Sex as Power in the South Korean Military

Source: anja_johnson

“All men are rapists,” I read on the back cover of Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape in the student bookstore. Determined to impress women with my intellectual and feminist prowess by debunking that quote, I bought the book and doggedly read all 480 pages trying to find it. Twice.

Yes, I was rather naive about the whole dating game. Even worse, you can imagine how I felt years later, when I learned that she never actually said that. Rather, it was a big misinterpretation of her statement that rape “is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation, by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (p. 5), albeit an understandable one. Indeed, it’s probably what she’s become best known for, an enduring catch-phrase of pop-feminism that publishers would knowingly exploit to sell the book to me 2 decades later.

Which is a shame, because along with Menachem Amir, she was instrumental in overturning long-held conventions that rape was simply a spontaneous act of lust, instead demonstrating that it is more “a deliberate, hostile, violent act of degradation and possession on the part of a would-be conqueror, designed to intimidate and inspire fear…” (p. 439). Or in short, it’s due to her that surely all reading this are aware that sexual violence is all about power, and not surprised to hear this reaffirmed by the survey “Sexual Violence Among Men in the Military in South Korea” by Insook Kwon et. al., Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 22, No. 8, 1024-1042 (2007), the subject of today’s post.

The first comprehensive survey of its kind, in English or Korean, it was prompted by the suicide of a Korean soldier in July 2003, which received tremendous attention in the media because sexual violence by his superiors seemed to have played a role; after all, with 250,000 men forcibly conscripted each year, any implication that it wasn’t an isolated incident meant that there were far more victims. And in point of fact, with the proviso that the authors’ (undefined) notion of “sexual violence” appears to be much broader than a layperson’s as I’ll explain, they did indeed find that 15.8% of respondents experienced it during their time in the military, either as perpetrators or victims.

But before discussing the implications of that however, and especially what it says about the role of the military in the socialization of Korean men, let first provide an overview of the survey so you can make your minds (with a nod to copyright, I won’t upload the survey itself here sorry, but please feel free to email me if you’d like your own copy). And so, without any further ado:

The survey was conducted from November 2003 to February 2004, with researchers meeting 2 groups: 362 postconscripts, then students, at 6 different colleges; and 409 current conscripts, 115 at bus and train stations while they were on leave, and 294 in visits to their barracks with the official cooperation of the Ministry of Defense. From each group, there were 266, 111, and 294 valid samples respectively, giving a total of 671 valid samples out of 771 soldiers surveyed (the bulk excluded being postconscripts, and because more than 3 years had passed since their military service). They also conducted in-depth interviews of 8 perpetrators in army prison, and 3 victims.

Highlights of the results include (all emphases mine):

Of 671 valid respondents who participated in this survey of victimization, perpetration, and observation, a total of 103 people (15.4%) answered that they were directly victimized, 48 people (7.2%) answered that they had direct experience as perpetrators, and 166 people (24.7%) answered that they witnessed sexual violence in the military.

Excluding eyewitnesses, a total of 106 soldiers (15.8%) directly experienced physical sexual violence, either as perpetrators or victims in the military. A very high number of soldiers also indicated they experienced sexual violence as perpetrators and as victims: 59 soldiers (55.7%) were victims only, 39 soldiers (36.8%) were victims and perpetrators, and only 8 soldiers (7.5%) were exclusively perpetrators. Among perpetrators, 83% had experienced sexual violence in the military when they had been lower ranked soldiers. This feature of high number of perpetrators having previously experienced victimization themselves could be seen as the most unique feature of sexual violence among men in the military. (p. 1028)

(Source: anja_johnson)


Victims named higher ranking soldiers (71.1%), junior officers (7%), and officers (3.1%) as their perpetrators, totaling 81.2% of victims who responded that someone of a higher rank forcibly imposed sexual contact….

Also, the eight perpetrators and three victims who agreed to be interviewed, as well as six cases recorded by the Korean Sexual Violence Relief Center and reports by military judiciary officers, confirmed that victims of sexual abuse were in lower ranks than their perpetrators. All victims had been victimized by higher ranking soldiers, and eyewitnesses reported likewise. In sum, sexual violence among men in the military in South Korea was committed primarily by a higher ranking solider against a lower ranking soldier. (p. 1029)

The types of abuse, as reported by victims and witnesses (p. 1031; multiple answers permitted):

As reported by the perpetrators (p. 1033):

Also note that 22.1% of victims (but only 7% of perpetrators) reported that physical violence accompanied the sexual violence, and that 71.8% of victims and 90.7% of perpetrators responded that the acts of sexual violence when others were watching (I’ll return to the latter point shortly).  And in particular, eyewitnesses reported that 22.5% of the sexual violence they saw involved touching genitals, and 5.1% involving anal penetration (or the attempt), nearly 2 and 5 times higher than victims reported respectively.

Reflecting on the discrepancies, Kwon et al. found that:

…people tended to feel more comfortable talking about what might be considered part of a general sexual culture—such as kissing, hugging, and telling sexually explicit jokes—but answers were less forthcoming when concerning sexual violence of a more serious degree. (p. 1032)

Which for a long time I simply didn’t understand: how on Earth was that the “general sexual culture” of the military? Well, first consider that:

When asked, “In the military, have you ever been forced to talk about sexual experiences, even when you did not want to?” almost one third (32.7%) of the 667 respondents answered affirmatively. To the question, “Have you ever experienced negative consequences either because you did not have any sexual experiences or because you refused to discuss your sexual experiences?” a total of 218 soldiers (32.7%) answered that they had been forced to talk about sexual experience. (p. 1028)

And that this mandatory disclosure of sexual experience has long been regarded as “an essential part of sexual culture in the military” is corroborated by numerous references in Korean movies to the practice of virgins visiting a prostitute before starting one’s military service, of which I highly recommend the satirical comedy The First Amendment of Korea below.


Next, there is the fact that victims of sexual violence tended to interpret it as:

…intimacy or playfulness, because identification as a victim of sexual violence would imply one’s fragility and vulnerability. This tendency to minimize and trivialize injury was clear in cases where abuse continued for a long time, and in situations where a clear power dynamic between the perpetrator and the victim made resistance much more difficult for the victim. (p. 1033)

Moreover, perpetrators:

…did not force sexual contact on their peers with whom they had even closer relationships [than inferiors]. The intimacy in question was strictly an intimacy from the position of the higher ranking soldier.

Kwon et al. further discuss the natural difficulties victims had in refusing advances by a superior, and crucially, why the third most common form of sexual violence was touching a victim’s genitals. But why, particularly when only 5.4% of victims thought that their perpetrators were genuinely homosexual? Well, as one victim noted:

…unlike in the general society where one could not treat another person with complete disregard for age, educational level, or class, in the military, higher ranking soldiers could treat lower ranking soldiers as one pleased—including touching their genitals. (p. 1035)

And after a discussion of the right to control and abuse the body being a very useful method for militaries to reaffirm its hierarchical order, and of the role of the penis as a symbol of power and authority throughout history, they note that, hence:

…teasing or forceful contact with one’s penis becomes a way to prove the victim’s lack of power.

