Korean Gender Reader

( Se7en, via Omona! They Didn’t )

With so many stories this week, I’ve decided to organize them by categories to make it easier to keep track.

Pop Culture

1. Social change through comedy?

Not a fan of dramas, normally I’d pay little attention to the news that yet another one is about to premiere. But I did a double-take when I read the following description of Nanun Jonsol Eeda (I am Legend; 나는전설이다) at DramaBeans:

Kim Jung-eun (김정은) plays Jeon Seol-hee (전설희) who leaves her society-wife identity behind after a divorce to front a rock band.

These photos picture her in the early part of the drama, when her character is the put-upon wife of a prestigious lawyer. Jeon Seol-hee was once the popular singer in a band when she was in high school, but over the course of her unhappy marriage, she has learned to speak quietly and act in a manner befitting her uppity in-law family.

Why my interest? Because it sounds a little like the 1996 movie The Adventures of Miss Park (박봉곤 가출 사건), which on the surface was an average romantic comedy, but actually had a radical message for its time. As So-hee Lee notes in her chapter ‘The Concept of Female Sexuality in Korean Popular Culture’ (pp. 141-164) in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea (ed. by Laruel Kendell, 2002):

…unlike the convention of most films in the genre, this one ends with a women running away from a domineering husband, achieving her dream of becoming a singer, and finally entering into a happy second marriage, “thus subverting a traditional morality that expects the runaway wife to come back home to restore everyone’s happiness and family security”. (p. 156)

And as such, Lee notes the film director was concerned about how a conservative audience might respond to the uncommon story and its unexpected ending, and hence in many ways the movie was a guerrilla attempt to sneak a serious social message into Korean cinema by presenting it as comedy. Not that Nanun Jonsol Eeda necessarily will attempt to of course, but I’ll keep an eye on it. Meanwhile, see my post Women Getting on Top: Korean Sexuality in Flux in the 1990s for more examples and an analysis of “sexually subversive” popular culture from that era.

2. Common Tropes in Korean Popular Culture

Again by Dramabeans, this new and ongoing series is not just indispensable for understanding dramas, but much about Korean daily life and gender roles too.  For starters, try the posts on the meanings of adults giving each other piggyback rides, and then when and where to use jondaemal (polite language) or banmal (informal language). As you might expect, men are allowed to use banmal to women much more than vice-versa, and Korean broadcasters often repeat that practice when dubbing or adding Korean subtitles to foreign movies and dramas too, even though no such distinction is made in the original language.

( Source: Dramabeans )

3. Feminism through Translation

Via Korean Modern Literature in Translation, I’ve found a review of Theresa Hyun’s Writing Women in Korea: Translation and Feminism in the Colonial Period (2003), which begins thus (my emphasis):

Theresa Hyun’s Writing Women in Korea: Translation and Feminism in the Colonial Period takes up the intriguing and fresh theme of the woman translator in colonial Korea. Although it is commonplace to argue that Western notions of feminism were translated into Korea at the turn of the twentieth century, this is the first study to examine this process through the historical figure of the woman translator. Translation here is no metaphor, but a material practice through which women transform themselves and Korean writing. Women, the author argues, made a decisive contribution to the development of modern Korean nationalism and feminism through their translation activities and their own fiction writing, which developed in correlation with their translation practice.

4. The Millennium Trilogy

Not strictly related to Korea, but naturally I became very interested in buying these books after reading the following review at The Global Sociology Blog:

Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy should be required reading in any sociology of gender course because it is a strong demonstration of the way patriarchy works at all levels of society: individual, interactive, institutional, structural and cultural.

The whole trilogy is a fictional demonstration of what happens to women who don’t know their place and won’t conform to patriarchally-established gender roles and even worse to those who fight back against patriarchal control….

Have any readers read them? I’d really appreciate hearing from you before I buy them!

( “The Woman Who Shaves”. Source )

Body Image

5. Leg Shaving

From Drifting Focus, a blog by a former teacher in Korea:

Women are constantly told by the media, our mothers, and our friends that men don’t like women who don’t shave their legs.  “You won’t find a man that way” they say. I call bullshit.

I would have predicted that it would have been men who had problems with my lack of leg-shaving. Presumably, they’re the ones we shave for, right? Nope.  No man I have ever dated has had much, if any, issue with my shaving preferences.  It’s possible that they’ve just been nice, but from more in-depth conversations I’ve had about that habit with them, that does not seem to be the case.  They simply don’t really care as long as it’s not “totally out of control”.

