Branding Korea: A Promising Fresh Start?

Bandhobi Movie Mahbub Alam

Look familiar? If not, then on the left you have Mahbub Alam, co-star of the recent movie Bandhobi (반두비), which challenges many Koreans’ stereotypes of and prejudices towards workers and immigrants from developing countries. Here he is in a public service commercial from the Korean Broadcast Advertising Corporation (KOBACO) below, and while it won’t change the world, in terms of the time and money invested at least it will probably prove much more effective at promoting Korea overseas than all the millions lavished on the “Korea Sparkling” slogan.

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In Korean, the commercial says:

우리는 달라졌지만…더 달라져야 합니다.

우리는 가까워졌지만…더 가까워져야 합니다.

우리의 가슴은 뜨겁지만…더 뜨거워져야 합니다.

Korea보다 더 자랑스러운Korean

코리아 브랜드 당신이 만듭니다.

And in English:

We are very different…but we need to be more different.

We are closer…but we need to be closer still.

We have warm hearts….but they need to be warmer.

Instead of being proud of Korea, we should be prouder of being Korean.

We, ourselves, have to create Korea’s brand.


Make sure to see the movie at the cinema while you still can!

Update: In case you missed it, see here for further information about the 4th Migrant Worker Film Festival (MWFF) that Mahbub Alam is the director of,  and which will shortly be touring several Korean cities, starting with my wife’s hometown of Jinju (진주) on the 26th.


Korean Gender Reader

Korea 2009 Men's Health Cool Guy Contest

I didn’t catch his name sorry, but if you’d like to know more about the winner of the “4th Men’s Health Cool Guy Contest” above, then click on the picture or the Men’s Health Korea site itself for many more like it. In the meantime, with so many stories to report on this week I’ve decided to put them into loose categories to make it easier to find what you’re interested in:


1) Of course, the two biggest stories of the last week were: first, the foreign women on the Korean show “Global Beauties Chat” (미녀들의 수다), who chose to complain about both the foreign (Caucasian) men who supposedly come to Korea because they can’t get a job or girl back home and the Korean women that naively fall for them; and second, intern reporter Choi Hee-seon’s series of articles in The Chosun Ilbo saying much the same thing, as well as accusing said men of sexual crimes against students and Korean women. Needless to say, both provoked an instantaneous and vehement response in the Korean blogosphere (for starters see here, here, here on the former, and here and here on the latter), and with 165 comments at that first link alone I’m not going to enter into the fray at this late stage.

In passing though, let me mention that in response Chris in South Korea offers 8 reasons, and then 8 more reasons, why Korean women might prefer Western guys over Korean men. But while I haven’t read either post nor the comments in any great detail, and I’d be surprised if I didn’t think that there was something to all of them, let me offer a word of caution: when actual Korean women themselves aren’t providing most if not all of the input into such lists, they can very quickly and easily devolve into simple narcissism.

Not that Chris is guilty of this by any means, and in fact I write because I speak from experience, having waxed lyrical on similar points with a Korean female friend years ago only rightly to be told to STFU, and that most Korean women that liked Western guys did so simply because they tended to be taller. Just something to keep in mind.

Park Shi-yeon2) Imported vibrators to penetrate local market. No, I hadn’t been aware that they had been illegal either, and actually I’m not entirely certain that they were: the Supreme Court’s ruling may have been more against the arbitrariness of denying customs clearance for their import than anything else. Regardless, by no means does Korea have a monopoly on absurd and indefensible restrictions on the sale of sex toys.

(Above: Park Si-yeon {박시연} models for High Cut. For more information about the photoshoot, see here)

3) Consensual sex with 13 year-olds is legal. Yes, apparently so, given a recent acquittal of a Busan man for doing so with a runaway in his (unofficial) care and, as Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling notes in the most comprehensive look at the case, mirrors a similar decision 8 years earlier. For further discussion, see this article in the Korea Times by Michael Stevens, and this post at The Marmot’s Hole.

