The Hidden Roots of Korea’s Gender Wars

Universal male conscription and rampant discrimination against working mothers will always grab headlines, but a recent ruling against segregated seating in study rooms is a stark reminder of the pervasive homosociality behind the friction

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels.

After university, Korean men and women have fewer friendships with each other than their counterparts in English-speaking countries do. At least, that’s my own personal experience, and I’d wager good money most of yours too.

Under-30s especially though, will make me want to hold on to my wallet. Koreans that age have known nothing but rapidly declining marriage and birth rates, a staggering rise in the number of single households, and ongoing economic precarity. In their wake, lifestyles and social norms that were centered around marriage and male breadwinner systems are undergoing a paradigm shift.

But change is never easy, nor universally welcomed. In particular, Korea’s ‘gender wars‘ are one troubling symptom of the transistion process. One of their main catalysts, misplaced anger over mandatory military service for men, will continue to buttress homosociality, by disrupting male university student’s relationships with female students who remain, as well as by subtly enabling male, age-based privilege when those men return, and by providing them with old-boy networks they will rely on for the rest of their lives. Not unrelated, long working hours for both sexes and a second shift of domestic and family responsibilities for women reinforce the notion of separate spheres.

17-Year-Old Tzuyu: “A Special Gift for Korean Men [who’ve completed military service].”

Yet these are only the broad swathes of the many roots of the phenomenon. Not so headline-grabbing, but no less impactful for all that, is that most Korean schools are single sex, with only a third of high schools in Seoul being coeducational for instance. Indeed, many schools prevent students from dating or even socializing with the opposite sex too.

A task in which they may have long been aided, it turns out, by a law requiring “study rooms” (독서실) to be segregated by sex, under the eye-rolling rationale that mixing them together is more likely to lead to sex crimes. (And a belief which is still taught in sex-education classes today.) As YTN just reported on Valentine’s Day however, this requirement has now been ruled unconstitutional:

I’ll translate the report in a moment below. But first, study rooms, for those unfamiliar, are like libraries where all the bookshelves have been replaced by rows of separate cubicles. Designed to be equally quiet, and with the sole purpose of studying, I’ve also been told by a friend that they were where teenagers especially “told their parents they were going when they were actually going on dates, since you were expected to be incommunicado while you’re there.” They’re also much cheaper and have been around much longer than “study cafes” (스터디카폐), which range much more widely in price and quality but in which you either have tables and desks to work at and/or can hire a separate room where noise is not a problem, and will likely have a range of snacks, coffees, and soft drinks available to purchase. For obvious reasons, both study rooms and cafes are primarily associated with school and university students, but they’re also commonly used by older adults, especially the half a million Koreans studying for civil service exams at any one time—which just goes to show how ubiquitous and common a part of daily life they are in Korea.

Unfortunately and finally, the report is frustratingly vague. Among the many obvious questions it doesn’t provide an answer to are: if the original law (or 1995 amendment?) covered all private educational intuitions, or if it only applied to study rooms and why; if it had been enforced at all before 2017 or if that was in fact the first and last time; why only 16 regional educational boards (out of how many?) incorporated it into their own ordinances; why the Jeonju Office of Education suddenly decided to enforce it; and so on. If any readers can help fill in any these blanks, I would be very grateful!

“This is a study café, which can easily be found in any neighborhood.”

주변에서 쉽게 볼 수 있는 스터디카페입니다.

남녀 자리를 구분하지 않고, 자유로운 착석이 가능합니다.

공공도서관, 공동주택 열람실도 마찬가지입니다.

하지만 독서실은 다릅니다.

남녀가 한 공간에 섞여서 앉아 있을 경우 행정처분을 받습니다.

This is a study café, which can easily be found in any neighborhood.

You’ll notice there is free seating, with no designated areas for men and women.

The same is true for public libraries and community reading rooms in apartment complexes.

But study rooms are different.

If men and women sit together in them, the owners will be subject to administrative sanctions and penalties.

“You’ll notice there is free seating, with no designated areas for men and women.”

근거는 지난 1995년에 개정된 학원법 시행령입니다.

성별에 따라 좌석을 구분해야 한다고 규정했고, 이 조항 등을 기초로 16개 시·도 교육청은 조례에 남녀 좌석구분을 못 박았습니다.

