The Korean Word for “Stroller” is Literally “Milk-MOTHER-Vehicle.” Let’s Start Using This New Term That Includes Fathers Too.

Like or loathe political correctness, many everyday Korean terms are ripe for modernization.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Source, all screenshots: YouTube.

Similar to how over 60 percent of English words have Latin and Greek roots, over half of all Korean words are of Chinese origin. Once you realize this, learning Korean vocabulary becomes immeasurably easier. Buy this book in particular, which groups Korean words by their Chinese roots, and it’ll feel like all your Christmases have come at once:

From pages 78 & 102 of Miho Choo and William O’ Grady, Handbook of Korean Vocabulary: A Resource for Word Recognition and Comprehension, 1996.

You may become so grateful for all these new connections between words suddenly being revealed to you though, that it’s easy to overlook how problematic some of them may be. To many native speakers too, for whom the words are so familiar that they would have little cause to think twice about their origins.

One such Chinese derivative is “모/母“,  as shown in my scan above-left. Clearly, it is apt for almost all of those examples of its usage given there, and a much better Korean-speaker than I points out that it even makes some sense for the seeming exception of “모음/vowel” too. Learn that it’s also contained in the absent “유모차” (pron. yoo-mo-cha) however, which means “stroller” (N. Am.) or “pushchair/buggy” (U.K.), and suddenly that ancient Chinese root really begins to feel its age.

This video suggests adopting a much more inclusive alternative:

In the first screenshot below, the top line says “stroller,” followed by the corresponding Chinese characters for “milk,” “mother,” and “vehicle.” (Possibly, “breastmilk” may be more appropriate for the first character?) Below those, a definition: “A wagon for carrying a child after it is born.”

These next two are self-explanatory:

“[Because of this], does ‘stroller’ have a sexually discriminatory meaning?”

“Does the person who pushes the stroller absolutely have to be the mother?”

“Other caregivers can push it, yet the meaning of ‘mother’ is still contained within the word. Does this imply the person responsible for childcare is the mother?”

“Let’s not focus on the person pushing the stroller, and focus on the child instead. Please call it ‘유아차’ (pron. yoo-a-cha).”

And FYI, here’s that Chinese character for “child,” from page 149 of The Handbook:

Anyone reading this far needs no reminding of Korea’s plummeting birthrates, or of the gendered stereotypes surrounding childcare that work against remedying those—a mere new word is no solution. But it is logical, inoffensive, easy to remember, and can’t help but work at least a little against those stereotypes. So why not use it?

Naturally then, the YouTube video has many more dislikes than likes. Its origins are suprisingly opaque for a public campaign too (“공공언이 바꾸기 캠페인,” or the “Campaign to change how we speak to other members of the community”) and for a long time my searches only brought screenshots of that video and of various others’ in the campaign, on sites of the sort where things are generally only posted to be ridiculed. The video does end with a note that the campaign was done in conjunction with the Seoul City Government however (or possibly “by”; “함께” can vary according to context sorry), and eventually I realized I’d be able to find the video and others on non-gendered, but still problematic words in the campaign on their website itself, which indeed were posted there in October and September 2018 respectively. But there was still no news or further information available.

With such abysmal promotion, frankly you have to wonder why the Seoul City Government even bothered making them.

But in the process of looking, I was reminded of the Gender Equality Week conducted by the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family conducted that July:

Which I’m happy to say did receive a lot of press. Quite possibly, the the Seoul City Government’s campaign was actually one of those efforts alluded to at the end of the press release above (but which didn’t get any mention on the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family’s website either!):

Either way, it was added to by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s awareness video in January this year. Possibly that explains the stroller video’s abrupt appearance on the MBC YouTube channel that same month (used in this post):

From my own experience, using gender-neutral words takes minimal effort, once you make the conscious decision to. That said, I do understand the laziness in not doing so, and the resistance against being told what to do. If you meet such a person then, perhaps start by asking them, say, why “uterus” should be “자궁” (pron. ja-goong) which literally means “子宮/house for a son,” instead of the suggested “포궁” (pron. po-goong), which means ” 細宮/house for a cell/baby.” Once they realize how much work defending that absurdity would be, then surely they’ll realize all the other sexist, archaic words aren’t really worth the effort either!