4) Infidelik at FeetManSeoul reports on the perils of not wearing a bra on the streets of Korea . If you’re interested in that, then you may also want to check out this post at Sociological Images about how, in contrast, visible nipples have became more accepted in Western countries since the 1990s.

5) Rules on abortion toughened. Somewhat surreal, given that there are already very few circumstances under which Korean women can legally have an abortion, and yet Korean has one of the largest abortion industries in the world. To put it mildly, the article is somewhat lacking by not providing that context (see here for that).

Worried Moment for Korean Couple

6) The Marmot’s Hole reports that the police would like to close down a Swinger’s Club in Seoul, but unfortunately there is currently no law allowing them to do so. Again, somewhat surreal, given that adultery is actually illegal in Korea, albeit usually with entirely arbitrary prosecutions.

Meanwhile, Brian in Jeollanam-do reports that Education Ministry officials formed the largest group of civil servants caught paying for sex.

7) Not that these are recent news items by any means, but while we’re on the topic you may be interested in the fact that Korea used to be a much more sexually freer place; indeed, as Frog in a Well points out, “just because a society has a reputation for sexual restraint doesn’t mean that it is and always was asexual.” Also, here and here are two excellent Andrei Lankov articles from The Korea Times about how military governments allowed much racier films in the late-1970s and early-1980s (in an opium for the masses sense) and the development of the prostitution industry in Korea before the Japanese colonial period respectively.

Censorship and Media

Ogamdo Posters

8) Dramabeans reports that the star-studded Ogamado (오감도) continues with its provocative promotional material (see #7 here also). For a review of the movie, (which is really 5 movies in 1) see here, and given some of their subject matter then as a commenter over at Dramabeans (#17) noted, it is strange that the posters are as per usual fetishizing the female form and not the men, which leads her(?) to worry that all the sex is only from the perspective of the men.

9) The Korea Communications Standards Council announced on Monday they will commence deliberations on the fate of Naked News Korea,” which started its racy services late last month both online and mobile. As Brian notes, there far more explicit and sexually suggestive programs are readily available 24/7 on Korean cable television, so this scrutiny is rather strange. Is it because its whole raison d’être and discussions of sexuality are just too blatant for censors’ tastes? To wit:

According to the communications watchdog, the contents of the site have been closely monitored since it began and an episode in which its presenters discussed female orgasms was deemed vulgar and inappropriately suggestive.

In all seriousness, I’d be interested in seeing that. I have the strong suspicion that the notion of women sitting around talking in a no-BS Sex and the City style was a bit too much for Korean censors, and hence any discussion of female orgasms by them would have been deemed vulgar and suggestive regardless.

10) Another commercial featuring kissing…well, actually there’s so many these days that I’m losing track (see here for another recent one). Here is the latest one (via PopSeoul!), featuring AJ and Min Hyo-rin (민효린) and with the tagline “Cool (refreshing) for 20 year-olds” (“스무살을 상큼하게”, at 0:17):

11) As predicted (see #1 here), rapper E.via’s (이비아) latest song, featuring a lot of innuendo and heavy breathing, was indeed deemed inappropriate for Korean TV. For further details, see Extra! Korea here.

12) More on Choi Jin-sil (최진실), who was notoriously sued by a company she had a modeling contract with for ruining their reputation by making her husband’s beating of her public (see here and here, the latter of which has puts the case into the context of domestic violence in Korea). For two opinion pieces in The Korea Times, see here and here.

13) As a result of the case of actress Jang Ja-yeon (장자연), who killed herself in March due to being forced to provide sexual services to various high-ups in the entertainment industry in order to advance her career, Korea is to enhance the right of entertainers (see here also). Meanwhile, the police have determined that she was indeed forced to have sex, and a survey shows that 19% of female entertainers are, although Extra! Korea rightfully disputes the figures.