지난 2017년 12월 이 조례를 근거로 전주교육지원청은 한 독서실 업체에 열흘간 운영정지처분을 내렸습니다.

현장점검결과 열람실 내 성별 좌석 구분 배열이 준수돼 있지 않고, 한 공간에 남녀가 섞여 앉아 있었다는 겁니다.

이에 대해 독서실 측은 해당 조례가 직업수행의 자유를 침해하는 위헌적 규정이므로, 행정처분 역시 무효라고 주장하며 소송을 냈습니다.

This is due to the Education Academy Act, which was amended in 1995. [But the broadness of the Act is not given, nor why it was only being enforced in study rooms—James.]

It stipulates that seats should be divided according to sex. Based on this provision, 16 metropolitan and provincial offices of education have incorporated it into their own ordinances.

On this basis, in December 2017 the Jeonju Office of Education ordered a study room to suspend operation for ten days.

As a result of an on-site inspection, it had found that men and women were sitting together.

In response, the study room filed a lawsuit arguing that the sexual segregation requirement was invalid, as it infringed upon the constitutional right to freedom to practice one’s profession.

“[However], if men and women sit together in [study rooms], the owners will be subject to administrative sanctions and penalties.”

1심과 2심이 엇갈리는 치열한 법리 다툼 끝에 대법원은 독서실 혼석 금지 조례는 위헌이라고 결론지었습니다.

재판부는 헌법에서 보장하는 직업수행의 자유와 독서실 이용자의 행동 자유권을 지자체가 조례를 통해 과도하게 침범했다고 지적했습니다.

이어, 혼석을 금지해 성범죄를 예방한다는 입법 목적도 남녀가 한 공간에 있으면 성범죄 발생 가능성이 커진다는 불합리한 인식에 기초한 것이므로 정당성을 인정하기 어렵다고 설명했습니다.

대법원이 전북도 조례에 대해 위헌 결정을 내린 만큼 지난 2017년 먼저 관련 조례를 삭제한 충청남도를 제외한 나머지 15개 지자체는 조례개정이 불가피할 전망입니다.

YTN 김우준입니다.

After a fierce legal battle that went to a second trial, the Supreme Court agreed that the sexual segregation requirement was unconstitutional.

The Court pointed out that through the ordinance, the local governments excessively violated the freedom of occupation guaranteed by the Constitution and the freedom of action of users of the study room.

The Court further explained that the original purpose of the ordinance, to prevent sex crimes by reducing the opportunities for men and women to mix, was irrational and could not be used as justification to continue it.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling that ruled that sexual segregation was unconstitutional, the remaining 15 metropolitan and provincial offices of education that incorporated the provision will be forced to revise it. One of the original 16 offices, that of Chungcheongnam-do, already removed the relevant ordinance in 2017.

Kim Woo-jun from YTN reporting. (End.)

Update:

An excellent article by Choi Jae-hee from The Korea Herald entitled “From study cafes to ride-sharing, Koreans seem to prefer same-sex environments. Why?” helped fill in some of those blanks. Specifically (but I highly recommend reading it in full):

[The Supreme Court’s] judgement was in favor of a local operator of a private reading room facility who was slapped with a 10-day business suspension from a local educational authority for breaking a gender segregation rule set by the North Jeolla Province’s education office.

The rule in question is the article 3 of the “Ordinance on the Establishment and Operation of Private Educational Institutes,” which stipulates that seats in studying spaces at private educational facilities should be divided by gender. It was introduced in 2009 largely to deter sex crimes and ensure a better study environment, officials said.

Unlike study cafes, which are categorized as a space leasing businesses or a restaurant/rest area business, reading rooms are regarded as private academies and thus are subject to the ordinance.

Related Posts:

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

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:

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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)

Was 21 Year-old Jeon In-hwa *Forced* to Appear on TV in a Swimsuit?

The #MeToo era may be the first time that older models and actors have ever been able to open up about their own experiences. When they do, the media should listen.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Source: YouTube.

Sometimes you have to state the obvious to show just how absurd and unfair an everyday situation is.

