The Korean Conscription System Promotes a Servile, Subordinate, Sexually-Objectifying View of Women. Here’s How.

Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 7

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Source, right (cropped): Streetwindy via Pexels.

The contents of Everyday Sexism (2014) by Laura Bates, a UK-focused collection of public submissions and statistics on the myriad of ways women experience sexism on a daily basis, will be depressingly familiar to anyone who already considers themselves a feminist. Having accidentally ordered the book though, I could hardly not read it. Besides, I reasoned, what cishet middle-aged white guy wouldn’t still have a lot to learn about the topic?

So I persevered. And sure enough, there were many things which gave me pause, especially the accounts of sexual harassment experienced by female university students. Partially, because I’d been blissfully unaware of that sort of thing when I was a student myself. Primarily though, because they strongly reminded me of an incident at the “morale-raising” YG Military Festival held in Yanggu County in Gangwon Province on 5 October 2019, at which the female university students hired to be doumi (lit. “help-elegant-beauties”) were forced to wear revealing clothes for the soldiers. From the news reports below, which discuss that in the context of how routine it is to provide sexualized performances by professional performers and/or K-pop girl-groups at such events, it’s easy to see how choices like these can encourage a somewhat objectified, servile view of women among the (usually) very young, impressionable Korean men that go through the male conscription system. Many do overcome that socialization experience, of course. But the consequences for all Koreans of those that don’t would fill many, many chapters in a Korean version of the Everyday Sexism book.

Screenshot, SBS News.

My translated excerpts of various reports about the incident, starting with one from Wikitree:

YG 밀리터리 페스타는 양구군이 장병들 사기 진작을 위해 지난해부터 개최한 것이다. 이벤트 경기, VR 체험, 먹거리 시장, 가수 공연 등이 열린다. 네일 케어, 피부 관리, 타로점 체험 부스도 있다. 이번 축제에는 육군 2사단과 21사단 장병 2300 명이 참가했다.

The festival has been held since [2018] by Yanggu-gun to boost morale among soldiers, featuring competitive games, VR experiences, food stalls, and performances by singers and girl groups. There are also “experience booths” [really stalls/tables] for nail care, skin care, and tarot readings. This year, about 2,300 soldiers from the 2nd and 21st Divisions attended the festival.

논란은 체험 부스에서 일어났다. 머니투데이에 따르면 행사 대행업체 측이 행사장으로 가는 버스 안에서 여자 알바생들에게 흰색 짧은 테니스 치마와 몸에 달라붙고 가슴 부분이 파인 옷을 제공했다. 알바생들은속옷이 비치고 노출이 심한 옷이었다“, “조금만 움직여도 가슴이 훤히 드러났다라고 전했다. 이어행사 담당자는군인들이 쑥스러워하니 직접 데려오라‘, ‘군인들에게 적극적으로 대하라 지시했다라는 말도 덧붙였다. 이들은 피부 관리 부스에서 군인들에게 직접 마스크팩을 붙여주는 일을 했다.

The controversy took place over the experience booths. According to Money Today, on the bus going to the venue the event agency provided the female part-time workers with only short white tennis skirts and tight-fitting, lowcut tops to wear. The women complained, “They were so tight you can see my underwear through them,” and “Even if I moved only a little, my chest would be completely exposed.” They added, “The event manager instructed, ‘As the soldiers will be embarrassed, [especially those wanting you to put [skincare-type] facemasks on them], please approach them proactively and encourage them as you escort them into the booths.”

Some additional information from that report by Money Today:

알바생 A씨는사전에 알려준 의상보다 파이고 조금만 움직여도 배가 드러날 정도로 상의 길이가 짧았다알바생들이 속옷이 비치고 노출이 심해 민소매 티셔츠를 요청했지만 아무 조치가 없었다 주장했다. 일부 알바생은 노출이 부담스러워 따로 챙겨온 외투를 걸쳤다고 한다.

One part-time worker complained that, “The clothes were much shorter and tighter than what we were told about, exposing my stomach even if I moved just a little,” and that “Even though we asked for sleeveless t-shirts because our underwear was visible, nothing was done about it.” It is said that some of the workers wore a separate coat over the clothes because of embarrassment.


행사 대행업체 측은요즘 학생들이 많이 입는 테니스 치마일 이라며일부러 노출이 심한 의상을 제공한 것이 아니다라고 해명했다. 행사 스태프는 여성이 25, 남성이 15 정도였는데, 대행업체 측은원래 남자 직원들은 힘쓰는 일을 주로 하고 여자 직원은 차를 따라주는 행사 도우미 역할을 맡는 관행을 따랐을 이라고 설명했다.

A person from the event agency responsible for the clothes said, “It was just a tennis skirt like many students wear these days,” and that “We did not provide any clothes deliberately designed to overexpose the workers’ bodies.” They further explained that 25 women and 15 men were hired, but that “It’s customary that men have to do a lot of hard work, whereas women just have to be helpers and do things like pouring tea.”

Confusingly, in the video of the event above, many doumi can be seen wearing other clothing, which is not addressed by the anchors in the brief SBS News segment below that. Yet why should they? Whether through chance, smarts, and/or previous experience with doumi companies, that some of the women had alternate clothes on hand doesn’t negate the fact that those without had no other options.

Professional entertainment group Waveya (not a K-pop group) performing at a middle school in 2012.

On the other hand, if it’s the norm to hire young women in high-waisted skirts and low-cut tops for just about anything in Korea, including performances at schools, then the comment about no additional exposure being intended may well be true, if somewhat obtuse. That being said, I’m just as confused as you as are as to how men putting up tables and chairs somehow justifies forcing women to wear revealing clothes while serving tea. It’s also frustrating that the reporter didn’t challenge that non-explanation.

Policing the Student Body: Sookmyung Women’s University students told to cover up

I see reason for optimism though, in that the issue of consent was the hook that made the incident newsworthy, especially given that this must-read by a professional doumi gives the strong impression that such incidents are routine. Had I been writing a news report myself, I might have continued by comparing students’ own festivals and events, which also regularly create controversy for their sexual overtones, but, crucially, at which the offending clothes are worn by choice. (Or perhaps not necessarily; the ensuing sensationalist reports are hardly deep, and now Everyday Sexism compels me to reconsider them.) However, the main reason for the news reports was more likely the harm caused to the military’s image, Asiae raising in their own report another controversial incident that occurred at a different military festival the year before:

난해 814 유튜브에는피트니스 모델 @군부대 위문공연이라는 제목의 영상이 올라왔다. 영상 피트니스 모델은 각선미를 강조하는 자극적인 동작을 선보였다.

해당 공연 사회자가지금부터 기본포즈 4가지를 보여드리겠다 자세를 요구하자 선수는 뒤돌아서 엉덩이를 자세로 머리를 넘겼다.

나이가 어떻게 되냐 사회자의 질문에 “21살입니다라고 답하자 장병들의 환호가 이어졌다.

On August 14 [2018], a video titled “Fitness Model @ Military Consolation Performance” was posted on YouTube by the military. The model’s dance was quite sexualized, involving showing off body parts like her legs. At one point, she proclaimed “I will show you four basic poses now,” turning around to thrust her buttocks at the audience with her head down, her face visible underneath. To the cheers of the men watching, she answered “I’m 21!” when they loudly asked her age.

해당 영상을 접한 누리꾼들은여성 성상품화가 지나쳤다“, “위문공연을 이런 방법으로만 해야 하냐 분통을 터뜨렸다.

