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, and 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” of girl-groups and female performers by 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. That said, currently it actually has more men wanting to get their conscription out of the way than there are spaces available, but that’s only because the job market is so terrible at the moment. (Indeed, even women too are very interested in the limited—but growing—number of positions open to them, despite the extreme discrimination and harassment they face once inside.) Probably then, the military is now very concerned about softening its image.

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 plausible. 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 later, 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, 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 next week. Then, because not all of you may share my instructive 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.)

Korean Sociological Image #93: Korea’s Dark Circles

Very busy with work and deadlines these days (sorry), I picked up these daily planner post-its to try to make more efficient use of my time:

Daily Planner(Source: ebay)

Korean Sleep Deprivation 1I don’t recommend them: at 8cm in diameter, they’re much too small to write in, whatever language you use. Much more interesting than my frustrations with my pudgy fingers though, is that example daily plan provided. It reads:

  • 11:30pm to 6am: Sleep
  • 7-9: Prepare for Conference
  • 9-12pm: Attend Conference
  • 12-1: Lunch
  • 1-3:30: Attend Exhibition
  • 3:30-6: Attend Hagwon (Institute)
  • 6-7:30: Skip 300 times
  • 7:30-9: Memorize English Vocabulary
  • 9-11:30: Watch Online Lectures

Did the copywriters consider that a typical worker’s daily plan? Or more as one the ambitious professional should aspire to, starting with the strategic investment of 1500 won for a pack of 30?

Either way, it’s an interesting example of how Korea’s study-hard, work-hard, sleep-when-you’re-dead norm gets manifested and perpetuated in daily life, and one that would probably be little changed for consumers in other (developed) East Asian countries. In contrast, US adults, for instance, may also get less than seven hours daily sleep in practice, but the eight-hours ideal is an enduring myth. And very, very few aren’t achieving that ideal due to attending hagwons.

Korean high school students sleepAnother manifestation of Koreans’ attitudes to sleep comes from a high school teacher friend of mine, who says a common saying students there goes something like “Four hours sleep, go to a SKY university; five hours sleep, you fail.” I was recently reminded of it by the second “dark circle” on the right, which you can read more about at the Hankyroreh.

In both cases, frankly I’m surprised that the sleeping time is so high

How about you?

Update: Some statistics, via The Korea Bizwire:

Toz, a business that rents meeting rooms, conducted a survey on 1,800 high school seniors who used their study center. Results showed that 31 percent of the respondents slept five to six hours a night, and 30 percent answered that they slept four to five hours.

In other words, six out of 10 high school seniors were only getting five hours of sleep every night. Those who slept more than seven hours represented only five percent of the respondents.

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

Korean Sociological Image #92: Patriotic Marketing Through Sexual Objectification, Part 1

The Chosun Ilbo August 7 2015 Korean Women Korean Flag Korean NationalismJoin with me please, in bursting out laughing at the caption to this image on the Chosun Ilbo website

Models pose with the taegeukgi or national flag in front of the Lotte World Tower in Seoul on Thursday, ahead of the 70th anniversary of liberation from the Japanese colonial rule.

…because of its eerie resemblance to a description of a “spontaneous demonstration” given in the TV adaptation of Animal Farm (1999):

Animal Farm 1“And now we go to our leader’s house, where earlier today, a spontaneous demonstration took place.”

Animal Farm 2“A grateful duck has written a new song for our beloved leader, and she is here joined by the chorus of the Animal Guard!”

Animal Farm 4Animal Farm 6Amimal Farm 7Animal Farm 8

No? I assure you, it’s much funnier in the officious, slightly hungover voice of the pig making the announcement. But the fact remains: promotions like Lotte’s are like theaters of the absurd. Because really: what was the point of the models exactly?

Was it because otherwise disinterested heterosexual men and lesbians feel more patriotic if they see attractive women? Was it because they inspire people to learn more about Korea’s history, and to be more concerned about Korea’s image abroad? Was it because other less objectifying, less patronizing methods have been tried and failed?

No? Then why are young female models so routinely used to promote nationalist causes in Korea?

As if Lotte Group was posing the questions to news outlets itself, perhaps half of all the illustrated news articles on its tower flag I quickly surveyed didn’t even mention the models at all. So too the first English article I encountered, which instead offered a borderline advertorial on its deep numerical symbolism.

It’s almost as if wrapping themselves up in the national flag and posing in front of highly symbolic, highly controversial chaebol mega-projects is just something young women spontaneously like to do.

