Korean Gender Reader

(Source: Soompi)

Sorry for the slight delay this week, but I thought that I’d delay publishing until most of my readers were back home from their New Year trips!

1. Korean Films to Get Racier

As reported by Robert Koehler here, the Supreme Court recently “ruled in favor of the import and distribution of U.S. film Shortbus, annulling the “restricted screening” rating imposed on the movie by the Korea Media Rating Board….Restricted screening virtually means a film cannot be screened in regular movie theaters. Thanks to the court’s ruling, Shortbus can be screened in cinemas.”

Given that “the controversial movie graphically portrays non-simulated sex scenes,” then I concur with the Chosun Ilbo’s opinion that “Korean films are likely to feature more vivid depictions of sex from after the ruling.” But while images or depictions of genitalia or pubic hair were previously illegal in Korea (outside of traditionally defined art that is), the internet has long rendered access to uncensored pornography a moot point. So how is this ruling at all significant, especially in a feminist sense?

Well, this may sound like a bit of a leap at this point, but despite their stereotype of consensus and passivity, Korean adults have actually long complained that the current restrictions leave them feeling as if OMGthey’re being treated as children. In the same vein, as you read about the events of the past week and a half below, please bear in mind that much of what I describe could have been considerably ameliorated or even prevented by Koreans acknowledging that sexuality, particularly female sexuality, is not suddenly turned on like a light upon one’s wedding night (nor just as suddenly turned off after a women’s first pregnancy either). This ruling then, if it’s too much to say is an indirect recognition of that, is at least a step in the right direction, potentially with a great impact on people’s mindsets (source, right: Jeff Kramer; CC BY 2.0).

2. First Korean Man Convicted of Spousal Rape Commits Suicide

This was big news at the beginning of last week of course, but as I’ve already provided commentary on the conviction and then on the suicide itself though, all I really have to add to the links in those posts are this one providing brief translations of Korean opinions on events, and Baltimoron’s analysis here, who notes that, unfortunately, the Korean Bar Association is still opposed to recognizing marital rape as a crime.

Having said that, I must admit that I was still quite shocked to learn that marital rape wasn’t even a crime here. In my defense though, neither did Michael Hurt either, who’s been blogging about similar issues for much longer than I have. But rather than rendering any previous observations of his on the subject moot however, in fact this new information strengthens them really: consider these two passages of his on the UN’s measurements of Korea’s Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) in 2001, written in 2006 and 2004 respectively.

The countries were all ranked in a 2001 UN study according to standard of living (Human Development Index or HDI) and that GEM stat. Funny thing was, Korea was one of the countries that had a higher standard of living, but whose GEM was waaaaay off from that ranking. You see, most developed countries in that study had numbers that kind of made intuitive sense, with GEM rankings that kind of matched – not in a direct correlation, but generally – the overall economic and political development of the country

Not Korea.

Here are Korea’s peers in the 60’s to the end in the 2001 study. On the left is the HDI number, to the right of the country the GEM.

  • 75 Ukraine 61
  • 88 Georgia 62
  • 30 Korea 63
  • 130 Cambodia 64
  • 48 United Arab Emirates 65
  • 96 Turkey 66
  • 99 Sri Lanka 67
  • 120 Egypt 68
  • 139 Bangladesh 69
  • 148 Yemen 70.

And as he put it two years earlier, here’s what a HDI of 30 but a GEM of only 63 implies:

…the US is ranked 10th, Japan is ranked 44th, Thailand 55th, Russia 57th, and Pakistan 58th. The only other countries that actually managed to score behind Korea were all places in which women’s inequality is overtly and sometimes even brutally enforced; in ascending order of GEM rank: Cambodia, where domestic violence is not even legally a criminal offense, starts the slide down at 64th. The United Arab Emirates, where a man can still legally take up to four wives, is next, and Turkey, where “honor killings” of women who have had the audacity to be a victim of rape are still often murdered by male relatives, takes 66th place. Sri Lanka follows, with Egypt, Bangladesh, and Yemen bringing up the rear, last out of of the countries measured.