One such is the constant stream of movie posters featuring women with no heads. So, comedian Marcia Belsky countered that with the ‘Headless Women Of Hollywood’ project, pointing out that heads are “first and foremost the thinking part of the human body, where our motivations and feelings are located.” It naturally follows that the headless images of women “we are bombarded with on a daily basis, tell us persistently that [their] thoughts, feelings and personal agency either don’t exist or are of no interest. Further, facial features are the way we recognize other people. It’s the face that makes us individuals. That too is taken away.”

Source: Extreme Movie (left, right).

Smiling faces then, and the consent implied within, seem obvious counters to charges of objectification. Again, it naturally follows that the world would be a better place if everyone bore that in mind in their production and consumption of popular culture.

Yet ultimately they can only be a guide too. And one which often falls under the weight of its numerous exceptions.

The MV for Spring Girls by Sunwoo Jung-a is replete with headless, ostensibly objectifying imagery. Yet it remains “both feminist and as sexy as hell.” Source: YouTube.

I’ve covered many of those exceptions elsewhere, as well as US philosopher and law and ethics professor Martha Nussbaum’s argument for necessary distinctions between ‘positive’ and ‘negative objectification.’ And yet another is the reality that actors’ and models’ smiles are often plastic, belying their unpleasant experiences with the photoshoots themselves.

No-one reading this would suppose otherwise. But again, it’s sometimes necessary to be reminded of the obvious. Because without the giveaway of the title, no-one would have ever suspected there’d been anything untoward about the following, utterly innocuous-looking commercial:

Featuring now well-known drama star Jeon In-hwa (54), it was her first for Julia Cosmetics’ ‘two-way cake,’ way back when she was 21. I only read about it at all, because first, a few days earlier I’d learned what happened to then 22 year-old Japanese actor and model Kiko Mizuhara in 2013:

Source: @UnseenJapanSite

And next, only because that prompted a double-take when I stumbled across the following segment of the January 20, 2020 episode of Naturally, in which Jeon In-hwa explains her own similar negative experience with that commercial, when she was about the same age:

Source: YouTube.

Specifically, from the 1:00 mark, Jeon In-hwa, Han Ji-hye, and So Yoo-jin begin talking about the former’s commercials in her youth:

And from 1:20, her issues with the one of her wearing a swimsuit (my emphases):

지난 20일 방송된 MBN ‘자연스럽게’에는 전인화가 출연해 처음이자 마지막 수영복 차림 광고에 대한 이야기를 언급했다.

…전인화는 “저 광고 때문에 울었다”며 “그 때는 절대 방송에서 파인 옷이나 수영복을 안 입으려고 했는데 현장에 가니 수영복이 준비돼 있었다”고 말했다. 이어 “너무 안 하고 싶어서 울었지만 결국 설득돼서 찍었다”고 덧붙였다.

On [yesterday’s] episode of Naturally, Jeon In-hwa’s ad was mentioned, her first and last appearance in a swimsuit.

…”I cried because of that commercial,” Jeon In-hwa said. “I had absolutely no intention of ever wearing revealing clothes or a swimsuit on TV then. But once we got to the shooting location, [I saw that] a swimsuit had been prepared [for me].” She added “I cried that I really didn’t want to do it, but in the end I was persuaded to, and the shooting went ahead.”

Jeong So-yeong, MoneyS, 21/01/2020.

All over in a few seconds, I admit I lay myself open to charges that I’m blowing things out of proportion. My title—maybe a little clickbaity. Jeon In-hwa doesn’t seem particularly wrought over the memory. She humorously—but explicitly—doesn’t want to talk about it (much) either. And the potential downer is quickly passed over by her costars.

“Persuasion” potentially covers a wide range of sins too, but doesn’t automatically mean “coercion.” What point then, is there in dwelling further on a young, inexperienced actor and model overcoming their nerves 34 years ago?

Alternatively, even if something more sinister did occur, there would be little possibility of legal recourse after all this time. Moreover, Korea has draconian libel and defamation laws, which are regularly used to silence sexual harassment and rape victims—and both Julia Cosmetics and Korea’s largest advertising agency Cheil Worldwide are very much still around.