So where does this “huge amount of flack” that I’ve gotten over the years come from?  Well, that’s the surprising part: other women.

Read the rest here. With the proviso that Northeast Asians don’t tend to have as much body hair as other ethnicities, would readers say that that is also the case in Korea?

6. “What? Use some NORMAL-sized models??? I quit!”

Sociological Images looks at the issues raised when designer Mark Fast decided to use four plus-size models (US sizes 8-10) in his catwalk show at London Fashion Week in February, which prompted his stylist and creative director to quit, leaving him just three days to find replacements. As they explain, it is “possible that they thought being associated with the show could hurt their chances of success in a very competitive career,” but on the other hand it says a great deal about an industry “that stigmatizes fat so powerfully, ” that “it might be terrifying indeed to be seen as endorsing it.”

Can anybody think of any similar initiatives and/or reactions in the Korean fashion industry?

7. Koyote’s Shin-ji has no plans to go on a diet

Nice to see a positive role model for a change:

As is evident through K-pop’s many girl groups, Korea’s entertainment industry consists of a long line of ridiculously thin girls. (It doesn’t help that netizens are hawks when it comes to capturing the slightest bit of belly fat). In a recent interview, Koyote’s (커요태) Shin-ji (신지), who is known in Korea for being more on the chubby side, was asked if she was ever saddened by the harsh comments and jokes she received regarding her weight.

Shin-ji answered:

“I feel blessed to be a singer that older audiences like. In the past when I was thin, many said that it was unattractive. Now, I don’t plan on going on any diets. It really damages your body. Since I debuted when I was in my teens, I received a lot of stress regarding diets. It really weakened my health. These days, if I were to diet I would not be able to endure.“

Read the rest at allkpop. Admittedly the image above is a little old (source), but then much thinner celebrities are also regularly criticized for their weight: see #28 here for instance).


8. Queer in Seoul

The 3 Wise Monkeys pass on a rare 2005 overview of the evolution of the gay community in Seoul over the last few decades.  As explained there, “Gabriel Sylvian, the founder and torch-bearer of the Korean Gay Literature Project at Seoul National University, recommended it for all readers to get an idea of the LGBT life in the capital.”

9. Queer in China

Over at The Peking Duck, Richard discusses an article entitled A modern tragedy: Pressure on Chinese gays to marry that he was surprised to see in his local Arizona(!) newspaper. Meanwhile, Gender Across Borders provides a review of Backward Glances: Contemporary Chinese Cultures and the Female Homoerotic Imaginary by Fran Martin:

…Exploring popular media produced during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, author Fran Martin addresses the ways in which same-sex love between women is commonly depicted, and the ways in which those depictions simultaneously reinforce and challenge the conventional discourse on homosexuality in China.

On the surface, many of the novels, television dramas, and films Martin analyzes do not appear to be particularly transgressive. A common theme among the media she explores is memory; stories of same-sex desire between women are often presented as a fleeting childhood fantasy, something that perpetually exists in the past and can never be fully realized by adults in the present…

10. Snakes are victim of men’s search for sexual prowess

See The Korea Times for the current mania for snake soup in Korea, openly praised by some celebrities despite snake soup restaurants being illegal and many of the snakes endangered spaces.

While I usually try to avoid generalizing and stereotyping, I can’t help but always be simultaneously amazed and appalled at how virtually anything that’s phallic is considered an aphrodisiac in this part of world.

11. Korea’s Low Birth Rate Continues to Decline

When even government-propaganda channel Arirang begins to report the following, things must indeed have reached crisis proportions (paraphrased slightly):

…according to the government’s internal assessment report on childcare policy, new measures lean too heavily towards childcare support and fail to address other major issues such as the disadvantages women face at work after taking maternity leave. Fear of discontinuities in their careers is currently the second biggest reason why Korean women refuse to have more than one child.

The other major problem with government policies mentioned is that financial aid is heavily targeted towards low-income families, with little funds left over for middle-class families that comprise 65% of the population. This is discussed in more depth in a Chosun Ilbo editorial.


12. Possible serial killer of sex-workers in Pohang

See Korea Beat for the details.

13. Vietnamese bride killed by mentally-ill husband after only 8 days in Korea

Like the original Dong-A Ilbo report from Monday says, since 2002 the man had been hospitalized or treated for depression and mental illness 57 times, so whether whether the matchmaker had prior knowledge of the man’s condition is crucial for determining wider responsibility. But however unethical, would the matchmaker actually have committed a crime?

