Being Able to Wear Glasses Was a Crucial Step for Korea’s Anchorwomen. Now, Let’s Give Them a Chance to SPEAK as Much as Anchormen Too.

Korean entertainment programs are notorious for perpetuating traditional gender roles, let alone for normalizing body-shaming and sexual violence. But news programs can be just as big offenders.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Image source: YouTube.

Back in April, MBC anchorwoman Lim Hyeon-ju caused a sensation by being the first Korean female news anchor to wear glasses on the job, sparking a national conversation about double standards in dress codes. Shortly thereafter, the results of two studies on gender biases in the Korean media were released.

That you clicked on this post means you’re probably already aware of the Korean media’s widespread sexism. The romanticized depictions of dating violence in dramas for instance. The pervasive body-shaming. Subtitles for other languages usually depicting women talking to men in deferential speech, regardless of what was actually used by the speakers. And so on.

But still, the raw figures can make for some alarming reading.

The first study, conducted in March by the Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education (KIGEPE), focused on entertainment programs, the results of which can be read in The Korea Bizwire and The Korea Herald. The second, conducted in 2015 and 2017 by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), covered both entertainment and news programs. About the former, it found similar results to the KIGEPE’s study. As for news programs, men and women’s roles on them were revealed to be dramatically different. I haven’t been able to find any news about the study in English however, so here’s a quick breakdown from an article at Youth Daily (청년일보):

…국가인권위원회는 한국방송학회에 의뢰해 지난해 지상파와 종합편성채널에서 방영된 드라마·뉴스·생활교양·시사토크·오락 프로그램을 대상으로 미디어 성차별 실태를 모니터링한 결과를 1일 발표했다.

…The NHRCK has released the results of its study of gender discrimination in dramas, news programs, lifestyle programs, current affairs shows, and other entertainment programs shown on public broadcast channels and cable channels last year. The study was commissioned by the Korea Broadcasting Commission.

먼저 뉴스 프로그램 앵커의 경우 오프닝 멘트와 그 날 가장 중요한 기사인 첫 다섯 꼭지를 남성 앵커가 소화하는 비율은 2015년과 2017년 모두 60%를 넘었다.

First, in the case of news program anchors, the rate in the number of occasions in which the male anchor made the opening remarks and announced all of the first five news segments exceeded 60% in 2015 and 2017 [see chart, right].

주요 아이템 소개는 남성 앵커가 맡고, 중반 이후의 아이템 소개는 여성 앵커가 맡는 경우가 많았다.

Indeed, most of the biggest, major news items of each program were introduced by male anchors, while female anchors predominated with lesser news items introduced after half-way into the programs.

앵커가 소개하는 기사의 내용도 성별에 따라 달랐다. 정치·국방·북한 관련 등 딱딱한 ‘경성’ 뉴스는 남성 앵커가 소개하고, 경제·사회·생활정보·해외뉴스·날씨 관련 등 부드러운 ‘연성’ 뉴스는 여성 앵커가 소개하는 비율이 높았다.

The contents of anchors’ articles also tended to be differentiated by sex. While male anchors would introduce news items in “hard” areas such as politics, defense, and North Korea, female anchors tended to introduce those in “soft” areas such the economy, society-related topics, day-to-day information, overseas news, and the weather.

취재기자의 경우 전체 뉴스 아이템의 64%를 남성이 보도하고, 여성은 31%만 보도한 것으로 나타났다. 기자도 앵커처럼 남성 기자가 경성 뉴스를, 여성 기자는 연성 뉴스를 보도하는 경향이 강했다.

There was a discrepancy in the sexes of news reporters also, 64 percent of all news items being reported by men, and only 31 percent by women [I don’t know why these don’t add up to 100—James]. Hard news stories introduced by male anchors were also more likely to feature male reporters, and vice-versa with soft news stories and female anchors and reporters.

인터뷰 대상자 역시 남성이 73%였고 여성은 26%에 그쳤다. 전체 대상자 중에서 남성 전문직은 20.8%였던 반면 여성 전문직은 5.8%에 불과했다.

There were big differences in the sexes of interviewees also, 73 percent being men and 26 percent being women [again, no explanation for why they don’t add up to 100 sorry—James]. In addition, 20.8 percent of the male interviewees were considered experts in their various fields, but only 5.8 percent of the female ones were.

The lack of any mention of methodology is frustrating, so please hit me up in me up in the comments section if you’d like me to dig deeper, or about anything else raised. Personally, my first impression was that however sexist the contents, fortunately the impact of traditional news is increasingly limited. Even in the US for instance, where people still watch an astonishing 7 hours and 50 minutes of TV a day, only 50% of adults regularly get news from television, most of them in older demographics. Surely in wired Korea, that figure would be far lower?

But that would be missing the point. Just because a news video is more likely watched on Facebook on a smartphone than on a TV, doesn’t mean a traditional news organization wasn’t the likely producer. Ergo, the differences revealed by this study still have real impacts and still need fixing, as evidenced by the scale and enthusiasm of the reaction to Lim Hyeon-ju donning her glasses.

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

In the News: Korean Celebrity, Ethnic Nationalism, and Beauty Ideals

Kim Yuna may well be the “Ad Queen” in South Korea, but the reality is that precious few female athletes have the face and body-type necessary to get noticed by Korean advertisers. Whereas for male athletes, they just have to be good at their sports.

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes. Image source: YouTube via Humoruniv.

My writing is pretty erratic these days, because reasons. Sorry about that. One of those reasons is worth mentioning though: I’ve been fielding lots of inquiries from journalists instead. Here are some of the results:

First up, from “In Pyeongchang, a surprise visit from Queen Yuna” by Nathan VanderKlippe in The Globe and Mail:

For “Korean advertisers, all their Christmases came at once when Kim Yuna became popular,” said James Turnbull, a South Korea-based author who writes about Korean feminism, sexuality and pop-culture.

By at least one measure, celebrity matters more in South Korea than elsewhere. Roughly 60 per cent of the country’s advertisements feature endorsements, some six times higher as those in the United States. Former South Korean advertising executive Bruce Haines once called the country’s advertising “beautiful people holding a bottle.”

Mr. Turnbull is critical of the unfair standards this imposes. South Korean Ahn Sun-ju was among the best golfers in the world, but South Korean advertisers said she needed plastic surgery if she wanted to appear in commercials.

Ms. Kim, however, “was tailor-made for Korean advertisements,” Mr. Turnbull said. She is “young, attractive, photogenic, a figure skater – thin, tall – whose body is the type they want.”

“The question isn’t so much why she retired so early as why she retired so late,” he added. “Because really, did she enjoy what she was doing?”

There’s lots to unpack in that short segment. Starting with giving credit to Roboseyo for the point about advertisers’ love of Kim Yu-na, who wrote that in 2009:

Kim Yu-na…is a teen-aged figure skating phenomenon out of Seoul. She’s only eighteen years old now, and she’s been kicking the crap out of the ladies’ singles category for a few years already. She’s telegenic and cute: she appears in TV commercials here in Korea and sells, better than most of Korea’s other “Best in the world/Korea at X” stars, for example Park Ji-sung (family name Park), the Soccer (that’s Football to the rest of the world) star who is holding his own impressively on Manchester United, but who’s so ugly, and un-charismatic in front of the camera, that they can only make commercials like this [long since deleted example—sorry]: keep the camera at a distance, and show him kicking stuff, because that’s the only time he looks impressive. (Notice at the end of the ad, when the close-up is as short as they can make it and still have him be recognizable, as if the camera’s afraid to get close to his face).

Catch me on a bad hair day, and I’m hardly charismatic in front of a camera myself. I’m all about widening the media’s narrow range of beauty ideals too. But it’s objectively true: even at his physical peak, Park Ji-sung’s face would never have launched a thousand ships. As a male celebrity however, his phenomenal popularity for his sporting prowess meant that advertisers still flocked to him nonetheless, especially after it became apparent he was responsible for one million new Manchester United-branded Shinhan Mastercard accounts. Add various other factors responsible for that world-high celebrity endorsement rate of 60 percent of TV commercials (see my journal article), plus—in this case—Koreans’ (in)famous toleration of blatant photoshopping, then you can hardly blame Gillette for joining his bandwagon in 2009:

Sources: Hidomin (2006), Betanews (2009).

Like Park Ji-sung, golfer Ahn Sun-ju was one of the best at her sport in Korea. Unlike Park Ji-sung, she was cursed with being a woman, which meant advertisers were very concerned about her appearance—and her body type didn’t fit their narrow requirements. Frustrated with her ensuing lack of corporate sponsorship, she ultimately chose to compete in Japan instead, where—to my shock and pleasant surprise—advertisers were more interested in her sporting achievements. As The Korea Times explains:

…[Ahn] said that when she competed in Korea, her ability as a golfer was never enough.

“Some (potential Korean) sponsors even demanded I get a plastic surgery,” she said. “Companies did not consider me as a golf athlete, only that I was a woman. It mattered most to them was whether my appearance was marketable. I was deeply hurt by that.”

Ahn her made pro debut with the KLPGA in 2006 and won six tournaments before jumping to the JPLGA. But despite her stellar play, she struggled to find a corporate sponsor in Korea.

“As you can see, I do not have a pretty face, I am not thin, I am not what you would call sexy,” Ahn said. “But does that mean I shouldn’t be playing golf?

“Japanese companies, on the other hand, focused on my ability as a golfer. They are more concerned about my performance and how I treat my fans. I am being sponsored by six Japanese companies, including a clothing brand.”

