Korean Sociological Image #30: Exploiting Koreans’ Body Insecurities

Like everywhere else, Korea has a long tradition of celebrities endorsing government campaigns.

Unlike everywhere else, a “huge proportion of Korean ads depend on famous people,” says Bruce Haines, head of Korea’s largest ad agency Cheil Worldwide, a tendency which in its crudest form degenerates Korean advertising into merely “beautiful people holding a bottle.” In turn, that leads to a scramble for and subsequent overexposure of whichever Korean stars are most popular at that moment, regardless of their inappropriateness for the product(s).

Government campaigns are no different, to my mind the most notorious case still being the National Election Commission’s (중앙선거관리위원회) choice of The Wondergirls (원더걸스) to encourage people to vote in local elections in April 2008. Needless to say, I can’t think of anyone more inappropriate than teenagers (two of whom were only 15), and their choice of outfits simply beggars belief:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

But again, no different to what they wore in commercials at the time. Which is precisely my point: regardless of their merits, major trends in advertising are bound to be reflected in government campaigns sooner or later.

And as long term readers of this blog will be well aware, one trend is encouraging consumers to associate certain foods and drinks with certain desired body shapes. While it is hardly unique to Korea, it is done to excess here.

Is it any wonder then, that with the decline of the domestic rice industy, and concerns food security as a whole, that the government would do the same when promoting the consumption of domestic foods and drinks?

Last year for instance, I gave the example of how the Korean rice wine Makgeolli (막걸리) was being marketed to women on the basis that it is supposedly good for one’s skin. Now, I’ve found two more examples by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (농림수산식품부; MIFAFF), using the new group 4Minute (포미닛) and the Olympic medalist Park Tae-hwan (박태환) respectively:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

To be clear, I am not saying that either are inappropriate choices. Actually I think they’re rather good: both are very popular, and it turns out that 4minutes’ egg song is a variation of their recent hit “Hot issue” too. I also fully concede that the connections between consumption of the product and obtaining an attractive body are fleeting (4minute) or merely implied (Park Tae-hwan) at best.

But still, they’re there. And given the long-term problems with Korean agriculture as identified above, then I hereby predict that we’re going to be seeing many more public campaigns like these in 2010. In particular, the links made between the products being advertised and obtaining an “S-line” and so on are going to be made more explicit.

Sound like an exaggeration? Well, recall how quickly commercial incentives have transformed decades-old standards for soju advertisements: just three years ago, they overwhelmingly offered virginal images of women, whereas now it’s rather difficult to find ones that don’t present them as eminently sexually available. Moreover, in an effort to appeal more to women, soju companies too are encouraging them to associate new lower-strength brands with maintaining a good body, however implausibly.

But perhaps an even more appropriate example is soy milk. If you’ll bear with me, being allergic to milk means that I follow developments in the soy milk industry here pretty closely, and Starbucks Korea’s belated decision to add soy to its menu in 2005 had a huge impact on my quality of life here! Not unlike the drinks themselves though (anybody know where I can find these flavored ones?) – or, indeed, government campaigns – soy milk commercials tend to be rather bland, so I certainly sat up and took notice when I first saw this one a few days ago:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Soy milk companies too then, seem to be adopting the tactics of their more popular counterparts now. Lest I appear overly critical though, consider the scene 0:03 from 0:06 where 17 year-old Kim Hyun-ah’s says “[S]라인을 유지하려면 어쩔 수 없어,” or “If you want to maintain your S-line, you have no choice but to [drink] this.” Despite my constant criticisms of that sort of thing, and my earnest desire that my daughters don’t grow up to repeat it, I have to admit that I can’t help but find her expression and tone of voice, well, extremely cute…

Yes, I know: very hypocritical of me, and I await your counsel. But on a final, more serious note, consider Garaetteok Day (가래떡데이), MIFAFF’s scheme since 2006 to get people to eat stick-shaped rice cakes instead of Pepero chocolate sticks on November 11 each year. Promoted mostly as a romantic event for couples, as are most imported and/or artificially created holidays (Christmas Day, for instance, is the date the most condoms are sold in Korea), is it really too much of a jump to imagine that concerns about one’s appearances will be added to that too? Watch this space!

Update: An alternative way of exploiting Koreans’ associations with November 11 (source):

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)


What IS the Age of Consent in South Korea?