(Source: Journey to Perplexity)

Needless to say, the effects of this are amplified if done in public settings, and indeed 90.7% of perpetrators responded that people were watching when their sexual violence occurred, with the vast majority of witnesses either actively engaging in it in some way (23.7%), passively consenting by simply watching (57.9%), or pretending not to see (10.5%) rather than attempting to stop it: hence a “general sexual culture.”

But continuing with why:

…violence feminizes victims of sexual violence in two ways. The victim is reduced to a sexual object, like many women typically face in society, and as the powerless victim of violence, he is further feminized. Men who are victimized by sexual violence, then, become someone whose masculinity is lacking or damaged. Hierarchical order reasserts itself amid all this, and men collectively try to be on the offensive to affirm their aggressive masculinity. (pp. 1035-36)

And finally, the testimony of a perpetrator himself on why he did it, who said that he used sexual violence in lieu of physical violence sometimes, forcing sexual contact by “not hitting every time, and not joking around but harassing them”:

[Like harassing them…] Yes, I can’t hit them every time . . . and it’s not just joking around, but harassing them. . . . For instance, making them clean things repeatedly. Stuff like that. . . . If they were from wealthy families . . . or had a lot of education themselves . . . the superiors are ahead only because they came to the military before them . . . honestly . . . when you don’t have much to show for, and if they kiss ass to superiors who intimidate them . . . and if they think you’re not all that . . . well, you can’t beat them and so I kept thinking about ways to give them hell in the military, legal ways . . . and that’s how I ended up. (pp. 1036-37)

({2-365} Tick Tock by Dee’lite)

But what to make of all this?

At this point, it seems appropriate to point out my own complete lack of experience with the Korean military, as well as not even having any close relationships with any Korean men from whom I could learn about their military service, and so I would be very grateful to hear from those that have either. But then my own inexperience is essentially irrelevant here, as I’m largely passing on the results of renowned experts in the field (scroll down to note #32 here for more information on Kwon for instance); moreover, my own interest in on what is implied for Korean culture and sexuality as a whole, and so let me pass on the following description of military life provided by Ask a Korean, in his own excellent series on military service in Korea:

For some of today’s Korean young men, who have gone soft since the days of their fathers, military experience can be unbearable. Physical exercise is grueling, the superiors can be arbitrary and insulting, and your squad mates could shun you if you are responsible for putting the whole squad in trouble. Given that these guys, just like any other soldiers in Korea, can access guns and grenades, it should be no surprise that recently there has been a string of incidents in which a draftee shoots up his squad or toss a grenade in the squad room, killing many….

….[But there are definitely good life lessons to be learned from the experience, although it may be debatable whether learning those lessons is a good use of 2 to 3 years of young men in their prime. To put it bluntly, the military experience builds Korean men’s tolerance for all the life’s bullshit. As the Korean described so far, there is no shortage of bullshit – some of them perhaps the worst to be encountered in life – in the military. Exhausting physical training, insults and condescension from the superiors, and wasting time on arbitrary and trivial errands are all part of the experience. For young Korean men in the military, there is no choice but to simply grin and bear them. Once they finish bearing it, they know that most difficulties in life would be easier than what they already went through. The combination of such tolerance and insight, some may call it maturity – because, as anyone who has had a regular job can tell you, life as an adult has a lot of crap that we must simply grin and bear.

(Band of Brothers by The U.S. Army Photostream)

And in the next post in that series (my emphasis):

…one can argue that the military culture neatly coincides with traditional Korean culture – in both cultures, seniority automatically commands respect and loyalty. It is not surprising, then, that Korean workplaces are often run just like a squad in the military. You do what your boss tells you to do, and you are supposed to grin and bear it. Your time will come because Korea, like Japan, had automatic advancement by seniority at least until 1990s. Once you are the boss, you can order people around, much like the way you can order people around once you put in the time and became a sergeant.

I happened to work in such a place when I wrote the first post in my own series on gender and militarization in South Korea, and in which I noted that Korean corporate life often requires such a level of personal sacrifice for one’s superiors that, tellingly, even the Samsung Economic Research Institute acknowledges that “many workers…take it for granted that they have to tolerate anything in return for getting paid.” I should note however, that many readers thought my workplace was the exception rather than the rule, but be that as it may, the purpose of many of those things to be tolerated there boiled down to no more than the demonstration (and abuse) of superiors’ authority…and so too does sexual violence clearly emerge as one means – albeit, and I stress, only one, uncommon means – of doing so in the Korean military.

But I will further cover the effects on Korean gender relations and sexuality in great detail as I belatedly continue that series next month. In the meantime, let me leave you with the following passage from Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search For Who We Are (1993) by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan to ponder, a book which had a great effect on my worldview and which frequently came to mind as I was writing this post (via Viraj’s Weblog):


We go to great lengths to deny our animal heritage, and not just in scientific and philosophical discourse. You can glimpse the denial in the shaving of men’s faces; in clothing and other adornments; in the great lengths gone to in the preparation of meat to disguise the fact that an animal is being killed, flayed, and eaten. The common primate practice of pseudosexual mounting of males by males to express dominance is not widespread in humans, and some have taken comfort from this fact. But the most potent form of verbal abuse in English and many other languages is “Fuck you,” with the pronoun “I” implicit at the beginning. The speaker is vividly asserting his claim to higher status, and his contempt for those he considers subordinate. Characteristically, humans have converted a postural image into a linguistic one with barely a change in nuance. The phrase is uttered millions of times each day, all over the planet, with hardly anyone stopping to think what it means. Often, it escapes our lips unbidden. It is satisfying to say. It serves its purpose. It is a badge of the primate order, revealing something of our nature despite all our denials and pretensions.

Update 1, February 2013: See The Chosun Ilbo and ROK Drop for some more recent statistics on sexual assault in the Korean military.

Update 2, February 2013: See Sociological Images for more on sexualized insults.

Korean Gender Reader

( Source: KorAm )

1) “Asian Man Interracial Dating History”

An interesting photographic essay, provided at (via: The Marmot’s Hole).

2) The Security Implications of Korea’s Low Birthrate

Over at Asian Security and US Foreign Relations Blog, professor Robert Kelly of Pusan National University elaborates on a brief talk on this he had in his weekly segment on Busan e-fm. A very wide-ranging topic, for more information see here for a similar post on my own, albeit more on China, and last week’s Korean Gender Reader for more on recent draconian shifts in government policy on abortion (basically criminalizing it), and only really explicable in light of the above.

In addition, related stories that have emerged this week include: first, the fact that the Korean marriage rate has fallen to an all-time low. According to The Chosun Ilbo:

The rate of newly-registered marriages fell to an all-time low in 2009 amid the economic slump. The number of marriages per 1,000 persons stood at 6.2 last year, down 0.4 from 2008 and the lowest since statistics began in 1970.

The average age for first-time marriages rose as more people are choosing to marry later in life. Men married at an average age of 31.6 last year, up 0.2 years from a year earlier, and women at 28.7, up 0.4 years.

With The Joongang Daily adding the helpful graphic on the right in its own report (via: ROK Drop).