Writing in Kore in response to that article, Ethel Navales speculates that we can’t “say for certain that Ahn’s decision to move to JLPGA was due to Korea’s inability to accept her physical appearance”, and that she may have just been reacting to one negative experience, so “we certainly shouldn’t assume that the KLPGA puts those expectations on [all] their players.” But personally, I see no reason to challenge Ahn’s stated motivations for leaving. As for the KLGPA, I turned to Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea (2012) by Rachel Miyung Joo to learn more about its attitudes towards its female players, but unfortunately she doesn’t mention Ahn at all, focusing largely on Korean women in the (US)LGPA instead. So, while her descriptions of their Orientalist and sexualized depictions therein are fascinating, and her description of its 2002-2007 “Five Points of Celebrity” marketing drive (a.k.a. “Anti-butch Campaign”), “understood to place a large emphasis and personalities of the players rather than on their performance as athletes” (p. 153), sounds particularly relevant here, indeed we still can’t automatically assume the same of the KLPGA. But she does note that “[i]n the current media climate in South Korea, female golfers are often sexualized through sports tabloids, fansites, and advertisements” (p. 156; see Le Coq Sportif example below). Also, her description of what happened to the Korean image of predecessor Pak Se-ri, “probably the most popular athlete in South Korea at the end of the twentieth century”, is quite telling. Because after Pak left for the LGPA in 1998:

Sources: Kaikaihanno (Pak Se-ri, 1998), Yonhap (Ahn Sun-ju, 2014)

…there [was] a considerable shift in ideas of public sexuality in [South Korea]. This shift can be read in the changes to the public appearance of Pak Se-ri. She was transformed from a dowdy twenty-something golfer at her debut to the tidy player of today through a national makeover. The masculinity of Pak—her broad shoulders, strong legs, dark tan, baggy shorts, and flat short hair covered with ill-fitting baseball caps—did not detract from her initial national fame….[But] [o]ver the years, her public image has been transformed through a wardrobe redo and the use of heavy makeup. She is often featured in women’s magazines in tailored designer sportswear with highly stylized hair and makeup. In the photos, she strikes poses that emphasize her “feminine side”—taking a stroll in the wood, relaxing on a couch, playing with her dogs, or cooking in her kitchen. The transformation of a tomboyish national icon to the womanly figure of today demonstrates that, although femininity was not a requisite for her national importance, she was normalized into public femininity through the transnational circuit of images of professional golf.

“In the current media climate in South Korea, female golfers are often sexualized through sports tabloids, fansites, and advertisements.” One of many long, lingering shots of conventionally-attractive, (now) JLPGA player Lee Bo-mee in a 2016 Le Coq Sportif commercial. Source: YouTube.

In contrast, Kim Yuna shares the body type and looks of K-pop girl-group members, who are specifically chosen for their ensuing, very narrowly-defined suitability for advertising. So it comes as no surprise that, like them, the vast majority of her numerous endorsements appear to be for beauty and dieting-related products.

To note that isn’t to diminish her considerable achievements and hard work. But it’s entirely possible she would never have become such a national icon if her body didn’t fit the part. As was the case with Yi So-yeon, Korea’s first astronaut, whose treatment by netizens and the media was really quite shocking in comparison.

Finally, just for the record, the point about her retirement was actually made by Nathan, but I agreed. Also, it’ll be interesting to see to what extent the Garlic Girls’ endorsements will challenge all these body-standards for female athletes. But it’s time to move onto the (much shorter) second article.

Next, again for Nathan, a few days later I was quoted in “Behind Olympic death threats, a South Korean fan culture that takes speed skating seriously“,

It doesn’t help that the South Korean sense of nationalism also “stresses Koreanness through having Korean ‘blood,'” said James Turnbull, a writer and speaker on Korean culture. “This means many Koreans react the way they do because they feel like a member of their ‘family’ has been cheated.”

Admittedly, that last possibly sounds a little patronizing coming from a foreign observer. So I would have preferred Nathan had written that it was actually my Korean friend Ji-eun that said that, attempting to explain things after I expressed my mystification at the Korean (over)reaction to the Apolo Ohno controversy in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games—which included passers-by harassing my coworkers on the streets of (normally very pleasant and friendly) Jinju. But no matter: whoever points it out, bloodlines-based nationalism is very much a thing in Korea (and Japan), and has led to such oddities as numerous apologies for and a national sense of guilt and shame over the actions of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-hui Cho in 2007, despite his having left South Korea at the age of 8 and absolutely no-one in the US considering him “Korean.”

Left: highly-recommended further reading (source: Stanford University Press). Right: “A BBC poll from 2016 of various countries, asking what the most important factor in self identity was. South Korea has the highest proportion given for ‘race or culture – 25%” (source: BBC via Wikipedia).

Next up, a week later, I was quoted by Diane Jean in “En Corée du Sud, les femmes n’ont pas d’autre choix que d’être belles” (“In South Korea, women have no choice but to be beautiful”) for ChEEK Magazine. As you can see it’s all in French, so here’s a bad translation of my contribution:

“Of course these pressures are not unique to Korea, they are found elsewhere,” says James Turnbull, a specialist in feminism and pop culture in Korea. But without having lived here, where, on a daily basis, your beautician, your teachers, your parents, your colleagues, your bosses constantly repeat to you that you have to go on a diet […], we can not realize how these pressures are particularly harsh for Korean women. “

That Korean women face body image issues will come as a surprise to nobody. But it can be difficult to convey their intensity, especially to overseas observers who are constantly bombarded with negative body image messages themselves. Probably most effective then, is to hear from the victims in person, especially overseas Koreans who frequently express their shock at the level of body-shaming they experience here compared to in their home countries. Listen to Korean-American Ji Eun-gyeong for instance, writing for Ilda South Korean Feminist Journal:

In contrast to the casual attire and revealing clothing of some of the Korean American women in the student program, Korean female students were uniformly slim, wore formal clothing to school, and always had perfectly groomed hair and makeup. I remember gawking at the female students wearing formal suits and heels at nearby Ewha University, something that was unheard of at schools in the US, where it was perfectly acceptable to go to school wearing pyjamas and looking like you rolled out of bed.

In comparison to these women, I was fatter, did not know how to put on makeup “properly,” and was relatively not well-groomed. The physical standards for Korean women were a palpable social pressure on me and the Korean American women, and despite our best efforts to “fit in,” we always fell short. We did not have the skills, energy, or time to put on full makeup, to dress formally for school everyday, nor did we have the slim body types that almost everyone around us seemed to have. Most importantly, we were not “well-behaved” women.

As Korean American women, we were unused to having so many restrictions on our movement and our bodies. One student in my exchange program was slapped for smoking in public, and another was yelled out for having lightly dyed hair. Others were reprimanded for wearing revealing or messy clothing, such as shorts with “holes” in them (shredded shorts). We talked too loudly and laughed too hard. Because of these and the daily judgments about our physical appearance that left us lacking, most of the women in our program felt a demoralized and degraded while we were in Korea. The policing of our bodies was limited to Korean Americans, because we were being compared to Korean women, while the foreign women were help up to different standards.

In contrast, the Korean American men in our program had less restrictions on their dress or their physical appearance. While they were subject to some pressures – ie, having clean-cut haircuts and not being able to wearing shorts – they were subject to less judgment about their bodies than the foreign women.

Admittedly she was writing about 1994, but you don’t need me to tell you that very, very little has changed for the next generation. That is also indicated by the following damning statistics, collected in these slides for my lecture on body image for my “Gender in South Korea” course at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies last summer:

Statistic from “Explaining Underweight BMI and Body Dissatisfaction among Young Korean Women” by Tess Hellgren (2012). Screenshot: “Street Interview – Are you fat? (Asking Korean girls)당신은 뚱뚱한가요? Nicki Minaj VS Yoona” by Joo Won.Statistic from: “18% of Young Women Found to Be Underweight“, anonymous, The Chosun Ilbo (2014).
(Link to Georgia Hanias’s 2012 Marie Claire article in the slide, plus another one to an interesting critique.)

Finally, there was one more interview after that, but I was completely edited out of the article when it was finally published last week. I’ll wisely spare you my rant though, only mentioning it as a final excuse for the delay in posting. So too, that I also did a long podcast interview in March, which will hopefully be coming out in the next couple of months.

Any thoughts? About any of the articles? :)

Related Posts:

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

Teaching Public Safety Through Objectifying AND Slut-Shaming Women Was a Bizarre Low, Even for Korea

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Image source: YouTube

The first time I watched the TVs on the KTX, Korea’s high-speed train, I wondered if graphic footage of insects eating each other was really the best way to showcase Korea’s glorious flora and fauna to tourists.

Fourteen years later, now I’m not so much fazed by this curious peccadillo of KORAIL’s, as eagerly look forward to the latest installment in these Boschian tragedies to entertain myself with on my trips to Seoul. And, it has to be said, they make a lot more sense than this safety campaign featuring women in bikinis did that I noticed last summer:

Fortunately, people with backbones complained, resulting in its removal and likely replacement with the same old invertebrate snuff films, as I’ve just learned from the following article:

“비키니 입으면 노출증?”…한수원 공익 광고 ‘성 상품화’ 논란 “Wearing a Bikini is Exhibitionism?” Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Public Service Commercial Causes Controversy Over Sexual Objectification

Chosun Biz, September 20 2017

한국수력원자력이 성을 상품화한다고 볼 수 있는 공익광고를 KTX와 서울 지하철 등에서 방영해 논란이 되고 있다.

A public service commercial by Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) that has been playing on the KTX train and Seoul subway has led to some controversy over its sexual objectification.

20일 한수원과 코레일 등에 따르면 한수원은 최근 신고리 5·6호기 공론화가 진행되는 동안 원전과 관련된 홍보를 중단하기로 결정하며 기존에 계약한 광고 시간에는 지난 2015년에 만들었던 공익광고를 내보내고 있다.

According to [a KHNP official earlier today], KHNP and KORAIL [the national railway operator], KHNP decided to halt public relations efforts related to nuclear power plants while a public consensus was being sought on the fate of reactors Shin Kori 5 and Shin Kori 6 [at Kori nuclear power plant, close to Busan.] Three preexisting public service commercials made in 2015 were put in their place.

이 광고는 “당신은 상식적인 사람인가요. 다음 영상에서 비상식적인 점을 찾아보세요”라는 말로 시작된다. 이후 해수욕장에서 여성 3명이 겉옷을 벗어 던지고 비키니를 입은 채 바다로 뛰어드는 장면이 이어진다. 이 때 여성들의 모습은 슬로우모션으로 처리되며 몸매가 부각된다. 이후 자막으로 ‘무엇이 잘못되었을까요?’라는 자막이 나온다.

In the offending example, the text begins with “Are you a sensible person? Try to find what’s out of place in the following video.” Next, three clothed women on a beach run to the water, throw their clothes off, then jump into the waves in the bikinis that they were wearing underneath. While this is happening, the women’s bodies are focused on and [later] put into slow-motion, followed by the caption “What was wrong?”.

(James—Actually, the video did linger but technically didn’t slow-mo over the women’s bodies, and ended with “Did you find it?”, as the screenshot in the article also shows.)