Considering the abysmal state of sex education in Korea, part and parcel of a society reluctant to admit that teenagers have sex or even sexuality, then the notion that it’s only thirteen sounds simply absurd.

Despite myself though, that’s precisely what I’m going to argue.

Not because that’s the consensus of English-language materials on the subject however. The vast majority never provide a source for their information on South Korea specifically (see here, here, here and here for some examples), and following the trail of those of that do almost invariably leads to a chart of the age of consent in various countries on Wikipedia, itself unsourced (but which has recently been edited as I’ll explain). Indeed, highlighting how problematic that makes them was my original intention in writing this post.

But first, the catalyst was this post at Omona They Didn’t!, a popular K-pop site. There, commenters discussed singer G-Dragon’s (지드래곤) concert performance below that featured simulated sex scenes, and which he is now being investigated for (but not yet prosecuted) because it had been rated suitable only for ages twelve and above (see here, here, here, here and here for the latest developments). Arguably somewhat arbitrary and hypocritical considering similar performances by other singers that haven’t been, the outrage is even stranger if the age of consent is thirteen, as pointed out there by a commenter with the handle “hallerness.”

(Update: See here for a detailed explanation of what exactly happened at the concert and the legal response, including an interview with the performer on the bed)

Queried on that low age by other commenters though, this blog got mentioned, and she emailed me asking for clarification. With apologies for the delay, this post is my response.

The first step in preparing it was simply to ask my students. But although their confusion was not entirely unexpected (whereas I’ve been writing about Korean sexuality for a long time now!), it still took a great deal of time and effort to explain what the concept was.

Not to imply that they’re stupid and/or ignorant of course, but that Korean adults needed an explanation at all is surely indicative of how alien the notion of teenage sexuality is here (or at least public discussion of it).

Once that was out of the way, then all said it was 18, like I also thought: after all, almost everything else sex-related is, including buying contraception, having access to or appearing in pornographic materials, and working in de facto sex-related industries. But they had no idea of what the Korean term was, hesitant suggestions including 법정나이 (literally “correct age”) and 법적나이제한 (correct age limit).

Turning to an online dictionary next then, I found 성관계 승낙 연령 (sexual relationship consent age) instead, with the explanation 합법적으로 성관계를 승낙할 수 있는 연령 (legally sexual relationship can consent to age). Paste it into Korean search engines, and you do get some results, although most appear to be about Canada (see a little later for why). Rather than wading through those though, I had no hesitation in turning to Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling instead, who has written a great deal about teenage prostitution. And fortunately he does have a post in which he discusses this issue.

To be specific, it is about controversial rulings in two teenage prostitution cases in July 2001 and July 2009 (known in Korean as wonjo gyoje; 원조 교제). And while technically The Korea Times articles he quotes also do not mention any specific law, the age of consent being thirteen proved crucial in both cases, and I recommend reading his post in full to understand why.

From the 2001 article (link broken):

Under related laws, those who have sex with minors younger than 13 should be punished, regardless of whether the minors agreed or whether there was a financial deal. However, having sex with minors aged 13 or older, which does not involve financial deals, is not punishable if the minor consents.

And from the 2009 one:

In Korea, a person is not guilty of any crime for having sex with a minor aged 13 and over unless it is paid for or forced. Sex with those under the age of 13 is punishable even if it is carried out under mutual consent.

And Matt’s reaction was exactly the same as mine would have been. In particular:

….I found the age of consent shocking because I’d heard for so long that it was 19. Keep in mind that in the 1990s I think Canada’s age of consent went from 16 to 14 (or 12, if the other person was 14) which I also thought was quite low. It recently was put back up to 16 due to people considered predators on MySpace, etc. finding young girls to sleep with [James: which is what most Korean articles on 성관계 승낙 연령 were about]. Considering Korea’s internet culture and the fact so much wonjo gyoje is organized online, you’d think more would have been done by now….

…I’m surprised that the age of consent hasn’t been raised here, considering, as I mentioned, how much online activity is to be found with men looking to have sex with underaged girls, and how it’s routinely stated (even by the police on their website) that the age of consent is actually 19. Also, considering how in the late 1990s how youth sexuality and changing youth behavior (and rising crime, including sex crimes) was discussed as if teens were a virus infecting society, the low age of consent is perplexing – not looked at through a moral lens, but through the discourse in the media surrounding teens at the time (and to a lesser extent now).