당시 청와대 국민청원 게시판에는성상품화로 가득찬 군대위문공연을 폐지해주세요라는 제목의 글과 함께 해당 영상이 첨부되기도 했다.

Netizens who saw the video on YouTube were angered, commenting that “The sexual objectification of the woman was excessive,” and questioning if such sexualized dances “were really the only way morale boosting performances could be done?”. Later, citing the video, a petition to abolish precisely those was posted on the Blue House’s public petition bulletin board [which the government has to respond to if it receives more than 200,000 signatures].

파문이 커지자 해당 부대는 영상을 삭제 조치했다. 부대는당시 공연은 민간단체에서 주최하고 후원한 것으로 부대 측에서는 공연 인원과 내용에 대해 사전에 없었으나, 이번 공연으로 인해 상품화 논란 일어난 대해 사과의 말씀을 드린다 했다.

그러면서앞으로 외부단체에서 지원하는 공연의 경우에도 상급부대 차원에서 사전에 확인하여 유사한 사례가 재발하지 않도록 하겠다 덧붙였다.

As the controversy grew, the military unit that uploaded it deleted the video. A spokesperson said, “As the performance was organized and provided by a private company, we could not have known what the contents would be. Nonetheless, we apologize for the “controversy over sexual objectification” this performance has caused. They added, “To prevent recurrences in future, we will check the contents of performances provided by external organizations in advance.”

Here’s part of the offending video, a blurred news report about it and other similar performances, and an unblurred compilation:

Given how family-friendly the atmosphere appears in the video of the 2019 YG Military Festival earlier, reporters raising that “fitness” performance may seem unfair, let alone my adding the compilation video in which other performers quite literally spread their legs in soldiers’ faces (I’ll let you find those scenes yourself). Similarly, in light of recent news about how important performing for the military years ago was for the sudden popularity of K-pop girl-group Brave Girls, and how devastating the loss of such opportunities due to the pandemic have been for other girl-groups, then it may seem that only a stereotypical feminist spoilsport could find any fault with that mutually-beneficial system, especially considering how tame most of the K-pop girl-groups’ performances are.

Actually, so long as universal male conscription continues, I’m not at all against performances—which is not to say there aren’t some issues that still need to be addressed with them, as examined in previous posts in this series. And yet, note that the family-friendly video is just one perspective produced by the local county government, which isn’t going to linger on the women’s bodies; unlike, say, the fancam below of New Heart, a professional cheerleading/dance team hired to perform at the 2018 festival. Also, just because this particular festival was relatively tame, that doesn’t mean something that raises more than just eyebrows may feature at the next one, let alone at more private performances on bases.

Indeed, a distinction needs to be made between performances by girl-groups and those by cheerleaders, fitness models, and so on. The former are more likely to perform in larger, more public venues; to be filmed; and to have reputations their management companies have to consider—considerations which don’t apply to private entertainers. Moreover, considering what we’ve seen of private entertainers’ performances so far, you do have to wonder what happens when no-one’s filming.

Ergo, this is no one-off. Engendering a sexually-objectified and servile view of women is fundamental to the Korean universal male conscription system. Don’t believe me? Just take the word of that military spokesperson. Not only does their feigned surprise, patronizing, disingenuous claim of ignorance, and passing of blame feel very, very familiar, but it’s surely revealing—pun intended—that their concern is over the controversy generated. Not the coercion, nor the revealing clothes.

Continuing:

위문공연의 선정성 문제는 국정감사에서도 제기 있다. 채이배 바른미래당 의원은 지난해 1026 국회 법제사법위원회 군사법원에 대한 국정감사에서군 위문공연의 문제를 지적하고 가이드라인 마련을 요구했다.

The issue of the sexual suggestiveness of morale-raising performances for the military has also been raised at the state administration. On October 26, 2018, the [since dissolved] Barunmirae Party [now former] lawmaker Chae Yi-bae pointed out the problem and demanded that guidelines be prepared during an audit of the military court of the National Assembly Legislative Judicial Committee.

의원은여성을 성상품화하는 위문공연을 폐지하라는 청와대 청원도 올라온 있다. 사과도 하시고 유사사례 방지하겠다고 약속하셨는데, 과연 방지할 있을지는 의문이라면서국방부 훈령 지침을 살펴보니 위문공연관련 가이드라인이나 지침이 없다 지적했다.

Representative Chae said, “There has also been a petition from the Blue House to abolish morale-raising performances that sexually objectify women. I apologize for them and promise to work to prevent similar cases. But it is doubtful if this is possible, as there are no relevant guidelines or procedures in place.”

한편 위문공연의 상품화 논란이 커지자 육군은 올해 1 외부단체 공연을 추진할 부대별 심의위원회를 꾸려 공연 내용을 미리 심의하겠다고 밝혔다.

However, in response to the controversy, the military announced that from January 2019 it would set up a deliberation committee for each unit to ascertain the contents of performances in advance when provided by outside companies and organizations.

If only that had extended to all companies and organizations involved, not just those providing performances. But, to finish with Money Today’s conclusions about the original incident—which may have sounded like hyperbole in isolation, whereas now:

전문가들은 군인 사기 증진을 위해 여성을 성적 대상화하는 인식을 바꿔야 한다고 지적했다.

Experts pointed out that in order to increase military morale, the perception of sexual objectification of women should be changed.

윤김지영 건국대 몸문화연구소 교수는여성을 눈요깃거리, 위안거리로 내세워야만 남성 군인의 사기가 증진된다고 여기는 것은 시대착오적이고 성차별적인 생각이라며행사 도우미의 불편한 의상이 문제가 없다는 주장도 결국 남성주의적 관점이라고 비판했다.

Yoon Kim Ji-young, a professor at Konkuk University’s Institute of Body & Culture, said, “It is an anachronistic and sexist idea to consider that the morale of male soldiers is enhanced only by putting women as an eye-catching and comforting object.” She criticized it as a masculine perspective.

허민숙 국회입법조사처 보건복지여성팀 입법조사관은군장병도 불편하고 내키지 않았을 가능성이 높다최근 젊은 남성은 여성과 동등한 관계에 익숙한 세대인데 진정한 사기 증진 방법을 고민하지 않고 낡은 관행을 답습한 점이 아쉽다 지적했다.

Heo Min-sook, a legislative investigator of the Health and Welfare Women’s Team at the National Assembly Legislative Investigation Department, said, “It is highly likely that military soldiers are also uncomfortable and reluctant.” I am sorry for that,” he pointed out.

Sources: left, right.

For further reading, I highly recommend Sex Among Allies: Military Prositution in U.S.-Korea Relations (1997) by Katherine Moon and Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (2005) by Seungsook Moon. The former, for the obvious links to the long history of girl-groups entertaining foreign and then Korean troops; and the latter, on how the gender roles and rigid hierarchy learned during military service utterly pervade Korean institutions from schools to workplaces, frequently reducing well-educated and capable women in the latter to making coffee and cleaning tables.

That doumi exist at all I’d argue, and in such great numbers, are a partial cause and effect of that last. So for the sake of completeness, in my next post, I’ll provide a full translation of an article about their origins (from 2006, I don’t think anybody will be worried about the copyright!).

Meanwhile, pondering what a Korean version of Everyday Sexism would look like is what led me to writing this post. For the sake of more like it, what other issues specific to Korea do think should be covered, which wouldn’t be in the original UK version? Please let me know in the comments!

Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts:

Related Links:

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

Why Women Pay More to Join Korean Marriage Agencies

Women dominate the clientele at Korean marriage agencies, which is often used to justify extra costs for joining. But this differential pricing goes well beyond just sex, both reflecting and shaping consumers’ notions of the “perfect” wife too. And it seems she’s neither highly-educated, highly-earning, nor even over 32.

Estimated reading tme: 12 Minutes. Image source: Duo.

Korea’s largest matchmaking-agency Duo, on the rebound after experiencing massive reductions in sales in recent years, claims to be voicing “the inner minds and concerns of young Koreans” in its latest series of ads. With this particular one though, its “Am I just being too picky?” subhead seems hilariously out of touch. As if young Koreans did have the financial resources to marry, but were just too stuck-up to consider looking for a spouse on the internet. Because damn millennials ruin everything, right?

It’s so awkward, it immediately reminded me of this ham-fisted, Singaporean government birthrate campaign ad that came out in the 1980s, which Asian Studies students have been laughing at ever since:

But my source didn’t find Duo’s ad so funny, accusing them of gaslighting:

“What amazing gaslighting. Those marriage agencies don’t have many female customers, so they resort to harmful gaslighting tactics.”

Actually, it was difficult to avoid the male version of the ad with the same caption. Yet the wider accusation about marriage agencies begged investigation. Surely there was something much more substantial behind the barbed tweet, I sensed, than merely snapping at one single ad?

My first searches did little to support that gut feeling. In fact, it turned out that until a few years ago, Duo used to have more women than men. Then in the early-2010s the numbers of men signing up starting rising, and by 2014 there were more men than women in both Duo and second-place rival Gayeon. These shifts can be seen quite clearly below in the table for Duo and Gayeon and graph for Duo respectively:

Sources: Yonhap, Chosun.

At the time, Bae Joon-yong at the Chosun Ilbo accounted for the shift by the (alleged) rise of “herbivore men,” whom he defined as men rejecting dating in their 20s, but still open to marriage once they hit their 30s. Statistics speak louder than buzzwords however, and its difficult to argue with Namuwiki’s contention that the increasingly high numbers of female fetuses aborted in the late-1980s were responsible, with the ensuing lonely men coming of marriage age. Especially when those numbers are presented in graphical form:

See here for my examination of the likely effects on Korea’s “gender wars.” Source: Cinnamon Ginger Tea; reprinted with permission. Note that the WHO considers a natural birth sex ratio to be 105 boys for every 100 girls.

Unfortunately, very little information exists for the 2016 to 2019 period. But we are just talking about statistics from three years ago. It would only be natural to assume that the trend for more men continued.

So imagine my surprise at learning that it appears to have completely reversed. In fact, the sex ratios have already returned to their female-dominated 2006 levels.

First, consider this December 2018 interview of an anonymous former matchmaker by Na Jin-hee at the Segye Ilbo (my emphasis):

—결혼정보업체 회원의 성비는 어떤가?

“예전에 비하면 많이 나아졌다지만 여전히 여성 회원이 남성보다 훨씬 많다. 메이저 회사는 여성 대 남성 비율이 6:4에서 5.5:4.5 정도로 추정된다. 영세 회사는 훨씬 더 차이가 크다. 8:2에서 9:1까지 가기도 한다.

남자 수가 적으니 자연히 남자 회원에게 서비스가 훨씬 많다. 전문직 남성의 경우 가입비를 할인받거나 아예 내지 않는다. 만남 횟수도 훨씬 많이 제공된다.”

—What is the sex ratio of customers at marriage agencies?

“The ratios have greatly improved, but there’s still many more women than men. Larger agencies estimate female to male ratios of 6:4 to 5.5:4.5. But the differences are much greater at smaller agencies. Sometimes they’re as high as 8:2 or even 9:1.

As there are fewer men, they naturally receive preferential service. “Professional” men [e.g., lawyers, doctors, and Samsung employees] receive discounts on membership fees, or may have them waived altogether. They get many more dates arranged [than women do] too.”

And another article by the same author published an hour(!) later:

◆아르바이트 회원에 남녀 성비 불균형… 업체는 ‘쉬쉬’

…애초에 남녀 성비가 맞지 않아 결혼 성사가 어렵다는 비판도 있다. 결혼정보업체의 여성회원 비율이 남성보다 상당히 높은 건 업계의 공공연한 비밀이다. 익명을 요구한 업계 관계자에 따르면 영세 업체일수록 이 같은 현상은 심해져 여성 비율이 90%에 이르기도 한다고 전해진다.

◆Fake, “part-time” customers used because of unequal sex ratios…Agencies say “Shhh!”

…There is also criticism that the very first step to finding a spouse—meeting new people—is difficult because of the unequal sex ratios.

The fact that marriage information agencies have considerably higher numbers of women than men is an open secret. According to industry officials who asked for anonymity, it is even worse at smaller companies, where the proportion of women may be as high as 90 percent.

By all means, this does not constitute proof. The claims of writers who use such cliched devices as “common knowledge” and “anonymous industry sources” should always be taken with a grain of salt, especially those who won’t acknowledge earlier sources that flatly contradict their claims. Be that as it may, in June 2019 Pyo Ju-yeon at Newsis offered slightly more evidence for the new ratio at Gayeon at least, in the form of “[an unspecified disclosure on the 16th by] the Korean marriage agency industry”:

대부분 회사들은 가입 금액에서 남녀 차등을 두고 있다. 차등이 가능한 이유는 성비가 맞지 않기 때문이다. 여성회원이 남성 회원보다 많기 때문이다. 가연의 경우 여성과 남성비중이 55대45정도다. 듀오의 경우에도 비슷한 수준이다. 이 때문에 결혼정보업계에서는 연애할 때는 ‘여성우위’, 결혼할때는 ‘남성우위’라는 말을 하기도 한다.

Most marriage agencies have different signing-up charges for men and women. The difference is possible because the sex ratio of customers is skewed, with far more women than men. In Gayeon, the ratio of women to men is 55 to 45; in Duo, it is similar. For this reason, people in the industy use the term “female advantage” to describe the dating scene, and “male advantage” for when looking for a spouse.

In addition, in a detailed breakdown of Gayeon members’ “specs” provided by a November 2019 article for the Asia Business Daily, Choi Shin-hye noted that the agency claimed a 53 women to 47 men ratio for first-time members in December 2018.

More authoritative NGO and governmental sources would be ideal, but they too prove lacking: their concerns with marriage agencies are overwhelmingly focused on the abuse of overseas brides instead. (As always, my apologies if I’m missing obvious Korean search terms, and my eternal gratitude to any readers who can pass on further sources.) Therefore, until proven otherwise, the claim still stands. Moreover, again the correlation with changes to the birth sex ratio decades earlier—specifically, the dramatic efforts made to curb the imbalance between 1994-1997—begs us to see causation.

But this opens up many more questions.

First, what of other agencies? While Duo and Gayeon are synonymous with the industry in Korea, they’re only the 2 largest of over 1000 agencies registered with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (as of 2016), and the sex ratios at smaller rivals may be completely different. For instance, two agencies that cater to “VIP” clients—N. Noble and Noblesse Soohyun—explicitly aim for a 50:50 ratio, and both succeeded in doing so in 2017 and 2018. Indeed, the latter prominently displays its ratio on its website, ironically allowing all to see that in fact its streak is now over:

What’s more, click on that “view details” button, and it emerges that the 52-48 male to female ratio is only an average for 2016 to 2019, disguising the fact that the number of female clients dropped precipitously last year:

Why these agencies for one-percenters are bucking the trend, we can only speculate in the absence of any further sources (again, sorry). So too, about the truth of those alleged 8:2 and even 9:1 female to male ratios at all those unnamed smaller agencies. Just like—let’s face it—@bobduryeo’s tweet, these assertions of “common knowledge” may be no more than the thoughtless perpetuation of baseless stereotypes.