Possibly: Extra! Korea mentions that police are investigating, but an editorial in The Chosun Ilbo also says that only from November must they “unveil records of previous marriages, health conditions, occupations and criminal histories of both the brides and grooms,” so the issue of criminal fault remains a little unclear. Regardless though, there will still be no way to check the validity of information about grooms provided from November, and the industry as a whole remains very unregulated, with virtually anyone able to open an international matchmaking business: 44% of the 1250 companies in Korea are staffed by just one person (and 33% by husband and wife teams), the ensuing intense competition not exactly encouraging companies to make their clients look any less marriage-worthy.

On a slight positive note though, the government now requires all prospective Korean grooms to attend “marriage ethics” classes before heading overseas to find wives (image source).

( Source )

14. Curbing Sex-Offenders

From The Korea Herald, an update (see #3 here) on moves to enact retroactive legislation aimed at sex-offenders in the wake of a perceived spate of sex crimes against children and teenagers:

Prosecutors will be able to request that sex offenders who were not already given an electronic anklet be electronically tagged after a legal revision takes effect Friday.

The revision allows authorities to retroactively apply the anklet to criminals convicted before the law took effect in 2008.


Some, however, argue that the anklet is not the answer.

Earlier this year, a convicted rapist cut off his anklet and escaped, though he did not commit any other offense before he was apprehended.

The ministry will introduce stronger anklets by the end of August, said officials.

The new law has met some criticism for the retroactive application of the anklet system.

Meanwhile, KBS announced that the police are also going to enlist the (volunteer) help of community leaders to protect youths, and last month a law for allowing chemical castration as a possible punishment for child sex offenders was passed in South Korea. See The Marmot’s Hole for more details.

Work & Economy

15. Young People Face Continued Employment Crisis

Further compelling young Korean adults to live with their parents until marriage, recent improvements in the economy that have meant that more than 10 million Koreans are legally regular workers for the first time have largely bypassed those in their 20s or 30s, the only demographic still losing jobs. And to add insult to injury, not only was the minimum wage only raised 8 won (US$0.01!) last month, but 4 in 10 young people stuck in irregular and part time work weren’t even getting that anyway.

Hell, no wonder they have to be specially taught to smile at customers (source).

16. “More college girls work part time at massage parlors performing sexual services”

And who can blame them considering the above?

17. S Korea posts lowest employment rate for educated women among OECD countries

See here for details. Also recall from this book that in 1998 at least, the more educated a woman was the less likely she was to be employed, the only country in the OECD in which this phenomenon occurred. As far as I am aware, this is still the case today.

18. Korea lags behind in economic opportunities for women

Not unsurprisingly in light of the above, compare Korea’s latest dismal figures from the Economist Intelligence Unit’s survey with the UNDP’s “gender empowerment measure” last year also (see #2 here), both of which demonstrate that despite living in a developed country, in fact women in many developing countries have far more political and economic power.

This is both cause and effect of Korea being one of the rare exception to the worldwide “mancession”, which prompted headlines like “Is female dominance a success for feminism?” in many US feminism blogs. Also see The Wall Street Journal‘s report on Japan for an alternative sense of perspective, as it is a country with many of the same structural and ideological impediments to women’s employment; as you read how bad it is there, bear in mind that unfortunately the Korea situation is actually much worse!

19. Korea lacks gender-parity in education

This graph came as a big surprise, as I’ve frequently read that the equal provision of education to both sexes was one of Korea’s crowning achievements of the post-war period:

Originally found via Surprises Aplenty, the graph comes from Marginal Revolution, which unfortunately has only a minimal discussion of it. Assuming that the result is accurate (Korea is the green dot at the top left), then what do you think accounts for the gender difference?

East Asia & Overseas Koreans

20. Twenty-three percent of female homestay students from East Asian countries reported being sexually abused in Canada

Much more complicated than that headline suggests however, see Extra! Korea for an excellent summary for a summary of all the newspapers on the topic, and The Marmot’s Hole’s post for its typically vociferous (but often informative) comments thread.

21. Japan split over granting married women the right to their maiden names

A big difference with Korea, where married women retain their names, unfortunately the Democrats’ plans to allow this have stalled in light of recent political setbacks. See The China Press for more details.

( Source: Korean Lovers Photoblog )

Enjoy the rest of your weekend folks!