Related posts:

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

I Read a Book: Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (2014)

Good Chinese Wife CoverLet me be honest: Good Chinese Wife is not something I would normally read.

Susan’s ex-husband was Chinese; my wife is Korean. Susan’s relationship goes from friends to engaged in less than two minutes; we lived together for years, and had lots of wild sex before I proposed. Their marriage rapidly turned sour; we just celebrated our tenth anniversary. They married, had a child, and divorced way back in the 1990s; I’m really only interested in Chinese attitudes towards dating, sex, and marriage in the 2010s. And so on.

I’m still grateful for receiving a reviewer’s copy, organized by Jocelyn Eikenburg of the Speaking of China blog (see here for many more bloggers’ reviews). But first impressions? I expected it to be very outdated, and that it would have little to offer readers with Korean partners.

I was dead wrong, on both counts.

Good Chinese Wife begins in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, where Susan is doing a graduate degree (she previously spent a year there as an exchange student in 1990). Then in her early-twenties, she soon becomes smitten with Cai, an older mainlander from Wuhan. She starts tutoring him English in her dorm room; unbeknownst to her, other students consider them already dating. This prompts him to open up and explain he’s already been married and has a child, revealing all as a prelude to showing he is now interested in dating Susan. Because in China, Cai explains, “couples traditionally only date if they plan to marry.”

This sounded very antiquated. But as it turns out, dating in China is still not at all like in the West, nor even Korea. In Behind the Red Door: Sex in China (2012), Richard Burger explains that even in the big cities, “serial dating” is frowned upon as immoral or promiscuous. Instead, “most Chinese women still believe it is best to date only man and to marry him. Once the man invites her on a second or third date, he is indicating that he’s serious, that he is hoping for an exclusive Behind the Red Door Sex in Chinarelationship, and that marriage might be on the cards.” Whereas for women, inviting her to meet her parents “means she expects to marry him, and Chinese men understand this arrangement.” What’s more, the average age of marriage for Chinese men was only 24 in 2010; for women, 22 (in Korea, 31.8 and 28.9 respectively).

So, I understood Cai. And, being head-over-heels ever since they’d met, why Susan quickly accepted his proposal, before so much as a kiss—it sounded sweet. Her frankness about her feelings and mistakes is also a definite charm, especially for someone who likewise fell very easily in love at that age.

But that’s only 36 pages into the book. For the remaining 300, sympathy turns to constant frustration and exasperation with Susan’s rushing into marriage, then her frequent acquiescence towards her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. These feelings are only amplified by knowing that she’s doomed to fail.

In an interview, Susan says her problems were more because “He told me from the get-go that he had certain conditions for our marriage. Those are things I ignored or thought I could eventually get him to change. That should have been my red flag, not the [6 months] in which we became engaged and married.” (Likewise many happily-married Koreans, for whom such whirlwind courtships are also common, would surely bristle at the suggestion that they should have taken things slower.)

I disagree. From Cai’s belief that women are especially “dirty” in the summer, once all but physically forcing an exhausted Susan to bathe in a rat-infested bathroom, to his bizarre, surprisingly submissive relationship with eccentric professor friend ‘Japanese Father’ (“He thinks it’s not good [for us] to have sex relations more than once a week”), most of Susan’s later issues with Cai could have been discovered if they’d spent (much) more time together before the wedding day—and/or resolved if an expensive wedding wasn’t already looming over them.

Still, it does make for a good page turner. There is also merit in studying a bad relationship to learn what to avoid, and much about this one that will already be familiar to those with Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese partners. New and expecting parents in Korea, for example, will sympathize with Susan’s expectations to conform to man yue, the belief that mothers shouldn’t bathe or go outdoors in their first month—it mirrors the Korean one of sanhoojori. Also, for those couples planning to move to a Western country, her discussion of Cai’s difficulties with adjusting to life in San Francisco will be very beneficial. Her avoidance of tiresome Orientalist stereotypes is especially welcome, with her ex-parents-in-law coming across as old-fashioned but lovely, and Chinese men portrayed no better or worse than Western ones.