3. Protest Against Advertisements for Brothels in Major Korean Newspapers

I’ve been a big fan of utilitarianism ever since I was an undergraduate, and so regardless of the abstract ethical rights or wrongs of most issues, I do tend to weigh on the side of whichever provides “the greatest good for the greatest number.” So while their are many reasons I am pro-abortion, by far the main one is the simple fact is that if it is made illegal then a great many women will die at the hands of backyard abortionists. Similarly, Korea provides a compelling argument for the legalization of prostitution, for the women themselves are definitely the primary victims of the inconsistent and arbitrary ways in which prostitution laws are applied here. And what better symbol of those than advertisements for illegal brothels…from the website of a newspaper which often castigates prostitution on the front pages of its print edition no less? As KoreaBeat explains, who translated some examples:

Back in November a group of Korean feminist organizations came together to protest what they called “the practice of the top media outlets in Korean society of allowing illegal activities on their internet homepages,” specifically prostitution. Here’s a great example of what they were talking about: a couple of articles written about the new “full salon” system by prostitution aficionados and published in the adults-only online section of the Chosun Ilbo, which I will never tire of noting is the nation’s most conservative major newspaper. If you click through to the link you will find photos of men engaging in straight-up debauchery with Korean women.

Unfortunately, I can’t find a good online introduction to the whole convoluted history of Korean prostitution (something I should get on to writing then), but if you’d like a primer on the debacle of the current laws then I recommend scanning the numerous posts on the subject at The Marmot’s Hole, starting in 2005-6, and for good summaries of the colonial and postwar period I recommend this post at Occidentalism and especially this one written last week by Gord Sellar, who’s done the hard job of finding specific links and whose writing style is very accessible too.

(Update: Among other things, this 2005 Korea Journal article entitled “Intersectionality Revealed: Sexual Politics in Post-IMF Korea” by Cho Joo-hyun does provide a good primer on {relatively} recent prostitution laws)

baek-ji-young-백지영-cyworld-digital-awards4. Baek Ji-young Receives Award

A victim of a sex video secretly made of them by her former manager and boyfriend, I have a lot of respect for Baek Ji-young (백지영), who came out fighting against the double-standards applied to her when he rather vindictively released it publicly in 2000 (see here and here for the details, and here for her manager finally getting caught and jailed last year). But she has made a respectable comeback since then, and although her career will never reach the heights it could have without the scandal, for her sake and for the, hell,  sheer symbolism of it I’m very happy with any success that she does have. Hence I am inordinately pleased to report here that she won the “Song of the Month” award for her single Like Being Hit By A Bullet at the Cyworld Digital Awards on January 21st (source, right: One Asian World).

Unfortunately, regardless of all the above, I don’t think it would have been a good idea of any Korean celebrity to reveal two days later that:

At one point I was meeting 8 guys at once. Not necessarily dating, but comparing.

Oh well.

(Update: As Gomushin Girl rightfully points out (and I should have), it’s important to place the above comment in the appropriate context. For the reasons I explain here, as Koreans tend to be too scared to ask each other directly for a date then they engage in a whole host of blind dating arrangements instead, making them much more open to and likely to engage in them than most Westerners are (yes, regardless of the wide variation in that amorphous mass known as “Westerners” too). So while 8 guys at a time is probably on the high side, my distinct impression is that many Korean blind “dates” are often little more than coffees with the opposite sex: no big deal really, and quickly forgotten about. So really, the above in no way implies she was *cough* octuple-timing anyone, sexually or otherwise!)

5. Forced Prostitution of 16 Year-Old By Peers

Unfortunately just one of a string of similar cases in recent years involving teens as perpetrators and/or victims; for the details, see here. Naturally, a good first step towards preventing such incidents would be to provide sex education – to which I can thank personally, for instance, for learning that “no means no” and that what female porn stars profess to like on the screen isn’t *cough* usually what women tend to like in real life – but given that many Koreans seem reluctant to accept that even unmarried 20-somethings have sexuality – the case of #1 in this post being a rare and welcome exception like I said – then it will still be quite some time before they accept that Korean teenagers have sex too, despite the overwhelming evidence of it.

(Update: And again, this journal article provides a great deal of information on the first of that “string of cases”,  a gang rape case in the small rural town of Miryang (밀양) in 2004. By coincidence, I used to work there the year before)

6. Korean Star’s Cellphone Hacked By Own Agency

It turns out that actress and model Jun Ji-hyun’s (전지현) phone was “cloned” by her agency, allowing them to eavesdrop on all calls and text messages, and what’s more that this was the norm for the Korean entertainment industry rather than an exception! For the details of the case and for the slave-like contracts see here and here, and below I provide (some of) the Korea Herald’s editorial “Virtual Slaves” of the 23rd (otherwise you’d have to pay for access):

The alleged cloning of actress Jeon Ji-hyeon’s cell phone brought to light the serious breach of privacy suffered by many Korean celebrities.

