Learning From Korean Family Planning Advertisements of the 1960s-1980s

…American military officers helped make abortion the population control tool of choice in those Asian countries where they wielded influence, first in Japan in the late 1940s and 1950s, then South Korea in the 1960s. USAID, America’s aid agency, provided Jeeps for mobile clinics which roamed South Korea performing abortions. At one point, a quarter of the country’s health budget was going on population control and the number of abortions hit an all-time record in Seoul, where, in 1977, there were 2.75 abortions for every live birth. “What would have happened if the government hadn’t allowed for such easy abortion?” asks one sociologist. “I don’t think sex-selective abortion would have become so popular.”

(Review of Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, @The Economist)

Apropos of the above quote, let me present some government advertisements of the period to give you a better impression of that amazing zeal for population control back then. Also, that whereas couples were encouraged to have two children in the 1970s, and not to favor boys over girls, that this would be reduced to only one child by the 1980s. Messages about the sex-ratio were invariably diluted.

Obviously, these would come to play a huge role in today’s world-low birthrate, the difficulty many Korean men are now having in finding wives (although fortunately the sex-ratio among newborns has since been normalized), and the ensuing massive influx of overseas brides. Less obviously, they defy stereotypes about Koreans’ squeamishness when it comes to sexual matters, as I’ll explain.

But first, some context. All 30 or so advertisements I’ve been able to find were produced by the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea (대한가족계획협회; now known as the Planned Population Federation of Korea {PPFK; 인구보선복지협회}) and/or the now defunct Ministry of Health and Social Affairs (보건사회부), and can be found here, here, here, and here, as well as (best) on the PPFK’s website.

(Text, both calenders—”Did you know that the most effective, safest, and simplest device is the loop (IUD)? People who want one, please go to a welfare or family planning center.” Black headline, right calender—”Let’s have the proper number of babies, and raise them well!”)

Formed in April 1961 just before the coup, the PPFK would soon have the strong support of the military government. But according to Seungsook Moon in Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (2005; pp. 81-2), its activities wouldn’t really take off until the 1970s, which possibly explains its rather uninspired efforts above (but note though, that the government itself was extremely active in population control well before then):

The modernizing state had to launch aggressive propaganda for family planning because the idea of contraception was foreign to most Koreans, who tended to believe that having many children meant good luck and that every child would bring his or her own food into the world….

….The state…worked closely with the PPFK to change the public perception of birth control, establishing a department of public relations in 1970 to make the idea and practice of contraception familiar to the populace. The PPFK increasingly relied on mass media (radio, television, newspapers, magazines and education texts of its own) to disseminate positive images and information about families with a small number of children. To encourage popular participation, the PPFK organized popular contests of various kinds, ranging from posters, songs, and slogans to stories of personal experiences by mothers and wives concerning contraception.

A fascinating book, it’s difficult not to quote much more here, as the next few pages make it clear that Korea’s population policies were just as systematic and draconian as China’s. In light of what is revealed in Hvistendahl’s more recent book though, it is strange that it doesn’t also discuss abortions, but it does mention that while IUDs insertions were offered freely in the 1960s (with the Marine Corps mobilized to provide them to isolated islanders), and considered the “patriotic” and “ideal” form of contraception (but with the pill also introduced in 1968 to alleviate their effects, in stark contrast to Japan), by the second half of the 1970s it would be female sterilization that was offered and aggressively applied, becoming “what can only be described as a sterilization mania” by the 1980s. Between 1982 and 1987, over 2 million Korean women would be sterilized, a “semiforced mass sterilization” that “led to abrupt reductions in the fertility rate and the rate of population growth in the 1980s” (p. 85).

(Left, umbrella—”The path to youth and beauty is family planning.” Both posters—”Don’t discriminate between boys and girls, have only two children and raise them well.” {This slogan can be seen on many 1970s posters}.)
(Left, headline—”Which method is good?”; cup—”Family planning consultations”; man, text —”I’ll do it”; text, bottom—”1975 is International Women’s Year.” Right, 19th Family Weekly Magazine May 5-12 1974—”The World has One Destiny”; “NCC=The National Council of Churches in Korea.”)

This poster on the left above is particularly interesting, and not just because that was the year that March 8—which *cough* happens to be my birthday—was made International Women’s Day (alas, I was born a year later). Rather, it’s because of the guy saying “I’ll do it”, which couldn’t help but remind me of young Koreans’ surprising attitude that contraception is exclusively men’s responsibility (as indeed the Japanese think too). However, women were overwhemingly the focus of population control drives back then (Moon notes that only 1 vasectomy was performed for every 10 IUD insertions, although I think the ratio to female sterilizations would have been more useful), and women’s organizations co-opted or specifically created by the state to carry them out, so it seems anachronistic to see a connection between young Koreans’ attitudes today and those of their parents at the same age.

Indeed, this one on the left below turns out not to be about family-planning at all, but rather women’s rights:

(Left, headline—”We are all [the same] human”; Man (clockwise from hat)—”Family registry rights, parental rights, inheritance, children, estate”; Text—”Women’s Family Law Change Committee”. Right, arrow—”The path to a Gross National Income of of $1000 in 1981″; Text, below—”[Previous 1970s’ slogan]”.)