Prosecutors will be able to request that sex offenders who were not already given an electronic anklet be electronically tagged after a legal revision takes effect Friday.The revision allows authorities to retroactively apply the anklet to criminals convicted before the law took effect in 2008.


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.


The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: Newsflash

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Article source: Metro, Busan edition, 8 July 2010, p. 3.

A quick newspaper report on Korean smoking rates that caught my eye.

Of course, I was a little disappointed that it discussed “average” rates for men and women, as these are essentially useless pieces of information given the huge diversity within each gender in Korea, and doubly so for women because of chronic underreporting. But that is to be expected for a free daily, and at least it takes a step in the right direction by mentioning that female teenagers tend to start smoking much earlier than males, which will hopefully result in some much-needed attention being given to this burgeoning group:

People Would Consider Quitting if Cigarettes Cost 8500 won a Packet

At 42.6%, Korea has the highest adult male smoking rate in the OECD

Although the general social trend is for people to stop smoking, Korea retains its position as the country with the highest adult male smoking rate in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

According to a survey of 3000 men and women over the age of 19 conducted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare last month, 42.6% of Korean men smoked in the first half of this year, a decrease of 0.5% from the second half of last year, and a break in continuous increases for the past 2 years from August 2008, when it was 40.4%. However, a large gap between this and the average OECD rate of 28.4% (2007) is apparent.

Of particular interest, the survey also revealed that compared to men, women are starting to smoke at earlier ages. Of those smokers under 29 surveyed, the average age both sexes started was 18.1, but the average age of women was 16.5 and that for men was 18.3, showing women started roughly 2 years earlier.

However, of non-smokers surveyed, 21.4% replied that they did once smoke, but 62% of those were successful in quitting on their first time, showing that it is becoming easier and the social norm to do so. Indeed, 59.4% of smokers replied that they intended to quit.

Accordingly, when asked what the most effective method of quitting would be, the most popular choice [James – among current smokers?] was “increasing the numbers of no-smoking zones” at 22.8%, followed by raising the price of cigarettes (18.7%), increasing penalties for smokers (18%), and launching public campaigns (16.3%). In particular, when asked “How much would the price of cigarettes have to be raised to be effective in making you quit?”, the average answer was 8510.8 won a packet, or 3-4 times higher than current prices.

Next week, after Part 4 is completed, I’ll translate this much longer Korean article that looks at female smoking more specifically.

(Links to other posts in the series as they appear: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4; Korea’s Hidden Smokers; Living as a female smoker in Korea)

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

Korean Sociological Image #44: Westerners, Nipples, and the Presentation of Sexuality in the Korean Media

( Source: Metro, July 8 2010, p. 7. Cropped slightly)

It’s amazing what pops up in Korean newspapers these days.

Yes, however difficult it may be for overseas readers to believe, that is the actually the first nipple my Korean wife, friends, and I have ever seen in a Korean advertisement. Moreover, it’s probably no coincidence that it belongs to a Caucasian model too, and one that looks like she’s about to get involved in a ménage à trois at that.

Focusing on the nipple first though (as one does), let me provide some context: with the important exception of ubiquitous single-sex bathhouses, Koreans are generally more conservative than Anglophones when it comes to public nudity; topless males are extremely rare away from beaches, swimming pools, and concert stages for instance, and topless females unheard of, let alone full nudists of either sex (recall also that just 5-10 years ago, women even covered their swimsuits with t-shirts too). In addition, while female celebrities have been showing a lot of cleavage in recent years, this trend has yet to be adopted by ordinary women, whom can expect just as much unwanted attention if they accidentally leave home bra-less.

However, breast-feeding is generally fine if done discreetly, and indeed one of the first things I noticed in my first time in a Korean supermarket 10 years ago was a brand of milk (or soy milk) that prominently featured a large breast and a suckling baby on its packaging. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name to find an image, but I do also recall that it was by no means hidden away in any sense.

I doubt that that would have been considered acceptable in New Zealand from which I’d just left, and in that vein note that the current trend for visible nipples in the Western media at least remains precisely that: a trend, and certainly not an liberal, progressive ideal that Korean social mores will somehow inexorably shift towards in the future. For all its eroticism, it pales compared to the standards of the 1970s for instance (see this NSFW example from a 1976 Cosmopolitan), while in Korea no less an authority than Tom Coyner points out (also NSFW) that 60 years ago Korean mothers in the countryside dressed with readily visible breasts “with pride if they had just given birth to a son.”

