Korean Sociological Image #41: Mothers of Warriors


A quick question: who would you choose to sell hormone-treatment and anti-depression medication to middle-aged women?

Barring Bae Young-joon (배용준) above, notoriously popular among them, then I’d wager that middle-aged women themselves were your most likely answer. And your least likely? Probably men in their early-20s, which begs the question of why they’re the only ones actually speaking in the following commercial from Dongkook Pharmaceutical (see below for a translation):

Of course, the reason the young men are featured at all is because Korea has universal male conscription, which makes parting scenes like those featured above a normal part of the Korean life-cycle. So while the leaving ceremony itself may be unfamiliar to most Western observers, a company encouraging consumers to associate its product with it is really no different from a bank using imagery of, say, children’s university graduation ceremonies to sell retirement savings plans.

Still, that’s not to say that it’s just any old commercial. For in relying on an emotional event for Korean mothers and sons to sell its products, but quite literally denying only the mothers a voice in that, Dongkook Pharmaceutical has ironically provided an apt illustration of Korean women’s expected role in any public debates about military conscription. Which is in short, to be seen and not heard, their opinions taken for granted by others.

For instance, in 1997 the Korean media revealed that the sons of Lee Hoi-chang (이회창), the then presidential candidate of the then ruling Shinhangukdang (New Korean Party; 신한국당), had been exempted from their military service due to medical grounds; popularly believed to have used his wealth and influence to secure this, the backlash against Lee for failing to fulfill his paternal and nationalist responsibilities was so intense that his political career was soon over. And yet according to Insook Kown in A Feminist Exploration of Military Conscription: The Gendering of the Connections Between Nationalism, Militarism and Citizenship in South Korea (2001), even in the midst of all that:

…women were voiceless. Those who accused Lee, answered the accusations, reported the matter, and contributed articles were all men. In public, the conscription scandal seemed a matter for men only. Sometimes, mothers were used by men as a reference symbolizing a certain group of women only concerned about the welfare of their sons. Many male editorial writers represented the angry emotions of mothers to show South Korean popular opinion. One editorial writer in the JoongAng Daily (22/08/97) described the anger of many mothers of sons. According to him, these mothers wrote a slogan on the calender for Election Day: “Let’s never forget the exemptions of Lee’s sons”.  (p. 43)

(Source: anja_johnson)

And later another editorial writer in the same paper (27/08/97) illustrated the emotional background of the issue by using a motherly perspective:

People did not deal with the exemption by making accusations of immorality or illegal intervention in the exemption, but with emotional anger like, why did your sons not have to go into the army, while my son is suffering in a life-or-death crisis. What made women angrier than anyone else, was caused by this kind emotion. (p. 43)

Kwon argues that the Korean state has always very much had a stake in accepting feminized forms of self-sacrifice in its name, whether as factory workers, prostitutes to the US military or Japanese tourists (a crucial source of foreign exchange in the 1960s and 1970s), or mothers of conscripts. Focusing on the latter here, consequently they have so far lacked:

…room to represent their own sacrifices in public. Mother’s concern and pain over their son’s conscription has remained hidden under the taken-for-granted necessity of military conscription for national security. Their voices have been deprived of a space for expression; and because their emotional attachment to their sons has been translated into a private matter, they have not mobilized as a group. (p. 37; tenses have been changed)

Not that this lack of representation means that mothers are necessarily opposed to conscription. For example, Cynthia Enloe, who has written extensively on the subject of “patriotic motherhood” narratives constructed by militarized states, argues that in fact they can have attractions for women whose mothering role has been evaluated as personal and private. Indeed, it can be a chance for them to completely revalue their maternal duty:

Some women feel deeply validated when some politician goes on the call for mothering to be defined as a vital contribution to the nation’s war effort, because warfare has been imagined by many to be the quintessentially public and national activity. (Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, 2000, p. 11, quoted in Kwon p. 46)

Moreover, what are these “sacrifices” referred to exactly? Kwon’s analysis is a little weak on this point, as although she provides a comprehensive and convincing demonstration of how in fact all women suffer from the conscription system (a subject taken up in this series), there is little evidence that mothers specifically suffer beyond that aforementioned “concern and pain over their son’s conscription”. As the commercial demonstrates however, that may be rather more than a Western observer might expect.

