Sex as Power in the South Korean Military: A Follow-up

( Source )

As I discussed back in March, the first ever survey on the issue of sexual violence in the Korean military discovered endemic levels of abuse, with roughly 15% of 250,000 conscripts each year experiencing it as either victims or perpetrators. A hugely important socialization experience for Korean men, this had grave implications for Korean society.

On a slight positive note however, I was happy to also read that much of the researchers’ data was obtained by interviews with soldiers in their barracks with the official cooperation of the Ministry of Defense. A sign of changing attitudes towards acknowledging and dealing with the problem?

Alas, I’ve just discovered that that was far too optimistic, as the military still remains one of the least transparent institutions in Korea:

When the Cheonan sank [in March], the initial reaction was shock and sadness, which quickly gave way to rage: with a government accused of dragging its feet, but also with a military that seemed unprepared for a North Korean attack.

But anger with the military runs deeper than over a single event. Mistrust of the institution is widespread because it has failed to open itself up, using the excuse of national security, while the rest of the country has embraced democracy.

South Korea’s military dictatorship may be a thing of the past, but the North’s constant saber rattling in the form of nuclear tests, missile launches, spy incidents and the occasional skirmish continue to give Korea’s men at arms an immediate relevance – and an excuse to conceal things from the public. That right to secrecy is enshrined in the National Security Law, which places restrictions even on regular citizens’ freedom of speech for the sake of preventing enemy subversion, but is even more of a cloak for the armed forces. It’s the legal manifestation of the bubble in which the military operates, isolating it from the massive changes the rest of Korean society has undergone. To date, for example, no civilian has ever been named defense minister.

Every year, a report is quietly released titled, “Military deaths caused by accidents.” In 2008, there were 134 names on that list, including 75 suicides. The suicides are usually explained by a “failure to adjust to military life.”

That explanation is unacceptable for Joo Jong-woo, whose son, Pvt. Joo Jung-wook, committed suicide in 2001 at age 22…

Read the rest at The JoongAng Ilbo, including about “its emphasis on tight ideological control of its conscripts” resulting in its banning of left-wing books like the works of Noam Chomsky, and the expulsion of military legal officers for “arguing that the military’s regulations are unconstitutional”. Meanwhile, the Korean military still refuses to recognize conscientious objectors and so imprisons them (see here also for a podcast on the development of the concept of conscientious objection in the West), the National Human Rights Commission is ineffective, and the maintenance of the conscription system as a whole is one reason why the Korean Military remains  “a 1970-vintage force structure, designed around a 1970-vintage threat, equipped with 1970-vintage weapons.”

( Source: anja_johnson )

As for the images of mascots, please note that I post them not to be facetious though(!), but rather to show how facile such attempts to soften the image of institutions like the police and military are in light of reports like this. But nothing against the mascots themselves of course, and see here, here, and here for more information about Podori (포도리) in the riot gear!^^

Update, October 2010: Unfortunately, this recent incident demonstrates that little progress has been made since this post was written.


19 thoughts on “Sex as Power in the South Korean Military: A Follow-up

  1. “15% of 250,000 conscripts experience sexual abuse as either victims or perpetrators.”

    I don’t like that statistic because it obscures the nature of the problem. Is the 15% a few harassing many, some harassing some, or many ganging up on a few?


      1. For the record, I’ve just edited the introduction to the post (since Whatsonthemenu wrote her comment). Not that it affects her comment or mine though, so I’ll mention it just out of politeness to her then!^^


  2. Those “cute” mascots are soooo Japanese.

    You’d hope that SK would have a decent military, since it spends so much on it. Maybe they are confident their 70s era military will beat the 50s era, half starved NK military.


    1. Do the Japanese police etc. also have mascots? Forgive me if that sounds like a stupid question (after all, everything does in Japan, right?), but then presumably they don’t feel the same need to soften their image like their Korean counterparts do.


      1. Yes, they do. I’ve always vaguely it was so that children would feel comfortable getting help from the police (and from the SDF in times of national emergency), but I actually have no idea.

        (Never mind the UNOFFICIAL ones … [nsfw] )

        Then again, I think each prefecture has its own cutesy mascot, too…


  3. I wonder if the reason they don’t recognise conscientious objectors is because there would be so many of them? It would be great if someone did some proper research into how many young South Korean males would opt out if they could. Although, I do think that would in turn bring about it’s own problems, and those men would end up in a worse position after their peers have finished military service.


