Korean Gender Reader

White Kim Hye-su Missha1. Number of Women Suffering Osteoporotic Fracture Increasing

So short that I may as well give the entire article:

Around 200 out of 100,000 Korean women are suffering from osteoporotic fracture, more than a four-fold increase over the past decade. The estimated annual socio-economic losses from such fractures are around W1.05 trillion (US$1=W1,275).

According to a 2007 survey by the U.S. National Institute of Health, the number of female osteoporotic fracture patients was seven times more than that of breast cancer patients, 2.5 times more than stroke patients, and 1.4 times more than heart attack patients.

Moon Sung-hwan, an orthopedist at Severance Hospital, said, “According to the World Health Organization, one in four women suffers a fracture in her lifetime. The rate increases to over 33 percent among those in their 60s or 70s, and 50 percent among those aged 80 or over.” Hip-joint fractures are particularly dangerous, since approximately 30 percent of patients die within two years.

I accept that a host of factors may be responsible for the dramatic increase, but as I make clear here, here, and here, Korean women go to great lengths to avoid the sun for the sake of light skins (to the extent that they now have among the lowest Vitamin D levels in the world). Moreover, as Korean women’s disposable incomes have gone up over the last few decades then so too has the range of whitening creams, lotions, and pills and so forth available to them, one of the most recent of which is that in this recent advertisement with Kim Hye-su (김혜수) for Korean cosmetics company Missha (미샤) above (source). It is not illogical to suppose that with greater spending on such items comes even greater care and attention to avoiding the sun, hence a drop in Vitamin D levels, and in turn a greater risk of osteoporotic fracture.

Naturally, that would be more young women than the middle-aged and older women most at risk, so there is an unresolved issue of timing with the recent increase. Alternative explanations?

2. South Korea Ranks Low In Terms Of Its Mothers’ Quality Of Life

For the details, see here. Again, just like with the UNDP’s 2008  “Human Development Index” and “Gender Empowerment Index” that I discussed here, whereas most countries’ economic indicators are also pretty good guides to the quality of life there, when it comes to Korea anything to do with women’s quality of life trails those economic indicators quite significantly. In this case for instance, its GDP was 15th largest in the world in 2008, but somehow it was only the 50th best place to be a mother (out of 158 countries surveyed).

I haven’t looked at the breakdown of the figures, but I would be very surprised if Korean maternal and infant death rates weren’t indeed the 15th lowest in the world or even lower, but that Korea lost a great deal of marks on its inability and/or unwillingness to reintegrate mothers into the workplace. For stark illustrations of just how bad Korea is in that regard, see here.

3. Jeong Ryeo-won’s Anorexia Problems?

Skinny Jeong Ryeo-won in April 2009(Source: zziixx)

In this interview, Jeong Ryeo-won (정려원) claims that she only lost the weight for a recent movie role, and never went below 40kg, but personally I think that the jury is still out on both. Regardless, in a sense it’s surprising that she’s been getting the attention that she has for it, considering that Biotherm presumably thinks that that caricature of an actual women above would not repel Korean women but be instead what they aspire to look like themselves. And if you think that that’s bad, wait till you see how she looked last July, when clothing retailer Giordano thought that pictures of her that scared my two year-old daughter would somehow have women rushing to their stores…

4. “If I Can Grope You, You Pass”

There’s been a great deal more discussion of the case of the student teachers sexually harassed by four teachers at their assigned public school earlier in the month (see #4 here), but probably the best is that at Brian in Jeollanam-do here, who also talks about the pervasiveness of this sort of thing at mandatory drinking parties at Korean workplaces. Here and here are two follow-ups also.

Meanwhile, the medical confinement of sexual predators has begun. According to Korea Beat, it’s a rare positive step, with rehabilitation as the goal.

