(Still) Empowering Korean Women: Over-the-counter contraceptive pills

Increased access to the pill in the US provides a reminder of how good it’s always been in South Korea.

Korea Contraceptive Pill CommercialSource: YouTube

Have you heard? Women in Oregon can get hormonal contraceptives directly from pharmacies now, without having to go to a doctor for a prescription first. And in California, they’ll be able to do so from March, whatever their age.

Which is great news. But with health and reproductive rights being such a quagmire in the US, it will be a long time before that’s the case in the other 48 states. Indeed, some supporters think the new legislation will even slow down that extension of access, due to the lengthy FDA approval process required for converting prescription contraceptives to over-the-counter products.

Whatever happens, I was struck by the stark contrast to Korea, where the monthly contraceptive pill has been available over-the-counter for 48 years. As Jordan McCutcheon explains, in her recent article “12 ways Korea ruined me for the US” for Matador Network (my emphasis):

Before I left to go abroad, I was told my insurance wouldn’t cover a year’s worth of birth control at one time (shocker). In Korea, birth control is over the counter, and it’s cheap. I asked for the active ingredient in the medicine I took at home, and the pharmacist found a similar brand. So, for ₩8,000 ($7) I can buy as much as I want whenever I want because I’m a woman who knows what’s good for my body, and what it doesn’t need is another US male politician regulating my right to not reproduce.

That said, only 2.5 percent of Korean women actually use the pill. Probably, due to a combination of aggressive sterilization programs in the 1970s and ’80s, a knock-on tendency to leave contraception in men’s hands, and because of scaremongering by the Korean Medical Association.

Also, there were alarm bells in mid-2012, when the KFDA announced bizarre plans to make monthly pills require a prescription, but morning-after pills over-the-counter. (Basically, the opposite of the existing situation.) But there was no medical justification provided. Instead, it was a transparent attempt to forge a compromise between the competing financial interests of the Korean Medical Association and the Korean Pharmaceutical Association. And a blunt demonstration that women’s health and sexual freedom were the least of the government’s concerns.

Fortunately though, it backed down in the face of outrage, and because the outgoing Lee Myung-bak Administration resolved it was not worth creating a political headache for Park Geun-hye’s presidential campaign. Also fortunately, Park Geun-hye hasn’t tried again since gaining power. A surprise, frankly, given her continuation of Lee Myung-bak’s equally bizarre and women-unfriendly policy of (re)criminalizing abortion in order to raise the birthrate. (And in practice, only serving to make abortion services much more expensive and difficult to find.)

In the meantime then, Korea remains one of the few developed countries where the monthly pill is over-the-counter. Which makes we wonder: in terms of attitudes towards and use of the pill, in what other ways does Korea stand out?

With that in mind, I was struck by the emphasis on appearance in the following recent commercial.

The voiceover says “My body? ‘A.’ My personality? ‘A.’ My style? ‘A.’ [The reason for?] my success? Alesse contraceptive pills,” followed by the text also mentioning it’s a good treatment for acne.

Should women with “normal” bodies try something else then? What about those with only so-so fashion sense?

That can’t compare with the Koreanness of this next one though, with its mention of “bagel girls” and use of aegyo:

So much so, it may actually be a satire: its title is “Pill Ads These Days,” and I can’t find any mention of the company.* Either way, it stresses that even women who look great in a white one-piece, women on a diet, women with great bodies, and women who do aegyo with their boyfriends…all get mood swings and PMT. And all of which can be solved by rearranging their cycles with the pill.

Which I’m sure is indeed empowering. Yet, watching these, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the pill is sometimes used to prevent pregnancy too.

Or is that just me? Please let me know your own thoughts in the comments, about these commercials, how they compare to pill commercials overseas, and/or about contraceptives in Korea in general. And if I’ve been reading too much into these two examples too—no matter how much fun I’ve had doing so! ;)

Just in case though, I’m happy to point out that Mercilon’s commercials at least, do seem to acknowledge that they can be used for that thing called sex too (which is also fun):

Update 1: According to Stuff, there’s a strong possibility the pill is going to be made (more) over-the-counter in New Zealand also. Most commenters are supportive of the move, and question just how useful and necessary visits to GPs are. For instance, according to “BenzyY”:

In my experience, doctors tend not to provide any real advice or counselling about the use of the pill anyway. When you first start taking it they tell you to read the information leaflet. That is all. And once you’re on it, all they do is harass you about your weight and medical history, and when asked about spotting, imply that boyfriends/partners/husbands have been cheating and have given you an STI.

Bring on pharmacy visits.

Meanwhile, the author of Vintage Ads was stuck at “how condom ads [in Western countries] have changed from ‘prevent pregnancy’ to ‘prevent disease’ over the years.” I wonder then, if these Korean pill ads are so coy about their pregnancy prevention because of Korean sensibilities, or whether they’re more a reflection of recent, international trends in contraceptive advertising?