( Source )

So why the nipple now? Unfortunately, little about the advertisement or the drink provides a clue: “That’s Y” (댓츠와이) is merely a wine cooler (or alcopop?) produced by Lotte Chilsung (롯데칠성음료) since 2008, like wine coolers everywhere primarily marketed to 20-somethings. Judging by its moribund website though, then it hasn’t been selling very successfully (probably why there was a shift to selling it in more stylish bottles rather than cans last month), so one can speculate that Lotte Chilsung was desperate to draw people’s attention to it. Judging by the complete absence of reaction from netizens and the media so far however, strangely that “sex sells” strategy doesn’t appear to have worked.

Ultimately more significant then, is the race of the models in the advertisement in which it appears. Why are they Caucasian? And are Koreans ever portrayed in such brazenly sexual situations as that?

Again, Lotte Chilsung provides no clue: in fact only one more print advertisement for the drink is available online in addition to what you see here. That did also only feature Caucasian women, but then the above one has Korean women in it, and the only television commercial below also only has Koreans too (of both sexes). But looking at the wider context however, then of course there is overwhelming evidence that Caucasians are indeed portrayed more sexually than Koreans in the media here, and particularly women.

Why? Well, assuming that you’ve read that last link, then for one consider how well an artificial dichotomy between virginal, sexually passive Korean women and hypersexual, promiscuous Caucasian ones buttresses extensive human-trafficking in East European and Russian women here. And as for the guys, the notion that foreign male English teachers are oversexed, and thus more likely to be pedophiles than their Korean counterparts, certainly does serve to deflect attention away from the latter. Although one wonders why the Korean media bothers sometimes; after all, just this week apparently even politicians feel perfectly justified in presenting a completely imaginarywave” of sexual crimes by them to justify ever more stringent visa regulations.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

And I could go on, but I’d be much more interested in hearing readers’ own ideas. In the case of this particular advertisement though, I acknowledge that it may not in fact be the first nipple out there(!), but regardless let me pose the question of if you think Korean models instead would have aroused more or less controversy to get you started.

Against the argument that there are plenty of risqué ads with Koreans these days though, and so I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, then for sure, and you don’t have to look very far on this blog to find numerous discussions of how much things have changed just in the last 2 years. But look again: a threesome? And virtually in flagrante delicto on the sofa at that? By all means *ahem* pass on any Korean examples you’ve come across, but in the meantime I’d argue that while the goalposts for what is considered a “shocking advertisement” in Korea do indeed change over time, somehow Caucasians still seem to be in the majority of them!

Update – With thanks to Dave for passing it on, who apparently had much sharper eyes than I did back then, in fact there was a commercial with erect nipples as early as 2006. And yes, you guessed it: that had Caucasians too!

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


Korean Gender Reader

( Left: source. Right: Change Begins Here, by Self-portrait_Girl )

A slew of negative stories this week I’m afraid.

1. “10-19 is the perfect age to show a lot of skin”

With apologies for copying and pasting so much of it here, but Mellowyel’s post really is a great introduction to this week’s main stories:

…two articles from yesterday peaked my interest: one being the comments of South Korean model Choi Eun-jung (최은정) saying that “10-19 is the perfect age to show a lot of skin” and “Since the sexy concept is the trend, the young idols are carrying it out. Is it really necessary to look at all of this from a negative perspective?” The other was the news that all the music chart shows were upping their age rating from 12 to 15 because of the sexy dancing and clothing.

Of course, Choi Eun-jung’s opinion shouldn’t be dismissed simply because of her occupation, but on the other hand she’s hardly a dispassionate observer of the fashion industry either: until very recently a high school gravure model, she appears to have become famous primarily for appearing semi-nude in the Mnet reality show I Am A Model at 17, albeit overshadowed somewhat by Park Seo-jin (박서진) above who was only 14. And Mellowyel is spot on with the wider issues these stories raise, echoed in The Lolita Effect that I’ve just finished reading (my emphases):

What i find interesting about both of these articles is that what is under consideration is the affect that the exposure of skin has on the public, and no one is talking about how the women themselves feel about it. Do young girls ages 10-19 generally WANT to wear skimpier clothing, and are simply not being allowed to? Do female k-pop idols they feel empowered by being able to wear sexier outfits on stage than Korean culture normally allows? Or do they feel objectified knowing that they’re dressing and dancing that way simply to attract fans? This is a problem that I feel a lot of women performers face, and have to negotiate through their choices of clothing and performance – when they have them….