And secondly, and very tellingly, an interview at Oh My News of the OECD economist William Adema, whose job it is to collect and analyze data from all 30-member states on their birthrates and family polices, reveals that:

…[for] the last 8 years of his 16 with the organization, Adema has spent working on the issue, one country has been of particular interest: Korea.

This is in part, he said Tuesday, because Korea is changing so rapidly. It is also obvious that he enjoys a challenge: some of the most basic data he needs to understand Korean families does not exist.

The Korean Bureau of Statistics does not collect the maternal employment rate; it is assumed that once women have children, they will leave the workplace.

Adding to the challenge, the Oxford trained economist explained that it will take far more than government policy to increase Korea’s lowest-in-the-OECD birthrate

My emphasis, and, alas, no great surprise when Korea has the lowest female workforce participation rate in the OECD.

Finally, Brian in Jeollanam-do provides an excellent summary of the politics of recent (see #6 last week) banning of marriages to South Korean men (and only men) by the Cambodian government, the previous huge bride industry an obvious corollary of all the above.

Update 1 : On a rare positive note, albeit still a drop in the ocean compared to what is really required, the government announced increased state subsidies for medical costs related to childbirth from next month, and those for expectant mothers….within 2 years.

Update 2: In a recent interview with US journalists, Minister of Gender Equality and Family Affairs Paik Hee-young (백희영) pointed out that Korea has the largest gender wage gap in the OECD not because women make less money than men in the same position, but because “men hold higher positions.” What a relief!

Update 3: By no means the cause of the Lee Myung-bak Administration’s crackdown on abortion, but not entirely irrelevant either, membership of the Catholic Church is increasing in Korea. With the proviso that the news is coming from a Catholic website, read the details at AsiaNews here.

( Suprise Yr Pregnant by PinkMoose )

3) Women with Children are Less Likely to Commit Suicide

From a Taiwanese survey of 30 years of data on 1.3 million Taiwanese women, and news that quickly went viral around the world: see here for The Daily Mail’s report on it for instance.

Probably the universal appeal of the news lies in that it appears to be common-sense. And indeed, if you can forgive the personal note, and it possibly sounding a little cliched, as a father I can confirm that on off-days (and with 2 toddlers, you get many off-days!), the knowledge that your children are relying on you to do always do your best for them helps you to snap you out of your depression much quicker than you would otherwise. But as the sociologist Kate Fox also points out, whose bestseller Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (2004) I happen to be reading at the moment:

…it is nonetheless nice, I think, to have our instinctive ‘knowledge’ of such matters properly measured and confirmed by objective research. Being a social scientist is a pretty thankless job, particularly among the ever-cynical English, who generally dismiss all of our findings as either obvious (when they accord with ‘common knowledge’) or rubbish (when they challenge some tenet of popular wisdom) or mumbo-jumbo (when it is not clear which sin has been committed, as the findings are couched in incomprehensible academic jargon). (pp. 200-201)

Regardless, unfortunately Korea has the highest suicide in the OECD again: see Brian in Jeollanam-do for a discussion, to which I would add this Chosun Ilbo editorial.

4) Music Video Banned

Foxy (폭시), a new girl group expected to gain a lot of attention due to Han Jang-hee (한장희) being one the members (the woman who became famous as “Elf Girl” during the 2006 World Cup), has had their music video for Why Are You Doing This to Me (왜 이러니) above banned from SBS, KBS, and MBC for “promoting sexual relationships.”

In light of more provocative music videos that weren’t banned, general reactions at k-pop blogs like allkpop and Omona! They Didn’t range from mild surprise to sheer incredulity; see here, here, and #1 here for more on the seemingly completely arbitrary nature of Korean censorship, which this case reaffirms.

5) Koreans Overdose on Diet Pills

No great surprise to long-term readers of this blog of course, according to The Chosun Ilbo, “Korea’s use of slimming pills and appetite suppressants ranks near the top in the world despite an obesity rate of 3.5 percent, only a quarter of the OECD’s average 14.6 percent.”

It also notes the paradox of one of the skinniest countries in the world consuming the largest amount of diet drugs in the world; but surely these are simply two sides of the same coin?

( See here for a discussion of this advertisement )

In related celebrity news, Nicole Jung (정용주) of the girl-group KARA (카라) revealed early last week that she went on a diet last year because a unidentified member of a boy-group told her she was too fat. But a couple of days later she revealed who he was, before finally breaking down in tears over the harshness of her diet regimen on Friday.

6) “Internet Teen Prostitution Becomes Out of Control”

A bit of hyperbole from a non-native speaker perhaps, especially in light of similar previous cases. But still, I’m glad Youngbee Dale’s article drew my attention to this:

On March 4th, 2010, police arrested a 28 year old man who solicited sex from two sisters. The man met the sisters on the internet chat. He bought a 12 year old victim drink and a pack of cigarettes and taught her how to drive in exchange of sex. He also solicited her 14 year old sister for sex in the same way. According to the report, the perpetrator knew that the victims’ parents were often absent from their lives, and used it to take advantage of them.

7) Korean “Chick-lit” Becoming Popular

A brief survey by Charles Montgomery at Korean Modern Literature in Translation, who notes that (my emphasis):

…chick-lit in Korea is a direct outgrowth of the introduction of chick-lit from the west….this introduction substantially altered Korean publishing, introducing a homegrown, but culturally western, Korean “Chick Lit”…

8) The Tough Life of Wannabees at Korean Star Factories

Extra! Korea and SeoulBeats both provide excellent analyses of this Chousn Ilbo article of the above title, the latter of which begins thus:

In a recent article from the Chosun Ilbo, author Choi Seung-hyun discusses Korea’s newest threat to their obedient, well-structured society: superstardom. It used to be so, that the country’s best and brightest aspired to be scientists and doctors, those time-honored traditional professions that would make any parent beam with pride; this is no longer the case, claims Choi.

“In 1983, a popular children’s magazine conducted a survey of 6,595 schoolchildren asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up. Their top choice was scientist with 23.3 percent, followed by teacher (14.1 percent), judge (11.5 percent), doctor (11 percent) and artist (7.8 percent). When asked what would bring them happiness, 63 percent of them said living a worthwhile life. When those children entered university, the Physics Department at Seoul National University was the preferred choice among applicants that drew the brightest minds from across the country.”

Of course fast-forward twenty years later, and things are a bit different…

9) Man Wanted for Domestic Violence Leads 20 Police Cars, Helicopter on Chase (Japan)

Hopefully evidence of last week’s news (see #13 here) that the Japanese police is getting tougher on domestic violence, and women more likely to report it: see The Mainichi Daily News for the details (via: Lawyer_KOREA)

10) Gays and Lesbians Spotlight Discrimination in the Workforce

With apologies for forgetting to include it last week, Korea Beat translated a Korean article on the subject from OhMyNews:

“No girl(boy)friend? Why don’t you get married?” For gays and lesbians, those questions are light jokes. At work or anywhere else, for sexual minorities they are a torment. They may laugh outwardly for their co-workers, but inwardly they are wounded.

At 7 pm on March 5 a “Sexual Minorities and the Workforce” press conference was held at Women’s Plaza, and brought up several types of workplace discrimination that heterosexuals are unaware of. Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea (동성애자인권연대) and other organizations for sexual minorities publicized the results of interviews conducted last December with five lesbians and five gay men.

