Calling all Korean-Western Couples!

A Mixed Relationship(Source, edited: ufunk)

I’ve been asked to pass on the following by Dr. Daniel Nehring, a British sociology lecturer:

My project looks at the experiences of Korean-Western couples currently living in Korea, of any sexual orientation. It involves conversational interviews of approximately one hour, covering various aspects of everyday life in a transnational relationship; I interview the Western participants in English, while my Korean (female) colleague interviews the Korean participants in Korean. I work according to the code of ethical conduct of the British Sociological Association, so participation is confidential and anonymous, which includes not divulging one partner’s responses to the other(!). I am looking for participants aged 25 to 45 who are settled in Korea and currently live in a long-term transnational relationships. I could meet participants in a place of their choice; alternatively, the interview(s) could take place on Skype. I would be happy to answer any further questions about my research; my e-mail address is

I’d add that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Daniel several times, and that he has conducted similar projects in Mexico and China; see here for one of his journal articles on the latter, which is still ongoing, while the Mexican interviews ultimately became part of a book.

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.


…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.)


— 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).

Announcements: Two Very Worthy Causes to Support!


Today, some information about two very worthy causes.

First, on ongoing volunteer opportunities for the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association in Daegu and the 3rd Single Moms’ Day Conference this May. Then, on a Kickstarter campaign for a full length documentary film seeking to help preserve and spread knowledge of the shamanistic practices and shrine religion of Jeju Island:

I. The Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association (KUMFA) is an organization that works to promote children’s human rights while addressing systemic discrimination. KUMFA advocates for the human rights of unwed pregnant women, unwed mothers and their children in Korea. KUMFA’s goal is to enable Korean women to have sufficient resources and support to keep their babies if they choose, and thrive in Korean society.

More information is available in the following interview and at the Single Moms’ Day event page:

Daegu KUMFA Volunteer Opportunities (ongoing):

The Daegu Branch of the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association will hold meetings and provide classes for their members. KUMFA Daegu seeks volunteers to provide childcare during the classes. In the future other types of volunteer opportunities may arise. For additional details please visit the KUMFA Facebook Page or contact us directly at kumfa.volunteer@gmail dot com.

Seoul KUMFA Volunteer Opportunities (ongoing):

The Seoul Branch of Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association has ongoing volunteer and learning opportunities. Sign up by joining the Facebook group.

II. Seoul Conference (May 10-11, 2013): The 3rd Single Moms’ Day Conference:

SMD advocates for human rights in a number of important ways, in particularly by addressing systemic discrimination by “informing people inside and outside Korea about the factors that pressure unwed mothers to relinquish their children for adoption. Push factors include fathers’ child support obligations being unenforced; lack of adequate social welfare from the Korean government; social discrimination against unwed mothers and their children. Pull factors include the fact that more than half of unwed mothers in facilities are living in unwed mothers’ shelters that are owned and operated by adoption agencies; a money-driven international adoption system that does not conform to the UN CRC or the Hague Convention, i.e., it does not respect children’s humans rights.”

For more information or to make a donation, please visit the SMD event page. Here is some volunteer testimony:

“I have been involved with SMD and related projects for two years. I’ve learned a lot from this really inspiring collaboration of groups that fight for Korean children’s human rights, including: parents whose children were adopted by unethical means; unwed parents who are fighting workplace and social discrimination to raise their children; adult adoptees who campaign for ethical reforms to adoption laws; supporters and volunteers who work to bring policies into the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

Next, on Jeju Documentarian Giuseppe Rositano’s Kickstarter campaign. Please do check the link for additional information, and on why your help is needed:

Jeju 1As a popular tourist destination in South Korea, Jeju Island has risen to fame predominantly for its natural wonders: hiking trails in abundance, scenic ocean views and South Korea’s highest mountain. It is possible to experience these in just a few short days, but staying on the island a bit longer or even making it a home provides the opportunities to get a deeper understanding and appreciation of some of the more interesting aspects of Jeju. Documentarian Giuseppe Rositano, Jeju Island resident of 7 years, explores some of these more interesting aspects of Jeju life, specifically the shamanistic beliefs and shrine religion of Jeju Island that is in danger due to the rapidly declining population of believers.