    1. It’s covered a little by Insook Kown in A Feminist Exploration of Military Conscription: The Gendering of the Connections Between Nationalism, Militarism and Citizenship in South Korea (2001), although I don’t have the PDF sorry. Here’s what she had to say (p. 42):

      Most of my interviewees remembered well how desperate not only male activists but also their politically unaware male friends were not to go into the army or how depressed they were about the overwhelming reality of being a ‘soldier’. One described this vividly: “It is the only time men want to be women or have some kind of disability”. Young Yi [an interviewee], who has a son, expressed her concern about her son’s future: “Whenever I think my son will be drafted, I really don’t want to send him to the army. It becomes more desperate that the unification between the South and North should happen as soon as possible” (26/08/98, Seoul)….

      And then a different interviewee describes the huge social stresses every family with a son faces.


  4. Without defending the Korean military, my (quick) reading of the “sexual abuse” chart that you included in your linked post is hardly shocking. At what point does an unwanted hug (which accounted for 20% of the abuse cases) become sexual abuse? Also in Korea men touching their friends’ asses (another 25% of the cases) as a sign of affection is not uncommon. As a foreign male I certainly don’t like it when it happens to me but I recognize it for the cultural practice that it is and certainly don’t consider it “abuse.” I can’t imagine many Korean men being truly offended by it.

    I’m not a fan of conscription, but if anything I would expect the level of “sexual abuse” in the army, if you define it as broadly as the authors have, to be higher than 15%.


    1. I agree that the researchers defined sexual abuse rather broadly, but then presumably if the conscripts interviewed considered the unwanted hugs and touching of their buttocks etc. as mere signs of affection then they wouldn’t have mentioned it to the researchers in the first place, yes?

      Of course, Korean men are much more physically affectionate towards each other than your average Western men are, but in light of those interviews then I don’t think it’s quite the universally-accepted Korean practice that you seem to think, as clearly some Korean men are indeed truly offended by it. In particular, note that there’s a world of difference between being physically affectionate with your male friends and having to endure it from a superior who’s only taking advantage of your inability to do anything about it for the sake of demonstrating his power.


  5. John, this has to do with the kpop subject…Have you heard yet that the SM Entertainment group SHINee is preparing to release their new album “Lucifer” and promote their title track of the same name, which also repeats this word in the song lyrics?

    It would be great if you could find out a little about what Korean fans think about this comeback. If you get the time to write something on the subject that would be wonderful!


    1. No problem about the name, but I just don’t have the time sorry. By itself, the “Korean Gender Reader” post going up later today has already taken me about 4 hours for instance!


  6. Enjoyed your interesting take on Korean army.

    I agree with the notion that the Army has right-sided mindset based on remnants of 70s’ ideological warfare (ban on Chomsky book IS a joke) and the army is the least transparent group here in South Korea.

    But about the conscription system and sex crime issues, I don’t think you’re giving the fair take on the Army.

    I don’t know whether this is because you base your research on the feminist view only or not. Korean femnists and their views get bashed A LOT, even from those who are not born in 70s, on the internet as being too biased.(This is amazing because the internet opinions tend to be the most left-centered opinion in Korea)

    I hope you take my comment into account when assessing the problems related to the Korean Army, next time.


  7. Oh yeah, I forgot to say this.

    This is an amazing blog and I was enthralled to find that a foreigner would put so much passion into gender-related problems in South Korea. The problem sure is a great one and has to be dealt with as soon as it can be. I really enjoyed reading the Korean culture from the eyes of the third-party person. Hope you keep up the good work :)


    1. Thank you for your comments and the compliment, and its always especially good to hear from a Korean reader!

      Still, I disagree that I’m not giving a fair take on the army sorry.

      First, because you don’t actually say in what way I’m being unfair to them. Second, because you suggest I might be being unfair because I base my views on “biased” Korean feminists’ ones, but then you don’t provide any evidence of why they are all biased.

      Just because they get criticized a lot doesn’t mean that they’re biased: I would expect them to be in a society as patriarchal as Korea.

      But regardless, I base this post and the longer original one on the only comprehensive survey of sexual abuse in the Korean military ever conducted, so its not like there are any alternative ones by the Army or non-feminists to dispute its findings. And there’s not likely to be considering that it was done with the cooperation of the Ministry of Defense.

      If you don’t think it’s fair, please say why and how, not just say that it’s unfair because it was done by Korean feminists. Or, again, if you think I’m being unfair too. Because, sorry, but you haven’t really given me anything to take into account the next time I write about the Korean military.


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