At which point it is prudent to provide the translation of it(!). Below, the text featured on the screen is written as normal text below, while everything spoken by the conscripts or in the voiceover I’ve put in quotation marks. I’ve also provided the commercial again to make it easier to follow along:

엄마…..그동안 받기만 해왔습니다

Mother…..(I’ve) only ever received things (from you)

엄마…이제 처음으로 엄마품을 떠나네요

Mother….this is the first time I’ve left my mother’s (your?) bosom”


Mother…thank you

듬직한 대한민국 군인이 돼서 엄마가 믿고 의지할 수 있는 아들이 되겠습니다

I will become a reliable, trustworthy Korean soldier whom you can trust and depend on

이제는 우리가 엄마를 도와드릴 차례입니다

Now it’s our (my?) turn to help our mothers

어머니 잘 다녀오겠습니다. 사랑합니다. 사랑해

Mother, I will do well before I return. I love you (formal). I love you (informal)

엄마, 사랑합니다. 충성!

Mother, I love you (formal). Loyalty! (Fealty?) (Devotion?) [James: whatever the exact meaning, it is said when saluting]

대한민국 갱년기 어머니들의 10명 중 8명은 다양한 갱년기 증상으로 힘들어하고 있습니다

Out of every 10 mothers of the Korean public who experience menopause, 8 suffer from various symptoms

(Above, left and right): 여성 갱년기 극복 갬폐인 & 동국제약

Female Menopause Conquest Campaign & Dongkook Pharmaceutical

엄마에게, 사랑의 마음을 전하세요. 훼라민큐가 함께 합니다

Tell your mother the love you feel in your heart. With HeraminQ.

이제, 엄마의 갱년기를 도와주세요. 훼라민Q.

Now, please help with mothers’ menopause. HeraminQ.

(In very fine print): 의사, 약사와 상의하십시오. 부작용이 있을 수 있습니다

Please consult with a doctor or pharmacist. Side effects are possible.

Update: Seamus Walsh has provided a slightly more accurate translation (with explanations) in the comments.

(For another post: the impact on sisters and girlfriends of conscription? Movie poster for The Longest 24 Hours, (기다리다미쳐, 2007), a lighthearted look at military service from the perspective of conscripts’ girlfriends; also known as Crazy4wait. Source)

While this may sound a little hypocritical at first, let me begin my discussion on the subject of the mothers’ feelings by highlighting those of the men; actually, that is the original reason I wanted to write this post, for let me stress that you were seeing men in their early-20s crying at the thought of leaving their mothers. What did that make you think of them?

Well, at risk of sounding insensitive, personally I found them to be pathetic. Not that I was all that mature at the same age of course, and in many senses my reaction may simply be because of cultural differences. Like Brian in Jeollanam-do once put it:

…everything in Korea tries to be cute, in the same way everything in the States is “Xtreme” and too cool for school. Korea uses a cartoon to advertise where the US would have a gravelly stoner voiceover, and Korean videos often feature cuteness exaggerated to a sickening degree where American videos would lots of brooding and feigned indifference.

And not unrelated is how different average Koreans’ and average Westerners’ life-cycles are at that age, although 30-somethings like myself should be wary of projecting their own experiences onto today’s 20-somethings. Nor do I want to make light of the hardships conscripts have to endure either.

(Source: anja_johnson)

But then I’m not:  in that commercial at least, thinking about those hardships is not why they’re crying. Moreover, to describe the crying as a simple cultural difference underplays the extent to which this practice is unique even within Korean culture itself, as beyond obvious cases such as funerals, my (Korean) wife for one could think of no other situations in which it is so socially acceptable for a man of that age to cry publicly. That they can and do then, is partially because a) the vast majority of Koreans don’t actually think of any male as a “man” until he has fulfilled his military service, and b) this uniquely strong bond between mothers and conscript-sons. Indeed, there is:

…a widely held popular belief that a father should encourage his son to go into the army, and to fulfill his national defense duty to achieve real citizenship. In this gendered construction, mothers represent emotional attachment such as compassion and pity toward their conscripted sons. In other words…the emotional part of the work of conscription….