Cruel Temptations Korean Drama5. Swearing Increases on Korean Television

A strange inclusion perhaps, but while there are naturally awkward aspects to all societies that its members are aware of but refuse to acknowledge and/or discuss (particularly sexual ones), in this part of world cultural norms of deference to authority, saving face, and not wanting to stand out in the crowd and so on probably mean that pressing social issues tend to get avoided for longer than in most.

So far, so cliched. Sure. But in a general sense, it’s a step in the right direction when popular culture reflects how people actually think, speak, and behave rather than cultural producers’ notions of how they should do so, and can create a feedback loop leading to more of the same

More concretely though, a spate of Korean women swearing on television, which appears to be occurring in the currently playing popular drama Cruel Temptations on the right in particular (source), may well challenge the sexist dubbing of foreign films and dramas, reported on by Robert Koehler in 2006:

A women’s group has issued a report on the “sexist” dubbing of foreign films and dramas, reports women’s newspaper Ilda The group took a look at some 27 English-language dramas shown on terrestrial broadcasting in September and October.  It found that most of them employed sexist sexist practices when dubbed into Korean.  Namely, male characters spoke in banmal, or “low language,” while female characters used jondaenmal, or “high/respectful” language, even though the original English dialogue made no such distinctions.

I don’t watch enough Korean television to know how prevalent this practice still is (can any readers fill me in?), but if it does still occur then it can only look more ridiculous in light of these new developments.

And I say “ridiculous” because a) it is, and b) I’m not so sure that any Korean couples even speak like that anymore, but then if any of my own limited circle of Korean friends used such a sexist division of language with their spouses and partners then we probably wouldn’t be friends in the first place! Can anyone without kids who gets to leave the house more than do I confirm that that is indeed out of date now (or not)?

6. Love and Marriage

Worried Moment for Korean Couple(Source: Unknown)

First up, the Korea Times reports that there’s a recent trend for employers to set up events for their single employees to meet:

Here’s what they do ― First, companies offer their single staff to register for a large dating event offsite at a hotel or theme mark. Matchmaking companies then kick in with games and events to help the crowd get to know each other better. At the end of the session, participants pick ― through a secret ballot ― who they want to be with.

Duo says about 50 people are accepted for one session and 30 percent of them go home as a couple. Some companies host the event as much as four times a year.

Considering Koreans are physically at work for some of the longest hours in the world, albeit not actually working for much of them (see here), then these events certainly make sense, although I doubt that they’re so efficient and no-nonsense that 30 percent of participants “go home as a couple”(!). Which makes me wonder whether: the long hours and culture of the salaryman system is primarily responsible for the idea (or rather, the vestiges of it), and if so if it is mirrored in Japan especially; or the fact that most Koreans were raised in single-sex middle and high-schools until recently, and thus much prefer arranged, usually group meetings rather than being so bold as to ask the opposite sex for a date directly; or, most likely, a combination of the two?

Regardless, Korean companies clearly seem unlikely to go down the Western path of banning the practice anytime soon, but on a more grass-roots level Koreans I have spoken to about this personally have invariably been surprised to hear about what occurs – or rather, what doesn’t occur – in Western workplaces, and have taken a surprising amount of time to get their heads around notions such as “Don’t screw the crew.” But naturally my friends and students don’t speak for all Koreans, so I’d be interested in hearing what others have (had) to say.

Before I forget, Michael Hurt has written an excellent guide for (primarily) men on the positives and pitfalls of dating Korean women because of having such different backgrounds, including the effects of that single-sex schooling as mentioned. But don’t get the wrong impression: this is not a “How to screw Korean women”  kind of Korean guide, but rather something I could very much relate to after being in a relationship with a Korean woman for the last 9 years, and that I wish had been available much earlier!

Also, Koreans are continuing to get married at later and later ages, compounded by the recent financial crisis:

The latest statistics compound the frustrations felt by baby boomer parents. Last year, the average marrying age was 31.4 for men and 28.3 for women. More and more Koreans are choosing to marry later in life. In 1981, Korean men got married at an average age of 26.4 and women when they were 23.2. This means in 27 years, the average marrying age has been pushed back five years. Three out of 10 Koreans between the ages of 25 and 34, which are considered prime marrying years, are single.

