The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: Part 1

( Park Soo-ae {박수에} in A Family {가족; 2004}; source )

As numerous expats can attest to, coming to live in Korea can be quite a jarring experience sometimes. But probably not as much as you’d expect, for Korea too is a modern, developed country, with institutions and services that match – nay, are often better – than equivalents in your home country. Comparatively speaking, the transition is really rather smooth.

Scratch below the surface however, and decidedly archaic twists to many aspects of daily life do soon emerge, many of which are profoundly gendered too. For example, after a few months here I began teaching a group of highly intelligent women already fluent in English, who attended my class merely as a hobby. All housewives, later I learned that they likely did so because while Korea has been providing an equal education to both sexes for decades now, and indeed as many as 82% of high-school graduates go on to university, just a few years after graduating women are routinely fired and/or are pressured to resign upon getting married or becoming pregnant. Which makes one wonder what the point of women’s higher education was exactly, and accordingly a study conducted just a few years earlier (Women’s education, work, and marriage in Korea: women’s lives under institutional conflicts by Mijeong Lee, 1998, pp. 161-163) found that, à la Jane Austen, it was largely to secure higher-earning husbands.

It is true though, that modernization the world over has invariably entailed such “housewifization” and nuclearization of the family, so in that sense at least Korea is arguably simply repeating the experience of societies that developed earlier.  One way in which Korea does stand out then, is the case of smoking, and you’re probably well aware that it once had the highest male smoking rate in the world, whereas that for women has historically been extremely low. But unless you are already living in the country, then you may not have realized that this is not necessarily by choice, but rather because women can still get slapped for simply smoking in the street, even in 2010. And as testament to the strength of this taboo, it has influenced the smoking habits of at least one female blogger here too for instance, even though most Koreans excuse expats from the vast majority of Korean social norms (source, right).

This brief four-part series is about that gender politics of smoking in Korea, starting in this post with how such an artificial gender binary emerged in the first place; a later one will provide detailed statistics on the number of smokers in Korea, followed by a discussion on the ways in which tobacco companies have (largely successfully) targeted Korean girls and women over the last two decades. As you’ll soon see, it is really a little naive to speak of a “Korean smoking rate” or even “Korean male” or “Korean female” smoking rate when the results differ so widely by age, gender, class, and/or marital status, and the widely perceived notion that Korean women don’t and/or shouldn’t smoke is obscuring the fact that in reality more and more are over time (very roughly 1 in 5), and that success in reducing the number of male smokers comes in the midst of a looming health crisis among female ones.

But first, perhaps “taboo” is not strong enough a word. Consider why the Seoul Metropolitan Council recently proposed banning smoking in public spaces for instance:

“I suggested the bill to protect pregnant women and children from second-hand smoke on streets and at other public spaces” Park Hee-sung, a city councilor, said. “It also secures the right to smoke by designating smoking areas.”

No mere slip of the tongue, this is really a bizarre rationale for banning public smoking: don’t men and non-pregnant women also suffer from passive smoking? But place it in the context of decades-old legislation that posits both children and all women alike as in need of protection however, as mentioned in Kelley Lee et. al. in “The strategic targeting of females by transnational tobacco companies in South Korea following trade liberalisation”, Globalization and Health 2009; 5: 2 (download here), then it does begin to make some sense:

The National Health Promotion Law Enforcement Ordinance, adopted in 1989, bans all tobacco advertising, marketing and sponsorship aimed at women and children including both print and broadcast media.

Although as I’ll explain in Part 4, cigarette companies have largely managed to circumvent this restriction. In the meantime, how did the gender ideology behind the law come about?

( Source: iMorpheus )

Well, consider the thoughts of C. Paul Dredge in “Smoking in Korea” published in the Korea Journal back in April 1980, (downloadable here), which are worth quoting at some length. From page 28:

With a clear logic rooted in Neo-confucianism, this explanation intuitively makes sense, and I feel confident that I speak for almost everyone when I say that if that excerpt was all of Dredge’s article that was still available, then we’d be more than satisfied with it.

You can imagine how I felt then, when I read on and learned that that was actually bullshit. From pages 28-29:

A good lesson to remember when trying to understand any society better, and indeed I’ve previously made a similar point in the context of how authority and/or hierarchical relationships are portrayed differently in Korean and Western advertisements, so I should have given it a little more thought myself.

With a newfound respect for Dredge then (does anyone know more about him?), I highly recommend reading his article for yourself to learn more (it’s only 11 pages long), in which he goes on to discuss how the above affected Korean women’s smoking habits (at least in 1980). Also analyzing how they differed in the context of the aforementioned divisions of age, class, and marital status however, then I’ll leave that discussion for Part 3 next week.