Jeju 2Spanning the course of 18 months and accumulating more than 500 hours of shamanistic ceremonies and traditional storytelling on film, Rositano captures the spiritual life of 5 villages through exploration of their native deities and traditional oral stories that have been passed down through generations. These stories, which describe the lives of Jeju’s extensive pantheon, are quickly disappearing. At Search is an attempt to preserve these unique indigenous beliefs.

Each village on Jeju Island has several shrines in which local deities specific to the island are ‘seated’. Each of these deities corresponds to a ‘bonpuli’ or oral myth. With an adventurous spirit, this documentary sets out to capture the retelling of these ‘bonpuli’ legends in the voice of what is likely the final generation of elders who received the stories from their parents and grandparents. Sadly, younger generations are seldom aware of these stories which serve as the cornerstones for their grandparents’ spiritual lives and cultural identity. With over 400 shrines on the island and a total of 18,000 gods on Jeju, that’s quite a loss to humanity’s cultural history!

Jeju 3Currently At Search for Spirits on the Island of Rocks, Wind and Women is in post-production. Rositano and team have launched a kickstarter campaign to raise funds to bring the project to completion and to get it out to film festivals around the world.

Horror Stories(?) About Korean OBGYN Clinics

(“Pretend not to know”, “Pretend not to go”, “Pretend it’s the first time”. Push! Push! {1997}. Source)

This was the most read society news story on Naver last week, undoubtedly because of the recent announcement that the pill is to be made prescription only (a similar article was #5), which will naturally require more visits to OBGYNs. I have my own article about that coming out in Busan Haps next month (update: here it is!), but in the meantime see here, here and here for further details, as well as Korean Gender Reader posts from June.

Without discounting the genuine negative experiences outlined below, for the sake of balance let add that my wife has had no problems with those OBGYNs she’s dealt with since her first pregnancy, nor this 19 year-old student who wrote about her first visit to a clinic for her university newspaper (although it’s true she was given some strange and/or unnecessary tests). Also, it seems somewhat naive of patients to be surprised at questions about their sexual experience, and a little churlish of them to complain about them.

Update — in addition to many helpful, practical reader comments on this post below, and on the previous one about the student’s visit, let me recommend this one by a friend on Facebook:

…to be honest, I think most women expect a trip to the gyno to be awkward, that’s par for the course. However, many of the questions mentioned in the article were definitely way out of line. I’ve come across some less than sensitive (aka prejudiced and or judgmental) docs here.. I just assumed their overly-direct statements/questions were just a translation issue. Obviously not!

One disheartening aspect of women’s clinics is that you have to speak to a nurse (or sometimes just the receptionist) first, often in crowded reception area, to explain why you’re there. They often ask for all your symptoms, check your weight and blood pressure and when you had your last period in front of countless strangers. One clinic I went to had an LCD screen with the waiting patients listed in order of their turn.. including the reason why there were there… So much for privacy! It just adds another layer of humiliation to an already uncomfortable situation.

That being said- there are some amazing gynos here. I hope these problems can be properly addressed- no one should have to feel ashamed in front of their doctor. The danger here is that women will stop seeing doctors about their gynecological/sexual health out of fear of embarrassment and risk greater health problems.

“성경험 유무는 왜…? 굳이 그것까지” 굴욕의 진료, 산부인과

“Why do they ask about sexual experience? Is that really necessary?” Humiliating Treatment at OBGYN Clinics

엄지원 / Uhm Ji-won, The Hankyoreh, 2 July 2012

여성이 불편한 산부인과 / Women find gynecology clinics uncomfortable
접수대부터 진료·시술까지 / From reception to treatment and surgery
의료진 노골적 발언에 민망 / OBGYNs make suggestive, embarrassing comments
사전피임약 처방전 필요한데… / The pill requires a prescription…
여성들 심리적 부담 커 고민 / Psychological pressure on women increases
환자 배려 의료지침 등 필요 / OBGYNs need guidance on bedside manners

지난 6월 정부는 사전피임약을 전문약으로 분류하는 약사법 개정안을 발표했다. 이 법안이 국회에서 통과되면 여성들이 산부인과를 찾을 일이 더 많아질 수 있다. 이를 두고 여성들은 산부인과에 가는 것 자체가 눈치 보이는 사회 분위기를 지적한 바 있다.