Six months earlier, he wrote the following on this post of mine about a 14 year-old Korean model that posed nude, and I’d be interested if the second case in 2009 changed his mind:

…“However, having sex with minors aged 13 or older, which does not involve financial deals, is not punishable if the minor consents.” That contradicts the 19 year old age of consent the police say they adhere to, but if I have to choose between the police and a 7 year-old KT article, I’ll go with the police.

And when I wrote that post, the Wikipedia entry on the age of consent in South Korea gave it as 13n, citing this chart as a source but which in turn implies that the entry for South Korea comes only from “verified information from our correspondents,” given that the other sources cited there have no information about South Korea. Very recently though, the Wikipedia entry has been edited to “The age of consent in South Korea is not currently known,” and if you go on to examine the discussion about that this is what you find:

I’d hoped that that link to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency would save me the trouble of following up Matt’s mentions of it myself, but unfortunately it doesn’t appear to be working, and besides which might be unreliable like “Truthfulchat” pointed out.

So, if Matt doesn’t read this post for himself first, then I’ll contact him for help with that source from the Korean police (I’ve given up trying to navigate their various sites), and besides which would be very grateful for his input. As I type this however, I’ve had my long-suffering wife looking on her computer for more Korean sources (her Korean is rather better than mine!), and yet after twenty minutes she has only been able to find this page from a 2007 book entitled Gyoyanginul Ouihan Saegyaesa (교양인을 위한 세계사), or World History for Civilized People by Kim Yun-tae:

With apologies for the small size, that states that in Korea the age of consent is 18 for men, and 16 for women!

In conclusion then, to put it mildly the jury is still out on what the age of consent in Korea is, and so this seems an opportune moment to throw open the floor to suggestions on how to continue from readers, which would be very much appreciated (not least by my wife!).

Before I do though, if you’re curious then the first two images above (source), then they are from the 2006 movie Dasepo Naughty Girls (다세포 소녀), which appears to be an excellent satire on Korean sexual mores; see here for an extensive review by – who else? – Matt. And finally, although they’re not related at all sorry, the more I wrote this post the more the following safe sex posters (NSFW) by James Jean kept coming to mind:

(Source: I Believe in ADV)

See BoingBoing for an extensive comments thread about them.

Open Thread #3

I may be wrong in assuming that public service announcements in Western countries still don’t feature stylized breasts and vaginas(?),  but regardless I love Korea’s no-nonsense attitudes to the body and bodily functions, in this case at least easily trumping any qualms that the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs (보건복지가족부) may have had about featuring them in its campaign for people to get regularly checked for cancer.

What I really love though, is that it has been turned into the song and dance below:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Easily to laugh at perhaps, but are more serious but otherwise rather dull campaigns in Western countries really more effective?

Meanwhile, apologies to all those readers who were looking forward to my promised restarting of the Korean Gender Reader series in the new year,  but after much soul-searching this week – prompted by my catching a cold after writing the last two posts until the small hours – I’ve been forced to admit that I still don’t have the time. I may have next month if some anticipated changes are made to my job, but until then, please feel free to pass on and discuss any Korean gender, media and sexuality-related stories yourselves here!

Update – Seeing as we’re talking about Korean oddities, consider the following advertisement for a cosmetic surgery clinic here in Busan:

From page 18 of the 4th of January Busan edition of Focus newspaper – the entertainment section no less. And don’t get me wrong: with the proviso that Noblesse has a vested interest in fostering insecurities about one’s body image, I’d image that female-like breasts are no laughing matter for the high-school boys with the misfortune of having them.

It is also common for Korean cosmetic surgery clinics to use comics in their advertisements, one that readily comes to mind consisting of a group of people gaping in either awe, lust, or jealousy at a woman who has just received breast implants. You may have seen it on the Seoul subway:

Thanks to reader Marilyn for passing on the photo. And again it is unsophisticated perhaps, but regardless of one’s opinion of cosmetic surgery in general, it was probably effective: it got both Marilyn’s and my own attentions at least!

Granted that the Noblesse advertisement remains just plain bizarre though, albeit a little less so when you realize that the woman featured was either the school nurse or a visiting government health inspector, not simply a new teacher.