In addition, the crisis is also having an effect on the kind of ceremonies couples that actually do get married actually have, practicalities and strained finances forcing a rethink in the previous norm of the groom’s family paying for the couple’s apartment, and the bride’s for the contents.

A more equitable, more Feminist arrangement because it’s the cheapest? God moves in mysterious ways!

And finally, here is a story about a matchmaker that is setting up North Korean defectors with eligible South Korean men.

7. Quick Links

A follow-up on the Joo Ji-hoon drug scandal, which I discussed last week.

KoreaBeat briefly discusses a TV program about a 23 year-old that leads a double life as a university student and a prostitute, and also about the military opening up to girlfriends, sisters and mothers by encouraging conscripts to blog about their experiences. Considering the huge socialization effect of military conscription on Korean men, then this may ultimately prove much more significant than it probably first appears.

– And last but not least, more information on the cost of studying in Korea at Extra! Korea here, and part and parcel of the primarily financial and not cultural reasons that Koreans adults live with their parents until marriage.

15 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

  1. Jeong Ryeo-won looks like a pole. I bet she dissapears as soon as she turns to us with her profile. No wonder Koreans think that a real woman like Shinae is fat compared to that stick on the picture.


  2. Re: the quote in #5: It happens in books too. For example, my translated copy of Love Story has Jenny using jondaemal to Oliver while he uses banmal to her. Uh, as if.


  3. I’ve never understood why images are sometimes edited to funhouse mirror extremes. I thought the point of editing was to make the person look more attractive.


  4. In my incredibly limited experiences with Korean women (one), I found her to obsessed with her weight. She is probably 5’6″ and weighs 100 lbs, and complains she has love handles. She is thin as a rail. If this is common in South Korea (this woman lives in the US), then they have a serious problem with self-image.


  5. Assuming that the majority of osteoporotic fracture patients are elderly women, I can’t see how using sun screen would be the main culprit. I seriously doubt that they are consumers of this product. And it’s doubtful that they would have had access to it in their more youthful days.

    I was under the impression that the incidence of osteoporosis in Korea was comparatively low when I lived there in the 1980s and 90s. People would say that eating seaweed, which is high in calcium, was one of the reasons. I also heard the belief that consuming lots of sugar, much more common in the West than in the East, leaches calcium from the bones, and that was another reason why osteoporosis was more prevalent among western women.

    If the rate of osteoporotic fractures has risen dramatically in recent years, I would look for other causes.

    First, the number of old people in Korea has been increasing dramatically over the years. It used to be that if you lived to the age of 60, you had lived a long life. Nowadays, 70 is nothing. I don’t have the figures in front of me, but I know that the percentage of the population that’s over 65 has been steadily increasing, and will continue to increase. Given these demographic trends, it’s only natural that the rate of osteoporotic fractures in the population would increase as well.

    I’ve also heard that it’s important for women to have strong bones when they’re young, that the level of calcium they have in their bones when they’re 20 – 30 is as much as they’re ever going to have, and that it will gradually decrease over time after that point in their lives.

    Flashback to the Korean War.

    How old were women who are now 60 – 75 during the war years? Women who are now 75 would have been 16 at the start of the war, while those who are now 60 would have been only a year old. The war years were a period of great deprivation for the whole country. And most of the country was still desperately poor when Park Chung-Hee came to power in 1961. One of my wife’s cousins once told me how they used to sift through their own poop looking for undigested kernels of corn that they could re-ingest.

    Needless to say, those were not the best of times for building up a strong reserve of calcium in one’s bones to guard against osteoporosis later in life.

