Korean Sociological Image #86: Sex and the Single Korean (Household)

ZigbangAs of last year, one in four Korean households had just one person. That was the same as Australia, and just shy of the US.

Yet just four years earlier, only Seoul was remotely close to that figure, with one in five. That wasn’t expected to rise to one in four until 2030, let alone the rest of country.

It’s a remarkable rise (one of the fastest in the world), and companies have been responding with such things as smaller food portions, more home-delivery services, and smaller appliances. And then there’s the start-up Zigbang (pron. jeekbang) founded in early-2012, which takes the hassle, legwork, and pitfalls (ㅋㅋㅋ) out of finding studio apartments through real estate agents by arranging everything online instead. If you’ve taken the subway recently, probably you’ve seen their ad above, featuring comedian Kim Ji-min (source: Platum).

Much more interesting though, are the ads you probably haven’t seen. Covering everything from the hassles of long commutes and living with one’s parents in your 20s and 30s, to gaining independence and sexual liberation, they provide an interesting look at some of the push and pull factors behind this singles trend. Most are amusing, and some are very, very Korean too. Here’s a small selection from Zigbang’s Facebook page:

zigbang nagging parents(Source: Zigbang Facebook)

Title: “I’m sick of this bloody nagging! I want the independence of my own place!”

Parents:

  • “When on Earth are you going to…”
  • “Because of you, your younger sister can’t get married…[she can’t get married before you do]…”
  • “Look at Mi-sun next door, she’s already had two children…”
zigbang 9pm news(Source: Zigbang Facebook)

“Even if I finish exactly on time, I only ever get to see the 9pm news.”

In reality though, that’s not necessarily because of long commutes:

Continuing:

zigbang sister borrowing clothes(Source: Zigbang Facebook)

“Is she my sister or is she a thief? I have to get my independence before people find out…[how I live]!”

I'm 30, a curfew is unacceptable(Source: Zigbang Facebook)

“I’m 30! A curfew is too much!”

By coincidence, Kim Ji-min is 30 in Korea, or 29 in “Western age.” Apropos of that, these next two ads have a much more adult slant…

zigbang blind dates(Source: Zigbang Facebook; alternative version here)

“I have a 100% success rate on blind dates.” Presumably, because she has her own place to take them home to.

zigbang do you want something hot to eat(Source: Zikgbang Facebook; alternative version here)

I think the text is badly chosen: literally, it says,”Do you want to eat noodles and go?”, which would mean the object of her affections is already at her place, whereas “Do you want to go eat noodles at my place?” would make much more sense (update: actually, the line is from a movie—see below). But either way, the double-entendre is obvious, and if not then a helpful Korean “R18” symbol makes it clear.

Which is interesting in its own right, and a good counterexample to my recent post on Sookmyung Women’s University students being given a dresscode. Because whereas our natural reaction to such news may be to label Korean society as sexually conservative, or to shoehorn narratives of progression onto to it because of these ads, really there’s abundant evidence of both. Also, even if one does find some definitive, profoundly conservative aspect of Korean sexuality, it can be very modern in others—just like everywhere else.

Even more remarkable though, is that those last two yahan ads made it from the confines of Facebook to Seoul subway stations, all the better to corrupt Korean youth. Here’s two photos of them by reader Thibault Deckers, whom I have to thank for inspiring this post:

zigbang blind dates stationzigbang do you want something hot to eatAds don’t necessarily reflect a change in social attitudes of course, nor necessarily spark one, but I think the sheer numbers of single households are surely having effects. One recent article found that 70% of 30-somethings prefer their own company for instance, and I too have noticed that my students will no longer react in horror upon learning that I always go to the cinema alone (I prefer sitting in the front row).

What changes have readers noticed? I’d be especially interested to hear about knock-on changes in attitudes towards cohabitation, given how difficult it was to find a reader to find interviewees for his MA thesis on that just a few years ago (as in so scared of being found out that they would frequently cancel, not that they didn’t exist). Or do you think this is all exaggerated, not least by companies like Zigbang?

Update 1) I forget to mention that despite Zigbang’s focus on 20-30 somethings, most people living alone in Korea remain middle-aged professional men, and elderly women living in poverty. Likely, the latter don’t use Zigbang at all, but it would be interesting to know how much of its business comes from the former, despite being ignored in its marketing.

Update 2) With thanks, a clarification to that confusing line about noodles. It’s from the 2001 movie One Fine Spring Day:

Here’s a video with the scene, and an explanation:

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image Series, see here)

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