The fact that her agency, Sidus HQ, may have had Jeon’s phone cloned to monitor her phone calls and text messages gives an insight into the darker side of the entertainment industry.

Markedly unequal contracts signed by entertainers and their agents are nothing new. They are labeled “slave contracts” because they relegate almost all authority to the agents at the expense of the entertainers’ rights.

Entertainers who hope to make it big find it hard to refuse such contracts because it is difficult to launch a career in the entertainment industry without powerful agencies behind them

Jeon signed up with Sidus HQ more than 10 years ago when she was in high school. There were rumors that she may not renew her contract, which expires next month, because she was unhappy with the agency for intruding on her personal life.

It is speculated that Sidus HQ may have eavesdropped on Jeon’s cell phone to check if she was in contact with other agencies.

The Seoul police said it was investigating whether Sidus HQ had cloned other stars’ phones. “We suspect this may have been the agents’ usual way of controlling celebrities.”

Celebrities complain that their agents control their lives excessively. One popular singer recently said that her agent constantly calls her to check her whereabouts. Of the 350 celebrities questioned by the Fair Trade Commission last year about “slave contracts,” some 200 said that they were forced to report on their whereabouts even when they were not working. More than 100 said they had virtually no private life.

To help you put that into some sort of perspective, recall that Korean celebrity culture is the polar opposite of that of most Western countries, with stars, particularly female stars, generally being held to much higher moral standards than the public as whole, and so any complaints about their slave-like contracts are not at all compensated by all the normal perks of fame. Moreover, I’d wouldn’t be surprised if the widespread sexual exploitation of female stars has little changed since Jackie Lim’s experiences back in the mid-1990s also.

7. Celebrities No Longer Allowed to Advertise School Uniforms

ec868ceb8580ec8b9ceb8c80-girls-generation-elite-advertisement-eab491eab3a0(Source: Unknown)

Even if you work at a public school here, you might be surprised to learn that Korean students don’t actually buy their uniforms directly from their school like I did in the UK, Australia and New Zealand (it’s a long story), but that in fact for any specific school there’s a range of companies competing to sell their brand of its uniforms to students, complete with their own individual stores and with sometimes marked differences in quality and price. It’s not an obvious point aspect of life here though – I only discovered it by chance after five years here – and other than the fact that having students spending extra to have better uniforms than their peers somewhat detracts from the whole point of them, I didn’t really know what to make of it. Even getting teenage girls to pay attention to their “S-line” like in the advertisement at the top of this post isn’t all that significant…or at least, not when children are encouraged to do the same thing.

So it was with interest that I read that under the orders(?) of the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (MEST), star endorsements of school uniforms – a natural niche for the members of teenage girl bands – were to be terminated come February when existing contracts expired, with the aim of lowering costs for consumers. Is it related to the economic climate, or would it have come regardless, someone at MEST coming to the same conclusions that I did? If anyone is interested then I’ll try to find more information in Korean, but in the meantime for the English blog with the most information on that, see CoolSmurf here, and if you’re into that sort of thing, there’s literally hundreds of comments on the move available on that blog and others here, here, and here too.

(Update: In the comments to the post at Coolsmurf, author Alvin Lim links to a good Korea Times article here that explains how the school uniform industry works, and the problems parents were beginning to have with the prices)

(Update 2: Paul of his “개 밥에 도토리 / An acorn in the dog’s food” blog provides a good potted history and round-up of links on the issue of Korean parents and the prices of school uniforms here)

8. Protests Against Disabled Teen Being Returned to her Sexual Abusers

Finally, as noted by KoreaBeat back on the 14th, a mentally-disabled teen was returned back to her abusers (who received light punishments), because there was literally no one else to care for her. I wonder what happens in similar cases in other countries? Here is the follow-up article on protests against the decision.

