Korean Lolita Nationalism: It’s a thing, and this is how it works

Tzuyu TWICE U+ phoneTurning Boys Into Men? The Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 3

Once upon a time, it would have been considered strange, even shocking to have a 16 year-old girl do a “sexy dance” for a phone commercial. That cardboard cut-outs of her on every corner would present her body for our constant inspection, their text wantonly inviting us to come inside if we wished to see more, her stare seeming to question the virility of any heterosexual man that didn’t. That someone thought she wasn’t attractive enough if she just stood comfortably, so she was made to pose so awkwardly to highlight her willowy hourglass figure. That women’s bodies would come to literally embody phones in the first place, with advertisers both exploiting and even deliberately promoting new body labels and dysphoria.

How did this become the new normal?

There are myriad reasons, and this blog has languished while I tried to explain too many of them at once in previous versions of this post. (Sorry.) So, let me concentrate on just one instead:

Since last summer, the official website of the army provides pictures and videos of sexy girl-groups. The sexuality of the female entertainers is being used for the purpose of boosting the soldiers’ spirits. About one and half years of military service is compulsory in South Korea, during which time the soldiers are encouraged to consume the commercialized sexuality of the females.

(Ha-young Choi, BBC World Service, 21/01/2016)

Put like that, it does sound creepy. In the long article I’ve translated below, even creepier still. Put in the context of the isolation and harsh conditions of Korean military service though, and the long history of performances by girl-groups for morale, as well as conscripts’ quite literal consumption of commercialized female sexuality off-base? Then allowing them to see already widely-available pictures and videos of girl-groups and female entertainers seems, well…pretty innocuous really. It would be also quite difficult to prevent in light of the Defense Ministry’s recent recommendation that “each military unit…widely utilize social networking services for soldiers’ convenience so that they can stay connected to the Internet more freely to prevent further isolation from society.”

So, I’m not against allowing conscripts to see such content. There are more important battles out there.

Likewise, of course there’s no direct relationship between that decision and Tzuyu‘s ads. In Korea, sexualized ads and music videos of teens have been around for almost a decade now. (Not least, because of her employer JYP.)

What I am against is military conscription itself, as well as the Korean government’s deliberate promotion of a “damned patronizing, infantilizing vision of female gender roles and sexuality” to accompany that, as I discussed in Part 1. I’m also against the damned patronizing, infantilizing vision of female gender roles and sexuality promoted by (most) K-pop, reinforced by the government’s censorship of anything that hints at female sexual agency. And, ultimately, I’m against the rationale behind this too. Because however necessary it is to provide internet access to conscripts these days, however harmless it may be that conscripts can now ogle K-pop stars to their hearts’ content, and however mundane both may sound in light of the lolitaesque reality of today’s Korean media, there’s still a difference between allowing conscripts to ogle and encouraging them to ogle.

That is creepy.

Somewhere in the government and/or military bureaucracy though, real people who couldn’t give a crap about the effects on women and girls made the real decision to do so. Just like with all the other mundane, innocuous, completely justifiable decisions that make Korea’s “Lolita Nationalism” possible.

When terms like that begin to sound very abstract and cliched from overuse, not least by myself, this real-life example is, I hope, a healthy reminder of how those actually come about.

Don’t just take my word for it though. Instead, let two former conscripts explain it themselves:

MplusV 27.04.2016(Screenshot, MPlusV, 27/04/2016)
MplusV 28.04.2016(Screenshot, MPlusV, 28/04/2016)

First, in the form of some context from Young-Chun, who many of you will know as the author of The Accidental Citizen-Soldier: The Story of an American in the Korean Army (2015):

…I knew Korean guys, especially sexually deprived conscripts, liked female celebrities (duh, right?), but I didn’t know how bad that affection was. I learned that Korean conscripts in general are obsessed with K-Pop girl groups, in particular Girls’ Generation. By obsessed, I mean really obsessed. A good example of this is rapper Psy’s description of his military service.