That said, I am reminded of a book for couples I once flicked through, which encouraged them to discuss their expectations of marriage in great detail before committing. With checklists ranging from beliefs about circumcision and determining which cities were best for both partners’ careers, to dividing the housework and setting dating policies for potential teenage children, that approach would be much too calculating for most couples. Marriage, after all, is ultimately about making a scary but exciting leap of faith with someone. But when partners come from such wildly different backgrounds, and bring such different expectations into marriage? Susan’s experience teaches readers that for international couples in particular, perhaps they really should learn the answers to those questions sooner rather than later.

Good Chinese Wife back cover

One minor quibble was all the hyperbole. Not to diminish Susan’s genuine fears for herself and her son at times, but did it lead me to expect a story involving forged passports and bribed border guards(!). Also, I disliked the format of numerous short chapters, with so little happening in some that they felt like diary entries. But that is just a personal preference.

The verdict? Good Chinese Wife is well worth the US$14.99 cover price (16,410 won at What the Book), and a definite eye-opener about the value of reading more about relationships in this part of the world, especially with such limited options for reading about Korean ones specifically. Please do leave your suggestions (and reviewer copies!) for more like it, and/or for blogs.

Korean Sociological Image #73: The True Numbers of Korean Working Women

(Source; edited)

If recent BBC coverage is anything to go by, marriage in South Korea is like a business. It’s also becoming a bit of an explosive topic as social mobility slows down and the traditional image of the male breadwinner becomes eroded by the increasing participation of females in the labour market. Some of the most widely publicised scandals and controversies on the Korean internet seem to have been, in some way or another, due to this intensifying gender friction.

(KoreaBANG; my emphasis)

My apologies for singling out Justin at KoreaBANG, whose post is still excellent overall. And as you’ll soon see, I often make mistakes too.

But that comment I’ve highlighted? Frankly, it just infuriated me. Because even though it’s completely wrong, I seem to hear it all the time these days.

In reality, the Korean female workforce participation rate has stagnated at one of the lowest rates in the OECD ever since 1997-98, when women were overwhelmingly targeted for layoffs during the Asian Financial Crisis. Back then, the logic was that wives would be provided for by their husbands, and 20-something daughters by their fathers. And 10 years later, in the latest crisis, to a large extent this logic was reapplied, although on this occasion there was a clearer economic – not just patriarchal – logic in that women formed the bulk of irregular workers (see here, here, and here for much more information).

Or so I’ve often written. But naturally, it was difficult to find definitive statistics on that when I first reported on it three years ago. At that time, my most up to date source was my copy of Working Korea 2007, published by the Korea Labor & Society Institute. Here is my scan of page 19, which has a graph of the male and female workforce participation rate of 1970-2006:

In hindsight, although it does show a big drop in the female rate in 1997-98, it shows an equally large (even slightly larger?) drop in the male rate too. With my apologies, I’m very surprised I didn’t notice that earlier, and, although it does contradict most of the literature I’ve read about the Asian Financial Crisis, and is just from one source too, it still definitely bears further investigation.

That aside, a year later I found a source going up to 2008 (it shows a fall of 50.3% to 50.0% in 2006-2008; see below also). And today, spurred by Justin’s comment, I tried looking again, and found the following at the National Statistics Office’s website:


The blue bars represent the economically active female population, in thousands (i.e., the first figure is 10.75 million), the pink line the female workforce participation rate. Although the choice of right scale gives the false visual impression that the rate has changed a great deal, as you can see from the numbers it has remained within a narrow band of 49% to 50.5%, last year’s rate being just lower than that of 2002. Also, clearly a 0.9% drop between 2008 and 2009 isn’t quite as big as I’ve been making out, and again is something that bears further exploration.

But still, one thing is clear: the number — well, percentage — of Korean women working has little changed in the last 15 years, and remains very very low by the standards of other developed countries. So it can not be the cause of increasing gender friction.