But who can blame anyone for not paying attention? The trend for flag-wearing in (then) revealing clothing was set way back during the 2002 World Cup, when Korean women of all ages did indeed choose to do so of their own accord. A sexually subversive act then, it’s been debased by advertisers and wannabe media stars ever since, building on the already widespread use of young women as doumi (도우미/”assistants”) and “narrator models” to promote the most everyday and mundane of consumer products (indeed, one source described the Lotte models as “PR doumi”). It’s also been a good fit with the sometimes quite literal use of K-pop girl-group members’ bodies to promote Korean governmental and business interests abroad.

Also, no-one supposes that these models weren’t hired by Lotte Group, as part of an obvious ploy to counter criticisms of excessive chaebol power in Korean political and economic life, and that Lotte Group is not even a Korean company at all. Some tweeters I found via the seong sangpoomhwa (성상품화/sexual objectification) search feed on Twitter I subscribe to (who doesn’t?), for example, said:

“Lotte Group’s solution to weaken public opposition to its power: patriotic marketing + sexual objectification = a tall building with the flag and thin models wearing flags. In Korea, patriotism is used like this. Oh, how bold!”

“Who are these women? Don’t use yourselves as tools of sexual objectification. Especially on a meaningful day like today. How come you can use our national flag like that, which was used to support and give courage to the Korean independence movement?”

Which was in reaction to:

“[Here’s some] women in hot pants wearing the Korean flag like a skirt, in front of the Lotte Tower, which has been accused of causing problems with the the air force’s flight paths and [consequently] implementation of strategy during wartime. How wily: even Lotte Group’s promotion strategy is Japanese-orientated.” [James — Eh? Because Japan would be the enemy in the event of a war? And surely he means the building location, rather than the promotion?]

Sigh. Of course, I don’t pretend for a moment that a twitter wordsearch represents everything being spoken about a subject. So I’m sure that, somewhere, people are asking such questions as:

  • Why is it almost always only young female models are ever chosen for promotions like these?
  • Why only models with a very narrow range of body types?
  • What kind of gender and sexual roles are they promoting, when women are mere decorations for a cause?

As always, I’d be grateful for any pointers to where people are doing so. But, if it turns out people aren’t really talking about such a widespread phenomenon or belief though, then that’s precisely why we should look more closely at it. Because, as Amy Wharton explains in her book The Sociology of Gender: An Introduction to Theory and Research (2005):

…understanding gender requires us to go beyond the obvious and to reconsider issues we may think are self-evident and already well understood. Challenging the taken-for-granted is one essential component of the sociological perspective. In fact, sociologists argue that what people view as unproblematic and accept as “the way things are” may be most in need of close, systematic scrutiny.

So to encourage further conversation along those lines, and to highlight the issues raised by this example, next month I’ll examine another highly symbolic instance of Korean “patriotic marketing [through] sexual objectification” then demonstrating why it’s more problematic than it may at first appear (apologies for the split, but it’s necessary for 5000 words). Until then, I appreciate hearing your thoughts on the flag-wearing promotions, and any other questions they raise.

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

If you can’t wait though, I encourage you to read “Angry Green Girl: Sexualizing Women for the Environment” at Sociological Images, to which I acknowledge my debt and inspiration for this introduction.

Update: Ultimately, that next post became a mammoth, 10,000 word series in itself!

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

Korean Sociological Image #91: Shameless Hussy Corrupts Korean Youth

With the decriminalization of adultery in February, Koreans seem more open about sex than ever before. But advertisers are slow to challenge traditional gender roles.

Motel, Park Ki-ryang, Yoo Byung-jaeThat Korean youth would include my two daughters, just off-camera in these pictures I took at a local bus stop. And the shameless hussy would be cheerleader Park Ki-ryang (a.k.a. “The Baseball Goddess”), intent on hooking-up with SNL writer and comedian Yoo Byung-jae in their ads for 여기어때 (Yogi-oddae, “How about here”), a motel-finding app. For someone whose first Korean girlfriend had a 10pm curfew, and who arrived in Korea the same year singer Baek Ji-young was disgraced for unknowingly being taped while having sex, it was remarkable to see something so brazen.

Ironically though, they were gone from Busan bus stops the next day; I wondered if they had indeed been too much for the Korean public. But I couldn’t find any news about any complaints or controversy, and found another ad in my local university district the day after that:

Motel, Park Ki-ryang, Yoo Byung-jae University DistrictPerhaps the disappearance was simply because the May campaign was wrapping up. Also, its cable commercials, released in June, remained available on YouTube and Yogi-oddae’s Facebook page. As The Joongang Ilbo explained:

19일 관련업계에 따르면 인터넷서비스업체 위드웹이 운영하는 여기어때가 방송작가 겸 방송인으로 활동 중인 유병재를 앞세운 광고를 ‘tvN’ 등 케이블 채널을 통해 이날부터 방송하기 시작했다. 유병재는 최근 대형 연예기획사인 YG엔터테인먼트와 전속계약을 체결하며 주목받고 있다.