이어 한 여성은 “아이들이 앞에서 막 벗는 것?”이라고 답한다. 또다른 한 남성은 “흐흐흐”라고 웃으면서 고개를 좌우로 흔들기도 하고, 또다른 여성은 “노출증?”이라고 말한다. 이후 광고 자막에는 “그것도 맞지만, 더 중요한 것은 이것”이라며 수영을 하기 전에는 준비운동을 반드시 해야한다고 알린다.

After that, one woman suggests “Was it getting undressed in front of children?”. Next, a man shakes his head left and right and laughs, then another woman suggests “Is it exhibitionism?”. Then, the text reads “Those are correct, but there’s something more important,” before revealing that it was that the women should have warmed up before swimming.

(James—Yes, really. It then shows the women doing precisely that instead, with the caption “No common-sense is more important than that to do with safety.”)

한수원의 유튜브 계정에는 해당 광고 영상에 대해 “화창한 날씨. 넓게 펼쳐진 바다와 예쁜 백사장. 평화로운 시간을 보내던 가족들 사이로 갑자기 젊은 여성 무리가 나타나 다른 이들의 시선은 아랑곳하지 않고 옷을 훌렁훌렁 벗어 던집니다. 여기서 가장 비상식적인 부분은 무엇일까요?”이라고 설명되어 있다…

In the description of the advertisement on YouTube, it says: “Sunny weather, a wide open ocean, and a pretty white sand beach. A family enjoying the peace is suddenly disturbed by a throng of young women undressing without thinking of anyone else around them. What is out of place here?”

(James—And then, after giving more information about why KHNP had to start running 2015 commercials, a spokesperson explaining the organization wanted to stress public service rather than be seen to be showing favoritism to nuclear power, the article continues:)

…하지만 일각에서는 이 광고가 여성 입장에서 불편하게 느낄 수 있다는 지적이 나온다. 직장인 이지은(27)씨는 “해수욕장에서 비키니 수영복을 입은 여성들이 왜 노출증이라고 비난받아야 하는지 공감이 가지 않는다”라면서 “비키니 입은 여성들을 본 남성이 음흉한 웃음을 짓는 것도 성적 대상화를 하는 것 같아 불편하다”고 말했다.

…Yet it has been pointed out that the situation depicted is uncomfortable for women. Lee Ji-eun (27), an office worker, argued “I have little sympathy for a commercial that says women should be criticized for exhibitionism simply for wearing bikinis or swimsuits at a beach,” adding “It’s already uncomfortable enough for women wearing bikinis to be sexualized and smirked at by men.”

대중음악평론가 서정민갑씨는 자신의 페이스북 계정을 통해 “왜 공익광고에 젊은 여성의 몸매를 관음하고, 그들은 준비운동도 안하고 바다로 뛰어드는 신중하지 못한 존재 역할을 전담하는가”라고 지적하기도 했다.

A popular music critic, Seo Jeong-min, asked on his personal Facebook “Why does the ad so voyeuristically use women’s bodies this way, and why is it young women that are placed in the role of being foolish, thoughtlessly running into the sea without warming-up first?”

한수원 관계자는 “2015년 제작 당시 각 방송사 등에서 문제가 없다는 판정을 받았기 때문에 괜찮다고 판단하고 광고 영상을 상영했다”면서 “여성을 희화화한다는 지적이 있어 광고를 중단할 예정”이라고 덧붙였다.

The KHNP spokesperson explained “No problems with the advertisement were noted when it is made in 2015, which is why we decided to use it.” However, “due to the way women are depicted in it, we will discontinue it.” (End.)

As explored in great depth on this blog, the Korean media and government have a long tradition of sexualizing and/or sexually-objectifying young women for public causes, particularly of girl-groups for the military, so the complaints about this example came as a pleasant surprise. Was it because it was just so inane, and so egregious? Or was it the hypocritical slut-shaming that pushed viewers over the edge? Please let me know what you think in the comments.

Related Posts:

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

Calling all Korean Conscripts, and Their Girlfriends and Family Members!

The Longest 24 Months

Estimated reading time: 1 minute. Image source: HanCinema

I’ve been asked to pass on the following:

My name is Mary Perez, and I’m a Documentary Photography student living in the UK. I am traveling to South Korea at the end of February to produce a photo series on Korea’s military and the ways in which the need for conscription manifests itself in today’s society.

I am looking for men currently serving (or have recently served) and girlfriends/family of military men, to introduce myself to and discuss the project with.

Contact me (15011313@students.southwales.ac.uk) if you or someone you know would like to participate, or if you know someone who will be serving in the near future. I’m a keen student and would appreciate any research sources that you’d also like to pass my way.

Related Posts:

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

Free The Nipple in Korea? Why Not? Uncovering the history of a taboo

Earlier this month, the Korean media ignored a Free the Nipple event held by Womenlink. This lack of coverage is just one reason why the campaign may struggle to take-off in Korea. But stranger things have happened. Once, men too were forbidden from exposing their chests in public. As Korean summers get hotter and drier, soon these double-standards may seem as absurd as no-pants laws and the skirt-length police.
(Source: @womenlink)

Boobs don’t get much love in Korea.

If they’re larger than average, their owners are often criticized for flaunting their femininity, and stereotyped as sexually voracious. Those same women also struggle to find comfortable, attractive bras that will fit them.

This, despite Korean women’s breasts getting larger for decades as Koreans’ diets have changed.

Of course, women the world over struggle with these issues. But it’s not just size, it’s exposure in general, and standards in Korea are that much stricter. As I’m no Picasso explains:

“Base line standard in Korea: If you are showing even the tiniest centimeter of a crack of cleavage, you are not dressed appropriately for work. Shoulders are also largely taboo, although we have noticed this changing a bit this past summer. Even too much exposed skin on the chest above the cleavage mark can be considered risque.

It’s a pain in the ass for girls with larger chests, because it’s really difficult to find garments that won’t show any cleavage, no matter what position you are in. I’ve also had to take to having an army of undershirts on hand, in order to be sure that not even the shadow of a bra can be seen…”

That probably explains why, per capita, more Korean women plump for breast reductions than enlargement or lifting operations. Also, why bust-reducing bras are so popular, despite Northeast-Asian women’s genetic tendency to have much smaller breasts than—for want of a better catch-all term—Western women. I suspect why braletteswhich can only be really worn by women with small breasts—haven’t been available in Korea either, as Korean women may not have considered them concealing enough. (Although this recent campaign to start producing them has been very successful, and this Japanese-sourced one is also making waves.)

In the midst of this, the Korean media and K-pop industries occupy ambivalent positions. On the one hand, the latter stumbled onto a strategy of emphasizing female performers’ legs instead, considered a “safer” body part in Korea and its Asian markets (well illustrated by this classic cartoon, and the surprising modesty of these “sexy dances“), which simultaneously sexualized the girls and women while deflecting criticism. On the other, the entire industry is centered around securing endorsement contracts with the advertising and beauty industries, which have vested interests in creating new markets through encouraging bustier, more revealing beauty standards.

Image Source: Rok Kim. Anonymous source (quoted with permission): “What are you, ladies? Personally I am 가슴 B컵 for Boobs Are Great In All Sizes and 얼굴 F급 for Fucks Given About Your Opinion Are Zero.” (Advertisement Caption: Breasts, D-cup; Face, A-grade.

But these are all necessary generalizations. The reality is messy, undercut by age, class, marital status, motherhood, occupation, and region. Every morning while working on this post, the range of women’s fashions and levels of exposure I witnessed even just on the subway would defy any of the neat conclusions I’d arrived at the night before.

So, two weeks of pondering nipples and breasts later, as one does, the only generalization I’m still confident of making is that all women suffer from the inconveniences—and, ultimately, the dangers—of the double standards of men’s and women’s fashion.

Most of the negative effects I’m aware of have been covered in those earlier links. But I also happen to be a guy, so I would appreciate female readers’ input. One I didn’t know about for instance, because I don’t shop for women’s clothes, one anonymous woman told me:

“When I came back here 5 years ago, I was shocked because…dresses and/or skirts were way too short in general even when they were meant for the ‘office look’. When you buy clothes online, often the pictures are very misleading because companies often use very petite models so dresses/skirts look something of a normal length. I’ve learned it hard way and started to double-check the length. Nowadays I tend to stick with only a few sites when I shop my work clothes. I should probably start exploring offline stores again.

I don’t mind sporting short skirts/dresses every now and then when time & place is right—I just don’t wanna be surprised when I expect to receive something in a normal length for my work.”

Continuing, I’ve just been wearing short-sleeved shirts to work for the last month, and just long-sleeved shirts before that. In contrast, as a Womenlink activist wrote on her placard at the event (see below), women always have to wear unventilated padding to hide their nipples; to wear bras to hide their breasts; to wear vests to hide their bras; and to wear t-shirts to hide their vests.

No wonder my very well-developed, very active 11 year-old daughter is so reluctant to make the transition from her flimsy training bras. Fortunately though, her school has no uniform, whereas many schools that do have one end up slutshame their female students and forcing them to wear such uncomfortable clothing.

Even more alarmingly, in one 2013 survey of Korean police officers, over half considered revealing clothing to be a cause of sexual assault (indicating little had changed from back in 1996). To those who would make fun of and dismiss Free the Nipple and Slutwalk campaigns in response to such attitudes, and continue to police women’s bodies so unfairly, I’m genuinely curious as to where they would draw the lines. Especially if they claim to still support women’s rights. For to whom else but misogynists, could so much shame and blame hinge on an exposed bra strap or visible nipple?

“I dropped a lot of money on a nice bra…one with frills and made of lace, not like all my other ones that I bought from Uniqlo.” / “Minju! You can see your entire bra! Don’t wear a white t-shirt!” Source, above and below: @bambooblock)
“But what about her? That’s the fashion!!” / Fashion you say… / Jeez… [put this on].” Ironic coincidence: this picture of Korean duo Love X Stereo appeared in my Facebook feed as I was translating!

But where did these attitudes come from? Again, the question is more difficult than it appears, and there’s no handy introduction akin to Laura Miller’s “Mammary Mania” chapter in her excellent book on Japanese body aesthetics.