For now, I’d be more interested in hearing about your own experiences and opinions of smoking in Korea. Alas, although I’ve never lectured anyone about smoking, I confess that I’m an anti-smoking Nazi myself, and possibly for that reason I only have 2 very occasional smokers among my friends to ask. So I would really appreciate it!^^

Update 1: For those interested in smoking culture in North Korea also, see here.

Update 2: An interesting response to this post by a Korean blogger (in English) is available here.

(Other posts in the series: Part 2, Part 3, Newsflash, Part 4, Korea’s Hidden Smokers, Quick Hit: Living as a female smoker in Korea)

36 thoughts on “The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: Part 1

  1. great article!

    well here is my experience on cigarette if you are interested. (fyi, ever since i moved to california, i become a social smoker, i do smoke only when alcohol is involved, )

    i am female, i grew up in seoul kangnam, middle class, well educated, über conservative family, so half of me naturally always look for the social acceptance, but the other half always wanted to rebel. So even tho i smoked (unlike ‘well’ raised, great ‘wife’ candidate friends), i never smoked on the street. All the smoking girls in my school smoked indoors most of time. There was even a rumor that it is illegal to smoke in the open space (we were saying “without roof” 지붕없는데서), now i know where it came from.

    One day i was with my japanese friend in KangNam Station, and i smoked outside with my friend pretending I am japanese (trying to speak non sense japanese). How funny.. that i actually felt OK by mesmerizing myself that i am not me.

    Also your the other point about women pursuing high education and not working…. To secure higher earning husband may not be the sufficient condition, but def the necessary condition of the success of highly educated women (well at least in my generation). hence if you didn’t get one, you are a loser.

    I hope this is not true any more in the new generation… not sure …


    1. Thanks, although to be honest I’m not surprised: not that I’m saying you were slavishly following whatever cigarette companies wanted(!), but as I’ll explain in Part 4, they’ve linked feminism and rebellion with smoking ever since the Suffragettes, and very much repeated the lessons learned in Western countries in Korea later.

      As for women pursuing higher education for the sake of getting a higher-earning husband, you may be interested to read a little more about what Mijeong Lee learned back in 1998. Basically, she was investigating whether data about Korean marriages supported the “selective-mating hypothesis” or the “cross-productivity hypothesis”, the latter of which was:

      “…an extension of human-capital theory….in the original, individuals’ earnings differentials are attributed to the difference in the stock of human capital….a stock of human capital can be improved through association with people whom one has frequent contacts. The marital relation is one type of association. Compared to other types of association, a relatively efficient sharing of knowledge and information is expected within a marriage. A wife’s stock of human capital is transferred to the husband’s…and subsequently, contributes to improving his market productivity. Educated women can this help their husband’s occupational careers….that is why educated women are preferred in the marriage market and high income-earning men want to mary them” (p, 162)

      But while that may well occur to a certain extent, Lee thought it difficult to empirically measure, and unlikely given that Korea was such a traditional and gender-segregated society. However:

      “[p]ositive association between the wife’s education and husband’s earnings is clearly observed in Korea. Correlation…is .45. It is well recognized both by ordinary people and academic people in Korea.” (p. 161)


      “Cultural quality and other non-market related abilities are nurtured by education. Additionally, women’s education works as a proxy for family background. With limited opportunities in the labor market, women are ranked by these traits which are closely related to education. This is why educated women are highly valued in the marriage market” (pp. 162-163)

      Hence, as work-related communication between wives and husbands is so rare in Korea (for one), she finds an association between highly-educated wives and highly-earning men, but not a casual relationship.

      Sorry if that was a lot to take in, and I necessarily missed out a lot. But I hoped you found it interesting!^^


  2. If Park Hee-sung had said “to protect women and children”, then that would indicate a “perceived need for only women and children to be protected” and would offend me. But he said “pregnant women and children”. I can’t see any gender discrimination there, as long as an overwhelming majority of pregnant people are women.


    1. Granted, and I’ve changed the text accordingly. Like I say in the newly edited version however, it is still a rather bizarre rationale for banning smoking in public places (don’t men and non-pregnant women also suffer the effects of passive smoking?), and it is not unreasonable to suppose similar beliefs underlie both that and the discriminatory National Health Promotion Law Enforcement Ordinance.


      1. Thanks. You may be right about underlying beliefs, but on the surface what Park says doesn’t strike me as any more bizarre than prohibiting children from consuming alcoholic beverages while allowing adults to consume as much as they like (sorry if this is a bad analogy, of course no child or adult will be keen on passive smoking).