19 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

  1. Thanks for the article..didn’t know abt the differing sch uniforms..read your korean times link on the article..the prices seem so unbelievably high..in sg where I am back in, sch uniforms cost next to nothing


    1. Yeah, I was surprised at the prices too. For sure, my in my day my parents grumbled at the prices of the uniforms sold by my own school(s) too, their complete monopoly(ies) meaning that they could charge what they liked. But still, the expense was trivial really, nothing at all like Korea.


  2. I’ve always been really intrigued by the uniforms . . .the advertisements and sample uniforms in windows are often nothing at all like the average high school uniform. I’m still waiting to see what school has adopted teal and vermilion as their school colors :) When I was working in a high school about five years ago, my students average uniform costs probably totaled around 250-300,000 won for the year (30,000 for their summer uniform shirt, a bit more than that for the winter shirt, around 50,000 for the pants for summer, another pair for winter, plus vest, blazer, and tie . . .but I digress.) So what *is* up with these uniform advertisements featuring clothes no school kid will ever be allowed to wear?

    I’m pleased to hear the ratings board is going to ease up – like the American version, what goes on is far too obscure to be fair, and seems to disproportionately affect movies positively portraying womens’ sexuality. Good for Shortbus (which, of course, I was able to buy an uncensored version of from my local bootlegger – God bless!) and let’s bring on the smut^^

    Happy to hear that Baek is back having stuck it out, but (without being able to find the original Korean quote) I don’t think we can be too condemnatory of what she said. The Korean idea of “meeting” with a guy is very vague, and can cover everything from sexual intercourse to just hanging out together. My guess is she was going on dates, but not interested in a particular person as boyfriend. And in the end, regardless, I’m happy she feels able to speak about these things in public and be open and honest that yeah! she’s female and she goes on dates and checks out guys and isn’t necessarily looking for something exclusive. Better than having your own agency stalking you . . .

    (James, 10:53 pm: In case anyone’s confused, I’ve since edited that last point about Baek {see below})


    1. PJB, things may well have changed since I last wore a school uniform 16 years ago, so perhaps the prices in the UK and elsewhere are indeed comparative to Korea today. Just out of curiosity, could you possibly pass on the UK prices if you know them? I’ll ask my parents what they used to be like too.

      Gomushin Girl, that’s a good point, and which would never have occurred to me, for being both male and a foreigner here I have to make a point of not letting my gaze linger too long on schoolgirls in their uniforms here. Still, color-wise I did know that “parent’s sofa, circa 1982” seems to be all the rage, not the pink and patels that dominte the adverts!

      I hear you about the obsurity too of the cencorship process too, and although I didn’t see it myself was told that even American Pie for instance, was so cut as to be rendered senseless, with the movie jumping from whatshisname contemplating the pie suddenly to him and his Dad discussing the remains of it. But Shortbus? I haven’t seen it, just the trailer linked to at the…er…Hole, but my first impression is that its artistic merits seem dubious at best, so really quite a bizarre choice for a groundbreaking legal case here. Not that its not just a small step up from Sex and the City though.

      Could you please give some examples of cecorship disproportionatly ruling against movies positively portraying women’s sexuality by the way? Not that I don’t believe you – quite the opposite – I just need it for that presentation in Daejeon (and hopefully one in Taipai too) and my thesis!

      Finally, yeah, you’re quite correct about what Baek said, and I was quite sloppy with how I presented it, not really putting it in context. I’ll fix it once I get back to my lovely laptop after work. (10:53pm: Done)


  3. Shortbus huh? What a horrible film (not that I want to argue about it’s artistic merit – that is, of course, subjective). This movie involves quite a bit of real sex, close ups, in rather strange forms – homosexual threesome, guy coming in his own mouth, orgy, etc.
    This movie would never play in any mainstream theater in America. I assume it is legal to show pronography in public theaters in America in most states – pornography is legal in America. I think I read somewhere on your blog that pornography is illegal in Korea – has been illegal longer than prostitution. One of my co-workers mentioned that all of his favorite porn sites are being blocked now, some sort of government crackdown.


    1. Yeah, although admittedly without having watched it, the movie does seem to have little going for it other than its explictness.

      Amongst others, I mentioned the deal with pornography in Korea in this post actually: it isn’t illegal, but images of pubic hair and genitalia are, rendering the Korean pornography industry pretty lame as you can imagine (well, you’re forced to imagine with it!).