14) Apparently, Abusive Words Over The Phone Are Punishable. Meanwhile, and more understandably, a cartoonist was summoned by the police after drawing a cartoon insulting the president. As a commenter here notes, regardless of the freedom of speech issues involved, the police in any country are obliged to investigate cases as blatant as this one.

Politics and Economics


15) Korea has the biggest wage gap between men and women in the OECD. See the Korea Times and the JoongAng Daily for more, and see Brian in Jeollanam-do for more information about conditions in Jeollanam-do specifically, which has the biggest gap (image source: J. David Allen).

Economic Participation Rate Among Korean FemalesIn addition, Lee Hyo-sik of the Korea Times reported that male temporary workers are more likely to lose their jobs than women because of the industries they tend to be in, but on the other hand reported a few days later that women are still more likely to lose their jobs overall because they form a disproportionate number of temporary workers. The graph on the right comes from the latter report, and while useful, would have been more so had it been placed into context, which is that Korea has one of the lowest rates of female participation in the labor force in the OECD. For much more on that, see here (source, right).

Not unrelated, the Chosun Ilbo reported that “Korean Women’s Status is Still Low Among OECD Nations”.

16) Korea is to become most aged society in OECD by 2050. Also:The Hankyoreh has an editorial on how its record-breaking low birth rate – “unparalleled to anywhere else in the world” – requires employment policy revisions; there is a list of related recent articles at the Hub of Sparkle! here; and Japanian writes on the implications of the aging and shrinking Japanese population, with obvious parallels in Korea (via Global Voices).

17) 90% of Teachers Back a Quota for Male Teachers

18) Brand Confucian reports that KT recently promoted 3 women to top-tier executive positions.

19) However miserly it sounds, something that may have a lasting impact on the rate of young Koreans living independently before marriage is the raising of the minimum wage to 4,110 won per hour. See Judy Han at Otherwise for the details.

On the other hand, Korean graduates are now forced to flip burgers, and not unrelated is the fact that Koreans as a whole are increasingly willing to overcome their Confucian disdain for manual labour. They are also increasingly unhappy in general, as are Korean teenagers and children.

20) ROK Drop discusses whether the Korean Army should also conscript women, or do away with conscription altogether. Given conscription’s role in a pervasive militarization of Korean society, as I discuss in this series of posts beginning here, then I’m much more in favor of the latter.

Events, Movies, and Fashion

Miss Korea 2009

21) FeetManSeoul’s cover model Lee Seul-gi (이슬기) becomes Miss Korea 2009. I’m a little confused though, because the Korea Times reported that a different woman won.

22) Chris in South Korea (naturally) visited and took many pictures of the Wild Women’s Performing Arts Festival that I mentioned last month (see #17 here).

23) Unflattering pictures of members of girl group 2NE1 (투 애니원) without make-up were publicly released, and YG Entertainment is to take strong action against whomever responsible.

24) Rebecca Voight at The New York Times loses her head and claims that Korean menswear is innovative. Meanwhile,  Five by Fifty says that pink is both Japanese women’s most and second least-preferred color on Japanese men.

25) (Male) actor Yoo Ji-tae (유지태) is to receive Seoul Women’s Prize.

26) Apparently, Kim Yu-na (김연아) is a champion skater primarily because of her small face. For the details, see here, and see here and here for where such a crazed logic stems from.


27) Keeping Korea Beautiful: read here for an interview with Klaus Fassbender, president and executive director of L’Oreal Korea.

When will the netizens ever be happy.....
When will the netizens ever be happy.....

28) Hopefully not because of netizen’s complaints (see #1 here) and not via starving herself, Kim Yu-bin (김유빈) of the Wondergirls (원더걸스) has lost a lot of weight.

29) Breathless (똥파리 or “shit fly” in typically earthy Korean), a Korean movie about domestic violence that I wrote a little about here, has won its 13th award, this time at the New York Asian Film Festival.