        And while gender discrimination is obvious in the case of the 1989 ban, I don’t think it’s worse than, for example, drafting all men but no women into national service, as done in a few countries with much better “gender empowerment” ranks with one rationale being that women have, on average, a weaker constitution (like the children/fetuses who must be protected from SHS), another that women’s service to the nation is childbearing, and possibly also some subconscious and unofficial stuff going on.


        1. Sorry for not thanking you earlier for pointing out my mistake by the way, but I think you’re misguided with your comparisons between the 1989 ban and male conscription sorry. As regardless of the merits and dis-merits of excluding women from military service on the basis of their supposed weaker constitution (although in fact women’s bodies are stronger and/or superior than men’s in some respects), even I would admit that that rationale cannot be dismissed out of hand (update: although, ultimately, I still don’t think it’s sufficient justification to exclude women).

          But in contrast, I see no logical reason whatsoever for children and women to be protected from cigarette advertising, and hence inherent to the legislation is the notion that women are no more capable of protecting themselves than children, and yet men are.


          1. …and/or, possibly, a notion that men need less protection as smoke is less harmful to them?

            That’s an interesting link. And I may indeed be misguided with my comparison and admit that I know little about either problem. Just for the record, I didn’t mean to justify the 1989 ban in any way, although I don’t think that’s how I came across.


          2. Oh no, that’s cool. And I acknowledge that with so many men smoking already, and with legislators keen not to have women (or children) to follow their lead, then the 1989 legislation may only inadvertently been sexually discriminatory, in a “No dogs and Chinese allowed” sense. Unfortunately however, that’s not mutually exclusive with paternalism (with a stress on the “pater”!) and sexism either, so, well, make of it what you will.

            Actually, It would be interesting to find legislators’ originals arguments and so on sometime and find out which one was ultimately the case, but that will probably have to wait until I’m ensconced in academia 10-15 years hence!


  3. I am not a smoker and I have voted for laws preventing smoking in restaurants and buildings, but most of my friends smoke. I live in Daegu and my female friends have to always duck under a patio or in a coffee shop if they want to have a cigarette, but when they go to Seoul, they are so happy because they can smoke outside (that’s what they’ve told me). The first thing they do when they step out of the train station is light up. So, either my friends haven’t be caught yet (by 아저씨), things are better off than what we’ve heard in Seoul, or Daegu is much much worse. It would surprise me if it was the last one since Daegu is traditionally a very conservative city.


    1. I can’t speak for Seoul sorry, but over the past 10 years (and especially the last 2) I have noticed more and more college-age women smoking in drinking areas around universities at night here in Busan at least. Don’t think I’ve ever seen any woman smoking on the streets during the day though.

      As I’ll explain in a comment below in a moment, I do see many female students smoking at my university, easily visible to professors and so forth (but not their parents!).


  4. I had not known about this err, um…custom when I had visited Korea two summers ago. When I went out with some friends in Jeju that went to my University back here in the U.S. there was one girl who was smoking. I had actually seen her doing this back in Kentucky, and when her boyfriend came outside she ran around the side of the building before he could see her. I just thought to myself then that he didn’t know she smoked or thought she quit, for whatever reason I didn’t think it was because she didn’t want to get smacked in the face. So back to Jeju, she has a new boyfriend there and some how it comes up that she can’t be caught smoking because he has been physical with her before about it. Then she told me that my friend back in Kentucky (he was also a Korean just to make that fully understood) had told her that if he caught her as well that he would hit her. I was quite shocked. The bad part is, the boyfriend in Jeju probably could have got his ass kicked by her if she realized that she could do it. The strangest part of it was just that she so readily accepted it. This leads me to me a question…

    How do you guys resist the urge to smack the shit out of someone when you see something like this occur? Obviously you risk yourself being deported if you acted on such an impulse, but I am afraid I am not sure how I would react, as after hearing her story all I could do was grin and stare daggers at her boyfriend while he was there.


    1. Also, welcome back James. I hope you enjoyed the break. A lot of us really appreciate this blog and the others in the K-blog sphere as they have helped with the learning curve of Korean culture.


      1. Fortunately I’ve never personally seen anything like that, although I’ve heard many stories. The rational part of me says that I should ignore it, as good foreign Samaritans often get turned on by both the boyfriend and the girlfriend and even bystanders, whom all then proceed to lie to the police; but I don’t know how true it is though.