This June, the government announced that it was considering amending the Drugs, Cosmetics, and Medical Instruments Law to reclassify the pill as a prescription medicine. If passed by Congress, it will mean women will have to visit OBGYN clinics much more often. In light of this, women have been pointing out the [bad] atmosphere at them.

한국여성민 우회가 산부인과 진료 경험이 있는 여성 210명을 상대로 설문조사한 결과는 ‘외부의 시선’ 못지않게 산부인과 진료 자체에 대한 여성들의 두려움이 실제로 광범위하게 퍼져 있다는 사실을 확인해준다. 설문 특성상 응답자의 신상과 구체적인 피해 일시·장소 등을 밝히진 않았지만, 여성들은 산부인과에서 겪은 수치와 불편을 설문지에 빼곡히 적었다.

Korean Womenlink conducted a survey of 210 women who had received treatment at OBGYN clinics, and the results confirmed not just the endurance of public stereotypes that all women visiting OBGYN clinics had STDs, but also that women’s fears in visiting them were well-founded. The survey was anonymous, and respondents were asked to provide no details of the times or places in which they’d been made to feel embarrassed or humiliated, but many still felt compelled to write a great deal about their negative experiences.


신지은(가명·36)씨는 얼마 전 산부인과에서 느낀 굴욕감이 생생하다. 아이를 낳고 정기검진차 방문한 신씨에게 의사는 은근히 ‘수술’을 권했다.

Shin Ji-eun (not her real name), 36, vividly remembers visiting a clinic for a regular check-up after her child was born, where the doctor implied she should have surgery:

“출산을 한 뒤니 부부관계를 오래 유지하고 싶으면 이참에 수술을 하라”고 말했다. 그가 권한 것은 여성 성기를 성형하는 수술이었다. “배려인지 희롱인지 알 수 없는 제안”이었다고 신씨는 말했다.

“After having a baby, and seeing as you’re already here, you should have surgery on your genitals for the sake of your married life”, the doctor said [James – what kind of surgery isn’t specified]. “I didn’t know whether to take it as a joke or a serious suggestion” Ji-eun said.

실제로 설문조사에 응한 여성들은 진료가 시작되는 접수대에서부터 낙태경험 또는 성경험을 묻는 수치스런 질문을 받았다고 증언했다. 어느 여성은 “진료 접수 때 ‘냉이 많아져서 병원에 왔다’고 했더니, 접수대 간호사가 큰 소리로 ‘성병이네요’라고 말해 매우 불쾌했다”고 적었다.

Respondents to the survey reported being asked embarrassing questions about their sexual experience and having abortions even as soon as arriving at the reception desk. One woman said “I went to the OBGYN clinic because I was having a heavy vaginal discharge, and the nurse at the desk loudly said ‘Oh, you must have an STD!’, which mortified me.”

진료 시작 뒤에도 수치심을 주는 의료진의 발언이 이어졌다고 응답자들은 적었다. 특히 “성경험이 있느냐”고 묻는 의료진의 태도가 당혹스러웠다고 여성들은 밝혔다. 어느 여성은 “성경험이 없다”고 답했다가 “검사할 때 번거롭다. 솔직히 말하라”는 의사의 말을 들었다. “그 뒤로 가급적 산부인과에 가지 않는다”고 이 여성은 밝혔다.

The shaming experiences continue after treatment starts too, because of doctors’ comments. In particular, after being asked if she had sexual experience, and replying that she didn’t, one woman found her doctor’s reply – “Be honest. Otherwise the examination will be more complicated” – perplexing, and said she’d rather not visit an OBGYN again.


의료진이 성경험 여부를 묻는 것은 관련 진료에 필수적인 정보이기 때문이다. 그러나 성경험이 있든 없든 “왜 그런 정보가 필요한지 사전 설명 없이 다짜고짜 물어 불쾌했다”는 게 처음 산부인과를 방문한 여성들의 이구동성이다. 여성민우회 조사를 보면, 산부인과 방문 당시 성경험이 있었던 경우는 69.5%, 없었던 경우는 29.5%였다.

Before being treated, patients need an explanation of why being asked about their sexual experience was necessary. Without that, many women reported, they felt very embarrassed on their first visits to clinics.

Of the respondents, 69.5% had prior sexual experience, and 29.5% didn’t.