So, I spent most of those last two weeks laying the framework for what may be my own equivalent chapter on Korea someday. Allow me to present the fruits of that research, in the form of themes and trends I’ve identified that any answer must cover, as well as some highlights from new sources I’ve discovered (please let me know if you have any difficulty obtaining copies of the journal articles). As you’ll soon see, there’s a lot of things to consider, and it can be very difficult—even naive and counterproductive—to separate nipple and breast exposure from taboos surrounding other body parts:

For a discussion of late Joseon Dynasty art, notions of eroticism, and dress codes, as well as a great introduction to a painter who turned out to be quite a maverick and social commentator for his time, see Saehyang P. Chung’s “Sin Yunbok’s Women on Tano Day and the Iconography of Common women Washing Clothes by a Stream,” Oriental Art, vol. 47, no. 5 (2001), pp. 55-69. For instance, consider Chung’s description of Women on Tano Day, painted at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries (p. 56; my emphasis):

“[Most striking of all] is the provocative portrayal of semi-nude bathers in the lower left-hand corner, where a woman stands sensually, her face turned in the direction of the beholder. Equally daring is the inclusion of two young monks, who observe the bathers with unequivocally frank poses and facial expressions…Considering that even in the West, the female nude in a contemporary setting—devoid of classical or biblical context (e.g. Diana or Susanna in Her Bath)—did not appear until the 19th century, the representation of bathing women in Sin Yunbok’s painting is all the more remarkable.

(Source: Wikipedia)

You may have noticed that the working woman carrying a load on her head is fully-clothed, but has her breasts exposed. This is because, as explained by Hyung Gu Lynn in “Fashioning Modernity: Changing Meanings of Clothing in Colonial Korea” in the Journal of International and Area Studies (2004; pp. 77-78):

“…during the Chosôn period, clothing was not a unifying medium for all Koreans, but rather a means of social differentiation. Considerable scholarly energy has been directed to the study of the regulations that governed what clothes and colors could be worn by [whom]. The results show, for example, that it was only women of the upper class who wore long coats and head covers called chang-ot when venturing outside. In contrast, commoner women who worked outdoors often wore short chôgori [blouses], which left their breasts exposed for ease in nursing their babies.”

In light of the symbolic and unifying role the hanbok plays for most Koreans today, unfortunately there has been considerable opposition to acknowledging that “uncivilized” aspect of Korean fashion history. For more on the controversy, see “The Bare Facts” by Robert Neff and “Time to sex up Hanbok” by Andrew Salmon at the Korea Times, this AskHistorians thread at Reddit, the comments to this well-known photograph from 1945 (update: also, the comments to this 1920s breastfeeding postcard), “Joseon girls gone wild” at ZenKatsuo, and From Fukuoka for more photos.

For a bare-breasted photography series inspired by—and in some cases directly replicating—Sin Yun-bok’s painting, see The Hanbok Project by photographer Kim Jung-nam and hanbok designer Lee Young-hee.

• In the chapter “Female Images in 1930s Korea: Virtuous Women and Good Mothers” in Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia, ed. by Aida Yuen Wong (2012), Yisoon Kim notes that women were infrequently depicted in Korean art, even compared to other Confucian societies, but the new “Paintings of Colonial Women” genre exemplified by Sin Yun-bok briefly changed all that. What she writes about the anonymous picture on the left below however, contradicts the notion that breasts were not at all eroticized, a notion further corroborated by “firm breasts” being included in contemporary lists of beauty ideals (p. 93.):

(Sources: Naver, Daum, Vosub. On the right is a poster for the fanciful 2008 movie Portrait of a Beauty, which re-imagines Sin Yun-bok as a woman in disguise.)

“…[this left] picture recalls Sin Yun-bok’s style except for the absence of ornate hair accessories. Donning a short skirt, which tantalizingly reveals the breasts, the woman lifts one hand to adjust her hairdo. Although the hanbok is designed to fully cover the body, these paintings expose the flesh in strategic places. Sin’s picture [in the center] includes a silver knife, a traditional symbol of chastity, hanging from the shirt as a reminder of the sexual potential of the image. [Paintings of this genre] facilitated carnal fantasy. They could be made to hang on walls like Western pin-ups or portable scrolls for the convenience of private viewing, presumably at men’s leisure.”

Perhaps it was the elite status of the women depicted that made all the difference? Or, if the women depicted were actually low-status gisaeng, because of the novelty of seeing them bare-breasted, as opposed to commoners?

As Hyung Gu Lynn goes on to explain in her article, the adoption of Western clothing during the colonial period also had important class components, as well as becoming tied to anti-colonialism and nationalism. It’s difficult to understand the rise of—and misogyny against—the “New Woman” and “Modern Girl” ideals without those, so it’s worth quoting her at some length (p. 87, my emphases):

“[In addition to modernization bringing] increasing numbers of women out the house and into public spaces…the diffusion of technologies of visual reproduction and the development of the culture of tourism allowed for more men to consume more images of women, further multiplying the number of meanings embedded in a given piece of clothing.

Although increasing numbers of urban men wore Western-style suits, the changes in women’s clothing occurred at a far slower pace. The transition for women from Chosôn period ch’ima [skirt] to the “improved ch’ima” with the shorter skirt hem and the longer tops meant that the visual distinction between upper class women who had hidden under the chang-ot and the common women with exposed faces and breasts was eliminated. However, in the place of the exposed breast as a marker of commoner status, the degree of calf exposure became one of the indicators of female proximity to capitalism and modernity—more leg, more modern.

Students and workers were encouraged to wear shortened skirts and longer tops for their purported practicality in the more mobile world, but the exposed calf sparked heated debate over its sexual implications…The increased visual presence of women in public and the diffusion of romantic love imbued clothing with heightened sexual meaning.”

And (p.88):

“New styles of clothing which exposed more skin, legs in particular, influenced ideas of beauty that extended and encompassed to the shape of the female body. By the mid-1930s, articles on beautifying calisthenics for women that would not appear so out of place in twenty-first century magazines were appearing in the mass publications…Other articles introduced the proper way to put on makeup, what to wear for which occasions, and how to behave in the “modern life,” further supplementing the new definitions and ideals of beauty and grace. The changes in clothing clearly helped shape the sexual meanings imbued in various body parts, providing further evidence that the eroticized body parts and ‘proper’ areas of skin exposure changes with culture and time.

Developments in visual technology and tourism added to the intensified sexuality of clothing. Magazines, movie posters, and postcards distributed consumable images of women in various styles of dress…The complete covering of the female breast in the colonial period gradually eroticized what had previously been merely regarded a body part. The tourist and travel literature usually contained images of kisaeng in P’yôngyang, but in the late colonial period, the women sea divers in Cheju Island became increasingly popular subjects for postcards and photographs, usually pictured with their breasts exposed.

The ‘traditional’ ch’ima chôgori, which may have been the only clothes a Korean woman owned, or consciously wore as a symbol of resistance to colonial rule or as a reflection of class and status, could be perceived merely as an exotic costume by the unknowing male gaze. The multivalency of each piece of clothing allowed the ‘traditional’ female dress to symbolize Korean identity, and at the same time distend the exotic allure of travel in Korea by promising different vistas and enticing females to the male (predominantly Japanese) tourist.”

(Sources: Sturmgeschutz, OhmyNews. Left image is actually of Busan divers.)

Many years ago, I read that older Korean men (and women?) fondly remember those photos of semi-nude Haenyeo (Jeju divers) from when they were children, taken before the divers began wearing wetsuits in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, I’ve long since lost the source, so it was good to find indirect confirmation in Hyung Gu Lynn’s article. Actual examples of those photographs however, remain surprisingly difficult to find online, the vast majority actually being of Ama divers in Japan. But they’re out there. The one on the left below for instance, is part of a romanticized series from the 1950s according to the source, although the costumes are authentic; that later one on the right, very likely taken for a Jeju postcard, is much more modest, but remains a good example of glamorization and sexualization.

(Sources: 유자향내를 따라서, hansoo7007)

Yisoon Kim provides a good summary of why a new trend of portraying “virtuous” women then arose, with depictions of breastfeeding in particular becoming the main subjects of paintings for the first time (p. 91):

“…[the 1930s were] the height of colonialism, when conservatism and progressiveness coexisted…Fine artists tended to depict the opposites [of the much-criticized Modern Girls], that is, virtuous women who demonstrated chastity and sexual restraint. Modernization was underway…but unfavorable economic conditions inside and outside the country made Koreans wary of change. [Under the conditions of the Great Depression and coming war], the colonized and impoverished Korean nation took comfort in the idea of women carrying out their motherly duties and grooming the next generation for a more prosperous future.”

In a previous chapter, “The Modern Girl as a Contested Symbol in Colonial Korea”, Yeon Shim Chung notes that other reasons for the adoption of the virtuous mother as a nationalist symbol include the facts that most of the new beauty products for the Modern Girls and New Women—as well as the original ideals themselves—came from Japan. Indeed (p. 82):

“Commerce and feminism intersected with colonialism in controversial ways. Korea’s access to Western goods was one vehicle for Japan to prove its utility as a civilizer and modernizer. As voracious consumers of these goods, Modern Girls inadvertently participated in Korea’s colonial subordination to Japan, which entailed [heavily] promoting [to both Koreans and to the West] progressive images of Japan while denigrating Korea as a remote, pre-industrial land…”

Which may have included bare-breasted women in hanbok, as the comment threads linked to earlier suggest, and why many Koreans’ understandable first reaction to seeing them is to dismiss them as Japanese propaganda.

• Most ordinary women entering the newly-created jobs open to them, of course, had no time for men’s criticisms of their newfound professional and sexual freedoms, or the shoehorning of their consumer purchases into narratives of nationalist betrayal. Indeed, as Young Na Kim describes in “Being Modern: Representing the ‘New Woman’ and ‘Modern Girl’ in Korean Art“, Western clothes became the norm by the 1930s (p. 222) “…not because they signified modernity, but because they were practical and comfortable.” Also, and in particular, further examples she gives caution against tendencies in previously mentioned sources that neatly categorize trends and depictions into the decadent 1920s vs. the virtuous 1930s (p. 238):

“One of the characteristics of the Modern Girl was her consciousness of her body. There were now attempts to freely express the physical strength or beauty of woman’s body. Nude paintings, which once were banned from being shown in public, now could be displayed at an exhibition with no restrictions, but they were still depicted in the setting of the artist’s studio. However, there is a photograph of famous dancer Choi Seong-hee [left, below] in 1931 which reveals that she exposed her body half naked in a public performance, as if to declare the freedom of the body. Kang Dae-sok’s photograph of a female nude [the first nude photograph in Korea; right, below] should be also noted in this context, in her stretched posture facing toward the sky as if to embrace the whole world, breaking away from the passive reclining or standing nude form.”