*Update 2, August 2019: “Pill Ads These Days” was the title of the original video, which has since been taken down from YouTube. The title of its replacement—매력적인 그녀의 하필 그날! 빵 터지는 이야기!—is (I think)”Attractive women getting THAT day! A story that bursts with a bang!”.

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

10 thoughts on “(Still) Empowering Korean Women: Over-the-counter contraceptive pills

  1. Another fascinating paper about a very creative topic. Empowerment, that’s indeed what Europeen women were thinking of in the 70’s and 80’s about the pill. Yet, somehow, they have since lost some of that (em)power.


  2. I always got the sense that contraceptive pills were somewhat of a taboo subject in Korea. In the US, it’s encouraged to take contraceptive pills to regulate menstrual cycles or to remedy acne. But in Korea, I think there is a negative connotation to the use of birth control pills (especially for younger or unmarried women). I remember a few years ago, my Korean friend asked me if I could go buy some OTC pills for her at the local pharmacy. I asked her why she couldn’t do it herself, and she told me she was “ashamed.” When I walked in the the pharmacy and asked for the pills nonchalantly, the pharmacist looked at me in disbelief and said, “but you’re too young!” His exclamation stuck with me over the years, and made me realize that it’s still frowned upon for women to take control over their sexual habits. Maybe this is why a lot of the commercials take the emphasis away from their ability to prevent pregnancy? Just a thought. Thanks for another great read, btw!


    1. Thanks for your comment. I used to hear much the same about pharmacists when I first came to Korea 16 years ago — that they were much more judgmental and disproving in fact — but when I was doing the research for this article of mine in 2012, Western and Korean women told me that that no longer happened at all, so I’m surprised to hear about your friend’s fears and your own experience. Like you say though, it would explain the emphasis of the commercials — and probably why condom commercials have been so disappointing too.


  3. I really don’t see how commercials regarding contraceptives are at all useful in gauging a country’s sexual culture. I can count all of the American condom / BC ads I’ve seen my entire life in the United States on one hand, and they were so crude as to not really warrant any kind of serious discussion. Using sex to sell anything comes off as pretty crass. Besides, look at this from the advertiser’s perspective. You can make a gross “sexy” ad that’s going to alienate any conservative woman right from the get-go, or you can make a jokey one that encourages identification with the product through the common shared experience of “sudden unpleasant menstruation”. You don’t need to be Don Draper to figure out which one is the winner there.

    As far as over-the-counter contraception goes, American conservatives are the ones who support that legislation, and typically it’s progressives who oppose it. The assumption is that over-the-counter BC will obviate the need for government funding of contraception programs since it can be easily bought. Although I’m not really sure why a British man who blogs about Korean culture is writing about our messed-up political system as if it were any more a normalized standard than the Korean one is.


    1. I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. I still think that contraceptive commercials, including their crudity, banning, and/or relative absence are very helpful in gauging a country’s sexual culture. I don’t think using sex to sell anything is automatically crass either, especially for things directly related to sex. That said, I do see the advantages of the approach used by Korean advertisers you mention, and so thanks for pointing that out, but I still think it’s striking — and indicative of various elements of Korea’s sexual culture — that the appearance and menstruation angles are highlighted to the exclusion of all others.

      As for your comments about American contraception politics, consider them duly noted, but my choosing to quickly refer to some recent US news by way of introduction is hardly setting the US up as any kind of normalized standard. Perhaps you should have considered that possibility before resorting to ad hominem attacks to critique my post.


  4. This is very fascinating! All of your posts are great; I wish I heard about your blog earlier! I am writing a college anthropology paper about sexual health/education in Korean culture, so your writings are very helpful in my research, especially in terms of how sexual health is related to gender dynamics in Korea. I’ll definitely use some of your resources in my paper!


  5. I got to this article because i was curious about hoe birth control is viewed in South Korea, basically because i’m interested in anything at all about the ccountry. What surprised me though is statement about BC being rescription only and morning-after-pill over the counter accessible. It has been the situation in the countru where i liev, the netherland, for a very long time but it seems this is viewed as somthing unwanted/strange by many people, and i felt the urge to explain about it. The reason we have this is system is because oral contraceptives can contain several different hormones in several different gradients, i’ve experience myself how terrible the effects can be if the combo you just bought doesn’t work for you (read: i got depressed and suicidal). This however is not the case with the morning-after-pill which has a very consistent composition so is therefore less likely to have such drastic side effects


    1. Thanks for your comment, and for the information. I agree that there’s certainly a case to be made for monthly pill to be prescription only, and the morning after pill to be over-the-counter, although I personally still think both should be over-the-counter. Just in case it’s not clear from this post though, in Korea there were no scientific arguments offered for that suggested change, but rather it was just for the sake of a financial compromise between doctors and pharmacists, and that was the main reason for the opposition and anger here.

      p.s. Sorry I took so long to reply over New Year’s!


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