Noblesse Soohyun’s exceptional candor, however, is something we can grapple with. Which raises the next question of why any marriage agency would make maintaining a 1:1 ratio a unique selling point.

Why else, if not for problems associated with unequal ratios at other agencies?

The main problem with them is obvious: the more unequal the ratio, the more difficult it is for one sex to find potential partners, as pointed out by Gwak Jong-hyeon’s advertorial for N. Noble in Newsfreezone earlier this month:

결혼정보회사를 가입할 때 확인해야 하는 객관적 지표는 성혼율과 회원수, 회원들의 수준, 남녀회원의 성비 등이다. 어느 하나 빼놓지 않고 중요하지만, 특히 남녀회원 성비가 균등한지, 오랜 기간 유지돼 왔는지를 잘 확인해야 한다. 성별이 한 쪽으로만 치우쳐 있다면, 만남 자체가 어려울 수 있다.

이러한 가운데, 노블레스 결혼정보회사 엔노블이 수년간 50:50의 균형 있는 남녀회원 성비를 유지하며 다채롭고 깊이 있는 만남을 주선해 높은 성혼율을 기록하고 있다.

The crucial things to check when joining a marriage agency are the sex ratio of customers, the number of customers, and the rate of marriages. But while all of these are so important that issues with any one can’t be overlooked, it is the sex ratio that is most crucial, and needs checking for how long it has been maintained too. For if there are problems with this, then getting the desired meetings can be difficult.

In light of this, Noblesse marriage agency N.Noble [JamesI’m suddenly confused too] stands out for maintaining a balanced sex ratio for many years, for arranging a variety of in-depth, meaningful meetings between customers, and for enjoying high success rates.

But that overarching problem spells two big consequences. First, that some agencies simply lie about their ratios, and then they use a variety of subterfuge, tricks, and legal loopholes to avoid compensating (mostly female) customers when their (mostly male) dates’ specs are not what they were told, or when those men fail to show up to arranged meetings at all.

Frankly, I can’t begin to summarize the plethora of articles about those scams and how to avoid them, many of which are sensationalist and provide no sources, like Na Jin-hee’s mentioned earlier (translation). But I can certainly recommend Choi Seo-hee’s comprehensive May 2019 article on the topic at KBS News (it’s the only one I found that mentioned agencies exploiting legal loopholes), and the google translation is more than adequate. Namuwiki’s guide (translation) is also a good starting point, with many further links.

It seems @bobduryeo was onto something after all. Just not on the causes of all the gaslighting.

Making much more of an impact, however, is the second consequence: not having enough men to choose from is used to justify higher prices for female customers—another unofficial extra tax for women if you will, like those for maintaining their appearance and wardrobe and for finding safe accommodation. And then, to add insult to injury, the higher prices are usually not just for women in general, but are especially for those who don’t fit very traditional notions of what constitutes a “good” wife.

I’ll let Pyo Ju-yeon explain:

Photo by Ike louie Natividad from Pexels

결혼정보회사의 수익모델은 남녀를 소개해주고, 남녀 모두로부터 서비스비용을 받는 방식이다. 이때 대부분의 업체들은 남성보다 여성에게 약간 더 비싼 금액을 받고 있는 것으로 확인됐다.

16일 결혼정보회사 업계에 따르면 듀오는 150만원에 5회, 가연은 99만원에 5회 소개를 가장 기본적인 서비스로 운영하고 있다. 물론 이 금액은 가장 기본 가입비다. 듀오나 가연 등 다소 대중적인 결혼정보회사들도 1000만원이 넘는 상품을 판매하기도 한다.

…그렇다보니 업계에서 공공연하게 여성의 가입비가 더 비싸게 책정되고 있다. 만약 가입비가 같다면 만남의 횟수가 다르게 제공된다는게 이 업계 ‘불문율’이다. 결혼정보업체들은 계약서 상에는 남녀 같은 금액을 적어도, 무료 소개 횟수를 남성에게 더 부여하는 방식으로 가격에 차등을 두고 있다. 이때 ‘조건’이 좋은 남자는 무료 소개 횟수가 훨씬 더 많아진다.

Marriage agencies’ profits come from the charging of customers for arranging introductions. But most companies charge women more than men.

According to [an unspecified disclosure on 16 June 2019 by] the Korean marriage agency industry, Duo charges 1.5 million won (US$1,268) for arranging 5 meetings, while Gayeon charges 990,000 won (US$837) for the same. But of course, those fees are only for the most basic of services. Most of the larger agencies offer a variety of packages, some of which cost over 10 million won (US$8,451).

…[Because of the unequal sex ratios], it can be more expensive for women to sign up. Or alternatively, if the sign-up fees and number of arranged meetings are the same, men will be rewarded with more free referrals, particularly if they have good specs.

Spotted in a Seoul bookstore: “If I study for ten more minutes, my [future] wife’s face will change”; “If I study for ten more minutes, my [future] husband’s job will change.” Source: Jinvas, left, right; edited.

And here’s how agencies’ traditional gender norms have an impact:

재미있는 점은 여성의 경우 조건이 좋을수록 가격이 비싸진다는 점이다. 남성의 경우 학력이나 소득이 높을수록 횟수가 증가하지만, 여성의 경우 그 반대다.

이렇게 가격이 책정되는 이유는 간단하다. 결혼정보회사들이 자체 기준으로 남성은 자신보다 조건이 약간이라도 낮은 여자를 선호한다고 판단하기 때문이다. 고학력, 고소득 여성의 경우 매칭이 가능한 남성 인력군이 더 적어져, 소개가 쉽지 않다고 보기 때문에 더 비싼 가격을 물린다는 이야기다.

또 여성의 경우에는 나이가 많아질수록 가격이 비싸진다. 역시 계약서 상에는 같은 금액을 내더라도 무료 소개 숫자를 줄이거나 없애는 방식으로 가격을 차등화하고 있다. 예를 들어 28살 여성이 200만원을 내고 소개 받는 횟수 5회를 계약한다면, 32살의 경우에는 4회, 35살이 넘어가면 3회에 계약을 할 수도 있다

Curiously, the better quality of specs for a female customer, the higher her fee and the fewer meetings she will be able to have. Whereas for men, the opposite is true.

The reason is simple: marriage agencies believe men prefer women who have worse specs than themselves. So marriage agencies will struggle to find men willing to meet highly-educated, high-earning women.

In addition, things become more expensive for women the older they get. Once again, one difference is through reducing or eliminating the numbers of free referrals. For example, whereas a 28 year-old woman may pay 2 million won (US$1,689) to get 5 free referrals, a 32 year-old woman may only get 4 for the same price, and 3 for a 35 year-old woman.

Pyo Ju-yeon goes on to mention that female customers often get told they’re “a little old” once they reach 32, are gaslighted about what they can expect for their money at that age, and that costs rise substantially for women once they reach 35. Alternatively, some agencies simply refuse female applicants over that age whatsoever, although they may still be able to signup for the same agencies’ separate services for divorcees. (For the sake of perspective, as of 2017 the average marriage age for Korean women was 30.2, and for men 32.9.)