I would tend to agree with letting it go then, if Jeon had gone on to do more commercials in swimsuits and/or revealing clothes. But she didn’t. For a young, attractive female model and actor destined to become a huge drama star, ultimately with 24 more years of endorsement deals ahead of her, that avoidance borders on remarkable.

Unless her first experience was genuinely traumatic?

Jeon In-hwa in 2016, reminiscing about being a reporter at 20 before she got her break as an actor and model. Source: Seoul Economic Daily.

The possibility means she at least deserves to be (gently) asked what happened in 1986 exactly. Yet not a single media outlet has followed up on her unburdening. Believe me, I’ve looked.

Yes, legal issues remain a concern. But if it’s not possible to talk about her experience in the #MeToo era, then when?

Without asking the questions, her costars, the producers of Naturally, and/or the media missed a golden opportunity. At the very least, for encouraging others to come forward, and for fostering a small moment of solidarity with different generations of victims.

Instead, their collective nonchalance perpetuates the absurdity and unfairness of another everyday occurrence. That crying your eyes out and then being forced to smile as you wear revealing clothes in front of strangers? It’s just what women have always needed to do, and always will need to do to secure that modelling gig, right? It’s certainly not something newsworthy.

I’m just saying I think maybe it should be.

What do you think?

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

Single Korean Women Already Have to Pay Extra to Stay Safe in Their Homes. They Don’t Need to be Infantilized in the Process.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Source: Remark Vill.

If I was advertising literally anything to university students, “Don’t Worry Mom!” would probably be the very last headline I’d use. But until recently, this ad for Remark Vill serviced apartments really did tower over the Pukyong and Kyungsung University district, a small but popular nightlife district in Busan.

Its paternalism rankled immediately. In particular, it had the exact opposite message to this campaign by the accomodation-finding app Zigbang, which trumpeted the independence and sexual freedom for women which comes with leaving home. And it just feels odd for any real estate service to target potential customers’ parents, rather than the customers themselves.

Upon further reflection however…it still rankled. Because as can be better seen in the full version, she’s also in one of the numerous, surprisingly awkward and uncomfortable poses almost only ever seen on women in ads. For sure, that’s hardly something to break the pitchforks out for in itself. Yet, as sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out in Gender Advertisements (1979), such nuances do subtly diminish the women involved. As whereas men’s usually more natural poses render them literally much more ready for action, and are thereby more authoritative looking, actor Im Se-mi above would have to uncross her legs in order to be able to do, well, anything. Or in Goffman’s own words about the similar ‘bashful knee bend,’ her pose “can be read as a foregoing of full effort to be prepared and on the ready in the current social situation, [as] the position adds a moment to any effort to flight or flee. Once again one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm.”

Pose like Lee Min-jung on the left, and it’s difficult even just to keep your balance. Stand more naturally like Gong Yoo instead, and you’re much quicker to spring into action.

But one should pause after somehow arriving at phrases like “flight or flee” after pondering a sweet, innocuous-looking ad. Also, Korean mothers (and fathers) have good reason to be concerned about their daughters’ safety when living alone. The 2016 Gangnam murder case, in which a 23 year-old woman was stabbed to death in a public toilet for simply being a woman, is still very fresh in people’s minds. Korea’s spycam epidemic continues unabated, which is a big concern for women when using motels and public toilets. In May 2019, a security video shows a woman literally only just avoiding a stalker forcing himself into her apartment as she closed the door behind her. Moreover, before the video went viral, he was originally only going to be charged with trespassing, characteristic of a justice system widely considered to be very dismissive of women’s sexual harassment and violence claims.

Source: @koryodynasty

Naturally, daughters themselves are worried about the safety of their accommodation too. According to a recent study by the Seoul Metropolitan Government that surveyed 3,000 single-person households, 11.2 percent of female respondents cited safety as the number one difficulty living alone, against 0.8 percent of men. Also, according to a research paper by Kang Ji-hyun, a professor of criminology at the University of Ulsan, young women living alone are more than 11 times more likely to suffer from home invasion than men. Consequently, according to D. M. Park at The Korea Bizwire, they “have to pay relatively high housing costs [compared to men] as they prefer houses in safe locations and with security facilities, as well as additional money for anti-crime goods.” This difference is ignored in Korean social welfare and housing policies, as is the reality that women also make less money than men to pay those extra costs. One woman interviewed for the article described it as yet another ‘pink tax’ for women, being an example of the extra money women sometimes have to pay for a swathe of services and consumer items that men don’t, including what they have to put into grooming for their jobs.