In this show, Psy says he was made to stand guard while watching the TV so he could alert senior conscripts that Girls’ Generation was on it. While it wasn’t that extreme in my unit, it was quite normal to see guys flock to the TV whenever GG or other good looking female celebrities were on air. Every Friday and Saturday, when the major networks have those “music” shows parading group after group, entire units would stay glued to the TV. Guys would watch the same music video or performance repeatedly so they could ogle at the girls. Their bare legs exposed, sexy dancing, and terrible music (not a secret among conscripts either), it was pretty obvious there was only one reason for these “musicians” to exist. These girls are glorified strippers, covered in the thin veil of “music” so it doesn’t seem as creepy and sad as going to a strip club. For conscripts, it’s usually the only form of sexual gratification they’re allowed while on base.

One and half years of celibacy is no joke. So, I can hardly blame the conscripts for their exaggerated reactions to seeing girl-groups. Or, for visiting prostitutes while on leave, which Young-chun goes to explain was considered normal.

That said, it’s been a decade since he served. Now, Seoul journalist Jun-haeng Joshua Lee argues, conscripts are indeed effectively receiving the “glorified strippers” they always craved:

Jumping ahead to the relevant section of his SlowNews article, about the Military Mutual Aid Association’s (군인공제회/MMAA) portal site MplusV, which is the homepage of all base computers:

한국 군장병들은 이제 사지방에서 무엇을 보게되는가 / What Do Conscripts See on the Computers on Their Bases?

October 2, 2015 (Also available on his Rainygirl blog.)

군 복무 21개월, 한국 남성은 <사지방>에서 무엇을 보게되는가? / Military Service is 21 Months Long: What will Korean Men See in the Base PC Rooms?

다음은 <군장병 공식포털>의 갤러리 구성이다.

The following is what the MplusV site looks like:

MplusV 1

M갤러리 라는 메뉴에는 ‘걸그룹’ ‘여자스타’ 라는 대분류가 전면에 배치되어있다.
이 뿐만 아니다. 메인페이지 역시 걸그룹 사진으로 가득하다. 10월 1일 기준 메인화면이 이렇다.

In the gallery section, the categories for girl-groups and female stars fill the entire page. But that’s not all, The main page is also full of girl-group photos. It looked like this on October 1:

MplusV 2MplusV 3

정 안되면 만화캐릭터라도 여성을 골라 배치했다 (안돼 아야나미…)

It’s not just the photos; there are even female manhwa characters…

MplusV 4

물론 지난 6월에도 걸그룹이 전면에 배치되어 있었다.

Of course, in June it looked like this:

MplusV 5

< 군장병 공식포털> 에 마련된 갤러리들은 모두 <디시인사이드>의 같은 겔러리를 연동한 것이다. 예를들어 아이유 겔러리의 경우 <군장병 공식포털>과 <디시인사이드> 에 있는 겔러리 내용이 모두 동일하다.

The galleries in this site are all associated with or directly come from DC Inside. [According to Wikipedia, “it is analogous to the English-language website 4chan for its image and influence upon Korean internet culture.”—James] For example, if you click on the IU one, it is exactly the same.

MplusV 6MplusV 7

광야에서 쎽쓰!를 외치는 것 또한 당연히 연동된다.

Jeez, of course even though all those guys are stuck in the middle of the countryside, all they can think about is sex.

MplusV 8

즉 <디시인사이드>에 있는 1700여개 갤러리 중 <<<<여성을 다루는 79개 갤러리>>>>를 <군장병 공식포털>에 연동시키기 위해 따로 빼낸 것이다.

Out of 1700 galleries on the DC Inside site, 79 dealing with women were picked out for the MplusV site.

< 사지방> 즉 군PC방의 주 사용층이 20대 혈기넘치는 한국남성이기 때문에 그들의 관심사에 맞추어 걸그룹 컨텐츠를 내세웠다는 것만으로는 설명이 충분하지 않다. 공교롭게도 모든 해답은 이 사이트의 ‘회사소개’ 와 ‘공지사항’ 에서 너무나도 충실하게 다루어지고 있다.