Ironically for one of the most highly-educated populations in the world, unfortunately that distaste for highly-educated, high-earning women is very much a thing, and is one major reason why so many young Korean women now shun marriage. (Indeed, such women were stigmatized in 2012 too. And even as far back as in 1998 also, as that excellent resource on the right from then discusses in detail.)

It also leads to three further interesting, concluding questions that I’d like to pose to readers.

First, do you think agencies like Duo and Gayeon are merely responding to traditional Korean gender norms, and have little ability or incentive to challenge prejudices against (especially) women who don’t conform to those? Or alternatively, are they actively complicit in perpetuating those gender norms for the sake of profit? Or both?

Whatever your opinion, there’s a surprising parallel in the form of major pornography portal sites, in which the categorizations used and forms of content offered have a big impact on how the public and the media come to think about and frame pornography and sexuality. In other words, rather than, say, feminist porn being the norm, the degradation and exploitation of women is seen as normal and acceptable because that’s supposedly what both men (and women) want.

According to whom? That would be the pornography portals. Why? Because they make more money if consumers think that way.

It really is as simple as that sounds. Sourcing material only from producers that ensure decent pay for actors, their continual consent, and that provide them with safe, hygienic working environments, all of which should be the norm across the entire porn industry, simply costs more. But I digress.

Do marriage agencies then, have similar impacts on their own customers’ feelings about what makes the “perfect” spouse? Do Duo and Gayeon, which like to tout their large customer bases and tens of thousands of successful matches, have any impact on how Koreans as a whole think of marriage and gender roles? Or is their impact strictly limited to only their customers, who arguably are already well aware of the agencies’ very traditionally-gendered categorizations and notions of married life, and who already—by virtue of signing-up with those agencies—largely share their values?

To ultimately judge complicity, it would be interesting to do further research on how and if costs for women decreased in those few short years male customers became the majority. Or, on determining if marriage agencies were so—cough—wedded to traditional gender norms that they still made signing-up for women more expensive nonetheless?

Never to be repeated? A Duo advertisement from 2008. Source: All4MAC.

Finally, something I really wanted to find the answer for you here, but couldn’t sorry. Why do you think Korean marriage agencies “naturally” tend to have more female members, to the extent that that cohort of extra male customers in the 2010s seems to have been no more than the exception the proved the rule? Is the same true in other countries?

Please let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter!

Related Posts:

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

Manufacturing Outrage Against Feminists: The Cosplay Edition

I read trashy entertainment news stories about women in cosplay and half-naked men, so that you don’t have to. But when they’re all that’s available, it’s netizens with agendas that get to determine what we take away from them.

Estimated Reading Time: 15 minutes. Image sources: 스포츠하국, Pixabay (edited).

Surely it’s a bot that pumps out all these “Controversy Erupts Over K-pop Star’s Provocative Outfit” articles by now?

I’m almost serious. The names and details in the intros may change, but otherwise the articles follow the same pattern. First, you’re told about the throngs of netizens, feminists, and women’s groups who’ve criticized the sexual objectification, who are so great in number that actual names and links are usually deemed unnecessary. Next, responses from organizers of the show or event or from representatives of the star’s entertainment company are given, all of whom are men, and all of whom are stunned by the criticisms. After they recover, they’ll loudly defend her from the prudes, and join fans in praising her creative expression, sexual empowerment, and confidence and pride in her body. Finally, if we’re really lucky, we might even hear from the actual woman herself, providing a vague, suspiciously demure semi-defense or apology, which feels entirely scripted by the same men waxing lyrical about her grrrl-power.

Since Johyun of girl-group Berry Good appeared in cosplay at a gaming event on Monday June 17, “news” articles like this have appeared in the hundreds. Usually, I’d ignore them—give it a few weeks, and there’ll just be hundreds of similar articles about another immodest K-pop star to peruse, with the endless, national hand-wringing over Sulli not wearing a bra being relied upon to fill pages until then. But there’s a story about these stories which made Johyun’s case different.

I’ll let Danny Kim and David Kim of Youtube Channel DKDKTV explain, who covered the responses to her cosplay in their K-pop news video the next day (from 0:49 to 5:19):

Specifically:

Danny (in purple), (from 1:38): “Basically, this caused an alleged uproar led by a journalist, who called her out for promoting sexual objectification….And you know the funny thing was? She also happened to write an article about, like, how hot these male idols abs and boobs were about two years ago. Basically this one journalist wrote an article calling her out, and then all these different news outlets started covering this alleged ‘controversy’…but the weird part is it’s just that one journalist, and no-one really gives a shit. But I feel that this is like, what we call media play.”

David (in blue): “So what you’re saying is that there was one news article from that journalist, and the news just kept kinda reproducing—”

Danny: “Maybe she was, maybe the original article was allegedly offended by this outfit, but afterwards, all this like, a constant cycle of this controversy being covered when it’s not even a controversy, I think got media play. But anyway succeeded…”

David, (a little later, from 3:40): I saw the internet community reacting to her, and they were saying, like the headline was, ‘Do You Think it’s the Chosun Era?‘…Have you looked at the comments? Because, like, the most voted comment, for every article I’ve checked, is saying like, ‘Oh, it was all empowerment and strong for Hwasa [of MAMAMOO] and now you come for her, and which is all like ‘Provocative!’ and ‘Sexually objectifying!’…The comments are allegedly calling the journalist or the people who are criticizing [Johyun], like, radical feminists, because when they’re saying when like Hwasa did it, it was all fine, it was all like powerful and you know, all that stuff. But when a relatively Korean standard beauty person doing it, now, they’re like ‘OMG! She’s selling herself! OMG! That’s sexual objectification!’ Those are like double standards [too].

To summarize the charges: there was never any real controversy; the catalyst for the alleged controversy was one female journalist’s critical article; and that she hypocritically sung the praises of topless male actors in her previous articles. Let’s examine each in turn.

The first can be confirmed almost immediately. While absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, I’ve read dozens of articles that simply quote anonymous critics as discussed, and I’m not going to read dozens more in the vain hope that—heaven forbid!—one journalist actually does back up what they say. If that evidence of feminist outrage exists then, the onus is on believers to provide it. And they haven’t been doing a very convincing job so far:

Source: Netizenbuzz.
Source: Netizenbuzz.

The second charge that a female journalist’s critical article sparked the whole media play though, is completely wrong. And that’s also very easy to prove.

The article in question, which I’ll give my translation of in a moment, was “‘Perfection vs. Unpleasantness.’ In the Aftermath of Johyun’s Exposure of Her Body, Can We Say the Intention Was Innocent?” / “‘완벽vs불쾌’ 조현 노출 후폭풍, 의도는 정녕 순수했을까”, written by Jo Yeon-gyeong (조연경) for Ilgan Sports (일간스포츠) and published at 8:37pm on Monday the 17th; from there, it was syndicated to Daum, where it currently has 1700 comments. The timing is crucial: do a search with the words “Johyun,” “Berry Good,” and “Controversy” on Naver, Korea’s biggest portal site, and it’s evident that numerous articles with that key final search term were published throughout the day, well before Yeon-gyeong’s in the evening. Moreover, that search is just of Naver and just with the word “controversy” attached to Johyun’s name; there’s also some earlier ones that mention, say, “sexual objectification,” with or without the specific word “controversy” too. Hell, even if you don’t speak Korean, just by clicking on the links to the four articles Netizenbuzz covered you can see that all of those preceded it as well.