(Sources: knnews, 술취한★북극성)

• Moving rapidly to the postwar era, two easy guides I recommend on the transition to the full adoption of Western-style clothing are: Sunae Park et. al., “The Process of Westernization: Adoption of Western-Style Dress by Korean Women, 1945-1962” in Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 3, 1993, which has more on the practical considerations behind the shift, and Karlyne A. Anspach and Yoon Hee Kwon, “Western Dress Styles Adopted by Korean Women” in Home Economics Research Journal, Vol. 4, No.4, June 1976.

Next, there is the oft-mentioned mini-skirt fever prompted by singer Yoon Bok-hee, hemlines reaching a peak of 30cm above the knee in 1968. But in my opinion, the liberalization of Korean clothing and attitudes then is exaggerated. While more revealing imagery from the period tends to stick out, it may not be representative, not unlike the aforementioned wide gap between the busty ideals promoted by the Korean media and ordinary Korean women’s attitudes today. Also, not only was Yoon branded a “public enemy” for her bravado, and had eggs thrown at her the very same day she revealed her mini-skirt, but this was hardly the swinging ’60s in Korea. In fact, the country was desperately poor at the time (less than 1 in 10 Koreans had washing machines, refrigerators, phones, or televisions), with most of the public unable to spend much on fashion, and possibly deeply resentful of those that could.

Fears of the ensuing social conflict are one big reason for the implementation of the highly authoritarian “Yushin System” of 1972-1981, which included forced haircuts for men, minimum skirt-lengths for women, and strict censorship of sexual media content.

(Sources: Joongang Ilbo, 나르샤)

This censorship would not just end in the early-1980s however, but in fact sexual content would ultimately be encouraged by the government, as part of its “3S” policy of “sex, screen, and sport” to distract people from politics. Accordingly, Madame Aema, “the most explicit of Korean movies ever made,” would hit the theaters in early-1982.

• In the late-1980s, the government began to lift restrictions on the use of foreign models in advertisements. First, they were allowed to appear in advertisements for foreign products, then in 1994, for domestic products also. Their use exploded after that, particularly after the liberalization of the magazine market in 1999.

This is relevant for understanding exposure taboos, because both Korean and overseas-sourced advertisements with foreign, overwhelmingly Caucasian, models tended to—and still tend to—portray them in more revealing clothing and/or sexually-themed advertisements than their Korean counterparts, perpetuating long-held stereotypes of Western lasciviousness and Korean modesty. In particular, various developments in the fashion industry meant that for roughly 10 years from 2000-2010, it was extremely rare to see a Korean lingerie model, until the entertainment industry began to see the attention-seeking possibilities and financial gains from having its girl-group members and female actors become endorsers.

That said, I remain unaware of any Korean female nipples that have ever graced any advertisements here.

(Sources: Metro, July 8 2010, p. 7., ckmania)

In the summer of 2002, record numbers of Korean women would take advantage of the soccer World Cup to go out and have a good time, and weren’t modest about what they would like to do with the soccer players; in the process, they directly challenged conservative standards of dress, as well as taboos against assertive representations of female sexuality in the media. Although both developments had in fact already begun in the mid to late-1990s, and were accelerated by the sexual politics of the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, unfortunately the “movement” was then largely co-opted and channeled into narratives of support for the national soccer team by the media and government.

This set a modern precedent for the very literal use of women’s—and also men’s—bodies for Korean military, nationalist, economic, and soft power purposes, roles which would come to fit the K-pop industry like a glove.

Finally, in addition to the K-pop industry and government censorship regimes perpetuating the notion that breasts are bad, but women’s legs and men’s abs are good clean harmless fun, there is the dramatic rise of the cosmetic surgery industry over the last few decades to consider. Fueled, I’d go so far as to say primarily by, Korea being one of only two countries in the OECD where photographs are required on resumes, despite multiple attempts to stop the practice. And this is the same industry that, as previously noted, is heavily encouraging bustier body ideals.

Exhausted after reading that? You’re not the only one(!). Yet that potted history of the taboo is still just the bare-bones, and needs considerable fleshing-out. Not least, from all the Korean-language sources I’ve also discovered and barely scratched the surface of, as well as the voices of Korean women and men themselves. I also acknowledge the almost complete lack of mention of men, and eagerly await your suggestions for further scholarly sources on Korean men’s nipples in particular ;)

Despite all the generalizations and gaps however, a clear theme of fluidity and rapid change in Korea’s exposure taboos emerges from all the above, and there’s no reason to suppose those won’t continue. Indeed, to those that feel that women walking around with exposed breasts is too much of an extreme to ever return to, it was once considered just as outlandish for men to expose their chests too, as pointed out by activists in the Free the Nipple campaign:

(Via: Astronomy in Reverse)

Moreover, to those that feel that such a campaign has chances for success in Western countries, but that a Korean equivalent will inevitably lag far behind, I’d point out how recent the call for change is in Western countries too.* And nobody who was in a crowd of Red Devils in Korea in 2002—or, indeed, in a candlelight democracy vigil in 2017—can fail to appreciate what ordinary Koreans are capable of when decide they can no longer tolerate other people’s bullshit.

Kudos then, to the activists from Womenlink earlier this month. You can read more about their event (and see many more comments) in two posts on Womenlink’s Facebook Page, or on their homepage, and here’s my translations of their posters and placards to round off this post:

*As friends have rightly pointed out, the puritan standards of the US referenced in those links do not represent those of all Western countries. In particular, nude beaches have been popular in much of continental Europe for decades, and standards for the workplace and presenters on television are much more relaxed. Also, nudity is common on French daytime and primetime TV. 

(Source: @womenlink)

(Speech Bubbles): Your nipples are showing! / Arrgh! (Women’s) Nipples! / Your nipples are too dark!

(Source, this image and following 3: @womenlink)

Those aren’t eyes there.

(lit.) Nipples have a wide language.

(Source, this image and following two: @womenlink)

We wear padding (which isn’t ventilated) to hide our nipples, we wear bras to hide our breasts, to hide our bras we wear vests, and to hide our vests we wear t-shirts…this prickly heat is so frustrating! We can’t live like this! Free the Nipple!

Q) If you have a lot of sexual experience, do your nipples get darker? A) No way!

Free the nipple / Why is looking at only women’s nipples restricted to over-18s?!?! Let’s stop the sexual objectification of women now!!

Update: Korea Observer reported on a very similar event in 2014, although I’m unsure if it was connected with Womenlink in any way. Here’s a video from that:

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic series:

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

How Slut-Shaming and Victim-Blaming Begin in Korean Schools

From the moment Korean schoolchildren start developing, and their hormones start raging, Korea’s school uniform codes give them a daily reminder that girls’ bodies should be hidden and controlled.
Sources: left, “How much do you really know me?” by VisualValor/大前, used with permission; right, Mike Rowe, (CC BY-NC 2.0).

More than half of Korean men think revealing clothes lead to rape. Almost as many Korean women do too.

Those and other shocking statistics (English, Korean) come from a survey of 7,200 adults aged 16 to 64 conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family last year. In 2013, a survey of 200 South Gyeongsang Province police officers by the Korea Women’s Development Institute found similar results.

But do those statistics shock though? Really?

Be honest. I know my audience. The fact you’re reading this at all, tells me you’ve probably read similar news before. However much you wish things were different, really you’re no longer surprised at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be trying to make that difference. In fact, I hope to convince you that the struggle is more important than ever. But, instead of my typical wringing of hands, let me make my case by posing you another question instead: why do people cling so strongly to such patriarchal, victim-blaming beliefs, when the evidence supporting them is non-existent?

Even as far back as 1996 for instance, Korean Women’s groups, lawyers, and academics had thoroughly debunked any supposed links between clothing and sexual assault. Yet still the beliefs remain over two decades later. Despite Korea’s Slutwalks. Despite the Gangnam murder. Despite all the hard work by activists, educators, women’s groups, academics, and lawyers. Despite…you know the rest.

What gives?

While pondering this myself, I came across “This Article Won’t Change Your Mind” by Julie Beck in the Atlantic, about the bases of the post-truth era. And then it clicked:

…[People] will occasionally encounter information that suggests something they believe is wrong. A lot of these instances are no big deal, and people change their minds if the evidence shows they should—you thought it was supposed to be nice out today, you step out the door and it’s raining, you grab an umbrella. Simple as that. But if the thing you might be wrong about is a belief that’s deeply tied to your identity or worldview—the guru you’ve dedicated your life to is accused of some terrible things, the cigarettes you’re addicted to can kill you—well, then people [will] do all the mental gymnastics it takes to remain convinced that they’re right.

Previously, I’d mostly seen this notion of cognitive dissonance raised when an author was talking about religious beliefs. Convincing people of the real causes of rape though? Surely, it was just a matter of presenting the facts?

Patently not. Instead, if those statistics are anything to go by, to many people it is just common sense that a short skirt and an exposed bra strap will lead to rape. Which, just like the notion that the world was created by a supernatural being, or that the mainstream media constantly lies about Trump, is a version of common sense that ultimately derives from some very closely-held beliefs, integral to people’s worldviews and identities. In this case, about sex, gender roles, and male-female interaction. And you don’t get much more fundamental and strongly-held beliefs than those.

That is to say, no abstract surveys by slutty feminazis are ever going to change their minds.

So where then, do these victim-blaming notions of sex and rape come from? In short, from everywhere, which is how come those beliefs are held so strongly.

It’s only a feminist cliche because it’s so true.

Among the many methods and messengers, one is undoubtedly the romanticized depiction of dating violence in Korean dramas. Another is inadequate, heteronormative, marriage and biology-focused sex education, which teaches girls not to be alone with their permanently sexed boyfriends, lest he demand sexual compensation for paying for their date. Another is the government and media encouraging the exposure of women’s and girls’ bodies for soft power, nationalist, and military causes, but discouraging it when it’s of their own accord. Linked to which is women being told to cover up on public transport to prevent upskirt photos, rather than potential perpetrators warned not to take them. And yet another, which will be the focus here, are the double-standards and victim-blaming inherent to Korea’s school uniform rules. They’re such a big deal because, when kids start developing, and when their hormones start raging, they teach fresh young minds how to deal “appropriately” with both—and what punishments girls and women will receive if they don’t learn that lesson.