One explanation for this is that since the main users are virile, horny, vigorous men in their early-20s, the material available on the site is appropriate to their interest is girl-groups (boys will be boys). But this explanation is insufficient. Surprisingly, the real reason for the content make-up can be found in the company introduction and announcement section of the site instead.

사기진작 士氣振作 / Morale Support

다음은 <군장병 공식포털> 회사소개에 있는 문구이다.

The following is from the introduction on the website:

군장병들의 사기진작과 휴식의 터전이 될 수 있도록 다양한 걸그룹, 여자스타의 각종 정보를 제공하고 병영생활 정보, 커뮤니티 등 다양하고 유익한 정보들을 제공하고 있습니다. (군장병 공식포털 > 회사소개)

To give soldiers morale support and rest on the base, information about various girl-groups and female stars is provided, as well as other useful information about barracks life and the community.

다음은 <군장병 공식포털> 공지사항에 있는 문구이다.

Next, this is from the noticeboard:

다 양한 걸그룹/여자스타의 콘텐츠 뿐 아니라 군장병들간의 즐거운 소통의 공간을 만들어 줄 커뮤니티와 다양한 즐길거리 뉴스, 만화서비스를 제공하고 있으며…(군장병 공식포털 > 공지사항 > 군장병 공식포털 MplusV 리뉴얼 오픈, 2015.7.23)

There are not just links to information about various girl-groups and female stars, but also forums to help soldiers communicate, as well as news-sites and manhwa strips are provided…

군장병들의 사기진작과 휴식을 위해 걸그룹/여자스타 갤러리를 끌어왔다는 이야기이다. 물론 스포츠나 게임 웹툰등 취미갤러리도 함께 연결해두긴 했지만 생색내기에 가깝다. 메인페이지에는 최신 걸그룹 사진들이 화면가득 채워져있다. 그동안 군 지휘관들이 유해사이트라면서 몽땅 차단하던 바로 그 컨텐츠들이 <군장병 공식포털>이라는 권위를 걸고 군부대 PC방 첫화면에 뜨는 것이다. 여성을 성적 대상화하는 컨텐츠, 여성을 성 상품화하는 모든 컨텐츠들을 모아둔 페이지를 20개월 남짓 군에 복무할 남성들이 <사지방>에 로그인할때마다 매번 만나게 된다는 이야기이다. 여성을 소비하는 컨텐츠로만 똘똘 뭉쳐진 페이지이다. 소라넷 꿈나무는 그냥 생겨나지 않는다. 어느 누구도 이러한 ‘관음적 시선’을 제지하지 않는 곳에서 한국의 젊은 남성들이 20개월 남짓 지내며 여성을 접하고 나온다고 상상해보자. 이 시각 이후 그들의 응큼한 시선은 철저히 한국 군대에서 ‘학습되고 교육된’ 것으로 보아도 무방할 것이다.

This means the site provided these galleries to improve morale and soldiers’ rest periods. Of course there are harmless galleries like for sport and games and webtoons too, but these are only for show, to preempt criticism. Because the main page is just full of the most recent girl-group pictures. Until recently, such content was blocked because it was considered harmful. But now, with the blessing of the MMAA, it’s proudly displayed as the homepage of computers in the military PC rooms.

국가가 제공하는 사기진작 아이템 ‘여성’ / Women Are a National Support Item Provided By Their Country

“저 는 군대에서 여성을 말하는 방식 때문에 많이 힘들었어요. 텔레비전을 보면서 누구를 ‘따먹고 싶다’든가 하며 Rebellious Peace World Without War여성을 성적 대상화하는 이야기들이 정말 많죠. 또 나중에 결혼하면 딸을 낳고 싶다고 그러다가 요즘 세상이 무서워서 딸은 낳으면 안 될 것 같다고 해요. 분열되어 있는 거죠.” (저항하는 평화, 전쟁없는세상 엮음, 2015.)