        On the other hand, when something similar happened (but worse than slapping) between 2 Korean family members of mine (best not go into details) then I was on my feet in a flash and had to be restrained from laying in to the perpetrator. Not saying that I’m a noble, fearless fighter for justice by any means, but I’d be surprised if I didn’t have the same instinctive reaction if I ever saw something like that again.


  5. This is a great article. I have committed faux paus in both of these situations of violating a superior’s personal space and was perplexed and embarrassed in both. I knew there had to be more to it than they were just dicks. Ha.

    Great stuff. Looking forward to the rest.

    P.S. What ever happened to the rest of the militarization series? Enough with the ads! Haha. Just kidding.


    1. Thanks, and actually I partially took the time off to begin work on that (you’ll see why when it’s up), but unfortunately I caught a cold for nearly 2 weeks and that screwed up most of my blogging plans.

      I’m still aiming to have it up by the 18th though, which would be 3 years after I started this blog. And seeing as wanting to write that post is not only precisely why I started this blog and led to its name, but is also based on something that ended up sending me to Korea and not Nicaragua as planned…then it’s about time I wrote the damn thing!

      Just want it to be perfect though…sigh…


  6. I think there’s also been a great deal of underreporting, historically, of women’s smoking rates in Korea. I remember when I first came ten years ago (ok, eleven ^^;;;) to find that the bathrooms of the women’s university in Seoul where I was studying were some of the rankest I’d ever visited ~ almost entirely because they were used as much or more for a place to smoke away from public eyes as any real sanitation problem. Women simply smoked in more retired places than men. I would actually rank cigarrette stains, buts, and burns as one of the greater hazzards of using women’s rooms in Korea. Other women-only spaces can be similar. Don’t even get me started on lesbian bars here . . . gah, you need a gasmask!


    1. I agree about the under-reporting (have read precisely that actually, and will talk about it more in Part 3), and am not surprised to hear about the smoking in the women’s toilets at your university. I was really surprised at how many women smoke at the university I go to now, especially when I saw none at a university I lived next to in Jinju 10 years ago. But then I never actually worked there, and alas, I would never have gone into the women’s toilets but I’m sure I would have probably have found some indirect evidence for their smoking and/or simply “caught” them at it sooner or later.

      I partially attributed all the smoking at my current university to it not exactly being a prestigious one, and indeed all the journal articles I’ll be referring to point out that, like everywhere else, socio-economic position does have a strong inverse relationship on smoking rates. Interesting that it was so prevalent at your rather better one in Seoul then, and probably still is(?).


      1. I can testify that the SKY university I attended also had similar bathroom issues, although it was, interestingly, not consistent across the campus . . .


        1. Smoking in the men’s restrooms is pretty much constant as well (in Korean universities) — it would be interesting if some intrepid researcher were to attempt to compare and quantify smoking rates in men’s v. women’s toilets.


          1. Think that that could only properly done by secret video cameras really. Sounds a little voyeuristic, but probably not at all really (provided one couldn’t see inside stalls {would need to see smoke rising from them though}, and that the recordings were destroyed after the research), and it’s through their use that we get the real rates of handwashing frequency, and learn that the middle stalls or urinals are the cleanest to use because people favor the end ones for sake of personal space.

            p.s. Here’s a xkcd cartoon on the latter.


          2. I would think that small, highly sensitive smoke detectors with the properly clever software used afterward to distinguish multiple triggerings by the same smoker, versus different cases, might work. You might need an array of them, or perhaps . But it would mean much less chance of abuse by a researcher.

            I was thinking to myself whether counting the cigarette butts might work, but the thing is, a lot of guys (I don’t know about female smokers) seem to have self-trained Pavlov-style an association between bowel movements and smoking. Seriously. I have a feeling this would mean they’re trashing the butts in the toilet, which is a common sight — a cig butt floating in a previously flushed toilet.

            Still, one could probably make a special trash bin for cigarette butts in each stall, and a bigger one in the main chamber of the bathroom, and assume that men and women would be equally likely to not comply with the “new” system.

            Still more interesting would be a survey (of the same people would be nice but with a big enough sample and other controls maybe that’s unnecessary) where the questions and answers are collected by live researchers — some Korean men, some Korean women, some “foreign” men, and some “foreign” women… and comparing the variations in the rate of smoking reported among women respondents. You’d probably need a big sample to make it mean anything, but if you could do it, it’d be interesting.


          3. Actually, I rarely see cigarette butts floating in a toilet myself, but back when I had the free time to study in various Starbuckses around Busan I often saw a note in the cubicles requesting guys not to smoke in the toilets because all the cigarette butts were blocking them up. Being only in Korean, then presumably that was more of a problem then the occasional non-Korean guy flushing toilet paper down it and possibly blocking the toilet that way.