Finally, while we’re on the subject of cartoons, here’s one I couldn’t help smiling at a couple of days later (from Focus newspaper again):

In case you don’t get it, the young man is living with his older sister but has to find his own place. At first, he thinks the place the real estate agent shows him is too old for the rent being asked, but he changes his mind when he sees the view from his window. In the final panel, the real estate agent crumbles about how difficult his job is these days…

More problematic in Japan than in Korea perhaps, where I hear that voyeurism is so taken for granted that women can expect their underwear to be stolen if it is hung from the first or even the second floor, or is that just an exaggeration? Alternatively, is it a problem in Korea too?


Korean Sociological Image #29: JYP’s Objectification of Women


What’s wrong with this advertisement?

When I first saw it, I couldn’t really put my finger on it, other than noting the similarity to some iconic but controversial music videos by Robert Palmer. Which was kind of ironic, considering what Park Jin-young (박진영) is putting his fingers on.

With thanks to an anonymous reader for passing it on, both these problematic elements and more are present in his new music video No Love, No More (노러브노모어), the main subject of this post. But first, a quick explanation of what was so controversial about those Robert Palmer videos exactly, for many of my younger readers may not even have heard of him.

As Alyx Vesey explains in Feminist Music Geek, the crucial one was “Addicted to Love” from 1986, and as a feminist she had trouble with it:

…for one big, obvious, highlighter-yellow reason. It’s so blatantly sexist. The models who comprise Palmer’s backing band are normatively beautiful, musically inept, interchangeable, ornamental, passive, and blankly spectacular. They’re kinda like a Busby Berkeley chorus line, only on sedatives and with visible nipples.

And while it’s a little off-topic for a post ostensibly about JYP, I think it’s worth quoting her a little more:

And yet. I can’t let this one go so easily. It’s an indelible image that is simple and yet iconic in design (it’s so effective that ”Simply Irresistible” and “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” only mildly revise the concept). Thus, it’s also easily replicable. When you put “Addicted to Love” alongside another lexicon 1980s video like, say, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” it’s much easier to match (many people, including Jackson, tried and failed to reach or exceed that video’s epic proportions).

It’s also an easy concept to subvert, which is my primary interest. I’d like to highlight a few instances where women take on “Addicted to Love” and, in the process of recasting and reconfiguration, potentially disrupt the original music video’s sexist aims.

Which I highly encourage you to check out. Meanwhile, let me also present the Simply Irresistible music video here, for I think that with the women dancing in the background, it is the most similar of the three to No Love No More:

Finally, No Love No More itself. Regardless of the criticisms in this post, it probably has the best picture quality of any music video I’ve ever watched on Youtube, so make sure to click on “HD”:

Clearly not a carbon copy of Robert Palmer’s videos then, and JYP, or whomever was responsible for them, might reasonably claim not to have been at all influenced by those. But whatever the origins, the women in the barn (and in the poster) are indeed extremely similar, and almost all are objectified.

And yet there are still more problematic elements in it, pointed out to me by the reader who passed the video on. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to ask permission to quote her email before writing (apologies for my over-enthusiasm), so she’ll have to remain anonymous:

…the video infuriates me. Maybe it’s because I come from a country where explicit violence against women is not only extremely taboo but also illegal to portray in music videos. Still, given that domestic violence is such a formidable problem in this country, I find it mind-blowingly irresponsible that the most powerful man in Korean music at the moment puts out a video like this (source, right: unknown).

Shooting his girlfriend execution-style (apparently it’s okay to show her blood spraying out as her body crumples to the ground but it’s not okay to show an actual gun doing the shooting)… he then turns the “gun” on himself, and we’re expected to sympathize with him as a tear runs down his cheek as he takes his last breath. He executed his girlfriend, but the poor guy must have felt immense pain to have been driven to do such a thing. Break to the rest of the video, which simply consists of JYP dancing while dozens of women stand around or grope him as sexual props. JYP’s entire image seems to rely on the objectification of women, as demonstrated by [that poster], for one example…

…in which he is fingering a woman’s breasts, “playing her” as if she was a musical instrument. Now I’m definitely no fan of K-pop, and normally have nothing to do with it, but this video of his has been playing over and over on TV, and I can’t help but fear the message it sends young Koreans. JYP is, after all, immensely popular and influential in the K-music world, as he owns one of the most successful music labels in Korea and appears on countless TV shows and commercials. I find it surprising that no one seems to take offense to this video, which romanticizes violent “crimes of passion” (end).