….Korean rap artist Defconn responded to Choi Eun-jung’s comments with outrage, suggesting that she was not considering the feelings of other young girls, and her comments are improper in light of recent news about sexual offenses against elementary school students. Which wouldn’t bother me if it didn’t remind me of the common thought process of people towards women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted – “They were dressing provocatively so they are complicit in the crime.” I agree completely that young girls dressing provocatively could draw attention of the wrong kind, but I have never heard a sex offender say that he assaulted a woman or girl because she was wearing a short skirt. More often than not, a woman is sexually assaulted simply because she’s at the wrong place at the wrong time, and cannot defend herself successfully. It would be great if people could focus less on what the woman did to get herself assaulted (which is often, nothing) and focus instead on the motivations of the attacker.

I think Defconn’s comments come from the right place, though….

There’s a great deal more where that came from, and I also couldn’t agree more with her point that Choi Eun-jung’s comments that “older women” in bikinis are “disgusting” is infuriating (source above: allkpop).

2. Sex crimes against children put under a microscope by the media

Meanwhile, the recent numerous sexual offenses against elementary students described above are very real, and Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling provides a typically well-researched and comprehensive summary of them. Probably the most important point to take away from it however, is that in fact this level of attacks is normal:

I found that comment [in this editorial] about the “recent series” of sexual assaults interesting, especially considering the statistics in the next paragraph. Put simply, if 1,017 children and 1,447 teens (between 13 and 15) are victims of sex crimes every year, that adds up to 3 children and 4 teens between 13 and 15 being victimized every day (on average). There is not a “recent series” of such sexual crimes – this is always happening. It’s just that the media has decided – as it does whenever a particular case angers people – to highlight these cases…

On the positive side though, such attention has fat least forced both police and schools to belatedly consider a number of measures to improve their security, although naturally I think some schools’ decisions to completely ban fathers from school grounds was rather misguided. Also the police are to use electronic means to keep track of sex criminals’ whereabouts:

The police will create a nationwide database on sex criminals this month as part of its war to combat sex crimes against children.

An electronic map will be created, marking previous crime sites and the residences of people liable to commit such crimes.

Locations with high odds of such crimes will be flagged and local police will increase their patrol of the sites.

The map will include initial data on 16-hundred convicted sex criminals. The police aim to up that number to 12-thousand over the long term.

Once the map is completed, a warning system, based on data gathered over the past three years, will also be introduced.

The police will also form an exclusive squad on sex crimes targeting children.

Also, see Sociological Images for an innovative but controversial anti-rape campaign in the U.K. (example above) that focuses on men rather than women for a change, with the logic that “stopping predation, harassment, and violence by men requires telling men not to do those things, and telling women to restrict their activities to avoid men who might victimize them is only doubly oppressive.”

3. English teacher in Daegu under suspicion for sexual misconduct with students

In light of the above, it will be interesting to see if this receives a typically disproportionate amount of the media attention. See The Marmot’s Hole for more details, and again Matt provides some historical context.

4. Word of warning

Again (see here, here and #1 here) an expat teacher in Seoul has been sexually attacked, and when she tried to report it to police she was told to leave because they were too busy with other cases.

Read more at Hot Yellow Fellows.

5. Actor Choi Chul-ho (최철호) caught hitting a woman on CCTV

Details in English available at allkpop.

Update: He has since made a public apology.

6. Korea has the highest rate of female suicides in the OECD

So Yonhap News claims:

The suicide rate of South Korean women ranks highest among major advanced nations, data showed Thursday, indicating that they are having difficulty in coping with growing stress from work, marriage and household responsibilities.

According to the data offered by Statistics Korea, 18.7 out of every 100,000 women here committed suicide in 2008, the third leading cause for female deaths in the country after cerebrovascular and heart diseases, whose rates stood at 58.3 and 23.6, respectively.

And this is echoed by Arirang,The Chosun Ilbo, and The Korea Times, the last of which notes that “the figure is higher than traffic accidents, gastric and lung cancer and other causes”, while The Economist also provides the sobering statistic that “an average of around 40 people a day took their own lives in 2009, an increase of nearly 19% on 2008”.

Curiously, The Korea Herald uses the same data, but argues that suicide is only the 5th leading cause of death for women. But regardless of which source is the more correct, it does at least provide the helpful, broad visual comparison between the genders on the right.