To point out Danny and David’s mistake isn’t intended to imply anything: they’re busy YouTubers pumping out three videos a week, of which this story was just one short segment of one. Also, I appreciated their comments that Johyun’s smiling and easy demeanor at the event in no way implies her consent with the outfit chosen for her, which speaks to the difficulties in judging exploitation within and reporting on the notoriously controlling K-pop industry, a topic I’ve covered in depth elsewhere.

That said, their sloppy mistake, however inadvertent and lacking in malice, does perpetuate the stereotype of the interfering feminist, outraged over trifles that normal people couldn’t care less about. To understand why that version of events came about, and snowballed to the extent that that’s the one Danny and David took notice of, let’s examine what the journalist actually said:

“Perfection vs. Unpleasantness.” In the Aftermath of Johyun’s Exposure of Her Body, Can We Say the Intention Was Innocent? “완벽vs불쾌” 조현 노출 후폭풍, 의도는 정녕 순수했을까

Jo Yeon-gyeong, Ilgan Sports, 2019.06.17 20:37

이쯤되면 입힌 사람도, 입은 사람도 잘못이다. 반짝 이슈에 이미지를 홀라당 날려 버렸다. 응원하는 이들만큼 불쾌감 섞인 비난도 뒤따른다. 후폭풍을 전혀 예상하지 못했을까. 그 또한 패착이다.

Whether Johyun chose the outfit, or whether it was chosen for her, we cannot say. Either way, the hot issue that suddenly arose from it is the question of if she has ruined her image. There are as many people supporting her as there are critics or those made to feel uncomfortable by her outfit. We can not know yet what to make of the aftermath. Or if the choice was misguided.

베리굿 조현이 노출 논란에 휩싸였다. 과감한 코스프레 의상이 문제였다.

Because of her daring, provocative outfit, Johyun has been engulfed in controversy.

조현은 17일 서울 상암동 에스플렉스 센터OGN e스타디움에서 열린 ‘게임돌림픽2019 : 골든카드’ 행사에 참석했다. ‘게임돌림픽2019 : 골든카드’는 게임을 즐겨하는 아이돌 스타들이 게임 실력을 겨루는 아이돌 e스포츠 대회로, 이날 행사에는 약 40명의 아이돌 스타들이 참석했다.

On Monday the 17th, Johyun participated in OGN’s Game Dolympic 2019: Golden Card event at the Seoul OGN e-STADIUM in Samam-dong, along with approximately 40 other idols. As part of the event, idols showed off their skills competing against each other at e-games.

조현은 ‘리그 오브 레전드’의 구미호 캐릭터 아리 코스프레 의상을 차려입고 카메라 앞에 섰다. 게임 행사인 만큼 게임 속 캐릭터 의상을 착용한 자체는 문제가 되지 않는다. 하지만 가슴과 엉덩이가 훤히 드러나는 의상은 분명 과했다. 떨어지는 퀄리티에 스타킹 라인도 고스란히 노출됐다.

Johyun cosplayed as the nine-tailed fox character Ahri from League of Legends, and stood in front of the cameras [on the red carpet]. That she cosplayed is not a problem. However, her choice of clothing clearly exposed her breasts and bottom to an excessive degree. The outfit was poor quality too, and fully revealed her suspenders. (Source, right: Bias Wrecker.)

섹시와 저렴은 한끗차이다. 조현은 의도했든 의도하지 않았든 스스로 목적 뚜렷한 눈요깃거리가 됐고, 조롱의 대상이 됐다.

There’s a fine line between sexiness and looking cheap. Whatever Jo-hyun’s intentions were, she’s plainly just there as eye-candy, and is now an object of mockery.

물론 ‘완벽한 코스프레’라 극찬하는 이들도 있다. ‘코스프레일 뿐인데 왜 난리냐’ ‘하다하다 별걸 다 갖고 논란. 예쁘기만 하다’ ‘뭐가 과하고 뭐가 야하다는건지 모르겠다. 코스프레 무식자들’ ‘캐릭터 의상이 원래 저런데 어쩌라고’ ‘잘 입었다. 칭찬해 주고 싶다’ 등 옹호 반응도 쏟아지고 있다.

Of course, there are people who speak highly of this “perfect cosplay.” Those rushing to her support have made such arguments as “It’s just cosplay. What’s all the fuss?”, “Whatever she does, there’s controversy. Can’t you just acknowledge she’s pretty?”, “I really don’t know what’s revealing or excessive about her outfit. Only people who know nothing about cosplay would say such things”, and “She’s just dressed like the original character is dressed. I want to compliment her for that.”

특히 조현이 입은 의상은 주최 측과 사전 상의한 결과였다. 취지에 어긋나지 않고, 자리를 빛내기 위한 선택이었다는 것.

Crucially however, the choice of outfit was in made in prior consultation with the organizers and hosts of the event. It was not inappropriate for the event, and was chosen to lighten it up.

소속사 제이티지엔터테인먼트 측은 “평소 게임을 좋아하는 조현이 게임 행사에 참여하게 됐고, 주최 측과 협의 후 코스프레를 완벽히 소화하기 위해 준비한 의상을 착용했다”며 “조현이 평소 게임을 좋아하기 때문에 팬들과 더 많이 소통하고 싶어 했다”고 전했다.

A source from her entertainment company JTG Entertainment [further clarified] that “Johyun is a big fan of games, and that is how she came to participate in the event; the outfit that was chosen in consultation with the event hosts worked out for her beautifully. Also, that “Through wearing the outfit, Johyun hoped to better communicate her love of games to her fans.”

그럼에도 불구하고 ‘성상품화를 자처했다’는 목소리가 더 높은 실정이다. 이에 따른 네티즌들의 갑론을박도 점점 더 격렬해지고 있다. 의도가 무엇이었든 단발성 이슈 몰이에는 성공한 모양새다. 이후 조현이 보여 줄 행보가 그녀의 진정한 이미지를 결정짓게 만들 것으로 보인다.

Despite this, the accusations that she was sexually objectified have grown in number, and netizens have intensely debated the pros and cons of her choice of outfit—whatever her intentions [James—or those of JTG Entertainment], she’s certainly been successful in becoming the issue of the week. After it dies down, her true image will be determined by the paths she takes in the future. [End]

Source: 5:18, TopStarNews.Net@YouTube

Whatever you make of Jo Yeong-gyeong’s opinion piece, it’s only slightly harsher than those by many other journalists. Yet it’s her that has been made the figurehead for feminist outrage and overreaction by the more tabloidish and alt-right corners of the Korean internet, buttressed by her alleged hypocrisy and double-standards:

Sources: MLBPark (1; since deleted); 2)

Her haters generally provide five of her previous articles as evidence. I won’t translate them fully sorry (my first one above probably already pushes the limits of fair use), just those parts about “how hot those male idols abs and boobs were.”

First, one from October 2016, about a scene from the drama Sweet Stranger and Me, in which Kim Young-kwang appears wearing only an apron on top in front of Park Soo-ae:

주목할 것은 김영광의 차림이다. 상의는 입지 않은 채 빨간 앞치마만 걸치고 있는 그의 모습은 궁금증을 유발하기 충분하다.

특히 김영광의 태평양 어깨와 힐끗 보이는 잔근육, 팔의 힘줄은 시선을 압도, 여심을 흔들게 할 전망이다.