Read the rest here.

11) Korean Women Inventors

The Korea Times interviewed Han Mi-young (한미영), president of the Korea Women Inventors Association (KWIA; 한국여성경제단체연합), and which is preparing its third Korea International Women’s Investors Exposition, which will be held at COEX, southern Seoul, from May 6 to 9.

While I’m on the subject, let me also mention the cool group Girls in Tech Korea, which I follow on Twitter.

12) On Pink…

Finally, in news that will challenge your associations with pink clothes, and of the Korean men therein, Sociological Images provides evidence that in Western countries at least, pink didn’t stabilize itself as a girls-only color until at least the 1960s.


Open Thread #9

Son Dam-bi Dream(Source: Silkroad)

Granted, it snowed across much of Korea earlier in the week, but it is spring! Time to get out and do some exercise folks!

Everybody Bubi!

( Source: KBites )

While “Bubi Bubi” (부비부비) doesn’t quite mean what it sounds like in English, these will still probably be the most surreal advertisements you’ll see in your entire life:

Featuring girl-group T-ara (티아라), whom I talked about recently here, and actor Yoon Shi-yoon (윤시윤), 2 of the advertisements at least seem to show that bubibubihada (부비부비하다) means to touch, or rub 2 things against each other. Curiously however, that’s proving quite difficult to confirm, as even though it appears to be rather old, with references here and here in The Marmot’s Hole going back to early-2008, and a query at Naver on the meaning from late-2006, there’s still no mention of the term in print or online dictionaries.

From a reading of the former though, and K-pop blogs today, “grind” appears to be a much better translation, and indeed there’s even a 2008(?) Banana Girl (바나나걸) song called Bubi Bubi on that theme:

But then “Grind Grind” is a rather crude and unlikely name for a phone, and especially for one that KTF itself claims is aimed at teenagers. Hence the most likely explanation is that KTF is exploiting a double-entendre, and which Korean advertisers as a whole have a surprising proclivity for, especially sexual ones. But it would be appreciated if anyone more familiar with the term could confirm that; alas, married in 2004, and with two children after that, then it’s been a while since I’ve done any grinding in Korean nightclubs myself, and am unlikely to begin again soon!


Korean “Double In-Laws”… and Other Dramas!

(Wedding Day by summer park; CC BY 2.0)

An interesting question from Curtis, a reader with a slightly unusual family in which 2 brothers from one family married 2 sisters from another. As you will see, he was concerned about how this would be received by Koreans:

Dear James,

Lately I’ve been seriously confused and irritated by a seeming issue with relation to Korean marriages.  I can’t figure out why it is even a problem to begin with. I’ve never heard the term until recently, but apparently Koreans (I’m not sure if this is general or only among certain classes) seem to be against marriages that create “double in-laws,” meaning that, for example, member A of the Kim family marries member A of the Lee family. Then Member B of the Kim family marries the sister/brother of member A of the Lee family. The first marriage made them in-laws, but this second marriage creates what I’ve heard Koreans term “double in-laws” which seems to have some stigma.  As far as I am concerned as a westerner, the second marriage has little to no bearing on anything since it isn’t incest or intermarriage, therefore I see no problem. In fact, my father married my mother, and soon after that, my father’s brother married my mother’s sister. I guess that creates double in-laws in my family, but since it’s neither incest nor intermarriage, I haven’t once heard any issues being brought up about it. Could you explain if this “double in-laws” thing is really an issue, and if so, why? All I can think of is that the families are not being spread out far enough for maximum social networking and both sides of the family may end up being in one household, but since Korean family dynamics are changing, this doesn’t have to be the case.

I’ve also heard the English term “co-in-laws” to describe this, but again, I find no reports of issues with this arrangement other than in a few Korean instances.

And an update in a second email:

[I’ve done some more thinking]…, and I thought about the collective culture that Korea is.  I thought that perhaps when a family marries another family, the WHOLE family in that household become in-laws as such, whereas in western societies, the distinctions between in-laws is limited more so to the ones who married into the family.  I, personally, would consider the sister of my brother-in-law just that, the sister of my brother-in-law, not an in-law herself since she did not marry into the family.

(The Bride by Tetsumo; CC BY 2.0)

What do you think? Personally, while this is the first I’ve heard of any potential stigma, I suspected that there might be something to it when my wife instantly came up with the Korean term for people in such arrangements: gyeobsadon (겹사돈), or “a person doubly related by marriage.” Moreover, however illogical any stigma would be, there is certainly precedent too: until as late as 2005, Article 809 of the Korean Civil Code prohibited marriage between those of the same ancestral, regional clan (or local subgroup of Lees, Parks, or Kims and so on), of which the largest had over 4 million members. Or in short, somewhere between 8-15% of the Korean population were literally forbidden to marry each other, with even the children of any de-facto unions discriminated against also because their out-of-wedlock status prohibited them from receiving national health insurance, let alone complicating inheritance and property rights.

But as it turned out in this case at least, my wife knew the term not because of any stigma that she’s aware of…rather, because she remembered such arrangements from dramas!

Probably there is nothing to worry about then, but if anyone could confirm that then I’m sure Curtis will appreciate it, and I’d be interested in hearing any other unusual stories about marriage and Korean families also. If you’d rather read more yourself though, then consider this series on the uncertain role of Neo-Confucianism in the similarities between Japanese and Korean family forms, and especially how daughters-in-law are treated therein.

Update: Speaking of the importance of family names in Korea, today there was an interesting article in the New York Times about the trials and tribulations a Korean man (and subsequently his family) had due to his Japanese ancestry.

Korean Gender Reader: Abortion Republic No More?

Alice Park es Gogo by Tetsumo ; CC BY 2.0.

Yes, after a long hiatus, I’m starting up this series again, and this time hopefully for good!

For new readers unfamiliar with it, basically this means that for your convenience and interest, each Monday I’ll be providing summaries of the biggest Korean gender-related stories of the week before, with a few related and/or interesting ones from overseas also, especially Northeast Asia. But I may sometimes miss some though, so I’ll still always be grateful if you could pass any on that you come across, either just by writing a comment on any post, or via email, Twitter, or Facebook.

With dire long-term implications however, the first story required rather more than a simple summary:

1) Abortion Republic No More?

Starting late last year, but suddenly getting a lot of attention in the international media, the Lee Myung-bak administration has decided to start enforcing Korea’s abortion laws, basically for the first time since they were enacted in 1953. But while the news that the Korean government is actually enforcing its own laws might usually be cause for celebration, unfortunately its abortion laws are amongst the most restrictive in the world, only allowing it in the case of heredity diseases, incest, rape, and/or danger to the mother’s health.

( Source: Chicago Tribune )

For an excellent overview of the topic, with many links to various English-language stories, see Robert Neff’s post at The Marmot’s Hole; assuming that you’ve read that, here I’d like to highlight some of the few points not covered in it, starting with some statistics on whom exactly is getting abortions and why. From the Hankyoreh:

According to the data released by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs (MHWFA) yesterday, the reasons why married women, who make up 58 percent of the women who have undergone abortion procedures, chose to have abortions are because they do not want children (70 percent) and financial difficulties (17.5 percent). In the case of unmarried women, 93.7 percent said they underwent an abortion procedure because they were not married. They are saying that having children is difficult because of child-rearing and economic burdens in the case of married women, and because of social prejudice and financial difficulties in the case of unmarried women.