The perception that Korean women are making significant inroads into the Korean economy though? That’s entirely possible, and indeed I highly recommend KoreaBANG for much more on that (indeed, especially the remainder of Justin’s post), as well as many posts by Gord Sellar too (source, right).

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

From the Archives: Bagel Girls, Banking, and Babies!


…[the character of] Chi-Yong’s mother sees marriage as a way to achieve social advancement and material prosperity, as it was in the Victorian era. These ambitions have come to the forefront in Korea since the 1970s, due to rapid economic development and consequent aspirations to class mobility and consolidation during the last thirty years. This novel [Marriage/결혼 by Kim Su-hyeon, 1993] is a good illustration of how, given the pace of change of change in Korea, everybody has a different point of view on marriage, depending on their gender, class, and generation. The issue of communication across generations has become a serious matter. Generation is an important attribute of identity in Korea, like race in the United States. (My emphases.)

(So-hee Lee, “The Concept of Female Sexuality in Popular Culture” in Under Construction: The gendering of modernity, class, and consumption in the Republic of Korea, ed. by Laurel Kendell, 2002; page 146 of 141-164)

With apologies to So-hee Lee for variously attributing that quote to either her editor, to Hyun-Mee Kim, or to Nancy Abelmann over the years, it still very much applies 10 years later. It’s also why studying and living in Korean society can be so exciting sometimes.

For someone who’s been writing about the place for over 5 years though, it means that many of my posts need updating. Let alone mercifully deleted as reader feedback, further research, and greater use of Korean sources have exposed gaping holes in my knowledge and confident preconceptions. And from a practical standpoint too, links will die, embedded videos will get deleted, and my theme will always highlight recent posts at the expense of older ones, no matter how good they may be after going through my culling process.

With all that in mind, once a month I’ll be highlighting posts from the corresponding month in previous years. Not all of them of course (hey, I’ll still like some material to work with in September 2013 and 2014), and to some there’s no new news to add; I include them just to draw attention to for new and old readers, especially as they’ve since been slightly edited for this post with the benefit of several year’s of hindsight. Others though, I’m adding a great deal of new news and commentary below, as you’ll see.

Please let me know what you think!


Alas, not really my own article, but about Grace Duggan’s for Bust Magazine. While I’d often criticized the body-labeling craze in South Korea previously, I didn’t realize just how offensive this particular term was until she pointed it out (source, right):

Sexualizing young women for having childlike features sets off all kinds of alarms, regardless of whether or not they are over 18. The “bagel girl” label does more than infantilize women. It compartmentalizes them by applying two irreconcilable ideals: looking like a baby and a full-grown woman at the same time.

Granted, that may make it sound no more harmful than any other “line.” But, as I explain in a later comment, in the context of how it’s actually used it ends up sounding almost pedophilic:

…there’s nothing wrong with looking young per se.

But consider who the label is applied to: not, say, women in their 30s and 40s and older, for whom – let’s be real – wanting to look younger than they are is understandable (hell, for a 35 year-old guy like me too), but rather it’s women barely on the threshold of adulthood that are being praised for looking like children. And, not to put too fine a point on it, what the FUCK is great about a 21 year-old looking younger than she is? And when her body is simultaneously praised for being developed? That is a seriously flawed ideal to aspire to, and, moreover – as I hint at in the post – it’s no coincidence that it occurs in an environment with strong expectations of childish behavior from women too. Indeed, the end result strongly reminds me of child and teenage female manga characters, with personalities appropriate for their age, but somehow the sex drives and physiological development to act on them of women 10-15 years older.


Meanwhile, by coincidence just yesterday I finished the excellent An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality by Jill Fields (2007), which explains how the word “glamour” — where the “gul/글” in Bagel Girl comes from — came to be closely associated with large breasts by Hollywood in the 1930s to 1950s. Something I’d previously chalked up to a Japanese and then Korean mistranslation of the word, see the above pages for more on that, or all of Chapter 3 on brassieres at Google Books here.

If I do say so myself, I’m very proud of the way I describe my feelings when child singers do aegyo:

…cutesy aegyo is bad enough coming from a 21 year-old singer, but simply surreal when you see it done by a 14 year-old.