30) Finally, in news outside of Korea, Matt at On My Way to Korea has a post on the way women are presented in North Korean propaganda posters; EqualWrites explains why being catcalled in Vietnam is not flattering; Shanghaiist writes about “homowives”, or heterosexual women married to gay Chinese men (hat tip to Left Flank); and finally, the Economist has an article about Gay rights in China and last month’s Shanghai Pride Week.


What do Koreans REALLY Think of Bloodtypes?

big bang 2%보족할때 광고 blood type advertisement

With those top two panels reminding me of the futuristic Blade Runner, it’s ironic that the ad is actually based on the decidedly archaic belief that one’s bloodtype determines one’s personality. What’s more, it’s a surprisingly deeply-held one too, with some Korean women even rejecting all B-type men as potential marriage partners because of it, as I discussed when I wrote about a similar marketing campaign for kiwifruit back in May. In short, it’s not quite the same as having a good laugh at your daily horoscope, and can’t be so easily dismissed.

My Boyfriend is Type-b Tandy Advertisement

A strange {and slightly disturbing} advertisement for Tandy found on this site about the 2005 movie My Boyfriend is Type B {B형 남자친구}. See later in the post for one more, and here for a review of the movie.

Lest one is tempted to jump to conclusions about Koreans’ critical-thinking skills though, then consider this blog post on the subject that was featured on the front page of Yahoo! Korea about a month later, which I’ve translated below. It is from the 12th most popular Korean blog according to its own blog ranking system—by way of comparison, this one is currently ranked 87,378 out of 4,644,184—so it would have been read by a lot of people:

우리나라에서만 볼 수 있는 ‘혈액형’ 광고의 불편함…

It’s discomforting  how Korea is the only country in the world with advertisements about bloodtypes…

A형, B형, AB형, O형이 한자리에 앉아서 식사를 하고 있었다. 갑자기 AB형이 밥을 먹다 말고 벌떡 일어나 뛰쳐나가자 O형이 AB형을 뒤쫓아간다.

남겨진 A형이 B형에게 조심스레 묻는다: “쟤 혹시 나한테 화난거야?”

온라인과 오프라인을 막론하고 이젠 귀에 딱지가 앉을 정도로 듣게되는 혈액형별 성격에 관한 유머다.

일본에서 들어와 국내에 뿌리내린 혈액형별 성격 분석은 독일의 우성학에서 출발해 일본에서도 1970년대에 확고히 자리잡았다고 하는데 이런 성격 분석이 국내에 유입되어 뿌리내리며 우리나라를 전세계에서 몇 안되는 혈액형 신봉 국가를 만들어 버렸다. 사람 둘 셋만 모이면 혈액형에 대한 이야기가 쏟아져 나오는 그런 나라…;;

그렇게 보면 다음 CF들은 어쩌면 우리나라에서만 만날 수 있는 광고의 유형은 아닐까?

A, B, O & AB Bloodtypes Eating TogetherFour people, one with bloodtype A, one with B, one with AB, and one with O were sitting down having a meal together. Suddenly, “AB” stopped eating and got up and ran outside, and “O” decided to follow (him).

“A” and “B” remained, and A nervously asked B: “Is (he) angry with me?”

(James: No, I don’t get it either. But, for the remainder of the cartoon version on the right, see here, and here for many more like it.)

Needless to say, online and offline, there is so much humor about blood types that people are very tired of it.

Blood type and personality analysis originally derives from German eugenics, but it became firmly rooted in Japan in the 1970s, and from there in Korean culture, making Korea one of just a handful of countries that haven’t thrown such beliefs away. Indeed, get two or three Koreans together, and invariably they’ll end up chattering about blood types…

In this sense, you can only really see commercials like the following in Korea, right?

혈액형으로 먹는다제스프리 골드키위/Eat according to your blood type…Zespri Golden Kiwi

키위를 먹는 방식을 혈액형 성격 분석에 맞춰 유머러스하게 풀어놓은 제스프리의 CF다.