A second point is while that data came from the MHWFA on March 3, it actually lost its jurisdiction over family affairs on the 19th, which have returned to the Ministry of Gender Equality (now Ministry of Gender Equality and Family Affairs, or MOGEF). Coming with a big increase in staff and 4 times larger budget (albeit from a base of 0.03%(!) of the government total), and partially dealing with problems of overlapping responsibilities with other ministries, again ostensibly this is good news. But also strange; after all, according to The Korea Times:

As a candidate, President Lee Myung-bak promised to expand the Ministry of Gender Equality, but his transition committee ― led by a woman ― first attempted to abolish the ministry and, faced with fierce opposition from feminists, backed down to sharply downsizing it. Equally problematic was Lee’s choice for its top post, a food and nutrition expert who had no experience at all in the female rights movement, under the excuse of “globalizing Korean food.”

See here and here for more details. Why this is important is because almost every report I’ve read on this subject has directly or implicitly linked the “abortion crackdown” to Lee Myung-bak’s special taskforce of November 2009, charged with finding a means to improve Korea’s birthrate, one of the lowest in the world. And given the above history, and how disastrous his administration has been for Korean women as a whole, then in my opinion quite correctly too, although to be fair, this link has been denied by the government. From The Chicago Tribune:

“Our plan against illegal abortions is entirely separate from our low birthrate countermeasures,” said Rhee Won-hee, chief of the health ministry’s Family Support Division. “The comprehensive plan is to fight rampant disrespect for the sanctity of life.”

Nevertheless, as it was the MHWFA that was responsible for implementing the crackdown, even setting up a hotline to report on law-breaking doctors or pregnant women, and – as far as I am aware – it is these responsibilities that MOGEF has just taken on, then it remains to be seen what genuinely useful initiatives MOGEF will be implementing to help raise the birthrate other than clamping down on abortions. After all, recall that this is the same ministry that paid men not to have sex with prostitutes, and that will be continuing the MHWFA policy of letting them go home early every third Wednesday so that they might, well, fuck their wives, neither of which, to identify a recurring theme, really deal with the fundamentals of why Korean women are having so few children.

Unfortunately, this also proves to be the case for its “purple-job system” of encouraging flexitime for women and men: again ostensibly commendable, and sorely needed with a workplace culture that uselessly confines people to the office until late in the evening, but all essentially useless when a record number of Korean women have lost their jobs in the last year (see below), and they’re still fired for getting pregnant. Perhaps the money might be better spent in conjunction with the Ministry of Labor in ensuring that companies are prosecuted for doing so?

( Source: I Believe in Advertising; adapted from Grazia advertisement )

Third, there are the motivations of the various interest groups themselves, in particular those of the Korean Gynecological Physicians’ Association (GYNOB; 진오비), a new group of 600-700 obstetricians that has sought forgiveness from the public for performing abortions in the past, probably not coincidentally receiving a great deal of media attention at about the same time that Lee Myung-bak’s taskforce was formed. While the New York Times at least emphasizes the religious affiliations of the group, and points out that it doesn’t have the support of the 4000 member Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (대한산부인과학회), I suspect that simple corporatist interests will soon increase its support among them, as according to The Korea Herald:

Obstetrical and gynecological clinics in Korea have long struggled from old issues such as low medical fees, ceaseless legal conflicts and a shortage of specialists.

Under the system, most private clinics have given up risk-bearing delivery services. But practicing cheaper gynecological treatment does not make a profit. As a result, a growing number of specialists do abortions or turn to other more favorable departments such as dermatology and plastic surgery.

And indeed the report then makes an explicit, corporatist link:

Young doctors started sensing that they could be the nation’s last generation of gynecologists, resulting in the establishment of GYNOB…

Presumably the idea being that gynecologists and obstetricians did not enter the field simply to perform abortions. Lest the argument that they’re simply looking out for their jobs sound cynical on my part however, consider how last year the Korean Medical Association (대한의사협회) started blatantly scaremongering about the contraceptive pill, despite the fact that already surprisingly low numbers of Korean women use the pill (in no small part due to previous scaremongering), and that it is widely acknowledged (outside of Japan at least) that Japanese gynecologists and obstetricians, for instance, deliberately blocked the introduction of the pill there for over 30 years in order to maintain their own extensive abortion industry. Granted, the KMA is not GYNOB, but it would be interesting to see who exactly in the KMA was responsible for that (needless to say, perhaps some are members of GYNOB?), and to hear alternative explanations for the KMA’s sudden concern.

Meanwhile, the corporatist interests of the Korean state are clear. As Sara Mendkedick at puts it:

Abortion shouldn’t be the only, desperate choice of women whose voices are silenced by their society, and it shouldn’t be used as a form of population control by the government. It should be one option for women who have the power, education, and awareness to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, it seems South Korea still sees abortion as one more issue for men to deal with, one more choice they make when and how they feel like it.

And for the best source on the history of Korea’s population control policies, almost as draconian as China’s “One Child Policy”, see Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (2005) by Seungsook Moon (see here for a review; source right: Japan Focus), a good illustration of the zealousness of which is the fact that the Marine Corps was mobilized to perform IUD insertions and vasectomies on isolated islanders in the late-1970s (p.84). Moreover:

In the second half of the 1970s, female sterilization was introduced and aggressively applied to fertile women in the form of free one-shot surgical sterilization. Necessary postsurgical care was often ignored. The practice of female sterilization reached its peak in 1979 and then decreased. Perceiving this decrease as a crisis, the state accelerated its sterilization campaign in the 1980s, into what can only be described as sterilization mania. Between 1982 and 1983, 2 million women were sterilized, making up 58% of the total cases of sterilization during the past 25 years. Statistics in 1988 indicated that 48% of all fertile married women were sterilized. Sterilized women also made up 63% of all female contraceptive users. In addition, 83% of these women had been sterilized for free by the state’s agencies, operating primarily in the form of mobile services. The semiforced mass sterilization led to abrupt reductions in the fertility rate and the rate of population growth in the 1980s. According to official statistics, the average number of children an adult woman would bear during her lifetime dropped from 6.3 in the early-1960s to 1.6 in 1988. (pp. 84-85)

Needless to say, I find it appalling that the government of a now supposedly developed, democratic society is applying the mindset of a military dictatorship to population control, and personally this is the straw that broke that broke the camel’s back as far my opinion of the Lee Myung-bak Administration, albeit something I should have expected from someone that saw fit to offer Seoul to God. Seriously, are poor Korean women going to be forced to go overseas or use backstreet abortionists from now on? In 2010?

I’d welcome suggestions as to what us, presumably mostly non-Koreans, can do about this. At the very least, I’ll be following developments closely here, and it’s not all doom and gloom: women’s groups are protesting, albeit at the moment in surprisingly low numbers. Meanwhile, for those of you further interested in the pervasive militarization of daily life in Korea that this policy is a manifestation of, then please consider my Gender and Militarization series, and I also recommend this post by Korea Beat on avoiding compulsory military service, which he and I both think is an anachronism.