Yes, surreal, not merely awkward and inexperienced: essentially, you’re watching a child pretending to be an adult pretending to be a child.

Thank you very much.

Thanks again to the (necessarily anonymous) reader who wrote about her experiences, and I’ve had dozens of inquires about the Seoul clinic she used since. Please just email me if you ever need to know the details yourself.



Once someone points out the “head cant” to you, it just can’t be unseen. Usually inoffensive in itself though, and frequently done simply for photographic and stylistic reasons (which I’ve under-acknowledged in the past), it’s the fact that it’s overwhelmingly women it that makes it problematic. Just one of a number of typical poses for women in ads, ultimately it serves to reinforce gender stereotypes.

Probably, that’s why these recent Giordano ads stood out to me: in the example above for instance, Shin Min-a (신민아) is the one in control, staring at the viewer, while So Ji-sub (소지섭) is distracted (it’s usually the guys that are presented as more focused). And, desperately seeking examples of pro-feminist advertisements for a TED presentation I may be giving next month, in which I have to — grrr — conclude with a positive message rather than just criticize, this made me realize that feminists and advertisers don’t necessarily have to be at odds with each other. Just a sense of balance by the latter would be a huge step forward.

Really about “lewd” advertisements, 2 years later (this June) I translated another article about how their numbers had surged 3 times over the previous 12 months. With no apparent sense of irony, just about every news site that reported on that had so many examples themselves that the text was difficult to read.

One of my most popular posts, anybody (especially men) who thinks street harassment isn’t a problem should just reflect on the opening cartoon, let alone female readers’ comments about their own negative experiences.

(Source: unknown)


A short, harmless commercial for Shinhan Bank at first glance. But, once you take the time to analyze it, it has a clear message that men do the thinking at Shinhan while the women simply look good. Indeed, it’s such a classic example of gender stereotyping that I’m still using it in presentations today.

Here’s the slide I would present after providing that analysis:

But in the next presentation, I’ll be updating it with the recent news that the banking industry still has the largest gender pay gap in Korea, with women making an average of only 57% of what men make.

Not that I’m against skin by any means. But these remain very sweet ads!

Again one of my most popular posts, ironically soon after writing it trends in the Korean entertainment and music industries meant that Koreans would replace Caucasians in many of the modelling roles that sustained those Occidentalist stereotypes. Also, in my own (admittedly limited) experience, there’s far fewer Korean male – Western (invariably Caucasian) female pairings in popular culture now, after a spate of them in the years after Misuda first appeared. (There were never very many of the opposite.)

However, of course many of the stereotypes still do remain.

(Sources: left, right)


When I read on Yahoo! Korea this week about pregnant Hollywood star’s “D-lines”, for a moment I did try to hold my tongue about seeing the label.

After all, this, for example, is just an advertisement for an event for expecting mothers (albeit one where likely body-shaping products are promoted); these D-line fashion shows were surely perfectly harmless; many of those Hollywood stars were indeed glowing, as was pregnant Moon So-ri (문소리) in Cosmopolitan last year; and finally, yes, I can see the humorous side — it is often applied to extremely obese men.

But although the Western media too promotes pampered celebrity mothers-to-be as ideals to follow, and I can certainly accept that pregnant women overseas may likewise feel under some indirect pressure to watch their weight, that post is about how pregnant Korean women were dieting as early as the late-1990s. One can only shudder at what things are probably like now.

Suddenly, talk of D-lines sounds a lot less funny.

One of my first attempts to grapple with the origins of the kkotminam phenomenon (꽃미남; lit. flower-beauty-man), which culminated in this piece by friend and ANU professor Roald Maliangkay 2 years later.

By coincidence, both of us will be quoted in a related news article to be published next week. Watch this space! (Update: and here it is!)


And indeed there was. Unfortunately however, attitudes didn’t change with it, so fathers feel compelled by management to either ignore it entirely or to come back to work early, despite it only being 3 days (source right: unknown).