Here’s a humorous commercial by Zespri saying different blood types eat Kiwis in different styles (James: see my earlier post for the other 3 in the series):

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혈액형으로 마신다… 2% 부족할 때/Drink according to your blood type…2% “Near Water

제스프리가 코믹이란 콘셉트를 내세웠다면 이쪽은 혈액형과 치환되는 단어와 사랑을 엮고 빅뱅을 얹어 광고를 내놨는데 실제 빅뱅 멤버의 혈액형에 맞춘 광고란다.

Whereas the Zespri commercials had a comic concept, the following ones with the band Big Bang (빅뱅) has each member falling in love and romancing women according to their bloodtypes (James: this video combines all 4 commercials in the series):

재학습되는 혈액형 성격 분석…/These commercials help perpetuate public belief in the bloodtype and personality theory

평소 귀가 얇은 편이라 혈액형별 성격 분석에 종종 혹하는 편이지만 ABO식 혈액형의 고작 4가지 패턴으로 60억 세계인의 성격을 모두 분류할 수 있다고는 생각치 않는다. 또 이론적 뿌리도 부실하고 지나친 일반화와 선입견 듬뿍 담긴 규정으로 혈액형 별로 사람을 가늠해 버리는 것 자체가 혈액형에 기준한 성격 분석이 갖는 문제점이라고 생각하는 편이다.

Normally I’m a little gullible, so I’m often convinced of the validity of the bloodtype and personality theory, but still, I can’t believe that all 6 billion people in the world can be compartmentalized and categorized into just four types. And it is a problem that people are influenced by and follow the rules of their prescribed personality when the theory is based on insufficient evidence,  is too generalistic, and rife with prejudices and preconceptions.

My Boyfriend is Type-b Korean Tandy Advertisement

그런 이유로 이번에 소개한 혈액형에 관한 CF들은 왠지 불편했는데…감각적인 영상과 유머 코드로 적당히 버무려 광고를 바라보는 이들에게 쉽게 퍼지고 기억되는 이런 영상들이 결국 사람들 사이에 회자되는 혈액형별 성격 분석을 재학습시키고 있는게 아닐까란 생각에 이르렀기 때문이다.

For this reason, seeing these commercials made me feel a little uncomfortable…when sensible (if misguided) notions of bloodtype and personality are mixed with humorous ones in a sort-of cultural code and then utilized in commercials like these, they help to keep the theory on everyone’s minds and thereby perpetuate artificial divisions.

물론 사회에서 익숙한 코드를 반영해 상품을 홍보하는 건 일반적인 광고의 특성이니 어쩔 수 없는 부분이 있었겠지만 그래도 “이 혈액형은 이렇고 저 혈액형은 저래. 그러니 너는 이렇지?”라는 식으로 세상 모두를 4가지 성격군으로 분류할 수 있다고 생각하는 것 자체가 문제 아닐까?

훗~ 평범한 O형의 한마디였다. 응?

Of course commercials will always reflect a society’s cultural codes, but nevertheless isn’t it a problem when we say “this bloodtype behaves like this, that one like that, so that’s why you do what you do, yes?”, and that we want to compartmentalize the whole world into just four types?

I’m O by the way. Is that a typical thing for an O type to say? (Finish)

Get's the blood flowing...

Not exactly the piercing critique I anticipated when I began translating, but that wasn’t my point really, which was more to provide a healthy reminder that just like back home there is a healthy diversity of opinions in Korea on just about every subject, but which it’s very easy to overlook if you only rely on English-language sources. Indeed, I’ve just found yet another, longer news report on the same two advertising campaigns, which I’m happy to also translate if anyone’s further interested (it’ll be good revision).