Top Left — Of 210 Respondents: 35.2% had no negative experiences, 64.3% did, and 0.5% didn’t reply.

Top Right — Of the 64.3% of women who reported negative experiences: 56.3% were related to fears and anxieties about their treatment; 30.4% to public perceptions [of OBGYN patients]; 3.7%  to questions about STDs; 3.0% to costs of treatment; and 6.7% to other things.

Bottom — Age at first visit to an OBGYN

자궁경부암 검사를 받으러 갔던 어느 여성은 “결혼 안 했으면 처녀막이 상할 수 있으니 검사하지 말라”는 의사의 말을 들었다. 자신을 배려하는 듯하면서도 ‘처녀성’ 운운하는 발언에 수치심을 느꼈다고 응답자는 적었다. “몇번 경험해봤나”, “최근엔 언제였나”, “첫 경험이 언제인가”, “남자친구 말고 섹스 파트너가 있나” 등을 아무렇지 않게 묻는 일은 점잖은 축에 속했다. 이들이 기록한 의료진의 어떤 발언은 그대로 옮기기에 민망할 정도다.

One woman who visited in order to be examined for cervical cancer was asked if she was married, “because if you haven’t, then you shouldn’t receive an examination that will break your hymen”; while possibly the doctor was just being considerate about her virginity, the woman still felt ashamed and embarrassed. Other embarrassing questions, like “How many times have you had sex?”; “When was the last time you had sex?”; “When did you lose your virginity?”; and “Do you have another partner in addition to your boyfriend”, don’t even begin to compare to what some doctors asked patients, which they reported were too shameful to write down in their surveys (source, right).

“성기 모양이 참 예쁘다. 남편이 함부로 하지 않는가 보다.” “가슴이 작아서 사진이 찍히려나 모르겠네.” “어린데 왜 산부인과에 왔을까?” 심지어 체모가 많은 것을 보고 “남편이 좋아했겠다”는 이야기를 들은 경우도 있었다.

“Your vagina is very pretty. Your husband wasn’t as rough as most men”; “Your breasts are so small I’m not sure they will even show in the mammogram”; ” You’re so young, why are you visiting an OBGYN?” and even, after seeing that a patient had lots of pubic hair, commenting that “Your husband must like it” are among some of the stories about doctors that respondents did provide.

환자보다 의사 중심으로 꾸며진 진료 환경에 대한 여성들의 성토도 이어졌다.

In general, respondents felt that the treatment environment was designed with doctors rather than patients in mind.

다리를 위로 향한 채 눕게 돼 있는 산부인과의 ‘진료의자’를 응답자들은 ‘굴욕의자’, ‘쩍벌의자’로 부르며 불쾌감을 표시했다. 한 여성은 “진찰대에 다리를 벌리고 올라가는 것 자체가 매우 불쾌해 다시 가고 싶지 않다”고 적었다.


Women showed how upset they were by describing the treatment chair, in which patients lie with their legs in stirrups, as the “Chair of Shame”, or the “Spreadeagle Chair”. One woman wrote “I never want to go in that chair again. Having to spread my legs like that is very upsetting.”

자궁암 검사를 위해 병원을 찾았던 여성은 “의사가 들어오기 전 속옷을 벗고 다리를 벌린 채 준비했고 뒤이어 들어온 의사는 아무 설명도 없이 진료도구를 질 내부에 집어넣어 검사했다”고 불쾌감을 드러냈다.

Another woman who went to a hospital to be checked for cervical cancer wrote “Before the doctor came, I took off my underwear and got up and spread my legs, and when he arrived he just quickly put an instrument inside me, without any warning or explanation.”

‘진정으로 산부인과를 걱정하는 의사들 모임’의 최안나 대변인은 “산부인과 진료는 특히 예민한 분야이므로 성경험 여부 등 구체 정보가 왜 필요한지, 진료 과정은 어떻게 진행될 것인지 상세히 설명하고 의견을 구하는 건 당연한 절차”라며 “산부인과의 진료 서비스가 많이 나아지고 있다고 해도 여전히 일부 환자 눈높이에 부족한 점이 있다”고 말했다.