Next, before moving on to posters from the 1980s, note that sterilization campaigns would come to be complimented by various economic incentives (p. 85):

In 1981, confronting negative economic growth for the first time since 1982, along with a decrease in the number of sterilization acceptors, the state issued “Countermeasures to Population Growth.” These measures were characterized by incentives to a family with one or two [James – ?] children; priority in getting housing loans and business loans, monetary support of low-income families, and free medical service for the first visit. During the 1980s, variations of these kinds of incentives were introduced almost every year.

(Left—”Two children is many too!”. Right—”Korea’s population has already exceeded 40 million”.)

And here are two posters with sons, and then two with daughters. But note that, confusedly, there were also some with two children like those in the 1970s though, and that clearly the government and PPFK were still very much concerned about the sex-ratio.

However, like I said that message was surely somewhat diluted by having some posters featuring and explicitly praising having a son, and it would be interesting to do a content analysis to determine the ratio of those that depicted sons to daughters, two children, or (preferably) a sex-neutral image like the eggs above:

(Left—”One family, full of love. One child, full of health”. Right, headline—”Because of one son”; Text—”Overpopulation is everybody’s responsibility”.)

(Top—”A blessing of one child, loved strongly”. Bottom—”Raise one daughter well, and you won’t envy [those who have] ten sons”.)
(Left, sign—”Korea’s current population: 40,524,837, Korea is overflowing”; Text in map—”Even if you only have one child, Korea is overflowing”. Right—”Korea is already overflowing”.)

Finally, please note that these posters are just a handful of those available on the PPFK website, and which in turn must be a small sample of all that were produced. But in combination with what I’ve learnt from Militarized Modernity, they’ve still lead me to an interesting conclusion. Which is that, bearing in mind Koreans’ reputation for procrastination, yet doing things with outstanding zeal and efficiency once they set their minds to them (albeit usually precisely because of putting them off for so long), sexual matters are no exception, despite Koreans’ conservative reputation. Moreover, and intriguingly, it appears that young Korean couples of the 1970s and 1980s were likely to have been much better educated and informed than their children are now.

Assuming it does exist, what on Earth happened in the 1990s and 2000s to account for this curious generation gap? And why, even though technically adults rather than children were the target of government campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, is sex education in Korea today so appalling?

15 thoughts on “Learning From Korean Family Planning Advertisements of the 1960s-1980s

    1. Thanks for the suggestion, but based on some scathing reader reviews on Amazon (and the superficiality of most of the positive ones) then I don’t think I will — I have very little patience for anything that blames developing countries’ problems exclusively on the West, and indeed I even refuse to watch The Host(!) for the blatant anti-Americanism in the opening scenes. I will admit though, that possibly I’ve been soured by one of my book purchases last year – Imperial Citizens: Koreans an Race from Seoul to LA – in which author Nadia Y. Kim provides many insights about immigration and Korean-Americans in general, but also so many unsubstantiated one-liners about the evils of the US in Korea (and accepting Korean newspaper reports as gospel truth on those), that, taking it down from the shelf now, I see I gave up on it 2/3rds through.

      Completely different people and books I know, but, well, just what I’ve read about Hvistendahl’s book doesn’t exactly inspire confidence I’m afraid. In particular, and just to focus on what she says about South Korea, it is this paragraph of the Economist’s review that is very off-putting:

      Ms Hvistendahl’s history is marred by the occasional lapses into self-righteousness and polemic. She says others who have written about sex-selection technology have not been critical enough “because blaming backward cultural traditions is simpler.” She dismisses a World Bank report that said South Korean actions to combat sex selection had worked, as “flat-out wrong”, apparently because it would let the bank off the hook for previous support of population control. She calls Western population policies a “plot”.


      1. A review in The Economist:

        “Ms Hvistendahl’s history is marred by the occasional lapses into self-righteousness and polemic. She says others who have written about sex-selection technology have not been critical enough “because blaming backward cultural traditions is simpler.” She dismisses a World Bank report that said South Korean actions to combat sex selection had worked, as “flat-out wrong”, apparently because it would let the bank off the hook for previous support of population control. She calls Western population policies a “plot”.

        Still, the merits of her book outweigh such flaws. Ms Hvistendahl’s distinctive contribution is twofold. She provides a history of the modern practice of sex-selective abortion, based on new and detailed research, and she helps readers think about its possible consequences.”


    2. USAID funded mobile vans performing abortions and sterilizations.
      Koreans use abortion as a means of sex selection.
      Therefore, the US is to blame for Korea’s imbalanced birth ratio.

      So who’s to blame for the same problem in India and China? Just wonderin’…

      Oh, and Roe V. Wade opened the floodgates to abortion on demand in 1972, yet the US did not suffer a subsequent rise in male/female birth ratios. I’m so confused now. If Koreans have long favored sons and used modern family planning to ensure at least one son while limiting the number of children, the fact that the US government funded the equipment used by Korean medical personnel lets Koreans off the hook, doesn’t it or at least most of the blame should be borne by the US, right? But Japan, the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and other modern countries experienced a decline in the number of childbirths to women without a corresponding rise in the male/female birth ratio. I’m even more confused.


  1. Hi. First time commenter… do you have any links with more information on the family planning advertisements and perhaps the impact of it? Thanks.


    1. I hate to disappoint a first time commenter, but I can’t think of any links sorry — just books. By coincidence though, I did see one of the advertisements featured in a 2008 East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal article “Rethinking Women and Their Bodies in the Age of Biotechnology: Feminist Commentaries on the Hwang Affair”, which you can download here, but it only mentions it briefly.


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