I agree, and as that reader is almost entirely responsible for this post, I encourage her to give me permission to print her name so that she can receive the credit for it!

But I would of course appreciate it if any other readers had more to add, on either the music video, the poster, and/or JYP’s marketing in general. And I confess, I know little about JYP’s music. So, to any fans of his in particular, would you say that that characterization of him is fair?

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

Korean Sociological Image #28: Cosmetic Surgery Advertisements Featuring Caucasians


I’ve never done any systematic study of advertisements for Korean cosmetic surgery clinics. But still, I’d wager that the overwhelming majority do not feature Caucasians.

And why should they? Like frequent commenter Whatsonthemenu pointed out in an email to me, she has never seen a tanning product advertisement in North America, for instance, that used a model of African descent, and most models look European or possibly Hispanic. Similarly, advertisements for hair straightening products, generally aimed at Black women, always use Black models (usually light-skinned ones), never Caucasian or Asian.

One reason for this is that correlation does not imply causation, and that tanned Caucasians happen to look darker does not necessarily mean that they want to look like Africans. Rather, the consensus view of tanning’s origins is that it developed as a status symbol, implying the wealth to take vacations to warmer climes.

In the case of hair-straighteners however, let me pass on Whatsonthemenu’s comment that “the desire for straight hair almost certainly originates in the desire to look closer to Caucasians,” and that this stems from back when house slaves, who were more likely to have Caucasian fathers or grandfathers, had higher status than field slaves. Which leads one to ask what Caucasians’ absence in advertisements implies?

Perhaps that when it comes to something as personal as dramatically altering one’s body and/or appearance in particular, there is a universal tendency to deny one might be imitating some aspect of another culture, race and/or ethnicity? After all, not to implies acknowledging a (perceived) flaw with your own, unlikely to go down well with other members of it.

Which is what makes Koreas’ exception to the rules so interesting.

(Source: unknown)

Whatsonthemenu noticed this advertisement for the BeautyMe Clinic on The Chosun Ilbo’s website last weekend, clicking on which took you to their homepage above. The Caucasian woman you see there is featured quite prominently throughout the site, and, judging by the the single page discussing double-eyelid surgery for men also featuring a Caucasian man, the choice of her race is not due to mere laziness or accident on the web designer’s part.

So why?

One obvious answer is that some Korean cosmetic surgery patients genuinely do want to look more Caucasian. But I think that they’d be a very small minority, even among those getting only those procedures that ultimately have that effect. Meanwhile, probably the vast majority don’t have that goal, either explicitly or subconsciously, and would justifiably take great offense at the suggestion.

However, clearly the intended customers would have no problems with associating cosmetic surgery in general and/or specific operations with Caucasians, nor find the choice of the model’s ethnicity strange. If they did, then presumably the proprietor of BeautyMe Clinic and others with similar advertisements (see here and here) would have chosen a Korean woman instead, as most do.

Yet they didn’t, and that those (positive or neutral) associations presumably existed prior to exposure to the advertisement puts paid to any notion that “Caucasianness” has had absolutely no role in Koreans’ modern ideals of beauty. And, in turn, to the notion that Koreans finding light skins and double-eyelids and so on attractive today are merely continuations of unaltered historical Korean tastes that existed prior to contact with Caucasians. Indeed, like blogger Michael Hurt wrote in 2005, it’s high time to acknowledge:

…the big, fat, white elephant in the room that is America and the West. You have to consider how having white skin here in Korea is not simply a matter of lightness anymore, of being a sign that one doesn’t have to work outside in a field. The relative pallor of one’s skin is now inevitably linked to notions of civility and class that are also reflected against the very real presence of white people, who are not surprisingly, positively associated with notions of civility and class.

But, and I stress, to do so is not to deny a role – and probably a much greater role – for historical Korean beauty ideals (and definitely not to claim that Koreans just “want to look White”). For a sense of the weight of the respective roles of each, and their possible mechanisms, please see the debate in previous posts.

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)