            In addition to that association you mentioned, I’d add another association or side-effect of smoking of feeling the need to clear one’s sinuses in the bathroom, usually by spitting into a urinal. Which is bad enough – although that raises the interesting question of why I find that MUCH more disgusting than equally disgusting urine going into a urinal – but one thing I’ve noticed at the university I’ve just started at (and only there) is that the male students will do so in the cubicles too, simply by spitting on the floor in front of them while they’re sitting there. I can’t count the number of times I’ve opened a cubicle door to an otherwise clean toilet, but had to find another one because there’s just so many puddles of saliva and mucus on the floor.

            Getting disgusted just writing about it too! God knows how I’d ever live in China…


  7. I think this raises some really interesting issues. As a foreign woman who smokes but wants to stop I am embarrassed to ask my Korean doctor/pharmacy for help because of the taboo re women smoking in the first place…I wonder where does that leave Korean women who want to quit but aren’t allowed to admit to smoking?
    My mother-in-law (Korean) smokes but only around her own home (I asked my husband the other night, ‘Does her doctor know she smokes as it may affect the medicine he prescribes her?’ I got an ambiguous reply) …

    This article also reminded me of my (non-smoking) Korean girl friend who when walking down the street with me one night demanded that I give her a cigarette to smoke as she walked- one small moment of breaking taboos perhaps?

    I do not condone smoking, and certainly wish I had never started. However i really wish Korea would wake up and admit that women smoke here too, make it less taboo, and make it easier for women who do smoke and want to stop easier to get help to do so, as is for their male counterparts.


  8. Good to see you are back into the swing of things James.

    Hmm, so why are women (or is it just “good” women?) not supposed to smoke? Is is not “feminine”? “Cute”?


  9. Where I’m from, the taboo’s on smoking per se. Teenagers, artists etc, both male and female, will smoke openly (though not blatantly: strict adherence to designated smoking areas – lame, I know) as a deliberate mark of their ‘outsider’ status. Which is why it surprised me on my first visit to Korea when I witnessed 아저씨 lighting up in their living rooms, right in front of family members.

    I’m a female smoker from a non-Western country who started only at age 23. For me, it’s a private thing – I discovered the greater satisfaction of being on the can when accompanied by a lit cigarette (TMI much?). I wonder how your Part 4 will reconcile such a case study.

    Smoking is an unhealthy habit that isn’t worth defending. But when I found out how gendered Koreans have turned it, and how resultantly hypocritical the objection to my smoking was, I got to thinking hard about whether I really ought to quit for my upcoming move to Seoul. The question is, does respecting the discomfort over the sight of a woman smoking mean giving in to this bit of social anachronism?

    Hence that question posed to I’m No Picasso writer Liz. As a presumably habitual smoker who also happens to be an intelligent woman of strong opinions tempered by genuine respect for Korean culture, she’s just the right person to advise on the matter. Indeed, I agree that the solution is to just not rub it* in people’s faces.

    *both lit cigarette and the act of smoking said cigarette.


  10. Very interesting as always. I’m embarrassed to be around women who smoke, even white ones, especially if I’m anywhere students from my girls high school might see us. And yes, I smoke myself. I guess it should feel strange not to feel like a hypocrite for walking out the school door and lighting up, but feeling very much a hypocrite for hanging out with women who smoke, but that’s what happens when you live here too long.

    The other week I saw two of my former students, whom I caught smoking when they were in HS, at the bar, sitting in a booth seat with smoke rising up from above one of them. When the other one wanted to light up she moved across the table to sit beside her friend so that I wouldn’t have a direct line of sight on her, and then moved back when she was finished. It is kind of funny how despite the fact that it couldn’t be more obvious what she was doing, doing it outside my sight made it OK, or at least less worse.


  11. I just wanted to express my gratitude and appreciation to all of you for sharing your insights about Korea.
    I am located in HK ( been to Korea three times ) and I am currently conducting a private investigation on female smoking habits in South East Asia, due to the fact that I am an investor in vice stocks.

    btw, there is an interesting file on the web called
    ” Smoking behaviour among female airline cabin crew from ten Asian countries”
    The full pdf file can be retrieved here :

    It’s a little old, from 1994, but it correctly predicated a trend
    And I feel this trend is about to intensify until the female smoking-incidence levels in the West are reached,
    if not surpassed.


  12. Pingback: Smoking in Korea

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