In the meantime, while finding some images for this post I couldn’t help but notice that, once again, apparently the powers that be felt that only young women in tight t-shirts and/or miniskirts could persuade persuade Koreans to perform their civic duty on “World Blood Donor Day” this year (left) and last (right). Come to think it though, that particular advertising convention doesn’t exactly detract from the aim of getting people’s blood flowing…

Sorry, I couldn’t resist it. And in fairness, this year’s ads did feature boy-band Super Junior (슈퍼주니어) also. For some big pictures of them promoting donating blood, albeit together with Girls’ Generation (소녀시대), see here.


The Real World…

Back Seung Woo Eiffel Tower

Unfortunately, my two young daughters have never really granted me the spare weekends, money, or energy required to pursue my fledgling interest in creative Korean art, but I still subscribe to the odd art and/or photography blog, and am particularly interested in the theme of juxtapositions. Still, I’ve never really seen anything quite like this “Real World” series by Back Seung Woo though, in which the juxtapositions are so subtle and so well blended together that they can take a few seconds to register, however glaring they may be in hindsight. Someone unfamiliar with Korean-style apartments for instance, and/or the area around the base of the Eiffel Tower, could well take some convincing that that’s not the real thing above…let alone that it’s actually a 50cm high model.

For more images and information about his work, see the Asian Photography Blog here (image source: Gana Art).


The Best Take on Sexism in Advertising EVER!

Not technically Korean sorry, but it has a universal message…and I’m still laughing even on my fourth tenth viewing (especially at the guy)!

True, the part at 0:18 was a little confusing and unnecessary, but otherwise it’s a classic.


Unrequited Love…or Stalking? The Pitfalls of Dating in Korea

How to deal with a stalkerIn Korea, it is accepted practice for men to relentlessly pursue the objects of their heart’s desire, sometimes for many years, and despite if said objects clearly, repeatedly, and vehemently express their disinterest.

Far from being viewed as stalking however, it is generally viewed as both a sweet and noble sign of one’s love and dedication. There’s even a proverb specifically for this: “열번찍어 안넘이 가는 나무 없다,” which roughly translates as “There is no tree that can withstand being chopped 10 times.” (Image source, right.)

It’s not that I can’t see those sweet and noble elements, nor how many Korean women would surely exploit the practice, in a playing hard to get fashion (some more Korean that comes to mind is “희망고문하다,” literally to “hope-torture [someone],” or to repeatedly string someone along and then break their heart). But I think that the consensus of most Westerners is that if the woman says she’s not interested…then she’s not interested, and hence that the man’s behavior after being told is stalking, regardless of how sweet or noble his intentions. Unfortunately, in a society that already accepts women being physically dragged into nightclubs, then foreign or Korean, women can probably expect little sympathy when dealing a stalker.

This probably won’t be the first or last time you’ll read about this subject: navigating different expectations when it comes to dating are an integral part of the expat experience, and with my limited dating experience then I can’t add much that hasn’t already had gallons of virtual ink spilt on it. Two useful things I can do though: first, mentioning that of all the guides to navigating those dating minefields out there, that this one by Michael Hurt at Scribblings of the Metropolitician is by far the best, and with many things that informs even my marriage of 6 years; and second, and which was frankly the real inspiration for this post, that over at Sociological Images there is a post that discusses the fact that:

Various journalists and scholars have pointed out over the years that movies and TV shows often portray as romantic behavior that is fairly indistinguishable from stalking.

And then a video created by Jonathan McIntosh of Rebellious Pixels, who:

…edited together scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer with scenes of Edward Cullen from the movie Twilight to show how behavior that is depicted as protective and romantic in the film (and book) could also be seen as disturbing

For more, see the original post here. Not that I think that the humorous stalking in, say, There’s Something About Mary had much of an effect on my own opinions of it, nor that seeing it in pop-culture somehow renders real-life examples in any country okay, but still: the next time we feel a sense of righteousness and indignation about hearing Korean examples, it is certainly worth pondering the mixed messages that Western pop-culture provides.