유병재의 광고 파트너로는 ‘야구여신’으로 불리는 롯데자이언츠 인기 치어리더 박기량이 낙점됐다. 유병재와 박기량이 등장하는 광고는 ‘불타는 청춘을 위하여’라는 주제로 숙박업종에 걸맞게 ’19금’ 위주로 내용이 구성된다. 관련 광고방송은 이날부터 유튜브 등 동영상사이트를 통해 검색이 가능하다.

위드웹 관계자는 “지난 4월 개그맨 유상무가 등장하는 첫번째 광고를 내보낸데 이어 이번이 방송광고 2탄”이라며 “광고는 숙박앱을 주로 이용하는 20대와 30대 젊은층의 공감대를 이끌어내고 웃음을 제공하는 내용으로 구성됐다”고 말했다.

According to an industry spokesperson, Yogi-oddae, run by the internet service company Withweb, started airing the commercials with Yoo Byung-jae…on cable TV channels such as tvN from the 19th of June. [He] is getting a lot of attention recently, due to signing with YG Entertainment. [The same entertainment company that has signed the likes of 2NE1 and Big Bang—James].

His partner in the commercials is Park Ki-ryang…the theme is “For The Burning Youth,” and, appropriately for the motel industry, have adult content. They can also be found on YouTube.

A spokesperson from Weedweb explained that, “This is the second series of commercials for this accommodation app; the first series with gagman Yoo Sang-moo aired in April. They are designed to get the attention of 20 and 30-somethings, and make them laugh.”

Motel, Park Ki-ryang, Yoo Byung-jae University District Bus Stop(A few hours before finishing this post, all of the bus stop ads were back up. Clearly, someone at Yogi-oddae is just winding me up.)

Based on the bus stop ads, I looked forward to a cheeky take on Korean sexual double-standards, akin to Korea’s first (and I still think only) example of femvertising from 2009. Instead, Park Ki-ryang is much more indirect than those suggested, and grossly overdoes the childishness and the aegyo:

(For non-Korean speakers: in the first, she needs somewhere to wash up; then, she had a nightmare about ghosts, and doesn’t want to be alone; they’re watching (presumably) a sex scene in the movie, and she asks “Is that possible?”; she says it’s late and the taxi is on a more expensive rate, which means the ride would cost 50,000 won, comparable to a night at a cheap to mid-range motel; and finally, her favorite male perfume is his own smell. For Korean speakers, here’s both discussing the making of the commercials.)

That said, my wife, very much in the target demographic, actually found them quite funny. I warmed to them too, the more I watched, as every guy can relate to that feeling of sudden realization that he’s getting some that evening. But therein lies the problem: not only do the commercials celebrate traditional dating roles, but they’re all done entirely from Yoo Byung-jae’s perspective.

This emphasis on male consumers was indirectly confirmed by Etoday:

지난 19일 공개한 TV CF 5편의 에피소드 중 ‘응원 편’과 ‘꿍꼬또 편’이 박기량의 섹시함을 익살스럽게 표현해냈다는 평가다. 20~30대 남성팬들에게 큰 호응을 얻고 있으며 CF 영상은 여기어때 유튜브 채널을 통해 빠르게 확산되고 있다.

People say that out of the 5 commercials released on the 19th, Park Ki-ryang’s sexiness is humorously expressed and well shown in the cheerleader and ghost dream versions especially. This has had a big effect on male 20 and 30-something fans in particular, who have been rapidly spreading the commercials via YouTube.

Yogi-oddae is in stiff competition with Ya-nolja, a similar, much older company that has also recently launched its own app, and its previous advertisements were much tamer. So, however much I want to read into the campaign, it’s difficult not to conclude that Yogi-oddae was just exploiting the hype surrounding the decriminalization of adultery in February. Nothing wrong with jumping on that bandwagon of course, but it does frustrate with not delivering on its promise of a shameless hussy. (Not unlike Ashely Madison, which turns out to be a rather unreliable source for would-be Korean adulterers.)

