind as I was writing this post (via Viraj’s Weblog):


We go to great lengths to deny our animal heritage, and not just in scientific and philosophical discourse. You can glimpse the denial in the shaving of men’s faces; in clothing and other adornments; in the great lengths gone to in the preparation of meat to disguise the fact that an animal is being killed, flayed, and eaten. The common primate practice of pseudosexual mounting of males by males to express dominance is not widespread in humans, and some have taken comfort from this fact. But the most potent form of verbal abuse in English and many other languages is “Fuck you,” with the pronoun “I” implicit at the beginning. The speaker is vividly asserting his claim to higher status, and his contempt for those he considers subordinate. Characteristically, humans have converted a postural image into a linguistic one with barely a change in nuance. The phrase is uttered millions of times each day, all over the planet, with hardly anyone stopping to think what it means. Often, it escapes our lips unbidden. It is satisfying to say. It serves its purpose. It is a badge of the primate order, revealing something of our nature despite all our denials and pretensions.

Update 1, February 2013: See The Chosun Ilbo and ROK Drop for some more recent statistics on sexual assault in the Korean military.

Update 2, February 2013: See Sociological Images for more on sexualized insults.