Note though, that the “paternity leave” in the original article I translated was a bit of a misnomer, it really meaning time off for a child’s birth. “Real,” paid paternity leave has been available since 2001 (or possibly 1995), but sources vary on specifics. Sung So-young in the Korean Joongang Daily, for instance, wrote in April 2011 that:

According to Korean law, all employees with a child under the age of 3 are eligible to take a year off to care for their children. Up to 1 million won ($919) in salary is provided monthly.”

But that is contradicted by a slightly later report in the Chosun Ilbo, which states that:

…those on leave can get up to 40 percent of their salary, or a minimum of W500,000 and a maximum of W1 million, and parents can take leave until the child is 6 years old.

And both in turn are contradicted by Lee Hyo-sik’s earlier report in the March 4 2011 Korea Times, which says:

Regardless of income levels, both male and female salaried workers are currently given 500,000 won per month during parental leave. This is expected to go up to one million won next year.

As for the maximum age of the children in order to be eligible, the same article states that it was 6 rather than 3. This is confirmed by an earlier February 2010 article by Kwon Mee-yoo, again in the Korea Times, which stated:

The Ministry of Labor passed a revision on Wednesday to the Act on Equal Employment and Support for Work-Family Reconciliation, or the Employment Equity Act for short, which will expand the range of workers eligible for parental leave. Now parents with preschoolers under six years old can benefit.

The leave allows employees to take a certain number of paid days off from work to care for their children. The parents can also take unpaid leave if they use up all of their paid days. This includes maternity, paternity and adoption leave. Currently, at private firms only workers with children 3 years old or less qualify for the leave.

Surprisingly, parents with adopted children weren’t eligible before this revision, and still, “only those who gave birth to or adopted children after Jan. 1, 2008 [were to be allowed] parental leave,” despite those (then) 2 to 6 year-olds obviously being of age. Which all sounds very tight-fisted, although logical during the worst of the financial crisis.

Kwon Mee-yoo also notes that it was in 2008 that the government increased the age restriction for (only) public servants, allowing them “to take time off for parental purposes if their children were under 6 years old.” I’ll assume that it previously only applied if their children were under 3 years old, like Kwon notes was the case for employees at private firms.

Finally, quibbles over details aside, Sung So-young’s and Lee Hyo-sik’s articles in particular remain excellent discussions of why Korean fathers are forced to avoid taking paternity leave, despite wanting to spend much more time with their kids. Against that though, just like in most other countries there’s still a pervasive attitude that childcare is primarily women’s work, with insidious manifestations in our daily lives.

And on that note, have a good weekend, and the Korean Gender Reader post will be up on Sunday!

Korean Gender Reader


If you’ll please indulge an old Korean Studies geek for a moment, Girlfriday’s review of Dancing Queen (댄싱퀸) at Dramabeans this week instantly reminded me of The Adventures of Mrs. Park (박봉곤 가출사건), from way back in 1996. After all, both are about wives who blatantly defy their husbands to follow their dreams of becoming singers, both are comedies, and – I’ll take a wild guess about Dancing Queen – both wives are ultimately successful.

One likely difference though, is that Mrs. Park runs away from her husband. And in fact, The Adventures of Mrs. Park was the first Korean movie to ever show a wife getting away with such insubordination.

That may sound difficult to believe today, but director Kim Tae-kyun (김태균) would later confess to Cine 21 magazine that he was extremely concerned at how audiences might react to such “an unexpected ending”. As even comedies back then would invariably close with continued happy marriages, while more realistic movies would show a miserable and destitute wife returning home with her tail between her legs.

In contrast, I doubt director Lee Seok-hoon (이석훈) has any such qualms in 2012. And it’s always quite sobering, realizing how much Korea has changed in the time I’ve been here.