I do concede that they’re just commercials though, and that I’ve got nothing but praise for the advertisements. It’s just that it would be nice to see a Korean advertiser place challenging gender stereotypes at the core of a campaign again. Not in a haphazard, conflicting fashion like in this one, or, like Durex Korea, by occasionally copying positive foreign examples, but quickly returning to its normal, very laddish themes thereafter. I’m also confused by the bizarre lack of attention to female consumers in the commercials, which seems to be an increasingly common trend.

The Reader The Lens The Baggage(Source, edited: Laurence Musgrove @The Illustrated Professor; used with permission.)

But my biases are clear, and perhaps I’ve misjudged how positively Korean women would respond to it. What do you think of them? Or this example by American cosmetics manufacturer Benefit?

As pointed out by Lizzie at Beyond Hallyu (see also: Branding in Asia), it’s much more daring, yet again it ultimately falls short (my emphases):  

This change in attitudes can be seen no more clearly than in this advert. A few years ago even the hint at the idea of a woman having the agency to initiate a sexual encounter with a stranger would have been scandalous. But this is not just a woman, it’s a married woman and it’s not just a hint, it’s a full-on kiss scene which takes up a third of the commercial’s one minute long run.

SNSD on Dating, January 2013Clearly the ad is an example of a massive shift in attitudes surrounding women’s relationship with sexuality that has occurred in recent years in Korea. We’ve seen that lately on shows like Witch Hunt where even female idols have been hinting at the fact they may actually have a sex life.

(James: That’s Girls’ Generation on the right, shortly before some of their members—and seemingly every other K-pop idol—either started publicly dating, or admitted that they’d been doing it all along. Source: unknown.)

But even so, condoning adultery is still a bit of an iffy move on Benefit’s part and I’m not entirely sure how this is supposed to entice female viewers. Perhaps this is supposed to make women feel empowered to make their own sexual decisions but I can’t help but feel it serves mostly just to reinforce the idea that women are liars.

Alternatively, it could be Benefit trying to show how in touch they are with the social issues in South Korea. Or maybe it’s just intended as a clever gimmick to show how long-lasting and non-smudging the tint is.

Intentions good or otherwise, the cynic in me sees this as nothing more than a half-hearted attempt at female ‘sexual empowerment’ in order to sell more lipstick.

I agree about the K-pop stars dating of course, best symbolized to me by Suzy, “The Nation’s First Love,” being caught going to hotels with Lee Min-ho after less than a month of dating, and it’s true that celebrities have a disproportionate role in sparking—or legitimating—new social trends in Korea. But, for us mere mortals, has there been “a massive shift in attitudes surrounding women’s relationship with sexuality” though? (My emphasis.) I’m not so sure, and would cite such things as: the female celebrities receiving the brunt of fans’ anger for all those dating ‘scandals’; the government restricting access to the pill for the sake of shoring up doctors’ incomes; the ongoing (re)criminalization of abortion, in order to increase the birth rate (but effectively only making it more inaccessible and expensive for the poor); and Korea’s curious lack of politicians willing to stick their neck out for those and other progressive issues, epitomized by Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon backtracking on his support for LGBT rights.

Which, by coincidence, was also mentioned by journalist and author Daniel Tudor, in an interview for The Hankyoreh that appeared as I was finalizing this week-long post:

The New Politics Alliance for Democracy is basically just the shadow of the Saenuri Party. [In most democracies] if you’re progressive, you care about social minorities, weak people, poor people in society. You care about women’s equality, maybe gay rights, you care about things like that. But I don’t see much of that [in Korea]. These two parties are dominating the Korean political scene.

What do you think? How would you assess shifts in attitudes surrounding women’s relationship with sexuality? What criteria should we use? Please let me know, so that I can finally begin working on my follow-up to Korean Sociological Image #89: On Getting Knocked up in South Korea(!) :D

Addendum: Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the name Yoo Sang-moo being mentioned as launching Yogi-oddae’s campaign back in April, not Park Ki-ryang and Yoo Byung-jae. For the sake of completeness, he was indeed hired, along with freelance model Bae Da-bin (a.k.a. Lisa Bae), and their own versions of the commercials were talked about in the media in the same heady terms as those by their replacements a month later, with no indication that their endorsements would only be temporary. I suspect they were just quickly and quietly let go then, because:

  • a) Yang Sang-moo looked just a little too goofy in his commercials;
  • b) At nearly 35, he was towards the upper limits of the target market, and had too much of an age gap with 21 year-old Bae Da-bin (whereas Park Ki-ryang and Yoo Byung-jae are 23 and 28 respectively);
  • And finally c), because the popularity of Yoo Byung-jae and especially Park Ki-ryang was just too great to pass up.