…At the most emotional step of the conscription process, the father disappears. For instance, in two recent guidebooks published for pre-conscripts, the authors, both male, make almost no mention of fathers. The only ‘object’ for whom male soldiers are expected to feel concern about in the family is the mother. (p. 44)

And as you might expect, this is well-represented in popular culture, and in addition to commercials like the above I have frequently seen conscripts brought on to the stage after a girl-group has performed on an army base to wax lyrical about their performance and their attractiveness…only then to break down in tears and leave a very emotional message to their mothers watching back home (indeed, often they’re literally choking on their words so much that Om-ma “mother” is the only word you’re able to discern).

Unfortunately for readers however, this is yet another case of something interesting to outside observers that is unremarkable to Koreans themselves, and so I’ve spent over an hour unsuccessfully looking for examples to post here (videos of girl-group performances typically finish just before the soldiers are brought on stage). If any readers find any I would appreciate it if you could pass them on, but in the meantime let me finish by passing on what Kwon says about the program Ujeongdui Mudae (우정의 무대), or Stage for Friendship, the only program about conscripted soldiers in the 1990s, and which had:

…one famous section, ‘Yearning for Mother’. An unidentified  mother talked about her son from back stage. Following her talk, a lot of soldiers ran on the stage shouting “Mother” and insisted she was their mother. Finally, the mother appeared on stage and hugged her son. Finally, the mother appeared on stage and hugged her son. Accompanied with deeply moving music, both mother and son cried, as did other soldiers and everybody watching the TV show. (p. 44).

For your interest though, I did find this 2008 commercial with Moon Geun-young (문근영) for GS Caltex (칼텍스), which features a mother visiting her son during his military service (and impressed with how much of a man he has become):

And for the record, Dongkook Pharmaceutical did produce more “normal” commercials for HeraminQ with middle-age women, here, here, and here, as well as another one in the “life-cycle” series featuring mothers’ high-school children taking their life-determining university-entrance exams:


(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here; for more on the effect of conscription on Korean society, see here and here)

18 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #41: Mothers of Warriors

  1. Too many things in my head at once.. but..

    1) I saw the head of that first picture and thought she was a man. The three pigs didn’t have enough hair for all that chinny chin-chin.

    2) “For in simultaneously relying on but quite literally denying a voice to emotional Korean mothers, Dongkook Pharmaceutical has ironically provided an apt illustration of Korean women’s wider role in any public debates about military conscription” seems exactly backwards to me.. the process is flowing the other way. Sometimes theory is bad.

    3) “Well, at risk of sounding insensitive, personally I found them to be pathetic.” is a feeling I share about pre-military men. But the army is the antidote Korea has for that problem. You’ve now taught a semester at Uni and must have seen the difference? NOTE: I’m not claiming this is a brilliant antidote, I’m just saying that it is the antidote that Korea has. If universal conscription goes away and the rest of the culture stays in amber (highly unlikely, of course)?

    I shudder to think.

    Which is why I so rarely do think.

    For now..

    Daehan Minguk!


    1. 1) Hmmm…can never tell if you’re being sarcastic or not, at least online. If not, then it is actually a man: Bae Young-joon.

      Not that you mention it, but it came to mind (so what the hell): I realize the disjuncture between the title of the post and the image, but I found it hilarious when I thought of it on the subway myself, and also decided that people wanting to figure out the disjuncture for themselves was much more likely to encourage them to read than just opening with the bland-looking commercial, which is what it originally did.

      2) Not seeing how that’s “backwards” necessarily…but hell, it’s certainly awkward. Will edit it after typing this up.

      3) Ah, but I was pretty pathetic myself at that age, and yet have still become at least a bit more of a man since despite not being in the military. Likewise, for all their flaws, even the most annoying of my uni students would eventually grow up if they were forced to leave home and/or become financially independent.


  2. Those commercials. If I cringed anymore I think my spine would burst out. Damn, that was awful. Cultural differnce, I know but hot-damn.