“I had a hard time because of the way women are thought of in the army. Whenever soldiers see women on TV, they talk about fucking them. Also, they say, ‘When I get married, I want to have to have a daughter. But the world out is too dangerous and scary for them, so I don’t think I should have one.’ They have such mixed, contradictory feelings about women.” (Rebellious Peace, by World Without War, 2015; source right: Redian)

국가의 이름으로 ‘깨끗한 성’을 공급하던 일본군 위안부-한국군 기지촌의 전통은 현대에 들어와 거의 사라지긴했다. (유신공주는 양공주 문제엔 관심이 없었다 / 한겨레 2012.11.30) 그것은 범죄이기 때문이다. 하지만 그 의식의 유령들은 수십년간 군 막사를 떠돌면서 20개월 남짓 군복무를 마친 남성들의 뇌리에 여전히 깊이 새겨져 사회로 배출되고 있다.

The Japanese and Korean traditions of providing comfort women—“clean sex”—to Japanese and US soldiers respectively have disappeared. Because those were crimes. But the ghosts of that sex trade still influence the Korean soldiers who stay in the barracks for 20 months, who then carry those ghosts with them out to society.

여 전히 한국 국군은 여성을 장병 사기진작 도구로만 활용한다. 장병 정신교육을 통해 ‘자랑스런 대한 건아’로서 어머니와 애인을 지켜야한다는 책임감을 끊임없이 주지시키면서도, 남성성을 확인하는 의식으로서의 섹스=성욕배출을 위해 동원되어야 할 대상으로 여성을 다루는 이중적 태도를 견지한다. ‘하나된 남성군대’를 견지하기 위한 수단으로서 여성을 성적 대상화하는 태도는 각군 정훈과의 공식적인 ‘자제 촉구’에도 불구하고 야전에서 공공연히 이루어져왔다. 최근MplusV 9에 는 아예 국방홍보원이 위문열차 공연을 통해 걸그룹을 적극 활용하고 있고 K-POP 산업 또한 ‘군통령’딱지를 담보로 걸그룹을 내어주며 군과 공생하기 시작했다. 군의 사기진작을 이성, 특히 이성의 육체미에 환호하는 것에 내맡기는 것을 공식적으로 금기시해오던 것 마저 이제는 국가기관이 당당히 깨트리고 있는 것이다.

Still, the Korean military uses women for moral support. While they learn from the moral education they receive their duty as proud Korean men to protect their mothers and girlfriends, they also learn to see women as mere objects for their sexual desires, because that is a means to show off their manliness. This attitude, that the objectification of women is necessary to have one united, male military, is no secret, despite its official position condemning that.

(Caption, right: 이건 정상이 아니다, MBC 진짜사나이 2013.9.9 / This is just too much! Sistar performance on Real Men.)

Recently, the Defense Media Agency has been very explicit in its policy of using girl-group performances in order to provide support to troops. In turn, the K-pop industry has been happy to provide those groups in order for them to become the “military president,” a new term meaning the most popular girl-group among the troops. Whereas before such things were officially condemned but widely ignored, now they are blatantly encouraged.

그 연장선상에서, 40만 병사들이 늘 접하게 될 <사지방> 첫화면까지 ‘사기진작’을 명분으로 온종일 걸그룹 여자스타 사진으로 채워지기 시작했다. 방금 살펴본 <군장병 공식포털> 이야기이다. 이러한 상황에서 ‘군대 갔다와야 사람된다’ 라는 이야기가 이제 얼마나 위험한 이야기가 될지 안봐도 뻔한 일이다. 2년 가까이 기다려줬더니 차버린데에는 다 이유가 있고, 군대갔다온 복학생 오빠 속이 시커먼데에도 다 이유가 있다. 그것이 이제 <군장병 공식포털>을 통해 ‘공식화’되었다.