또 수애 앞에 바짝 다가선 김영광은 남성미를 폭발시켜 미묘한 긴장감을 형성한다. 이에 앞으로 두 사람에게 무슨 일이 생길지 기대감을 높인다.

Man of the drama title Kim Young-kwang is getting a lot of attention for a scene in which he’s topless but for a red kitchen apron.

In particular, he’s aroused the interest of women with his broad shoulders and the veins on his bulging muscles. Also, as he approaches Park Soo-ae, we suddenly become aware of his masculine beauty, and the building tension between them. With bated breaths, we wait to see what will happen next.

Next, from March 2017, about an episode of the Law of the Jungle reality TV show, in which the male guests took off their tops in the rain:

이에 따라 예상치 못하게 병만족의 숨겨왔던 초콜릿 복근도 공개됐다. 상의를 벗은 병만족은 함께 목욕탕에 온 것처럼 서로의 등을 밀어주기도 하고 장난도 치며 돈독한 우정을 다졌다. 다들 “자연인이 된 것 같아”, “진짜 시원하다. 대박이에요.” 등의 반응을 보이며 행복해했다고.

그 모습을 멀리서 지켜보던 홍일점 경리는 “나도 같이 벗고 싶었다. 그러나 여자라 참았다”며 알몸 샤워하는 남자 병만족을 부러워했다는 후문이다.

As they took off their tops, the “chocolate abs” of [host] Kim Byung-man‘s “tribe” were revealed, and the men began massaging each other’s backs and getting friendly as if they were in a bathhouse back at home. They were very happy, saying things like “It’s great to get so close to nature,” “This is so refreshing. It’s just the best!”

Watching from a distance, the only female member of the tribe, Nine Muses’s Park Kyung-ri, later revealed, “I really wanted to take off my clothes too. But because I was the only woman, I just had to put up with it. I was really jealous of the men being able to shower half-nude.”

From September 2017, when several members of Korean-Chinese boy-band Exo appeared on variety show It’s Dangerous Beyond The Blankets:

Source: @EXOXiuminTurkey; all other images from their original articles.

물놀이를 해본 지가 언제인지 까마득한 집돌이들은 계속 한참을 머뭇거리다 수영장에 들어갔는데, 이후에도 무엇을 해야 할지 몰라 하며 당황하는 모습을 보였다. 하지만 곧 자신들만의 물놀이에 빠져들어 상의 탈의를 감행, 그동안 그들이 소중하게 간직하고 있던 근육까지 공개하는 열의를 보이며 열띤 시간을 보냈다는 후문에 기대감을 증폭 시키고 있다.

At first the homebodies hesitated to get into the water, not having been in the swimming pool for a while. And once they did get in, it was like they didn’t know what to do. But in the end, they got so energized by the water that they took off their tops and showed off their hidden muscles with alacrity. Viewers’ expectations for the episode [which had then yet to be aired] will be high!

Then again on the Law of the Jungle reality TV show in February 2018, with Kim Yu-gyeom, Lee Tae-gon, and Kim Yun-sang enjoying themselves in a stream:

유겸의 상남자 매력은 다음날 과일 탐사에서도 어김없이 빛났다. 이틀 만에 소금기 없는 민물을 발견한 유겸은 거침없이 상의를 벗어 던지고 물속에 몸을 내던져 정글에서의 첫 샤워를 즐겼다. 이를 본 김윤상 아나운서는 “역시 아이돌이라서 그런지 몸매가 훈훈하다”며 눈을 떼지 못했다.

[After catching a fish with his bare hands the day before], Yu-gyeom’s masculine beauty was on his display while fruitpicking. In just two days, he found a fresh water source, threw off his clothes to dive into some water, and enjoyed a shower in the jungle. Kim Yun-sang [James—a cishet guy, in case of any confusion!] couldn’t keep his eyes off him, explaining his figure was just so admirable.

And finally in May 2018, about an episode of The Return of Superman in which volleyball player Moon Sung-min visited the bathhouse with his son Shi-ho:

…문성민 아빠와 시호 부자는 목욕탕에서 완벽한 몸매를 자랑하며 몸짱에 등극해 시청자들의 이목을 사로잡을 전망이다.

방송 전 공개된 사진 속 문성민 아빠와 시호는 목욕탕에서 신나는 시간을 보내고 있다. 만점 비주얼의 문성민 아빠의 훈훈한 미소와 완벽한 초콜릿 복근은 심쿵을 유발한다. 시호의 깜찍한 웃음은 매우 사랑스럽다.

이날 시호·리호는 배구선수인 문성민 아빠의 직장에 방문했다. 그곳에서 시호는 문성민 아빠와 공놀이를 하며 즐거운 시간을 보냈다고. 운동을 끝낸 두 사람은 흘린 땀을 씻기 위해 목욕탕으로 향했다. 목욕탕에 등장한 문성민-시호 부자에 모두가 심쿵했다는 전언이다. 문성민 아빠가 완벽한 식스팩을 자랑하며 모습을 드러냈기 때문.

…Moon Sung-min captured the audience’s attention by showing off his perfect body in the bathhouse.

Shi-ho and Sung-min had an enjoyable time there. Sung-min got hearts racing with his perfect visuals, charming smile, and perfect chocolate abs. Shi-ho’s cute laughing was very lovable too.

After having an enjoyable time at Sung-min’s workplace, the two of them went to the bathhouse to wash off their sweat. It was said that all the other patrons of the bathhouse almost stopped in their tracks at the sight of Sung-min showing off his perfect six-pack.

Making the big assumption that it’s not actually her editor that chooses the slant of all of her articles, perhaps from those you could indeed argue that Danny and David Kim’s third charge is correct: she was being hypocritical about Johyun. Against that however, you could respond that much of her concern about Johyun’s image stems from how unusual the cosplay was for her, in contrast to the male actors and boy-band members for whom taking their tops off for the cameras is a matter of routine. To which you could counter that, whether through choice or coercion, Johyun is actually very used to being objectified, as are the other members of Berry Good. And so on.

But to engage in that debate means not seeing the forest for the trees. Because if even we do concede the double-standards, all these articles are still just trashy entertainment news. Those short excerpts above? They’re actually half or more of the entire “news articles” in some cases. That’s not to single Jo Yeon-gyeong out, or imply that she’s bad at her job. Quite the opposite—it’s to point out that as a producer of quick, throwaway clickbait (hey, she makes more money from writing than I do), that in each case above, everything she said about the man boobs and chocolate abs was also made by dozens or even more other journalists like her. Many of who might even be men.

Forgive my own hypocrisy in not providing links to them; frankly, as I type this I’m just exhausted after a week of unpaid research, translation, and 3200 words on this myself. So, if you do have your doubts on that last, please indulge me with the two minutes of googling necessary to confirm.

That’s something the paid journalists were not prepared to do. Instead, we were asked just take to their word for it that Johyun’s cosplay was controversial.

Is it any wonder that people would form their own narratives instead?

Or that the version of events by the group with the biggest axe to grind would come to dominate the story?

For make no mistake: singling out a female journalist for articles that she may have had no choice over, which were replicated by many other male and female colleagues, is as misogynistic as they come.

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

Korean Billiards Federation Orders Female Referees to Wear Skirts

Because nothing brings more viewers to your sport than the chance to watch women struggling to do their jobs in clothes they hate.

Estimated reading and viewing time: 4 minutes.

My translation of the transcript for this KBS news report:

학교뿐 아니라 스포츠계의 성 문제도 참 끝이 없습니다.