Choi Ahn-na, a spokesperson for the Korean Gynecological Physicians’ Association (GYNOB) [James — a notoriously anti-abortion group of OBGYNs. See here for more information about them] explained that “Gynecology and Obstetrics are very sensitive branches of medicine, for which it is both normal and essential for OBGYNs to have detailed information about patients, as this determines both the treatment type and how it’s administered. However, while OBGYNs have improved their services a great deal, it is also true that remaining weak spots need to be dealt with, as well as how things looks from patients’ perspectives.”


여성민우회는 이달 중 1000여명에 대한 실태조사 최종 결과 분석이 끝나면 전문의·보건전문가 등과 간담회를 열어 환자를 배려하는 산부인과 의료 지침을 만들어 배포하는 등 ‘산부인과 바꾸기 프로젝트’를 이어갈 계획이다.

Continuing its “Transform OBGYN Clinics Project” [James — Yes, this is the first time it’s been mentioned in the article], this month Womenlink is following-up by surveying 1000 women. After analyzing the results with health specialists, it will produce and distribute a guide for OBGYNs for dealing with patients.

김인숙 한국여성민우회 공동대표는 “왜 여성들이 산부인과에 가는 데 부담감을 느끼는지 구체적으로 확인해 앞으로 더 나은 산부인과 진료 문화를 만들어 갈 것”이라고 밝혔다.

Kim In-sook, a co-spokesperson of Womenlink, said “We will determine exactly why women feel so stressed about going to clinics, with the aim of making a better and more welcoming environment for them there.”

<한겨레>는 ‘여성이 불편한 산부인과’를 ‘여성이 행복한 산부인과’로 바꾸기 위한 제보와 의견을 받아 관련 보도를 이어갈 예정이다.

(Editor): In order to make women feel comfortable with visiting OBGYN clinics, The Hankyoreh will continue to receive and report on women’s opinions and experiences of them.

Help Sought for Pregnant Rape Victim — Update

(Source: unknown)

Last month, a reader emailed asking for help and information about in-vitro paternity testing, after his wife was raped and became pregnant while they were already trying to have a baby. With his permission, I’m very happy to pass on the following update:

…We got the test results back today and the baby is ours. We are naturally overjoyed.

If, god forbid, you get a similar question from a reader in the future, I can report that Paternity Testing Corporation (PTC), recommended by commenter Maria, came through for us. I would insist that a third party be a go-between between the victim and the company though (or at least the Japan branch) because they don’t seem to be used to dealing directly with victims, and can come across as insensitive. Also they’re not a travel agent, and people should make sure they know what clinic they’re going to and how to get there. We almost missed our chance to get the test done because we didn’t realize the clinic was actually in a neighboring province that took two hours to get to from Tokyo.

The strange thing is, the company says they are opening a branch soon in Seoul, after we were told several times that in-vitro paternity testing is completely forbidden in Korea. So I wonder if the roadblocks we were running into in Korea were more about the people not really knowing the answers to our questions and trying to save face.

Or maybe PTC will be focusing on paternity testing of young children and not doing any in-vitro testing. Who knows…

James — and later in his email, he again thanks Maria especially for directing his wife and him to PTC, and to all the other commenters for their help and support!

Korean Family Planning Advertisements, 1960s-1980s — Are Today’s Young Couples Less Informed than Their Parents Were?

…American military officers helped make abortion the population control tool of choice in those Asian countries where they wielded influence, first in Japan in the late 1940s and 1950s, then South Korea in the 1960s. USAID, America’s aid agency, provided Jeeps for mobile clinics which roamed South Korea performing abortions. At one point, a quarter of the country’s health budget was going on population control and the number of abortions hit an all-time record in Seoul, where, in 1977, there were 2.75 abortions for every live birth. “What would have happened if the government hadn’t allowed for such easy abortion?” asks one sociologist. “I don’t think sex-selective abortion would have become so popular.”

Apropos of the above quote, from The Economist’s review of Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (2011), let me present some government advertisements of the period to give you a better impression of that amazing zeal for population control back then.  More specifically, they also show that whereas couples were encouraged to have two children in the 1970s, and not to favor boys over girls, this would be reduced to only one child by the 1980s, and messages about the sex-ratio invariably diluted.