( Source: ROK SPOONFUL )

And now, in no particular order, the remainder of last week’s stories…but starting with some good news for a change:

2) Pregnant teenager allowed to graduate from high school

As the Joongang Ilbo reported:

The National Human Rights Commission said yesterday that any school that forces a student to drop out because she is pregnant is being discriminatory and infringing on her right to an education.

The announcement follows the case of Kim Su-hyeon, 19, a teenager who was forced to drop out during her senior year of high school last year because of a pregnancy.

Though many Western countries allow pregnant high school students to complete their educations, Kim’s case is the first of its kind in Korea to be decided by the commission.

Kim agreed to reveal her real name to the JoongAng Ilbo, commenting that she hoped her case would help other teenage mothers who have been forced to end their studies.

See Gusts of Popular Feeling for an overview and the wider context, and ROK Drop also has a brief comments thread in which comparisons to the US are made.

3) Korea to abolish adultery law

Self-explanatory (but good!), much more interesting is some additional information on the abortion issue that I’ve just noticed in the report from The Chosun Ilbo:

The committee is also reportedly discussing permitting abortions, which remain illegal in Korea. “We have not reached any conclusions since it is a very controversial issue,” a committee member said. “But discussions are under way allowing abortions if they are conducted before a certain period of pregnancy and clamping down on those that take place after that phase as seen in advanced countries.”

Hear hear!

4) New shows bring gay love to prime time

Long taboo on Korean television, this month not one but two dramas deal with homosexual relationships: Personal Taste (개인의 취향; also known as Personal Preference) and Life is Beautiful (인생은아름다워). See the JoongAng Daily for an overview, and Dramabeans at the above links for the details.

(Yes, I realize that that’s actually a man and woman on the right: as it turns out, Lee Min-ho (이민호) just pretends to be gay in order to room with Son Ye-jin (손예진) in Personal Preference)

5) G-Dragon Not Guilty

See SeoulBeats for the details, and here for the background.

6) Cambodian Government Temporarily Bans Marriage Between Cambodians and Koreans

Big news of course, but somewhat inevitable considering the treatment many Cambodian women receive in Korea, and hopefully this will prompt both countries to take a closer look at their mutual international marriage industry.

For an overview see The Marmot’s Hole and The Hub of Sparkle, and between them they link to an article at the Deutsche Press-Agentur and another at The Korea Herald that appears to have been written (but not published) just before the ban, which ironically claimed that most migrant women were happy with their marriages! To those I can now add this report from the JoongAng Daily, and an editorial from the (rather embarrassed?) Korea Herald.

7) Plastic surgery clinic accused of violating patients’ privacy

A woman in her 20s who lives in Gwangju has asked police to prosecute a plastic surgery clinic and its owner for placing on the Internet, without her consent, before-and-after photographs of her plastic surgery.

Read the rest at Korea Beat.

8) Sex offenders banned from entering country

And those already in the country will be immediately deported. Not that I’m necessarily against the ends, although using retroactive legislation as the means does seem problematic, as in the case of MOGEF working to make sex-offenders’ details available on the internet also.

Update: Robert Koehler and Brian in Jeollanam-do have more information on the former case here and here.

9) Korean 28 year-old jockey commits suicide

But perhaps a silver lining is provided by the light her death has shone on the harsh practices of the Korean racing industry, the second by a (rare) female jockey at Busan racecourse? See The Korea Times for details, and some additional analysis is provided by Roboseyo and Aaron Bruckhart (source right: Korea Times).

10) Crime

MOGEF’s plans in #8 are undoubtedly in response to the case of alleged rapist and murderer Kim Gil-tae (김길태), over whom there is a great deal of public anger directed towards the government because he was a convicted sex-offender but whose privacy is protected by current legislation. Further details that have emerged in that case since my last post on it are that he claims to have been too drunk to remember his crimes, and that some netizens opened a “cafe” in support of  him before that confession, albeit more in a “groupie” sense than in a genuine belief that he was innocent.

Meanwhile, singer and radio host Kim Beum-soo (김범수) is under fire for shock-jock comments about his stalking of women while he was a student, rather tasteless and alarming even without the above case, and the Hankyoreh accuses the ruling Grand National Party of exploiting the Kim Gil-tae to create a  “climate of fear” to “enact hardline measures”.

And in other crime news:

…two soccer players of Kyunggi University in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, were arrested for rape, police said. The school is seriously considering disbanding its soccer team to take responsibility for the crime, a school spokesman said.

11) Economy

Not only has youth unemployment reached a 10-year high of 10% and is still rising, but the number of jobless female graduates has hit a record high, and the JoongAng Ilbo has a report on the structural and discriminatory practices responsible. Not that it gladdens me to be proved right, but this was somewhat predictable considering the fact that women were overwhelmingly targeted for recession in the financial crisis, as I reported in my very first Korean Gender Reader post in January 2009 (source right: Korea Times).

12) Breaking the myth of Korean homogeneity

While not a gender issue at first glace, actually it’s difficult to think of a gender issue, or rather sexuality issue, in which Korea’s “bloodlines”-based nationalism and its preservation doesn’t play a role, and for more on which I highly recommend Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, And Legacy (2006) by Gi-Wook Shin. Here, Halfie Trots the Globe translates and discusses the article Indian Ayodhia’s twin-fish motif as evidence of its marriage-based relationship with Gaya by Kim Byeongmo, a professor of Anthropology and Archaeology at Hanyang University, and which demonstrates India and Korea’s historical relationship and evidence of some intermarriage 2000 years ago.

13) Northeast Asia

– Taiwan launches million dollar baby-making slogan search

Alas, while Taiwan has much the same problems as Korea with its low birthrate, it isn’t that desperate, and the prize is for 1 million Taiwanese dollars, or US$30,000. My apologies, but I don’t know if English slogans are acceptable…

– Domestic violence cases souring in Japan

But this may actually be positive, reflecting greater awareness and reporting:

The number of domestic violence cases police recognized in 2009 soared 11.7% from the previous year to 28,158, the highest since an annual survey began in 2002, the National Police Agency said Thursday. An NPA official ascribed the rise to increased reports to police and consultations with them by citizens amid growing awareness of domestic violence in Japan.

See here for links a brief video offering some background, from April 2009. And actually, despite appearances, much the same revolution is occurring in Korea, primarily because of women’s greater willingness to report and prosecute abusers and a sea-change in the police’s attitudes towards it (see here for a long post providing some background also).

– Ex-Prada employee sues Japanese division for discrimination

To be precise, she was fired for refusing to fire staff because they were “ugly”. From New York Magazine:

An ex-retail manager for Prada’s Japanese division, Rina Bovrisse, has followed through on her pledge to file a discrimination lawsuit against the company. Bovrisse claims she was asked to fire store managers and retail staff members whom Prada Japan’s CEO found visually unappealing. After filing a complaint about this with the Tokyo District Court in December, she was fired from the company

– Tokyo municipal government plans to outlaw child-porn manga

According to The Economist:

The Tokyo municipal government plans to vote on March 30th to amend an ordinance against child pornography to include “non-existent minors”. Much Japanese porn comes in forms that escape rules covering photos and videos: manga; anime (cartoons); and video-games. Existing bans are meant to protect the child victims. “Virtual” porn—where there is no harm to a real person—is illegal in some countries to protect public morals and ensure a safe environment for children. Last month an American court sentenced a man to six months in prison for possession of Japanese manga child pornography.