For those unfamiliar, here’s a taste of what Korean school uniforms are like:

Korean school uniforms have actually had quite a chequered history over the past decade. In the late-2000s to early-2010s, the focus was on their increasing cost, which was partially fueled by retailers’ habit of hiring K-pop stars to promote them; ultimately, the industry announced a voluntary moratorium on celebrity hires, which lasted for about two years. At about the same time, there was a great deal of controversy over girls wearing shorter and shorter skirts, which was tied to the liberalization of students’ rights (more on this later). Annual “naked graduation ceremonies” started hitting the news too, where students would attack their no longer needed, much-hated uniforms with knives and scissors. And then, in late-2015, Korean entertainment mogul JYP came under fire for girl-group TWICE’s overly-sexual and body-shaming advertisements for Skoollooks, which surprised because, JYP’s characteristic, pimp-like demeanor aside, their messages were little different from those which preceded them.

Compare Skoolooks’ 2015 ad with JYP and Momo of Twice (source: Instizwith Smart’s 2008 ad with Shinee and Victoria of f(x) (source: Soompi).

But what of the boys in that history? If they’re mentioned at all, they’re framed as victims, being so distracted by the girls’ uniforms that they’re unable to concentrate—along with their male teachers. Another strong theme is adults stressing how vulnerable the girls are on their commutes, simply for wanting to be fashionable by wearing their skirts high.* Peruse the links, and you sense a collective throwing of hands in the air, as girls are reminded again and again that everything that happens to them is their fault…alongside repeated, titillating, pictures of their offending legs.

(*Related: A recent Al Jazeera report discusses how Japanese schoolgirls are indeed more vulnerable to harassment than adult women, for whom the harassment drops once they graduate and stop wearing school uniforms. But this is because schoolgirls are perceived as less assertive and more vulnerable, and has nothing to do with the make-up of their uniforms per se.)

By coincidence, an ad from an unidentified retailer that popped up the day before publication. The text in the photo reads: A 3D-level bodyline, a 3D design which fits your body perfectly; Capture men’s hearts with the tulipline, a skirt which shows off your body; Control the length of your skirt freely; A very good figure zipper, shows off your good-looking clothes. Source: 라니‏@ComfortnLullaby. (Update: Shortly after publication, Korea Exposé published a more detailed look at the advertisement.)

Yet all these points are already depressingly familiar from similar discussions in Englishspeaking countries. And all of the above links happen to be in English too. So, I want to add something new to the English discussion of Korean uniforms by translating segments of some (mostly) recent Korean-language articles on the subject. Centered around this one:

속옷 입지 않으면 벌점… 황당한 학교 / Absurd Schools Punish Students For Not Wearing Underclothes

Written by Song Min-seo, edited by Son Ji-eun, OhmyNews, 26.02.2017

…지난 2016년 ‘청소년인권행동 아수나로’에서는 온라인을 통해 여성 청소년을 억압하는 서울시 소재 학교의 교칙들에 대한 설문 조사를 실시했다. 200여 건의 응답은 하나같이 학교보다는 수용소를 연상시키는 해괴한 교칙들과 사례들을 담고 있었다. 이 글에서는 해당 설문 내용을 바탕으로, 여성 청소년에게 가해지는 제재와 차별에 대해 다루어 보고자 한다.

…In 2016, the NGO “Asunaro: Action for Youth Rights of Korea” conducted on an online survey of Seoul school students about the ways in which their schools discriminate against and curtail the rights of female students. More than 200 responses revealed a series of bizarre rules and practices more reminiscent of concentration camps than of modern schools. In this article, I would like to discuss what sanctions and discrimination against women and youth emerged from the questionnaire.

The first part deals with restrictions on hairstyle and length, and discusses a case of a teacher in a school in Gyeonggi Province, who admonished a student with short hair for looking like a boy, telling her it wasn’t feminine enough and that men wouldn’t like her. Then later:

…복장 규제 또한 여전히 나아진 것 하나 없이 잔재한다. 치마 끝이 무릎 밑 몇 센티미터, 혹은 위 몇 센티미터에 오는지 재는 것은 빈번하고, 일정한 기간을 두고 복장을 대대적으로 검사하는 학교도 있었다. 한 학교는 여학생을 의자 위에 세워 놓고 교사가 자를 들고 치마 길이를 잰다. 이 행위는 학생들의 의사를 전혀 묻지 않은 채 강제적으로 이루어지고, 심지어 남교사도 참여한다. 응답자는 이 행위에 수치심을 느꼈다고 말한다.

…[Despite the Seoul City Council’s Students’ Rights Ordinance of 2011], uniform regulations showed little to no improvement also. Requirements that skirt lengths come to a minimum of a few centimeters above the knee, or even below the knee, were very common, and some schools regularly checked them. For those checks, all the girls in the classroom are required to stand on their chairs while the teacher measures the length of the skirts [This is discussed in several of the videos above—James]. This check is compulsorily, with no concern given to the students’ opinions or feelings at all, even if it’s a male teacher doing the checking. Respondents said that they felt very embarrassed and ashamed by these checks.

Let’s pause from the article for a moment with news about one such inspection:

“왜 이렇게 짧아” 교복 들어 올린 교사 ‘강제추행’ / “Why is Your Skirt So Short?” Lifting a Student’s Skirt Ruled ‘Indecent Act by Force/Compulsion’

MBN, 09.09.2015

A transcript (via MBN), with my translation:

지난 2013년 서울의 한 고등학교. 교사 56살 박 모 씨는 교실에서 자기소개서를 쓰고 있던 한 여학생에게 다가가 왜 이렇게 치마가 짧냐며 교복 치마를 들어 올렸습니다.

이 과정에서 여학생의 속바지가 드러났고, 박 씨는 강제추행 혐의로 재판에 넘겨졌습니다.

박 씨는 단지 복장 불량을 지적하려고 치마 끝자락을 잡아 흔들었을 뿐 추행하려는 의도가 없었다고 주장했습니다.

하지만, 1, 2심 모두 유죄로 보고 벌금 5백만 원을 선고했습니다.

공개된 교실에서 16살 여학생의 치마를 들어 올린 것은 객관적으로 볼 때 성적 수치심을 일으키는 행위라는 겁니다.

또 강제추행죄는 꼭 동기나 목적이 있어야 성립하는 것은 아니라고 판단했습니다.

피해 여학생이 치마를 살짝 건드린 것이라며 처벌을 원치 않는다고 진술했지만 받아들여지지 않았습니다.

처음 조사에서 속바지가 훤히 비쳐 수치스러웠다고 진술했기 때문에, 합의 과정에서 진술을 바꾼 것으로 판단한 겁니다.

대법원 역시 상고를 기각하고 박 씨에게 강제추행죄를 적용해 벌금형을 확정했습니다.

In a Seoul high school in 2013, a 56 year-old male teacher identified only as “Mr. Park” grabbed the skirt of a female student who was writing a self-introduction letter, lifting it as he accused the student of having a skirt that was too short. In the process, the student’s underwear was exposed, and Mr. Park was accused of causing an “Indecent Act by Force/Compulsion.”

In his defense, Park insisted that he did not intend for the student to expose herself, but only to grab and shake the end of the skirt to point out that it was too short. However, it was judged that raising a girl’s skirt in a classroom in front of others is always an act of sexual shaming, regardless of the intent or motivation. Consequently, he was found guilty in both his first sentencing and by the Supreme Court in his appeal, receiving a fine of 5 million won.

Back to the article:

여학생이 무조건 교복 치마만 착용하도록 여학생의 바지 착용을 교칙으로 금지한 학교도 있다. 19세기도 아닌 21세기에, 학교 밖 여성들은 자유롭게 원하는 옷을 입는데, 학교만이 아직도 여성에게 바지를 착용하지 못하게 하는 19세기에 머물러 있는 것이다.

Some schools prohibit schoolgirls from wearing pants, only allowing them to wear school uniform skirts. But this is the 21st century, not the 19th, and away from our schools girls and women can wear what they want freely. Why do schools seem so firmly entrenched in the past?

And another break already sorry, because this pants vs. skirts issue was a big deal for me back in 2011, when I was concerned that my daughters would ultimately have no choice but to attend a skirts-only Korean middle school (my eldest daughter was starting elementary school then). Fortunately, we ultimately found an underfunded but otherwise lovely multicultural school for them, which among its many other benefits doesn’t actually have a uniform. But reading the above suddenly got me was curious as to how many Korean schools still insist [only] their female students freeze every winter:

교사 ‘성차별’ 발언 등 여학생 인권침해 여전 / Teachers Are Still Violating Female Students’ Rights Through Sexist Language and Verbal Attacks

Kwon Su-jin, Veritas, 07.03.17

…여학생에게 치마교복만 입도록 할 경우 성차별적 관행이 될 수 있다는 점에서 여학생의 바지 교복 선택권을 보장해야 한다는 내용도 담았다. 2015년 서울교육청 학생생활규정 점검 결과 ‘치마와 바지 선택권 조항’이 있는 학교 비율은 중학교 73%(281교), 고등학교 59%(189교)에 그쳤다.

…it was stated that girls should have the right to choose school uniforms because it is a sex discrimination practice if girls are allowed to wear skirt school uniforms. According to the Seoul City Education Office, in 2015 the ratio of schools with optional skirts or pants was only 73 percent (281 schools) of middle schools and 59 percent (189 schools) among high schools.

Note that this only refers to Seoul schools, and that the Seoul City Council Students’ Rights Ordinance of 2011 was only followed to varying degrees by schools in the rest of the country; consequently, the nationwide figures are likely to be lower. Continuing:

‘여학생다움’을 강조한 두발, 복장 기준의 개선도 필요하다고 봤다. 여학생과 남학생에게 상이한 기준을 적용한 용의복장 규정 여부를 점검해야 한다는 내용이다. 상담 사례에 따르면 학교평판을 이유로 여학생은 춥더라도 치마만 입어야 한다는 교칙이 있는 학교도 있었다.