So, while I doubt I’ll ever make the effort to track down and watch The Adventures of Miss Park for myself (all of the above is based on this book chapter), I will watch Dancing Queen. For not only is Hwang Jung-min (황정민) my favorite actor ever (see here for my review of A Good Lawyer’s Wife {바람난 가족; 2003}, the first movie I saw him in), but I’ve always had a soft spot for Uhm Jung-hwa (엄정화) too, as she was very much the queen of K-pop when I came to Korea back in 2000. Here’s my favorite song of hers from back then (just give me the word, and I’ll translate it in a flash!^^):

And after all that reminiscing(!), finally here are this week’s links, in no particular order:

What K-pop can teach us about the ROK military (Seoulbeats)

Foreigners organize flash mob against prostitution (The Marmot’s Hole)

‘Dream High 2′ cast express the need for laws protecting minors in the industry (Allkpop)

Sexual harassment widespread in workplaces (Hankyoreh)

Did the Piggy Dolls ruin their credibility? (Mixtapes and Liner Notes)

Essential information for understanding divorce in Japan: there is no such thing as joint custody of children (Economist)

How Korean fashion is seen from an international perspective; opposed to how Koreans think it’s seen (Noona Blog: Seoul)

K-pop’s first lesbian love story? (Seoulbeats)

Congratulations on the Dragon baby! (On Becoming a Good Korean {Feminist} Wife)

290,000won bags for elementary kids – competition at the extreme? (Hangukdrama and Korean; also see my post on how pink and princessey the schoolbag ads for girls are, but sporty and full of space-shuttles and racing-cars for boys)

[Debate] Leave ancestral rites where they belong- in the past (Hankyoreh)

[Debate] Cultural rites provide key to understanding ourselves (Hankyoreh)

• “Holiday stress for an average married Korean woman is as bad as the pain of losing a close friend” (Arirang)

Statistics on social trends in Korea – a great resource (Korean Journal of Sociology; scroll down to the “research guide”s)

Roundtable: our friend, MOGEF (Seoulbeats)

Harsher punishment urged for pedophiles (Korea Times)

Monfemme: gender, feminist, and medical anthropology in the steppes and deserts of Mongolia (Blog recommendation)

“Single Mothers are Ignorant Whores”: Update


As you’ll recall from last month’s article, about the Ministry of Health and Welfare (보건복지부; MOHW) once defining single mothers as having “low levels of education [and] impulsive sexual drives”, I promised to find out how recently that had been posted on the Ministry’s website, speculating that it was sometime within, say, the last decade or so.

You can imagine my surprise then, when Seunghee Han of the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (한국미혼모지원네트워크; KUMSN) informed me that wasn’t removed until as recently as May 2010. This was in response to Executive Director Heejung Kwon posting the definition on the Missmammamia (미스맘마미아) website, which prompted many mothers to write directly to the Ministry to complain.

Unfortunately however, the definition that has replaced it is also a little problematic, implying that most Korean single mothers are in their teens. Whereas that is certainly true of most Western countries though, and – if the 2008 Drama Little Mom Scandal (리틀맘 스캔들) above is any guide – may also be the Korean public’s perception, the reality is that most are in their late-twenties or early-thirties, as the following post on the KUMSN website makes clear:

(For a good introductory article to the plight of single mothers in Korea, see the New York Times here)

건강길라잡이사이트문제있습니다 / A Problem with the Health Guide Website

건강길라잡이는 보건복지가족부와 건강증진사업지원단에서 운영 중인 국민 모두의 건강증진을 위한 건강증진사업 홈페이지입니다. 그런데 여기에 쓰인 미혼모의 정의는 이상합니다.

The “Health Guide” is a website jointly run by the MOHW and the Management Center for Health Promotion for the public health of all citizens. However, the definition of single mothers on it is strange.

합법적이고 정당한 결혼절차 없이 임신중이거나 출산한 여자를 미혼모라고 정의내리고 있는데 마치 미혼 임신, 출산을 하면 모두 불법을 저지르고 있는 범죄인으로 여기고 있는 것 같습니다.

According to the definition, single mothers are women who are pregnant or who have given birth who have not gone through the legal and proper marriage procedures. Put this way, it sounds like all unmarried pregnant women or mothers have committed some sort of crime!

그리고 기본적으로 미혼모를 대부분 10대라 여기고 있습니다. 그러나 2010년 조사한 바로는 한 지역사회에 있는 미혼모의 경우, 평균 나이는 20대 후반 30대초반이라는 결과도 있었습니다.