    No wonder it’s so hard to be a successful career woman in Korea with all this propaganda telling women your biggest role is to be a mother. Fathers obviously went to a business trip out of Earth.

    Do Korean men ever find an excuse to exempt women in social issues because they haven’t “had” to do this service? If a male in Korea is not a “man” until this service, does that mean females are forever little girls until they get married? Sigh, if it is so… So depressing from a westeners standpoint.


    1. Not sure what you mean by “exempt” sorry (do you mean more “exclude”?), but yeah, the main thrust of Kwon’s argument is that women are indeed very much considered second-class citizens because they don’t do military service, and Korea’s appalling levels of female economic and political empowerment certainly back that up.

      Not that women want to do it mind you: you might be amazed at how even the most progressive, feminist, and socially-conscious members of Korean society are virtually unanimous in their belief that military conscription is required, that it should only be for men, and that it is more of a burden for them that women should be grateful to them for than anything else.

      To the extent that they’ve thought about it all of course: it really is taken for granted here.


      1. Yeh I used the word wrongly there! Couldn’t thing of the word excluded and grabbed the closest ‘ex’ word hahaha -.-

        It’s pretty weird, I’d like to think the ideology ‘it’s a burden on women’ is just a social thing, otherwise, in the West we would also have a majority of women thinking, “ahh… it’s a burden on us”. Of course there are women here in the West that think that but here women and men can join the forces if they want. I don’t think they’ll really get far in their argument or debates if they conscribe roles for men but do not want the role of “mother and wife” forced on them in return it’s not very egalitarian. There are females cadets, navys’ and such in s.k anyway.


  3. James,

    Interesting comment about how the women in ads like this tend to remain voiceless. Never thought about it before you mentioned it.

    Charles’s comment about university students is notable. At my university, there is a marked difference between students pre- and post-conscription.


    1. Thanks, although technically I was only referring to this ad actually! But now that you mention it, that’s certainly something to look out for in ads as a whole (and by no means only in Korea).

      I’d agree on the difference with university students also of course, but consider asking your female students what they think of the difference sometimes: many have a very real fear (or direct experience) of their formerly innocent and idealistic brothers or boyfriends turning into, well, cynical and sexist pricks once they’re out.


      1. As a staunch pacifist I would fault the system for making them sexist and cynical, and absolve the draftees of most of the blame. There’s a lot to be said for military culture . . . just wish there was a way to cultivate discipline, responsibility, and maturity without being trained to murder or be murdered.

        I’ve read a few times by foreign English teachers—and I’m not putting words in Charles’ mouth, his comment just reminded me—who look at who they consider wimpy, annoying college students, and say things like the army will whip them into shape, or make men out of them, etc. As you can imagine I don’t really go for comments like that, because in spite of our exchange on a recent post I don’t consider the draft as healthy and I don’t overlook what it can do to youth, a generation, and yes a gender.


  4. As usual, I’m a drone and have no original thoughts of my own to add here – all the intelligent stuff has already been said, it seems! Excellent post. couple of translation comments though (I hope you don’t mind?):

    …이제 처음으로 엄마품을 떠나네요
    “Now I’m leaving your breast for the first time.” Obviously not literally leaving the breast, this is just a Korean expression. And you were right, it should be translated as “your” because of the way Koreans tend to use titles, both formal and informal, whenever possible. He is talking to and about his own mother, so in English “your” is the most natural translation of “엄마.”

    듬직한 대한민국 군인이 돼서 엄마가 믿고 의지할 수 있는 아들이 되겠습니다
    “By becoming a reliable, trustworthy soldier of the ROK I will become a son whom you can trust and depend on.”

    어머니 잘 다녀오겠습니다.
    This is difficult to translate because it’s one of those standardised phrases that are used so often in Korean that we don’t really have in English. I know you clearly know this because of the way you’ve translated it, but it’s not exactly accurate. Literally it means “I will go/attend/perform my military service and come back well.” – Well as in “to do something well” rather than not ill.

    대한민국 갱년기 어머니들의 10명 중 8명은 다양한 갱년기 증상으로 힘들어하고 있습니다
    “8 out of every 10 ROK menopausal mothers suffer from various menopause symptoms.”