Obviously, these would come to play a huge role in today’s world-low birthrate, the difficulty many Korean men are now having in finding wives (although fortunately the sex-ratio among newborns has since been normalized), and the ensuing massive influx of overseas brides. Less obviously, they defy stereotypes about Koreans’ squeamishness when it comes to sexual matters, as I’ll explain.

But first, some context. All 30 or so advertisements I’ve been able to find were produced by the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea (대한가족계획협회; now known as the Planned Population Federation of Korea {PPFK; 인구보선복지협회}) and/or the now defunct Ministry of Health and Social Affairs (보건사회부), and can be found here, here, here, and here, as well as (best) on the PPFK’s website.

Text, both calenders — Did you know that the most effective, safest, and simplest device is the loop (IUD)? People who want one, please go to a welfare or family planning center / Black headline, right calender — Let's have the proper number of babies, and raise them well!

Formed in April 1961 just before the coup, the PPFK would soon have the strong support of the military government. But according to Seungsook Moon in Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (2005; pp. 81-2), its activities wouldn’t really take off until the 1970s, which possibly explains its rather uninspired efforts above (but note though, that the government itself was extremely active in population control well before then):

The modernizing state had to launch aggressive propaganda for family planning because the idea of contraception was foreign to most Koreans, who tended to believe that having many children meant good luck and that every child would bring his or her own food into the world….

….The state…worked closely with the PPFK to change the public perception of birth control, establishing a department of public relations in 1970 to make the idea and practice of contraception familiar to the populace. The PPFK increasingly relied on mass media (radio, television, newspapers, magazines and education texts of its own) to disseminate positive images and information about families with a small number of children. To encourage popular participation, the PPFK organized popular contests of various kinds, ranging from posters, songs, and slogans to stories of personal experiences by mothers and wives concerning contraception.

A fascinating book, it’s difficult not to quote much more here, as the next few pages make it clear that Korea’s population policies were just as systematic and draconian as China’s. In light of what is revealed in Hvistendahl’s more recent book though, it is strange that it doesn’t also discuss abortions, but it does mention that while IUDs insertions were offered freely in the 1960s (with the Marine Corps mobilized to provide them to isolated islanders), and considered the “patriotic” and “ideal” form of contraception (but with the pill also introduced in 1968 to alleviate their effects, in stark contrast to Japan), by the second half of the 1970s it would be female sterilization that was offered and aggressively applied, becoming “what can only be described as a sterilization mania” by the 1980s. Between 1982 and 1987, over 2 million Korean women would be sterilized, a “semiforced mass sterilization” that “led to abrupt reductions in the fertility rate and the rate of population growth in the 1980s” (p. 85).

Left, umbrella — The path to youth and beauty is family planning / Both posters — Don't discriminate between boys and girls, have only two children and raise them well (This slogan can be seen on many 1970s posters)

Left, headline — Which method is good?; cup — Family planning consultations; man, text — "I'll do it"; text, bottom — 1975 is International Women's Year / Right, 19th Family Weekly Magazine May 5-12 1974 — The World has One Destiny; NCC= The National Council of Churches in Korea (한국기독교교회협의회)

This poster on the left above is particularly interesting, and not just because that was the year that March 8 — which *cough* happens to be my birthday — was made International Women’s Day (alas, I was born a year later). Rather, it’s because of the guy saying “I’ll do it”, which couldn’t help but remind me of young Koreans’ surprising attitude that contraception is exclusively men’s responsibility (as indeed the Japanese think too). However, women were overwhemingly the focus of population control drives back then (Moon notes that only 1 vasectomy was performed for every 10 IUD insertions, although I think the ratio to female sterilizations would have been more useful), and women’s organizations co-opted or specifically created by the state to carry them out, so it seems anachronistic to see a connection between young Koreans’ attitudes today and those of their parents at the same age.

Indeed, this one on the left below turns out not to be about family-planning at all, but rather women’s rights (update: unfortunately, I’m having formatting problems sorry, so let me translate here instead):

Left, headline — We are all [the same] human; Man (clockwise from hat) — Family registry rights, parental rights, inheritance, children, estate; Text — Women’s Family Law Change Committee / Right, arrow — The path to a Gross National Income of of $1000 in 1981; Text, below — (Previous 1970s’ slogan)

Next, before moving on to posters from the 1980s, note that sterilization campaigns would come to be complimented by various economic incentives (p. 85):

In 1981, confronting negative economic growth for the first time since 1982, along with a decrease in the number of sterilization acceptors, the state issued “Countermeasures to Population Growth.” These measures were characterized by incentives to a family with one or two [James – ?] children; priority in getting housing loans and business loans, monetary support of low-income families, and free medical service for the first visit. During the 1980s, variations of these kinds of incentives were introduced almost every year.