Finally, see The Marmot’s Hole for some analysis:

Bernard Rowan, professor of political science at Chicago State University weights in on the question after hearing of the death of Park Yong-Ha, the 33 year old actor found dead in his home last week in an apparent suicide.  Links on his death in the BBC, Wall Street Journal and The Chosun Ilbo.  Given Park’s role in Winter Sonata, there were a number of Japanese fans that mourned his death as well.

Former and current Korean entertainment stars commit suicide with disturbing regularity, but rarely does it attract attention from American professors.  Bernard appears knowledgeable enough about Korea to say a few interesting things, including suicide’s possible link to the concept of “haan”.

7. Poor working conditions for entertainers

Not unrelated to the previous story, probably most readers here are already well aware of the grueling schedules and slave-like contracts of most entertainers, including those hopefuls that train for many years with their respective entertainment companies, with no guarantee that will ever actually be included in a new group. As Extra! Korea reveals however, not only are hopefuls beginning as young as 10 years old, but average entertainers make barely more than minimum wage too. And even KARA (카라), currently one of Korea’s most popular girl groups, live in conditions worse than many university students’.


See here also for the original Straits Times story on young K-pop hopefuls, The JoongAng Daily for more on their working conditions, and Omona! They Didn’t and The Choun Ilbo for one lawmaker’s attempts to clean up the industry.

( Sidelong Glance by Drab Makyo )

8. Divorced husbands from interracial marriages establish rights group

They may have a point here:

“In divorce suits, judges tend to weigh on testimonies from wives, who claim to have been victimized by domestic violence or other mishaps caused by us, Korean husbands. They are untrue from time to time.

However, I seriously doubt that it is Korean husbands that suffer more from a lack of legal representation than their usually non-Korean speaking, penniless wives:

Still, husbands, the majority of those who cannot afford a proper lawyer, are labeled as offenders,” the group’s spokesman Cho, who declined to identify himself further, said.

Read more at The Korea Times.

9. Women working in some previously male-only occupations.

Some good news from The Korea Herald:

…The Statistics Korea report said Monday the number of women entering the field of medicine had increased more than any other field in the past few years. In comparison to a mere 13.6 percent of female dentists in 1980, More than 24.5 percent of Korea’s dentists in 2008 were women.

“Only 2.4 percent of Oriental medicine doctors were female in 1980, but this has increased to 5.9 percent in 1990 and to 15.7 percent by 2008,” the report said…

However, the report is lax in not reporting the wider context: unlike in the U.S., where the financial crisis’s effects on the male-dominated construction and manufacturing industries meant that for the first time in history, more women than men are working there, in Korea women were overwhelmingly targeted for lay-offs, as they comprised the bulk of irregular workers. See almost every previous Korean Gender Reader for more information(!), starting with #1 here and #2 here from early-2009.

10. Keyboard Warriors Against Young Women

Korea is notorious for its increasing internet vigilantism, but until I read this report at Global Voices by Lee Yoo-eun, I’d completely overlooked the gender component to it; in short, it is overwhelmingly done by male netizens against female targets (image source: unknown):

The cyber-vigilantism (or bullying) in Korea, is practiced mostly by men. More reasonable voices online have analyzed this phenomenon as modern witch hunting performed by belligerent netizens, in reaction to Korean women gaining more power while men struggle under heaping social and economic pressure. The ‘girls’ are everyday people who have been caught doing something annoying, mean or idiotic. But unfortunately, by ticking off vocal Korean netizens, it takes only a day for their lives to be mercilessly ruined.

11. Diet pills out of vogue after report on ill effects

Neither food nor medicine, unfortunately diet pills exist in a legal gray area between them that allows Korean companies to brazenly make completely spurious claims of their effects, so this news is encouraging:

Doctors, or at least the less philistinic of them, have been trying to drum home the same message again and again: weight loss drugs can be addictive and harmful and should be regarded as a last resort. Now, the sharply declining sales of slimming pills suggest that consumers have finally begun to listen.

According to industry figures, the local market for weight loss pills was worth around 20.01 billion won (about $16.4 million) during the Jan.-March period, representing close to a 10 percent decline year-on-year. It bears further watching whether the first-quarter slide proves to be more than just a speed bump ― the market’s revenue for the entire year of 2009 reached 101.1 billion won, a dramatic increase from the 60.3 billion won of 2006.

However, with health authorities issuing warnings about possible side effects related to the country’s two best selling slimming pills, it’s reasonable to think that consumers are legitimately scared.

Read more at The Korea Times.