      I don’t have a link sorry (just have 5 mins on this work computer), but I’m pretty sure that the recently blocked sites – 200 or so – were specifically Korean language ones, for Koreans but hosted in places like California to avoid Korea’s cencorship laws. So English language ones *cough* weren’t at all affected.


  4. not sure what the point of my comment was – or how this movie could possibly influence Korea to become more feminist – but I am anti-censhorship!


  5. James – I have this student I absolutely hate – mid 30’s women, one kid, hardcore (crazy) christian – she really creeps me out. She came into class just now and asked if I had any free-talking topics prepared (that seems like an oxymoron doesn’t it). I used this blog entry, specifically the paragraphs about shortbus – It was glorious!


    1. Thanks, and believe me, as a regular teacher of adults myself I’ve sooo been there.

      But in the nicest possible way, please read my posts a bit more carefully next time though! I’ve already mentioned the potential implications of the ruling for Korean feminism, and a few comments up Gomushin Girl elaborates a bit more on those too.


  6. Oh dear! I’ll have to dig around for compelling evidence pertinent to Korea. The most outstanding example I can think of off the top of my head would be the depictions of sex in Too Young to Die, where the key scene of fellatio was darkened and shortened significantly before it could be released. I would suggest that it was not just the fact that the couple was elderly that made the sex scenes so controversial, but the gusto and relish that the woman took in the acts.

    Stateside my best example is Boys Don’t Cry, where the director had to alter a sex scene (between two women, one partner believing the other to be a man) because the ratings board felt that the woman’s orgasm was “too long” Let me root around a bit and find you some example. One of the more entertaining resources is the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated (from which I draw the Boys Don’t Cry example) and I suspect, considering similarities in Korean and American film content, that the Korean censorship board is similar in being more punitive when films contain sex than violence.

    Not that they don’t often contain both: When I first came to Korea, I went with a friend to see the Korean film Phantom, and having read in my guidebook about the supposedly strict censorship and conservative society, I pretty shocked when the movie opened by panning down the nearly nude body of a pole-dancing stripper and for the mid-movie highlight of a guy being disemboweled.


  7. This Film is Not Yet Rated absolutely rocks, and gives a good look at why we should look carefully at film censorship and control boards.

    The first Korean film I saw in the cinema was “Crazy Marriage” and I, too, was very surprised to see so much sex onscreen. No disembowelment, though.

    As for the blockages, James: another of the sites blocked was AdultFriendFinder. There was a post about that somewhere or other. I don’t think the rest of the franchise is blocked, just that one–ostensibly because of explicit profile images?

    Great roundup here!


  8. I suddenly feel compelled to defend poor Shortbus! It’s not a perfect movie cinematically speaking, but I think some people miss the point of all that explicit sexual activity. Much of it is more analogous to the sex in a Hong Sang-soo film than in your average porno – the sex in all its bizarre forms is there to emphasize the problematic social and emotional relationships, often achieved by filming the sex in such a way that it becomes really pretty unsexy. The much-talked of self-fellatio in the opening scene is a great example – the titillation factor wears off very quickly, replaced by admiration for the flexibility and athleticism of the actor before being changed again into a statement about how truly isolated the character is and how disconnected from others. It also deserves praise for its nuanced portrayals of various sexualities. It’s one of the few really “queer” (as in non-heteronormative, not just in the more restrictive sense of being “gay”) films out there. Anyway, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea and far from perfect in terms of plot, etc., but I don’t think the bad rap it got is entirely deserved.


  9. I like all your articles, it’ s important to talk about these kind of things. I just wanted to point out something to you. Don’ t assume that the situation in Korea must be that bad only because it is placed in a list with middle-east countries. The situation in those countries is described to us in an exaggerated way to make them look bad purposefully. Don’ t assume that they are so bad only because they tell you so. They don’ t show the whole facade on tv, only the bad side, which is a minority but they make it look like a majority. I ‘ m not a middle-eastern so I wish you would take my comment as non-biased.
    Thank you for your articles, they are truly needed!


    1. Sorry, but I really don’t understand your comment. Why do you assume that anyone else is making assumptions? If you really do read all my articles, how on Earth can you imply that I “assume that the situation in Korea must be that bad only because it is placed in a list with middle-east countries”? Any why do you assume that the situation in Middle Eastern countries “is described to us in an exaggerated way to make them look bad purposefully”? We’re talking about quantifiable statistics by a UN agency in story #3 here, not Fox News reports.


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