    Furthermore, there was a baby boom in Korea that started in 1954 and lasted until around the mid 1960’s when family planning campaigns began to take hold. Girls and young women who survived the war were routinely having four or more children. I don’t know about the sucrose theory, but I think it’s established medical fact that pregnancy (and possibly lactating too) can take a big toll on a mother’s bones, especially if she doesn’t have access to good nutrition, which was generally the case in those days.

    So, what you have is a scenario where women who grew up in the 1950s experienced a double whammy of poor nutrition and giving birth to relatively large numbers of babies, thus compromising their bone density for the rest of their lives. Now you have the situation where all these women, who never would have lived to this age in earlier times, are burgeoning the ranks of the elderly.

    If this theory is correct, it would also explain why osteoporosis was comparatively uncommon in the period that I lived in Korea. Women who were 75 in 1990 would have been 38 at the end of the Korean War, well past the age when bone density is maximized, and unlikely to be having many more children.


    1. Yue, Sonagi–I heartily recommend the blog Photoshop Disasters as a good demonstration, accidental satire almost, of how divorced the images of particularly women in advertisements are from the reality. Not in the sense that the women are abnormal, more that earnest photoshoppers aren’t realized how the aesthetic demands of the ad are contorting them to grotesque shapes.

      Here, here, here, and here are some recent classics, and there’s lot’s more!

      Yue–Really? Jeez. Chris W, sure, I can see the cool aspects of a language having different levels of politeness and so on (although what are hapshoche and haeche sorry? I can’t find anything like what I think the hangul for them might be in my Korean dictionary), although as an egalitarian Westerner I think a language and thus a society are much better without them.

      Bob–It is indeed common unfortunately. See here for more.

      Eric– Thanks for taking the time to write that – I learned a lot from it – and I’ll certainly try to restrain myself from making glib links between Vitamin D deficiencies and osteoporosis in the future. One very minor problem I have with it is that I didn’t say that Korean women (of any age) are the big purchasers of sunscreen, but rather that they “go to great lengths to avoid the sun,” which is more different than it may at first sound: the notion of old Korean women lavishly purchasing and applying sunscreens sounds a little absurd, but they are indeed rarely without hats and sun umbrellas these days. I confess, I have arguments with my wife about hers sometimes, with there being almost a direct relationship between age and usage, and so a woman in her twenties or thirties using one really standing out (to me at least). But our arguments are more about with us having 2 kids to carry and/or watch and several bags to carry even if we just want to get across the road to the nearest restaurant(!), then in the midst of all that does she really need to get her sun umbrella out and unfold it for the 90 seconds we spend crossing over a sunlit pedestrian bridge, nearly dropping bags and babies in the process?? :D

      But like you say, bone density and so on are set at much earlier phases in a woman’s life. Point taken!


  6. Ah, I remember the days of two little children and many bags of stuff to carry! No car? (I refused to get one the whole time I was there. But it got to the point during our last couple of years, where my wife would frequently moan that we were the only ones in the whole apartment building without one.)

    Parasols were not in fashion in the 80’s and 90. But going back another decade, one of the first impressions of my older brother’s Korean wife, when she arrived in the US, in 1973, was seeing her shield herself from the sun when she was outside with one of those cute little things.


  7. thank you for the link!
    firs I laughed. hard and for a very long time. then I cried. then I got kinda really scared of all these butchered, crippled..and just psed-to-hideousness models


  8. IT is quite a funny scene to watch a woman with children, bags, and an unbrella crossing the street as the visitor for a month in South Korea last month for a vacation.

    However, Eric’s sarcastic comment made me sad because of the life of woman there with full responsibilities for taking care of children, hose cleaning, cooking a full course for three times for her husband who is always out of the house in the name of work, drinking after work, and/or meeting (?).

    Let’s have a sympathy for those women who are trying their best if they are.


    1. My apologies. I can attribute it and provide a link to your website underneath, or would you like me to remove it? No problem either way!

      Update – Done the former while waiting for your reply. Again though, no problem if you’d like me to remove it: please let me know!


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