    엄마에게, 사랑의 마음을 전하세요. 훼라민큐가 함께 합니다
    “Tell your mother about the love you feel for her.” – This is another one that doesn’t translate well into English, so a little poetic license means “heart/mind of love” can become “love you feel.” “Heramin Q does it with you” – as opposed to doing it with Heramin Q. In this sentence the Heramin Q is actively telling your mother that presumably it loves her. It’s actually a comment to sons that Heramin Q is almost like a partner to them in loving their mother. Strange…

    If discussion on here heats up I might think of something constructive to add, but as it stands I think you’ve said it all! (I didn’t mean the translation comments to seem like I was being critical – I hope you don’t take them like that!)


    1. Fixed, and thanks. I just had the confusing romanization to go on in the journal article – Hoechang Yi – and was surprised when I couldn’t seem to find much about 이호창 on Naver etc.


  5. I admire your blog, your articles are such a good insight into the Korean culture. but the sight of grown ups crying because of their separation with their mothers is quite strange.


  6. Hi, I just found your blog searching about gender politics, and was surprised to see that it was about South Korea. (I’m Korean myself)

    I liked the way you saw the Korean mother-son relationship portrayed in the media (esp. concerning the tearful good byes to the army). I think you’re writing would’ve been also better if you had pointed out how this mother-children relationship (let alone mother-son relationship) is highly abnormal in this country. Another example that is comparable with the ‘going to the army’ is ‘marriage’. Korean women tend to be highly more attached to their sons when they are getting married. I think this results in more friction between the mothers and their daughter-in-law. I’m not sure how this abnormality is measured or whether there materials on this matter, but it’d be great if you also can develop more this ‘Korean mother-son abnormality’ issue in to this direction. A follow-up post maybe?

    I don’t want to sound nagging or anything, but as a Korean living in this country, I always feel some abnormality in this society esp. relating to gender, and I want to recommend you some topics maybe you could develop so people can see how abnormal this country is.


    1. Thank you very much for your comment. But sorry, you can hardly critique me for not pointing out how “highly abnormal” the mother-son relationship is in Korea when you’re so vague about it yourself! Could you please explain what exactly you mean by that statement, and possibly give some concrete examples?

      But either way, please feel free to suggest some topics to write about: I don’t consider that to be nagging!^^


      1. I’m very sorry, I should have been more clear!
        What you pointed out is that Korean mothers worrying over their sons when they are conscripted, or their sons crying over their mothers is strange yet a Korean cultural phenomenon.
        However, what I meant by ‘abnormal’ is the excessive affection Korean mothers portray towards their sons. This is related to what you have discussed because it is the conscript policy which aggravates (or directly affects, I am not very sure of the precise relationship, considering that Korean people in general prefer sons to daughters) this abnormal ‘attachment’. Consequently, as I have mentioned, this leads to life-time interference of mothers in their sons’ lives and also friction with their daughter-in-laws (these examples are very clearly manifested in Korean dramas or ‘Love and War(사랑과 전쟁)’)
        Thus what I wanted to say was that it would have been also great if you added how the conscript policy and being ‘mothers of warriors’ also lead to these kind of abnormal attachments!

        Oh and I’m glad that you think suggesting topics is not nagging! I actually wrote you something on twitter, but I’ll mention it here again anyway. Rep. Kang from GNP recently has been accused of ‘verbally’ sexually harassing women (female politicians), and his words are just shocking and disgusting. I’m curious how you would view this issue. Please refer to the link http://www.koreaherald.com/national/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20100720000775


  7. Charles,

    I think it’s worth asking whether the antidote works; does military service turn Korean boys into men? We have to have a clear sense of what an adult man is, or should be, before we can answer the question. Considering all of the complaints I see all over the Korean blogosphere (never thought I’d use that word…oh well) about Ajoshis, it may be that compulsive military service is warping young men into sexist, hyper-privileged jerks instead of full-grown, reasonable men. But as someone who’s lived in the ROK for all of 2 weeks, I’m by no means qualified to really speak directly on this. But I think we should dig deeper into how we want adult men to act when we analyze the impact of the draft (and other vast social policies/phenomenon)


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