그나마 <사지방> PC가 과거처럼 느려터져서, 시작페이지 열기도 전에 사이트주소를 바꿔치기하는 장병들이 많기를 바라는게 우리에게 남아있는 몇 안되는 희망일지 모른다.

In that regard, the first page of the first website 400,000 conscripts visit when they go to the base PC rooms, is full of pictures of girl-groups, provided in the name of morale support. This is what we saw earlier. Given that the military is where Korean boys become men, isn’t it alarming that this is the image of women presented to them? There is a reason that the men split up with their girlfriends once they return from the military, despite the women waiting for them for so long. There is also a reason that returning male students are described as having black hearts/minds, which in Korean means they want to fuck every women they see. But now, that has become official…

All we can hope for, is that, like in the past, the internet on the PCs on the bases is so slow that soldiers go straight to their desired sites while the MplusV one is still loading. (End of translation.)

apink mma(Source: Unknown)

There’s more to the article, but let me close instead by asking the question posed in the introduction—How did sexy ads of 16 year-olds become the new normal?—and by passing on an intriguing answer I found in the unlikely location of “What Was Volkswagen Thinking?” by Jerry Useem in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of the Atlantic. About how large organizations come to make and rationalize questionable, even blatantly unethical decisions, some sections could easily be describing some of the processes discussed in today’s post (my emphases in bold):

The sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the phrase the normalization of deviance to describe a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as “not okay” are slowly reclassified as “okay.” In the case of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster—the subject of a landmark study by Vaughan—damage to the crucial O‑rings had been observed after previous shuttle launches. Each observed instance of damage, she found, was followed by a sequence “in which the technical deviation of the [O‑rings] from performance predictions was redefined as an acceptable risk.” Repeated over time, this behavior became routinized into what organizational psychologists call a “script.” Engineers and managers “developed a definition of the situation that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong.” To clarify: They were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself…

The most troubling thing, says Vaughan, is the way scripts “expand like an elastic waistband” to accommodate more and more divergence…

“Culture starts at the top,” a businessman recently said in an interview with the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. “But it doesn’t start at the top with pretty statements. Employees will see through empty rhetoric and will emulate the nature of top-management decision making … A robust ‘code of conduct’ can be emasculated by one action of the CEO or CFO.” The speaker was Andrew Fastow, the former CFO of Enron, who spent more than five years in federal prison. He got one thing right: Decisions may be the product of culture. But culture is the product of decisions.

Related Posts:

p.s. A must-read is “Thoughts on the low age of consent and light sentences,” posted at Gusts of Popular Feeling as I was writing this conclusion. About the continued indifference to the abuse of Korea’s surprisingly low age of consent (13), it’s difficult not to see links with much of what’s discussed in this post.

7 thoughts on “Korean Lolita Nationalism: It’s a thing, and this is how it works

    • A belated thanks for passing that on. To be brutally honest though, with just 2 original songs to their name, still being almost completely unknown a year after their debut, and no member really standing out for their looks, then the group is probably going to end-up disbanding before it’s even really begun.

      If I was the head of PR Entertainment, I would have had them continue to do their military concept, to make them stand out that way. (They would possibly have benefited from Descendents of the Sun suddenly making the military cool too.) But based on that thread you linked to, it looks like they’ve abandoned that for a generic cheerleader look which…just about every girl-group is (re)adopting these days. Watching one of their recent videos, it even looked like they were wearing the same costumes as Girls’ Generation did in their MV for Oh! from 6 years ago, complete with prominent “G”s on them.

  1. I love your work, and have only just found it via Daniel Tudor’s book called A Geek in Korea in which he quoted you.

  2. I’m writing a dissertation about this Lolita Nationalism, and your blog is being a lot of help! Your inputs and all the translated articles are helping me develop my own thoughts on the matter. So thank you! And please keep updating, the blog is amazing.

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