대한당구연맹이 여성 심판들에게 치마를 입으라고 지시했습니다.

왜 그런 지시를 했냐고 물었더니 치마를 입으면 반응이 좋았다는 황당한 답변을 했다고 합니다.

방준원 기자입니다.

It’s not just in schools, but also in the world of sports where there’s no end to problems of sexual discrimination and harassment.

The Korean Billiards Federation has ordered its female referees to wear skirts.

When asked why, the ridiculous response was that this gets a favorable reaction [from audiences].

Bang Jun-won reports.

[리포트] 국제 당구대회 여성심판, 당구공의 이물질을 닦고, 공 위치를 확인하는 등 당구대에 바짝 붙어야는 경우가 많습니다.

치마가 불편할 수밖에 없습니다.

Reporter Bang: In international billiard competitions, it is often necessary for referees to clean the balls of any foreign substances and to check their positions, requiring them to always stand close to the table. This is uncomfortable and inconvenient to do in a skirt.

[류지원/당구연맹 심판 : “공 튀어가면 가서 잡고, 닦아서 포인트 있는 부분에 재배치를 해야 해요. 그러면 치마를 입으면 엎드렸을 때 뒤가 어떻게 될까요?”]

Referee Ryu Ji-won: “When a ball comes off the table, we have to grab it [from the floor], wipe it, and put it back in the correct position on the table, [which often requires lying over it to reach]. How are we expected to do all this in a skirt?”

보통 바지를 입던 여성 심판들이 치마를 입기 시작한 건 2017년부터입니다.

당구연맹의 복장 규정은 변한 게 없는데, 이유는 심판위원장 때문이었습니다.

2017년 취임한 심판위원장 권 모 씨가 여성 심판들은 치마를 입으라고 지시한 겁니다.

Normally, female referees wore pants, but this changed from 2017. Not because of any changes in the federation’s rules regarding attire, but because of a demand by newly-appointed referee chairperson Kwon (probably a man, but this is not indicated—James).

Source: Topstarnews

권 씨가 보낸 SNS 메시지입니다.

‘여자심판은 스커트를 준비하라’ ‘녹화방송에 여자 스커트는 필수’라고 합니다.

스커트를 안 입으면 주심 대신 부심만 할 거라고 강조하기도 했습니다.

현직 심판 류지원 씨는 치마 입기를 거부했습니다.

그 뒤 주요 경기에서 배제됐고, 전국대회 15회 참가 정지 제재도 받았습니다.

The demand was announced via social networking services. “Female referees prepare skirts; they will now be required for all games that are broadcast” it said. It went on to stress that “Female referees that do not comply will be demoted to assistant referees.”

Ryu Ji-won refused. For this she was punished during the 15th National Championships.

[류지원/당구연맹 심판 : “(16강 경기부터)딱 1경기 주심으로 배치가 되고, 나머지는 다 부심이었고, 그나마 결승 준결승 경기에는 아예 포함도 안 됐어요.”]

Referee Ryu Ji-won: During the quarter finals, I was only allowed to be referee for one game, being demoted to assistant referee in the others. I was also completely excluded from the semi-finals and finals.

심판위원장에게 치마 복장을 지시한 이유를 물었습니다.

[권○○/당구연맹 심판위원장/음성변조 : “처음 (치마) 착용하고 난 이후에 주변 반응이 너무 좋았기 때문에, 착용했던 심판들이 따로 요청한 것도 있고.”]

권 위원장은 당구 심판이 치마를 입었던 사례가 있어 제의했던 것뿐이라고 추가로 해명했습니다. 류 씨는 권 위원장을 협박 혐의로 고소했습니다.

Chairperson Kwon was asked the reason for the new dress requirement. They replied: “The first time we tried this, the reaction was very positive. Because of that, the female referees themselves made the recommendation,” further explaining that “that was the only reason for this new requirement.”

Ryu is now suing Kwon for intimidation. (End)

Hat tip: 젠더 뉴스 읽기@readinggendernews

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How does military conscription affect Korean gender relations and attitudes to women?

The vision of male-female relations that conscription engenders—that men’s role is to do important work for the nation, while women’s is to remain on the sidelines offering their support through youthful looks and sexual availability—is pervasive in Korean daily life.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes. Photo (modified) by Berwin Coroza on Unsplash.

Last week, came the monumental news that Korean men were going to be offered alternatives to mandatory military service. So, CNN reporter James Griffiths asked me for some input into the Korean military’s background, specifically conscription’s effects on Korean gender relations. Little of my email could make it to his final article though, so here’s my full response for some context and further reading:

1) How does the military conscription issue affect gender relations and attitudes to women?

It’s difficult to overemphasize the role of the military as a socialization agent. Consider their ages: most Korean men choose to do their military service after their first year of university, barely out of high school, and Korea’s education hell means most would have had very little time for dating previously. Ironically though, new recruits can face being ostracized if they don’t have sexual experience, so many Korean men’s first sexual experience is with a sex worker just before enlistment. Visiting sex workers during their service is also considered normal. This is not wrong, but it is combined with frequent sexualized K-pop girl-group performances on bases, their ubiquitous messages of support for the troops in the media, and their being prominently featured on the military intranet (there are even military K-pop charts). This vision of women and male-female relations that the combination engenders—that men’s role is to do important work for the nation, while women’s is to remain on the sidelines offering their support, especially through their youthful looks and sexual availability—is pervasive in Korean daily life.

Military Manpower Association (MMA) endorsement models Apink saying “Thank you for choosing to enter the military. You are Korea’s REAL men!” (MMA Facebook page).

That may sound like hyperbole, but it is telling that Korea is the only country in East Asia where it is customary to use superiority-based titles in place of names in the workplace, and that even the Samsung Economic Research Institute once said that mistreatment by superiors in Korean companies is so pervasive that “many workers…take it for granted that they have to tolerate anything in return for getting paid.” In other words, when hierarchical military culture has had such a profound effect on the Korean workplace, and indeed much else about Korean daily life, then it is not unreasonable to see its role in shaping Korean gender relations too.

2) As regards the anti-feminist backlash from men’s rights groups, how driven is this by perceived unfairness of military service?

It is overwhelmingly driven by this perceived unfairness. But the media has done much to fan the flames, especially by encouraging the scapegoating of young women by exaggerating their economic successes in relation to men, and by perpetuating many negative stereotypes of them. In particular, that of the kimchi-nyeo (kimchi bitch), which refers to an economically successful woman who exploits her female privilege in not having to do military service, but who still expects men to pay on dates, who (always successfully) cries sexism when a man is promoted over her, and so on. Korea’s grossly skewed sex ratio among 20-somethings has a huge role to play in this backlash too, consequence of Korea’s sex selective abortions in the 1990s.

That Korea has the highest gender gap in the OECD however, is conveniently ignored by men’s rights groups. One can argue that it exists simply because women lose experience and rank after taking time off to have children, which is indeed crucial in what are such hierarchical, seniority-based companies as explained. But the gap also very much exists because doing military service comes with a host of indirect benefits, including taking advantage of their old boys networks created during their service, and of the widespread attitudes that men are more deserving of jobs (explicitly enshrined in government policy during the 1997 and 2008 financial crises), and that women, if no longer youthful and and sexually-available, should again step aside and support men from the sidelines by quitting their jobs by staying home to raise the children.

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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.

Estimated reading time: 25 minutes. Image 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)