Left — Two children is many too! / Right — Korea's population has already exceeded 40 million

And here are two posters with sons, and then two with daughters. But note that, confusedly, there were also some with two children like those in the 1970s though, and that clearly the government and PPFK were still very much concerned about the sex-ratio.

However, like I said that message was surely somewhat diluted by having some posters featuring and explicitly praising having a son, and it would be interesting to do a content analysis to determine the ratio of those that depicted sons to daughters, two children, or (preferably) a sex-neutral image like the eggs above:

Left — One family, full of love. One child, full of health / Right, headline — Because of one son; Text — Overpopulation is everybody's responsibility

Again, apologies for having formatting problems above:

Top — A blessing of one child, loved strongly / Bottom — Raise one daughter well, and you won’t envy [those who have] ten sons

Left, sign — Korea's current population: 40,524,837, Korea is overflowing; Text in map — Even if you only have one child, Korea is overflowing / Right — Korea is already overflowing

Finally, please note that these posters are just a handful of those available on the PPFK website, and which in turn must be a small sample of all that were produced. But in combination with what I’ve learnt from Militarized Modernity, they’ve still lead me to an interesting conclusion. Which is that, bearing in mind Koreans’ reputation for procrastination, yet doing things with outstanding zeal and efficiency once they set their minds to them (albeit usually precisely because of putting them off for so long), sexual matters are no exception, despite Koreans’ conservative reputation. Moreover, and intriguingly, it appears that young Korean couples of the 1970s and 1980s were likely to have been much better educated and informed than their children are now.

Assuming it does exist, what on Earth happened in the 1990s and 2000s to account for this curious generation gap? And why, even though technically adults rather than children were the target of government campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, is sex education in Korea today so appalling?

“Single Mothers are Ignorant Whores”: Update


As you’ll recall from last month’s article, about the Ministry of Health and Welfare (보건복지부; MOHW) once defining single mothers as having “low levels of education [and] impulsive sexual drives”, I promised to find out how recently that had been posted on the Ministry’s website, speculating that it was sometime within, say, the last decade or so.

You can imagine my surprise then, when Seunghee Han of the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (한국미혼모지원네트워크; KUMSN) informed me that wasn’t removed until as recently as May 2010. This was in response to Executive Director Heejung Kwon posting the definition on the Missmammamia (미스맘마미아) website, which prompted many mothers to write directly to the Ministry to complain.

Unfortunately however, the definition that has replaced it is also a little problematic, implying that most Korean single mothers are in their teens. Whereas that is certainly true of most Western countries though, and – if the 2008 Drama Little Mom Scandal (리틀맘 스캔들) above is any guide – may also be the Korean public’s perception, the reality is that most are in their late-twenties or early-thirties, as the following post on the KUMSN website makes clear:

(For a good introductory article to the plight of single mothers in Korea, see the New York Times here)

건강길라잡이사이트문제있습니다 / A Problem with the Health Guide Website

건강길라잡이는 보건복지가족부와 건강증진사업지원단에서 운영 중인 국민 모두의 건강증진을 위한 건강증진사업 홈페이지입니다. 그런데 여기에 쓰인 미혼모의 정의는 이상합니다.

The “Health Guide” is a website jointly run by the MOHW and the Management Center for Health Promotion for the public health of all citizens. However, the definition of single mothers on it is strange.

합법적이고 정당한 결혼절차 없이 임신중이거나 출산한 여자를 미혼모라고 정의내리고 있는데 마치 미혼 임신, 출산을 하면 모두 불법을 저지르고 있는 범죄인으로 여기고 있는 것 같습니다.

According to the definition, single mothers are women who are pregnant or who have given birth who have not gone through the legal and proper marriage procedures. Put this way, it sounds like all unmarried pregnant women or mothers have committed some sort of crime!