With qualifications for the age of viewers and the context in which it is received, then personally I’m completely against the banning of simple drawings, no matter how morally objectionable the content. But regardless, see here for more on a (belated) crackdown on the photos and DVDs in 2008, and which of course I was completely in support of.

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

From Asian to Caucasian: Update

(Businesswoman, by the_toe_stubber)

A recent comment on my post From Asian to Caucasian: Response From a Reader from last year, and which I’m sure you’ll all agree is worth highlighting here rather than having it wasted unread in obscurity on an old post!

With permission, in a moment I’ll place you in the capable hands of Anna then, to whom I’m extremely grateful for the time and effort she put into this. But first, because I haven’t really made it clear previously, I should mention that I’m always open to guest posts (which this 2500+ word ‘comment’ has surely become), as for reasons of time, resources, and/or personal interest, I am simply never able to write as many posts on as many subjects as I like. If you’re ever interested, and please don’t be put off by thinking that there is a minimum word-limit(!), then please just drop me a line.

Now, without any further ado:

…Hey James,

Your work is fascinating and is quite hilarious at times. I am currently writing a thesis on cosmetic surgery in South Korea and your blog really caught my interest. I wanted to just add to the comments here and to also add to your discussion. Beware, this might get a little long.

First of all, I know people can get quite defensive when people say Korean women are undergoing cosmetic surgery to become “white.” (evidence of the comments above). I mean honestly, nobody would like to hear that. Also, Korean women, as was mentioned in your blog and in other people’s comments, don’t go around piping that they did their eyes to look white. One of the driving factors in contemporary society as to why Korean women go under the knife is because 1) cosmetic surgery is a marker for upper class wealth 2) social mobility and 3) economic stability. Women get their faces done or whatever part they deem necessary to look prettier because beauty gets jobs and husbands in an extremely competitive market, and I mean both the market for jobs and husbands.

Furthermore, If you take the time to read Korean forums on cosmetic surgery, a majority of women undergo cosmetic surgery to gain self confidence. It is quite interesting and tragic as well that many of the Korean women who post on these forums talk about how cosmetic surgery will bring a new stage in their lives. Beauty is everything. And they talk about searching for self-esteem like they never had it in the first place and the only way to be “reborn”, “transformed” or to gain their lost self-esteem is through cosmetic surgery. Some of these Korean women are aware of the pressures on them from society to get cosmetic surgery as well and they complain about those reasons too. Korean society is not only very conscious about appearances but how those appearances conform with what the cultural norms are. Therefore, if one girl gets a job because of a pretty nose or eye job, then there will be tons of women who will go get that nose job in the hopes that their chances for getting the next job will be increased. Its a dog eat dog world.

Now set that all aside. I believe that everything has a historical context and cosmetic surgery in South Korea is no exception. Cosmetic surgery in South Korea didn’t just appear in the 1990s to attain a “universal beauty standard.” Nor is the pervasive popularity of specific procedures just because of modernization and the consumer culture it brings. First of all, I take issue with the claim of a “universal beauty standard”. Modernization and globalization has complicated a lot of things so what may seem true now may not ring true when societies were isolated from each other. Korea, for example, was known as the hermit kingdom due to their refusal to open up to foreign influences until they were basically pried open. BEAUTY STANDARDS THEN did not fall in line with “universal” beauty standards now, to say the least. An oval and round face as well as small features were considered beautiful. If you look at old portraits of Korean women, do you see women with overly sized dopey eyes and shaved V-line chins? Or whatever the damn letter is? It is quite the opposite.

Beauty standards may all seem the same way now but that is because we have been socialized to think a certain way due to overwhelming western influences. I know this is an argument that some people get tired of hearing but that is just the truth. Modern history was dominated by our Western/European counterparts and as globalization is rapidly changing the way information is disseminated, such beauty ideals are able to really influence the individual sitting in the living room in any part of the world privy to a TV or any other popular media outlet and those channels in their native language that send such messages. Korean media is no exception. As we all know the Korean media is largely responsible for the beauty standards that Korean women consume.

Now, lets talk about history some more. Since each country has a different history, such history should be used to help explain why certain practices become widespread. Yes, cosmetic surgery is a universal phenomenon in that people do it all over the world. But depending on the place, certain plastic surgery procedures are preferred over others. The question here that we need to ask, in which James has been eloquently trying to answer, is why do women go for such particular procedures?? To attain a universal beauty standard?? Well that answer would make everything too easy now wouldn’t it? And I already said that in Korea, beauty was quite different until they were confronted with different bodies such as the west.

Korean people are first and foremost going to do cosmetic surgery on their eyes, nose, and chin. The most popular being the Double eyelid surgery. Now James emphasizes why the double-eyelid??? Why is this procedure the most popular?? Just because the SUPPOSEDLY universal standard dictates this? Or because Asian women just want to be white?? We really need to probe a lot deeper. WHY, to Korean women, is the big dopey double eye lid considered beautiful when arguably before the infiltration of the west, it wasn’t?

Now, I know there is a percentage of Korean people who already have the double eyelid, so whats the big deal? Well the big deal is that those who didn’t have the double eyelid were considered just as good looking until this ideal changed. The fact that the single lid was problematized after a certain point in Korean history is telling of the fact that perceptions in Korean society began to change. Beauty standards is not in fact universal. Something was influencing Koreans to change their mind. Now what was it??

I look at Korean history in the past century as a whole bunch of successive traumatic events which modernization has just served to confuse and exacerbate Korean society. You have Japanese colonization, then independence which was short-lived with the U.S. occupation, then the split of the peninsula, the fratricidal Korean War, and the ensuing U.S. dominance that followed afterwards. Then without much time in between Koreans were caught in a nationalistic frenzy to economically develop, then democratization happened, and then market forces opened up and voila! in a matter of 30 years Korea is not only a democracy, it is one of the biggest economies in the world, and is still experiencing the onslaught of modernization. What does this equal?? A very confused and unstable society. I honestly think the Korean people have not been able to properly digest their traumatic past. Now what does this have to do with cosmetic surgery? Read on if you haven’t been bored out of your mind yet.

Now starting from Japanese colonization, Koreans were taught to believe they were inferior. Since the Japanese didn’t look too different from Koreans, they couldn’t really harp on the whole racially different argument to establish their superiority. However, it was a traumatic experience nonetheless, in which the Korean people were subjected to mental and psychological degradation where they were made to believe, they were not “good enough.”