Also, it basically says that most single mothers are in their teens, whereas according to the results of a survey of single mothers in one local area [James – unnamed] in 2010, most were in their late-twenties or early-thirties.

국민들의 건강을 증진하기 위해 유익한 정보를 제공하는 사이트에서도 이런 잘못된 정보를 제공하기 때문에 미혼모들에 대한 사회적인 인식이 더디게 바뀌고 있습니다. 잘못된 정보는 정정되어야 합니다.

Because there is wrong information even in a guide aimed at promoting citizens’ health, the public perception of single mothers is slow to change. This wrong information needs to be corrected.


And here is the section of the guide/website referred to:

10임신과미혼모 / Teen Pregnancy and Single Mothers

미혼모 : 합법적이고 정당한 결혼절차 없이 임신중이거나 출산한 여자.

Single Mother: A pregnant woman or mother who has not gone through the correct and proper marriage procedures.

산업화 도시화 과정, 성에 대한 가치관이나 태도의 변화, 이성교재의 범위가 늘어남에 따라 미혼모의 수가 계속적으로 증가. 미혼모 중 약 25%는 10대.

Because of industrialization and urbanization, people’s sense of values about and attitudes towards sex are changing, and more people [James – I think it means unmarried people] are having sexual relationships. Accordingly, the number of single mothers is rising, and roughly 25% of those are in their teens.

(James – Before you quite rightly point out that 25% isn’t “most” single mothers, the guide contradicts itself just two lines further down)

미혼모에 대한 정확한 통계는 없으나 전국 출산력 조사결과 18~34세 미만의 미혼여성들 중 3.4%가 임신의 경험이 있는 것으로 추정.

While it is difficult to get accurate statistics about single mothers, based on the results of a national birthrate survey [James – unnamed] it is estimated that 3.4% of single women aged between 18 and under 34 have had the experience of being pregnant (source, right).

미혼모는 대부분 10대 임신으로 교육적 경제적 정도가 낮아 충분한 건강관리를 받을 수 없으며 부모로서의 발달과업을 달성할 수 없다.

As most single mothers are teenagers, with inadequate access to healthcare and low levels of education and earning ability, then they can not really succeed as parents.

신체적인 미숙과 영양부족으로 유산, 조산, 저체중아 출산 등 고위험 임산부와 고위험 태아 및 신생아가 된다.

Teenagers that are not fully physically developed, and/or are malnourished, are at high risk of having miscarriages, premature births, underweight children, and/or complications during their pregnancy.

미혼인 여성이 임신을 하면 임신한 결과를 인공유산과 분만 중 어느 쪽을 선택할 것인지를 결정해야 하고 분만을 할 경우는 자신이 키울 것인지 입양을 시킬 것인지를 결정해야 한다.

If a single woman becomes pregnant, her two options are having an abortion or delivering the baby. If she chooses the latter, then she has to decide if she will raise it herself or offer it for adoption.

우리나라의 경우 84.8%가 인공유산, 분만은 15.2%(김승권, 1992)

In Korea, 84.8% of women in such a situation choose to have an abortion, and 15.2% choose to deliver it. (Kim Sung-gwon, 1992)


Apologies for not being able to find the title of the book referred to for the last figure, but I’m afraid I’ll have to recover from the shock of seeing a 19 year-old source used before I start looking. Moreover, combine that with the sloppily-written, contradictory, and incorrect information provided earlier, then frankly – and ironically – it’s only as I type this that I realize how bad things must be for single mothers here.

Sure, call me melodramatic, and/or reading too much into what is most likely simply a hastily-written piece of work, but recall that it comes from an organization presumably charged with supporting single mothers, promoting their rights, and trying to overcome stereotypes. Yet if that’s the best that it can do, then I shudder to think of how other organizations and segments of society treat them, with the sterling exception of the KUMSN.

But to end on a lighter note: has anybody seen Little Mom Scandal, and/or know how sympathetic it was to single mothers? Please let me know!

(Thanks to Seunghee Han of the KUMSN for the information. And also to Marilyn for putting me in touch with her, and again for translating October’s much longer article!)