그리고 기본적으로 미혼모를 대부분 10대라 여기고 있습니다. 그러나 2010년 조사한 바로는 한 지역사회에 있는 미혼모의 경우, 평균 나이는 20대 후반 30대초반이라는 결과도 있었습니다.

Also, it basically says that most single mothers are in their teens, whereas according to the results of a survey of single mothers in one local area [James – unnamed] in 2010, most were in their late-twenties or early-thirties.

국민들의 건강을 증진하기 위해 유익한 정보를 제공하는 사이트에서도 이런 잘못된 정보를 제공하기 때문에 미혼모들에 대한 사회적인 인식이 더디게 바뀌고 있습니다. 잘못된 정보는 정정되어야 합니다.

Because there is wrong information even in a guide aimed at promoting citizens’ health, the public perception of single mothers is slow to change. This wrong information needs to be corrected.


And here is the section of the guide/website referred to:

10임신과미혼모 / Teen Pregnancy and Single Mothers

미혼모 : 합법적이고 정당한 결혼절차 없이 임신중이거나 출산한 여자.

Single Mother: A pregnant woman or mother who has not gone through the correct and proper marriage procedures.

산업화 도시화 과정, 성에 대한 가치관이나 태도의 변화, 이성교재의 범위가 늘어남에 따라 미혼모의 수가 계속적으로 증가. 미혼모 중 약 25%는 10대.

Because of industrialization and urbanization, people’s sense of values about and attitudes towards sex are changing, and more people [James – I think it means unmarried people] are having sexual relationships. Accordingly, the number of single mothers is rising, and roughly 25% of those are in their teens.

(James – Before you quite rightly point out that 25% isn’t “most” single mothers, the guide contradicts itself just two lines further down)

미혼모에 대한 정확한 통계는 없으나 전국 출산력 조사결과 18~34세 미만의 미혼여성들 중 3.4%가 임신의 경험이 있는 것으로 추정.

While it is difficult to get accurate statistics about single mothers, based on the results of a national birthrate survey [James – unnamed] it is estimated that 3.4% of single women aged between 18 and under 34 have had the experience of being pregnant (source, right).

미혼모는 대부분 10대 임신으로 교육적 경제적 정도가 낮아 충분한 건강관리를 받을 수 없으며 부모로서의 발달과업을 달성할 수 없다.

As most single mothers are teenagers, with inadequate access to healthcare and low levels of education and earning ability, then they can not really succeed as parents.

신체적인 미숙과 영양부족으로 유산, 조산, 저체중아 출산 등 고위험 임산부와 고위험 태아 및 신생아가 된다.

Teenagers that are not fully physically developed, and/or are malnourished, are at high risk of having miscarriages, premature births, underweight children, and/or complications during their pregnancy.

미혼인 여성이 임신을 하면 임신한 결과를 인공유산과 분만 중 어느 쪽을 선택할 것인지를 결정해야 하고 분만을 할 경우는 자신이 키울 것인지 입양을 시킬 것인지를 결정해야 한다.

If a single woman becomes pregnant, her two options are having an abortion or delivering the baby. If she chooses the latter, then she has to decide if she will raise it herself or offer it for adoption.

우리나라의 경우 84.8%가 인공유산, 분만은 15.2%(김승권, 1992)

In Korea, 84.8% of women in such a situation choose to have an abortion, and 15.2% choose to deliver it. (Kim Sung-gwon, 1992)


Apologies for not being able to find the title of the book referred to for the last figure, but I’m afraid I’ll have to recover from the shock of seeing a 19 year-old source used before I start looking. Moreover, combine that with the sloppily-written, contradictory, and incorrect information provided earlier, then frankly – and ironically – it’s only as I type this that I realize how bad things must be for single mothers here.

Sure, call me melodramatic, and/or reading too much into what is most likely simply a hastily-written piece of work, but recall that it comes from an organization presumably charged with supporting single mothers, promoting their rights, and trying to overcome stereotypes. Yet if that’s the best that it can do, then I shudder to think of how other organizations and segments of society treat them, with the sterling exception of the KUMSN.

But to end on a lighter note: has anybody seen Little Mom Scandal, and/or know how sympathetic it was to single mothers? Please let me know!

(Thanks to Seunghee Han of the KUMSN for the information. And also to Marilyn for putting me in touch with her, and again for translating October’s much longer article!)