Now with the entrance of the Americans during and after the Korean War, this is where I believe Koreans began to see their bodies, their PHYSICAL FEATURES as defected and flawed. Other scholars such as Tae Yon Kim and David Palumbo-liu discuss this affect on the Korean people as they were confronted with an overwhelming presence of American bodies. The Americans, upon coming to Korea to “help” the “poor people”, were confronted with a curious looking bunch. One of those Americans, by the name of Dr. Millard, set out to fix such faces in order to “read” the Koreans better. Dr. Millard was a military surgeon who was sent to Korea on a good will mission to reconstruct war-damaged bodies. Dr. Millard, in addition, to reconstructing such “war damaged bodies” became obsessed with making the Korean or “oriental” legible for the American people. He thought the single lid made Koreans look lazy, sneaky, untrustworthy and basically dumb. He became the first white person to create a double-eyelid surgery for the Asian face. This is monumental. Although double-eyelid surgery was present in Japan before the introduction of cosmetic surgery in Korea, what David Palumbo-liu states and other authors also cite him, is that cosmetic surgery actually reached its popular high point in Korea during this time frame. Dr. Millard began to “treat” Korean patients and he has photos of his first Korean patients in his original work, Oriental Peregrinations. It’s fascinating and extremely disturbing at the same time. Basically the Korean people were mentally brainwashed to view their eyes, their facial shape as inherently flawed. Their natural features were a defect meant to be fixed. The introduction of Dr. Millard’s double eyelid surgery during the Korean War really shows how cosmetic surgery is tied up with trauma, war, and foreign domination. The words he used to describe Korean eyes in his articles, are used in Korean websites, in present day Korean websites to describe natural single lidded Korean eyes. Why is it that the words used to describe Korean eyes by a an American military surgeon during the Korean War, used to describe Korean eyes in modern day society?? Korean websites are carrying on the tradition of passing on this idea that Korean eyes are naturally defected, if you have the single-lid that is. And the only difference is that now, double eyelid surgery is cloaked under the label for women to look more beautiful.

There are more linguistic connections in descriptions of the Asian eye that harks back to Korea’s traumatic history but I won’t go into it.

So Korean women undergo cosmetic surgery to look more beautiful and yes we can just stop it at there. They just want to look beautiful. But why I ask again, those CERTAIN aspects? Why did those certain aspects become what was “Beautiful?” when it wasn’t before? Although Korean women may not know that they are changing their eyes based on white standards of beauty, (in fact many wholeheartedly believe the double eyelid surgery is tailored to make Asian eyes more beautiful) single-lidded eyes were problematized because of confrontations with the West and now it has become so commonplace in Korea that these origins have been forgotten and it is now a natural thing to think. That single lidded small eyes are ugly and big dopey eyes are pretty and that is just the way it is because they are told that and they consume that every day of their lives.

I think, saying Korean people are fixing their eyes to become more Caucasian is not the right way to put it. In my opinion, Korean people are fixing their eyes because they are naturally made to believe that it is flawed, a legacy that was left by Korea’s historical trauma. I see cosmetic surgery in Korean society as a way Korean people are trying to reconcile their “flawed bodies” and “fix” themselves. I look at cosmetic surgery a bit differently and it might seem a bit far fetched but when you keep digging, sometimes you can’t help but think this way.

This is where trauma comes into the picture. My argument, basically sees unresolved trauma as a major factor in the pervasive practice of cosmetic surgery, especially the double eyelid. I won’t go in depth there because that would require me to talk about trauma and how trauma can last for generations. But anyways I hope that my comments show cosmetic surgery in Korea is wrapped up in a lot of complex issues.

IT IS NOT just about attaining a beauty standard or to look white. There are historical consequences that explain as well as add to the modern picture of why Korean women flock to clinics to get their eyes done.

This message probably won’t be read but this was a really great exercise for me to keep my mind active and up to date with all the stuff I have to read for my research. I know it was quite selfish of me to post such a long entry so my apologies.

But hopefully somebody learns something and gains or at least thinks again when discussing this subject.

Addendum (in a follow-up comment):

Also, I read my post again and I didn’t specify what kind of Korean websites, I meant Korean cosmetic surgery websites.

Also another piece of interesting information is that cosmetic surgery originally had a bad reputation due to its associations with prostitution during and after the Korean War. Basically cosmetic surgery was seen as disreputable because Korean war brides were the ones who mostly underwent cosmetic surgery in order to better assimilate into their new American husband’s life. These Korean War Brides were seen as prostitutes and some of them really were. So another little interesting piece to the whole picture –> forwarding now 50 years later cosmetic surgery is such a pervasive practice that it is now quite the cultural norm.

I have provided some readings that briefly talk about this, because cosmetic surgery in Korea is such a little explored subject in Academia, and the majority of the articles just skim the surface, the literature below I believe has done some justice on the topic as well as how U.S. domination has affected Korean society.

• Dissertation called the “The Moving Eye: From Cold War Racial Subject to Middle Class Cosmopolitan, Korean cosmetic Eyelid Surgery, 1955-2001″ by Taeyon Kim

James: I haven’t been able to find a copy of that online unfortunately, but in case the name sounds familiar, I discuss her 2003 journal article “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” at great length in my series entitled journal article “Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society”, starting here.

• Nadia Kim, Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA (2008)

• David Palumbo-liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (1999)

(ELP_NIKE_KOREA, by gkristo)


And here’s an update from Anna…

Hey James!

I was just doing some more reading and I realized that I had written incorrect information about the Japanese not being able to use racist ideologies during Korea’s colonization. In fact they did, in terms of Japan being the superior blood race–>a focus on ethnonationality. Japan differentiated itself from Korea by focusing mainly on the centrality of blood. Although Japan outwardly promoted a Pan-Asian ideology where the Japanese would protect their Asian neighbors from Western imperialism, the brutality of the Japanese towards the Koreans obviously showed that this was all bullshit. The oppression of Japan towards Korea also helped Korean individuals foment Korea as a “nation” around blood as well. Nadia Kim says this is connected to why Koreans are so obsessed with blood types…pretty funny. So “race” for Koreans originally focused on ethnonationality and purity of blood and blood ties. Then the West came in and complicated the picture with their own racial ideologies of black and white which also the Koreans were pretty primed to accept due to their already hierarchical associations to the lighter skin/darker skin complex.

Also, I won’t go into detail too much because I have probably lost you already, but it seems like the concept of lighter skin and the color white as pure and good was a pretty salient concept in Korea before the West. Koreans and the Japanese have seemed to have an obsession with white for a while.

Kim writes, “The country has valorized white as representatives of its people’s purity and desire for peace since the Three Kingdoms Period of 57 B.C. to A.D. 668. One manifestation was Koreans’ primarily white clothing, earning them the moniker the “white-clad nation.” Because the Koreans continued to wear solely white clothing through the middle twentieth century, Western visitors would be captivated by the “enormous white waves sweeping the streets” (27).

(Korean War Museum and Memorial – Seoul 090501, by anja_johnson)

She then goes on and talks about how lighter skin/dark skin also corresponded to where you stood in the rigid neo-confucian hierarchies of Korean society. But basically, this shows how Koreans were pretty well “primed” to accept the White/Black dichotomy that was brought by its relations with the US/West.

So to wrap up and reiterate again, the Japanese did use racial ideologies but focused mainly on blood purity, the superior “blood race”, although I’m sure they also used other things to establish their superiority.

I really really recommend reading her book its pretty awesome.