Which again points to the campaign being very haphazard, rather than a concerted attempt to smash the patriarchy :(

Addendum 2: Just for readers’ interest, here’s two fun videos about using the Ya-nolja app, found in passing while researching this post. Have any readers also used it, or Yogi-oddae?

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

Korean Sociological Image #90: Watch Out For Those Italian Men…

Two back-to-back YouTube commercials for SK Telecom’s “T Roaming” Service, which have a blatant double standard:

In the first, actor Son Ho-jun freaks out when his girlfriend tells him she’s going on an overseas trip with her old college friends. First, he asks if any men are coming with her, but relaxes when she reminds him that she went to a women’s college. Only to freak out again when he learns she’s going to Italy:

T Roaming Italian MenWhatever your gender or sexuality, if your partner can’t trust you not to bang your friends or the natives when you’re more than a few days away from each other, then in my book that’s your excuse to move on and do precisely that.

But I’ll grant that it’s just a commercial, and that Son Ho-jun’s reactions are exaggerated for comedic effect. Also, provided you’re not too clingy, there’s nothing wrong at all with staying in touch while your partner’s away.

The double-standard lies in the huge contrast with the second commercial, which shows what Ho-jun needs the roaming service for when he’s overseas: access to a translation app, without which he doesn’t realize the local women are throwing themselves at him.

T Roaming French WomanOr, once he does realize that “With T Roaming, [he] can translate, take pictures, and do anything [he likes]”, that he can set up his own harem:

Foreign Women T RoamingAgain, it’s innocuous in itself, and I’m all for taking advantage of technology to make sure people don’t miss out on any potential liaisons. Given the selling point of the first commercial though, it’s a bizarre choice of follow-up.

Instead, I would have plumped for a more provocative, much more memorable version with his girlfriend and foreign men, showing Ho-jun exactly what she thinks of insecure boyfriends who want to keep electronic tabs on her.

Or, if that was indeed deemed too provocative, then simply two more commercials with the sexes reversed. As the only extra costs would have been the additional male actors and the extra shooting time, then you really have to wonder why not.

Because without those versions, these ones not only seem entirely aimed at men, but it’s very difficult not to contrast his Korean girlfriend’s childishness in the first—and lack of an angry response to his question about her male friends—with the boldness and confidence of the foreign women in the second. It’s also difficult not to place the commercials in the Korean media’s long history of depicting foreign women as sexual conquests, but foreign men as something to defend Korean women against. (Although this has been improving in recent years.)

What do you think?

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

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).

Korean Sociological Image #88: Unhappy Korean children

Korean Child Unhappy Pencil Case(Source: Kevin Thai; CC BY-ND 2.0)

Via a friend of mine last year, came this OECD survey that found Korean children to be the least happy of all those in developed countries. Much more interesting than that finding though, which I’m sure came as no surprise to most readers, was the sense of perspective he provided, which looked towards the long-term:

Korean children OECD happiness indexPerhaps one of the more disturbing findings of Korean kids being the unhappiest as measured by the OECD is that on some level one could argue this is an extreme form of “delayed gratification” being imposed upon them; and therefore there is some justification for it. However, an important “release” is that delayed gratification is compensated for later in life. That’s quite important. But even here, South Koreans simply don’t get a break. Here’s your later in life measure (PDF; source, right).

Unfortunately, the doom and gloom continues in 2015, with this appearing in my feed as I began to type this post:

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family released a report claiming that happiness levels in the teen population have risen 5% in three years. Finding the reports unbelievable (according to a survey taken last year, Korean teens ranked last out of OECD countries in happiness levels), journalists investigated into the issue and found that the MOGEF manipulated the surveys to make the results seem positive.

Sigh. If anyone has any good news about Korean children, or prospects for 20-somethings for that matter, please pass it on!

Update: To offer something myself, see Korea Realtime to read about recent government initiatives to help (adult) students to study humanities and social sciences. Primarily, because the government is taking the rare, enlightened view that studying those subjects is an intrinsic public good that is in the county’s best long-term interests:

“In recent years, there has been a growing importance in policy for sustainable national development through improving quality of life and solving social problems,” said Oh Mi-hee, an official at the Ministry of Education, said in an emailed statement.

“The government is expanding support for humanities and social sciences in order to recognize this,” she said.

If you’ve ever taught (young) adults here, you’ll know that all too many of them feel trapped into studying subjects they don’t like for the sake of a job (which they also probably won’t like), so it’s great that they’re being given more opportunity to pursue something they enjoy instead. Also, one institution mentioned is using a ‘sharing-economy model’ tuition, so these initiatives are by no means only open to those with the financial luxury to put off job-hunting.

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