I [the author] think that it is necessary to improve dress codes, which currently seem to be focused on female students. It is necessary to check for double-standards. According to a case heard by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education’s Students’ Rights Center for instance, one school had a rule that girls should wear only skirts “because of the school’s reputation.”

Back to the main article:

학교 안의 여성들은 스타킹의 색깔마저도 하나하나 통제당한다. 이상한 점은, 스타킹 색에 관한 규제가 학교마다 통일되지 않았다는 점이다. 어떤 학교는 검은색만을, 어떤 학교는 살색만을 신게 한다. 그러나 이유는 같다. ‘야해 보이기 때문’이다. 스타킹 색마저도 성적 대상화의 소재가 되는 것이다.

The color of girls’ stockings is controlled by schools too. What is strange is that the rules for those aren’t uniform [no pun intended—James], but vary widely depending on the school. Some schools demand black stockings only, some schools demand flesh-colored ones. But in each case, the justification is the same: “It has to be dull.” It seems even stockings’ colors are considered a potential source of sexual objectification and sexualization.

응답자 A의 학교에서는 카디건을 허리에 묶는 것을 금지하는 교칙이 있었다. 허리 라인이 드러나서 선정적으로 보인다는 것이 근거라면 근거였다. 이 교칙은 여학생에게만 해당되었고, 당연하게도 여학생의 반발을 샀다. 그러자 학교가 취한 조치는 교칙을 없애는 것이 아닌 남학생에게도 똑같은 규칙을 적용하는 것이었다.

One respondent to Asunaro’s survey had a school rule that prohibited cardigans from being taken off and tied around the waist, as this was considered to draw attention to and sexualize the wearers’ waistlines. Of course, this rule only applied to girls, who complained a lot about it. In response, the school didn’t just eliminate the rule, but decided to apply it to boys as well.

머리부터 발톱까지… 그것도 모자라 속옷도 통제 / From Student’s Heads to Their Toenails…Even the Underwear They Can Wear is Controlled

여성 청소년의 속옷까지 통제하는 학교. 변화하지 않는 교칙으로 학교 안 청소년들은 억압받고 있다 / Schools Even Control Female Adolescent Girls’ Underwear. Unchanging School Rules Are Pressuring Female Students. Source: jackmack34@Pixabay.

학교는 여학생의 속옷에 관해서도 교칙을 만들어 규제한다. ‘흰색속옷, 티셔츠, 나시만 허용’, ‘작년까지는 셔츠 속에 나시 입는 것 금지, 현재는 무채색이고 프린팅 없는 티만 가능하고 꼭 입어야함. 브라만 차고 셔츠 입어도 벌점’. ‘브라 등 속옷 입지 않으면 벌점’.

Schools regulate female students’ underwear with such rules as “Only white underwear, t-shirts, and vests are allowed” at one school; at another, “Until last year, wearing vests under shirts was prohibited. Now, you have to wear a vest or t-shirt over your bra [and under your shirt], otherwise you get punished. But only black or white t-shirts are permitted, with no prints on them”; and at another “You get punished if you don’t wear a bra or other type of underwear.”

이상한 것은, 이런 교칙이 있는 대부분의 학교에서는 남학생에 관한 속옷 규제는 없는 경우가 많았다. 여학생만이 더운 여름에도 티셔츠(심지어 프린팅도 색도 없는), 나시, 브래지어를 껴입어야 하는 상황이다. 게다가 이러한 교칙들이 존재하는 이유를 물으면 ‘성범죄 유발 가능성이 있기 때문’이라고 답한다. 성범죄의 잘못이 가해자가 아닌 피해자에게 있는 것이라고 말하는 것과 같다.

Strangely, in most schools with these rules, there was usually no underwear regulation for boys. Only girls have to wear t-shirts (even with their colors regulated), vests, and bras, even in the hot summer months. In addition, if you ask what these rules are for, the answer is they’re because of the increased possibility of sex crimes without them. It’s like when such crimes occur, that it’s the victims’ faults, not the perpetrators’.

A quick addition to those rules:

바지교복 금지·생리공결제 미준수…학교 ‘여학생 인권’ 실종 / Prohibiting Pants, Not Provided Mandated Menstrual Leave…Schools Are Violating Female Students’ Rights

Anonymous author, Money Today, 07.03.2017.

불합리한 교칙으로 불편을 겪는 여학생도 있다. 서울 B고등학교는 여학생의 경우 무조건 검정구두에 흰 양말을 신어야 한다. 혹한기에만 한시적으로 운동화를 허용하기도 했으나 학교가 정한 디지인만 신을 수 있다. 이 학교에 다니는 한 여학생은 “차가운 구두를 신고 미끄러운 길을 걸을 때면 다칠까봐 불안하다”고 토로했다.

There are other ways in which female students suffer from unreasonable uniform requirements. At one high school in Seoul, girls could only white socks with black shoes, or, for a very limited time in winter, sneakers specially designed by the school. A girl at the school said, “I’m worried about getting hurt in my cold shoes when I walk on icy roads.” [I’m guessing she’s referring to the black shoes?—James.]

The next section of the main article deals with rules about cosmetics, and the sexual language used and/or stereotypes raised by teachers as they punish the students that flout them. That doesn’t just happen when enforcing cosmetics rules of course, and indeed is so often mentioned by the above articles above that I may cover it in a separate post later. But for now, the article concludes:

학교는 이처럼 아주 당연하게, 청소년을 보호 또는 교육한다는 허울 좋은 명목으로 자신이 원하는 자신의 모습을 직접 결정할 권리를 앗아간다. 이러한 학교에서 여성은 누군가에게 자신의 몸이 통제당하는 것이 이상한 일이 아니라고, 당연하다고 생각할 수밖에 없다. 학생의 모습, 학생의 표본을 교사의 권력과 폭력적인 언어로 규정하는 이상하고 작은 낡고 폐쇄적인 사회, 이런 작은 사회 안에 밀어넣어지는 여성들. 그들이 “내 몸은 내가 알아서 할게!”라고 외칠 수 있게끔 더 많은 여성청소년인권에 관한 지지와 관심이 필요하다.

Schools have to decide for themselves if they want to be known for “protecting” or for educating youth. In the meantime, the young women in them can not help but think how strange it is that their own bodies are so controlled by others. This is such a strange, small-minded, old, and closed society that judges the appearance of its students so, that allows for teachers to abuse their powers to this extent, and that so readily restrains women with such rules and such violent language. We need more support for and concern about the human rights of women and youth so that they can grow to stand up as independent adults who can say, “I will be the one to take care of my own body!”.

Source: Isabel Santos Pilot, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Let me end with a segment about a school where the students’ rights ordinance has been fully implemented, and what positive changes it has brought to the school’s educational culture:

“교복 위 패딩 안돼”…‘학생인권’ 관심 늘었지만 갈 길 멀어 / “No Padding Allowed in Uniforms”…Interest in Students’ Rights Has Increased But Still Has Far to go

Kim Ji-yun, Hankyoreh, 31.01.17

…조례가 교육 현장에서 잘 안착해 의미를 보여주고 있는 사례도 있다. 서울 금옥여자고등학교에는 ‘금옥인권위원회’라는 이름의 동아리가 있다. 소속 35명의 학생들은 차별금지와 의사표현의 자유, 학습에 관한 권리 등 조례 속 정신을 녹여낸 6개의 소위원회에서 활동한다. 이민혁 담당교사는 “학생인권, 장애인권, 여성인권, 아동학대예방 등 학생들의 관심사에 따라 자발적인 소위원회를 꾸려가고 있다”며 “고등 교육과정을 마친 학생들이 졸업 뒤 사회 구성원이 되어서도 조례로부터 시작한 관심을 지속하길 바란다”고 전했다.

There are cases where the students’ rights ordinance has been fully implemented and is beginning to have a real influence. For example, there is a club named “Geumok Human Rights Committee” in Geumok Women’s High School in Seoul. Of the 35 students that belong to it, there are further grouped into six subcommittees that focus on different areas of the ordinance, including such as discrimination prevention, freedom of expression, and the right to learning. Geumok Women’s High School teacher Lee Min-hyeok said of them, “We are making voluntary subcommittees based on students’ interests, such as student rights, disability rights, women’s human rights, and child abuse prevention.” I hope the students continue fighting for these causes after they graduate.”

이 교사는 “학생인권소위원회의 경우 최저시급, 근로계약서 작성법 등 청소년노동권을 비롯해 ‘휴식권’(조례 10조)을 주제로 야간자율학습에 관한 토론을 진행했다”며 “차별받지 않을 권리에 주목한 장애인권소위원회는 근처 중학교에서 ‘장애 이해교육’을 진행할 만큼 내실 있는 활동을 펼쳤다”고 말했다. “서울 남영동의 경찰청 인권보호센터(옛날 대공분실)를 동아리 학생들과 함께 방문한 적이 있습니다. 권리침해로부터 보호받을 권리, 양심·종교의 자유 등 조례 내용을 마중물로 근현대사 교육까지 진행할 수 있었죠.”

Lee continued, “In the case of the Student Human Rights Subcommittee, we recently had a discussion night on the theme of the minimum wage. Another subcommittee on disability rights was able to carry out activities that increased their understanding of disability education and came up with ideas that will be utilized at nearby junior high schools.[An unidentified student] said, “With my clubmates, I visited the Human Rights Protection Center of the National Police Agency in Namyeong-dong in Seoul, and learned a lot about my rights of protection, my rights of freedom of conscience and religion, and so on.”

인권동아리 단장으로 활동한 금옥여고 3학년 김조은양은 “보통 학생은 억압받는 게 당연하다고 여기는데, 조례 제정을 씨앗으로 삼아 우리의 의무와 권리에 대해 생각해볼 수 있었다”며 “성별, 나이, 장애로 차별받지 않는 사회를 꿈꾸게 됐고 조례 등 정책의 중요성도 깨닫게 됐다”고 전했다.