( Source )

12. Gay actor’s lone fight against prejudice

The JoonAng Daily has an inspiring article about Hong Suk-chun’s (홍석천) coming out and eventual financial success, but unfortunately it’s rather telling that no other Korean public figure of his stature has done so in the 10 years since:

…In fact, society is still so closed off to sexual minorities that a recent SBS TV drama, “Life is Beautiful,” which portrays gay characters and romance, caused the People’s Association Against Pro-Homosexuality Laws to run anti-homosexuality advertisements in the country’s biggest conservative newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, from late May to early June.

“In Korea, public awareness and social backing for gays and lesbians are still extremely far off,” said Li En, an activist at the Korean Sexual Minority Culture and Rights Center. “Although Hong Suk-chun fought the tide and succeeded, we still remember when he was fired by all the broadcasters the day after he came out. In a country where an anti-homosexuality ad runs in the biggest newspaper, how many do you think will actually sacrifice everything they have to come out?”

See here also for a summary of the state of LGBT rights in Korea over the last decade.


Korean Sociological Image #43: ESL Students on Top?

( Source: Gusts of Popular Feeling. Reproduced with permission )

A recent advertisement for the Pagoda chain of language institutes noticed by Matt of Gusts of Popular Feeling, who notes that the attraction “is clearly for women to get close to, to have one on one communication with, and to have almost direct contact with the male foreign teacher.”

In any other context this would be unremarkable, but unfortunately the Korean media is notorious for presenting foreign male – Korean female relationships either negatively or not at all (although this is slowly improving). So this advertisement really stands out for the rare, quite literal closeness of the models in it, albeit not necessarily in a romantic sense.

In contrast, Japanese language institutes have already been advertising this way for a long time, as noted by Keiron Bailey in his 2006 journal article Marketing the eikaiwa wonderland: ideology, akogare, and gender alterity in English conversation school advertising in Japan. Two examples from that, both from 2002:

I’ve already discussed Bailey’s article in depth in an earlier post however, so let me just quickly highlight three points from it here:

Younger women are pursuing English-language learning for three major reasons. The first reason is to enhance their career prospects….The second purpose is to engage in travel, either for vacation purposes or for ryugaku. The third motivation is to actualize what Kelsky calls ”eroticized discourses of new selfhood” by realizing romantic and/or sexual desires with Western males. (pp.105-6)


…the visual pairing of Japanese women with white males invokes a set of social and professional properties that are radically differentiated from a hegemonic array of gender-stratifying ideologies. This metonymy relies on the properties of the white male signifier being defined in relation to a historical gendered Occidentalist imaginary as an ”agent of women’s professional, romantic and sexual liberation”. (p. 106)

And finally:

This [advertising] trend valorizes and celebrates female erotic subjectivity and positions the white male as an object of consumption for sophisticated, cosmopolitan female consumers. (p. 106)

And see that post or the article itself for more. Note that the latter was actually written in 2003 though, so I would appreciate it if any Japan-based readers could confirm if that is still in fact a trend there, and especially if you could pass on some examples. Also, I should stress that this is but one Korean example, and indeed possibly the first of its kind too, so it’s a little premature to argue that Korean language school advertisements are now going to be following the same logic that Bailey identifies. In particular, it definitely shouldn’t be taken as confirmation that Korean women are especially attracted to Western males either, a fallacy which unfortunately many expats (both male and female) seem to subscribe to.

Personally, I’d be much more interested in finding any advertisements featuring foreign female teachers instead, as the corollary of demonizing their male, mostly Caucasian, counterparts in the media in general seems to be hypersexualizing Caucasian women.  Alas, I haven’t taught in an adults language institute since 2004, so please help me: is this trend mirrored by Korean language school advertisers? Why or why not?

Meanwhile, Matt did also see an advertisement aimed at Korean male students, to whom the message appears to be “to take the intensive program and, moving beyond healthy competition, to be better than the (male) native speaker, to beat him, to be stronger than him”:

( Source: Gusts of Popular Feeling. Reproduced with permission )

Which is certainly quite a contrast! See the comments thread on Matt’s post for more commentary on both.

Update 1 – By coincidence, a commercial with a hint of an interracial relationship I saw as soon as I finished this post. Perfectly innocuous in itself, unfortunately the Korean media is almost completely devoid of anything with a reversal of the sexes:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Update 2 – Brian in Jeollanam-do remembered this Wall Street Institute advertisement from March last year:

See Brian’s blog for more commentary, and Page F30 for the original images, including the clumsily added correction to the atrocious English a few weeks later.

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