Kim Jo-eun, a third grade student at the school and former president of the club, said, “Students these days think it is normal to be oppressed. But using the rights ordinance as a spark, I began to learn about my human rights. I could dream of a society in which I was not oppressed, and I realized the importance of policies such as ordinances that could make that happen. “

조례를 통해 학교 문화를 민주적으로 바꾸는 사례도 있지만 갈 길은 여전히 멀다. 2015년 11월27일 서울시의회 교육위원회 장인홍 의원이 공개한 ‘(서울시교육청 관내) 중·고등학교 학교규칙 점검 결과’에 따르면, 중·고교 702곳 가운데 87%(609곳)는 여전히 교칙에 두발 길이·염색·파마 등에 관한 엄격한 규제를 두고 있다.

There are more cases where a school’s culture has become more democratic through the students’ rights ordinance, but there is still much to be done. According to a inquiry published by the Seoul Metropolitan City Council on November 27, 2015, 87 percent (609) of the 702 middle and high schools examined still had strict regulations on the dyeing and perming of hair, and so on.

Let me conclude by returning to Beck’s article in the Atlantic that inspired this post. After noting that group discussions are much more effective than lectures for changing hearts and minds, she concludes herself that:

“One real advantage of group reasoning is that you get critical feedback,” McIntyre [a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University] says. “If you’re in a silo [like Facebook], you don’t get critical feedback, you just get applause.”

But if the changes are going to happen at all, it’ll have to be “on a person-to-person level,” Shaw says.

He tells me about a patient of his, whose family is involved in “an extremely fundamentalist Christian group. [The patient] has come to see a lot of problems with the ideology and maintains a relationship with his family in which he tries to discuss in a loving and compassionate way some of these issues,” [former cult member Daniel Shaw] says. “He is patient and persistent, and he chips away, and he may succeed eventually.”

“But are they going to listen to a [news] feature about why they’re wrong? I don’t think so.”

When someone does change their mind, it will probably be more like the slow creep of Shaw’s disillusionment with his guru. He left “the way most people do: Sort of like death by a thousand cuts.”

And on that note, please do share this post with friends, family members, and/or coworkers that you wouldn’t usually—if just one changes their mind, then the last two weeks(!) spent on it will have been worth it. And who knows? Maybe that person’s influence will ultimately lead to a school changing its uniform rules too.

Please also note that I’ve never taught in a Korean school, and haven’t taught Korean teens in over seven years, so I would really appreciate any feedback on anything in this post, especially if you have any recent experience at/with either. Thanks!

South Korea’s Invisible Military Girlfriends

Turning Boys Into Men? The Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 5

The Longest 24 Months

(Source: HanCinema)

Wait for each other, or split up? It’s a dilemma as old as the military itself. In its modern Korean form, young couples have to decide if they will stay together for his 21-24 months of compulsory military service, with family members and friends competing for his few days of leave. And if they do stay together, lonely and miserable? She’ll worry that he’ll come back a patriarch, and/or have visited prostitutes; he’ll worry that she’ll sleep with his friends, and will wait in dread for a Dear John text.

To counter conscripts’ isolation, one measure developed by the military in 2015 was the provision of shared mobile phones. But they have limited functionality, and the Korean military still stands out for conscripts’ very limited ability to get in touch with people off-base, offering nothing like the level of contact most young couples would be used to. Physical visits are impractical too, most conscripts being sent to the DMZ, and/or far away from their hometowns or any other urban centers.

Which makes the following KT commercial so poignant:

For non-Korean speakers: both his mom and his girlfriend think the unknown number is just spam, so they hang-up when he calls. With the “olleh Love of Country Plan” though, now his girlfriend can see exactly who it is…only to hang up on him anyway because she’s on a date.

Never fear however, for she happily answers him the next time round. Perhaps the date didn’t go so well?

(Chrome users: Is this showing as grey in your browsers too, or just for me? The video is definitely there!)

I was confused by the phone plan at first, which seemed to offer no more than a glorified caller-ID. Pause the video to read the fine print though, and you can see it also offers 200 minutes of free calls and 200MB of data per month, provided the conscript obtains a “Love of Country Card” first. With that, it explains, he can call from KT phones on bases, from public phones, and even do video calls on a smartphone, and his nearest and dearest will be informed it’s him too. (Presumably, he would have to input a special number on the card first, like with old-style international phone cards.) And good for them.

(Note: The commercials are from early-2015, before the military started providing nerfed mobile phones to conscripts; I don’t know if this service is still available sorry.)

(Update: Thanks to Eames (@Eames29), who tells me it is:)

(Source)
(Source)

But the commercials got me thinking. I suddenly realized, I see military couples so rarely in Korean pop culture, and military girlfriends even less so. I wondered, is there a shared bond there in the collective Korean female psyche so to speak, that isn’t getting the attention it deserves? Or, with 250,000 men conscripted every year, and probably tens of thousands of them deciding to soldier on with their girlfriends, are military girlfriends’ experiences as diverse as the women themselves? Is it just me that has been overlooking them in Korean pop culture? Or, is it that, being so normalized and unremarkable, no one thinks to give them any attention at all?

(Source: MovieDiary)

I’d wager the latter. Despite their ubiquity, my Korean wife and friends can’t think of any specific terms for “military girlfriend” or “military couple,” and can’t think of any movies or dramas that focus on them either.* I myself can only think of one movie: the slightly old but still very watchable and relatable Crazy Waiting (기다리다 미쳐), a.k.a. The Longest 24 Months or Going Crazy Waiting, an intertwined story about four military couples, but which stresses the girlfriends’ perspectives (I’ll write a review in a later post in this series):

Yet our ignorance hardly settles the matter. One purpose of this post then, is just to throw all those questions out there, and to ask readers to share their own pop culture suggestions. As well as their own experiences of being in military relationships, and/or of people they know.

The second is to stress the importance of simply asking those questions at all.

Don’t just take my word for it though. Read some excerpts from “Militarizing Women’s Lives” by Cynthia Enloe, a short essay in The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics, ed. by Nancy Holmstrom (2002), which I just finished yesterday. And which has left me with such a buzz, I could quote from it all night:

One needs to take seriously the complicated militarized experiences of women as prostitutes, rape victims, mothers, wives, nurses, and feminist activists in order to make full sense of what happens when women are permitted in limited numbers to soldier in still-militarized militaries. To invest one’s curiosity solely in women as soldiers is to treat the militarization of so many other women as normal.

(p. 293)

This focus is relevant to Korea too. Where, as I wrote in Part 1

[The current economy] is so terrible…that even women are showing interest in the limited—but growing—number of positions open to them, despite the extreme discrimination and harassment they face once inside.

…but I’ve yet to see much media attention on present-day military prostitutes (as opposed to comfort women for Japan and then for the USFK), let alone military mothers, wives, and girlfriends.

Continuing with Enloe:

If we adopt the mainstream media’s fascination with women-as-soldiers, and thus devote only meager attention and thought to all other militarized women, we will, by our own very inattention, I think, perpetuate militarized officials’ capacity to manipulate many women’s hopes and fears and skills. Any militarized government’s manipulative capacity has relied on most people not being interested in military wives; on most people holding as “trivial” the mixed feelings of military girlfriends; on most people turning military mothers, wartime rape victims, and military prostitutes into either abstract nationalist icons or objects of shame and exclusion. Inattention is a political act.

(Ironic image source, left: Ilbe)

…Women who serve militaries’ needs differently usually do not see themselves as bound together by their shared womanhood or even by their shared militarization. In fact, some militarized women will see their own respectability, income, or career chances thrown into jeopardy by the actions of other militarized women. Mothers of soldier-sons, for instance, do not have any automatic political affinity with women soldiers. A woman who is a military wife may go to considerable lengths to not ask about the women who work in the discos around his base. Feminists working to help women soldiers overcome the institutional barriers of sexual harassment and homophobia inside the military may not give much thought at all to women as militarized mothers, wives, and prostitutes.

…Military officials and their civilian supporters go to great lengths in order to ensure that each of these groups of women feels special and separate.

(p. 294, emphases in original; bold emphases mine)

Next, a rallying cry for this series, condensing thousands of my own words:

…militaries and their supporters in both government and the general public have needed not only women, flesh and blood creatures. They have also needed ideas, especially ideas about femininity. Just as important to the maintenance of military life as has been the ideology of manliness, just as important as parades, alliances, and weaponry, have been certain feminized ideas—”the fallen woman,” “patriotic motherhood,” “marital fidelity,” “racial purity,” “national sacrifice,” and sexualized “respectability.” Sometimes militaries even have needed a very particular version of the idea “liberated woman.”

(p. 295)

And finally, in the strange event that you’re not yet having a braingasm yourself, and aren’t emailing me begging me to use my photo-to-pdf app on the five-page essay:

Precisely because the U.S. Military has become so physically and ideologically influential in today’s [2002] post-Cold-War world, we do need, I think, to pay special heed to American manipulation of ideas about women and to the appeal that those militarized ideas have for so many women. In the late-1990s the American armed forces provided not only traveling trainers, but their own formulas for AIDs prevention and peacekeeping…Each one of these international training programs is providing a site for the export of American ideas about what should be expected of a man, what should be expected of a woman—not just of a woman in uniform, but a woman in a soldier’s home and a woman in a militarized off-base disco.

(p. 296; bold emphases mine)

And if that’s the case for the U.S. military overseas, why not for the Korean military in its own country? An institution that affects a far greater proportion of both men and women than the U.S. military ever will of U.S. citizens?

Please send me your thoughts. And, has anyone else seen Crazy Waiting BTW? Let’s (re)watch it in the next two weeks for my review! :D

(“Couple in Ewha on their last date before he left for military service, in September, 2007,” by feetmanseoul; used with permission.)

*Update) With thanks to Bunny Bones who commented on the blog’s Facebook page, there is a word for military girlfriends: “고무신/곰신” (go-mu-shin/gom-shin), which literally means “wearing rubber shoes,” but comes from the expression “고무신 거꾸로 신다,” (go-mu-shin goh-gguro shin-da), or “wearing rubber shoes the wrong way.” There’s also a term for military girlfriends whose boyfriends have finally returned: “꽃신” (ggot-shin), literally “wearing flowers.”

The first term did ring a bell for my wife (I’ve yet to ask my friends), but not “wearing flowers.” That’s probably because, Bunny Bones explained, it’s from 규찌툰 (Gyuzzi-toon), a now defunct but still very much available webtoon about a military couple.

(Source: Wikitree)

Now I sense that, outside of rare mainstream film and TV portrayals, there may be a whole wealth of alternative pop-culture representations of military couples and girlfriends out there. And if so, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong about their invisibility!

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