The Daeyeon Remark Vill apartments advertised are symbolic of this: while the buildings won a special prize for their security features upon completion in 2017, nowhere on the Remark Vill website are the rental prices of any of their apartments in Korea listed—suggesting that they’re very expensive indeed (and, despite the area, unlikely to be actually aimed at university students). Moreover, given the dire job circumstances of Koreans in the late-20s and early-30s at the moment, even 32 year-olds like Im Se-mi might require parental assistance to live there. Who could possibly gripe about an ad then, that appeals to both potential female tenants and their parents?

A couple of subway stops from the Daeyeon Remark Vill apartment buildings, an alleyway for “women to go home safely” that is “specially patrolled by police.” It’s the first I’ve ever encountered in Korea, but likely only because I have the male privilege of never needing to look for them. How common are they?

But I was reluctant to let this one go. I would have loved to have deferred to what Korean women thought of the ad, if only I could have found any opinions they’d offered. In their absence, I had to rely on my gut. And that told me that if something instantly rankles, there’s usually a good reason for it.

After all, recall how odd “Don’t Worry Mom!” sounded?

Just because daughters would share parents’ concerns about their safety, doesn’t necessarily mean the ad should be targeted towards the latter. Someone—a single copywriter perhaps, or maybe a whole creative team—made a conscious decision to do so. And, sure enough, even if this particular ad is relatively harmless, just a cursory investigation shows the campaign as a whole is rife with traditional gender stereotypes.

The smoking gun comes from the Remark Vill homepage itself. On it, there are four themed commercials available to watch. Two of them—about the gym facilities and various safety measures, conveniences, and business services available to tenants respectively—you don’t need my translations for. The “Mom’s Relief” one below however, is simultaneously sweet and cringey, for you sense that you would never have a 32 year-old man portrayed in the same manner. And under that, the “Teasing” one, which—spoilers!—suggests that the formerly virginal daughter is now free to invite male guests for casual sex.

Yes, really.

Unless you’re targeting parents like myself, who is very cool with that, it’s probably wise not to run a campaign tugging at parents’ heartstrings, only to present those parents who do visit your website with a reminder of how much wild sex your daughter will soon be having in your absence. Indeed, at your expense too.

Maybe, just maybe, the “Don’t Worry Mom!” campaign was ill-conceived in more ways than one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the “Mom’s Relief” commercial:

And my translation of the captions:

Mom, you’re bringing that up again?

I’m taking care of things myself now!

I can get lightbulbs changed if I need to, and the toilet unblocked too.

I don’t need to call Dad!

In fairness, of course there are many young people in any country who have to rely on others for simple household tasks; even back in 2009, when the single-household rate was much lower, there was already a plethora of such services available in Korea. My experience of the reporting on the trend, however, is that it tends to stress the alleged lack of adulting by female customers. And as for advertising, if the fact that a 32 year-old not knowing how to change a lightbulb or unblock a toilet doesn’t strike you as embarrassing enough—and who still doesn’t know after leaving home, the Remark Vill staff replacing the role of her long-suffering father—I invite you to consider how unlikely and unnatural-seeming it would be to have a male actor in Im Se-mi’s place.

The next screenshots reveal she gets her laundry and cleaning done by others too. Nothing wrong with that, and great if you can afford it, but—if she can’t even change a lightbulb, could she do those herself either? You really have to wonder.

(Ironically, earlier posts from the Remark Vill Facebook page actually include tips for such things as unblocking toilets by yourself—which just goes to show how much of a step backward this particular campaign is.)

There are copying and fax services available on the first floor.

I don’t need to go out at night.

If I want, there’s even cleaning or laundry services.

I can even borrow an umbrella when it’s raining.

Don’t worry!

But still, please come over often.

They don’t make kimchi for me here…

[You’ll come] Right?

I’ve got to admit, that’s pretty damn cute. Then I remember…

SHE’S THIRTY-TWO.

And on that note, on with the “Teasing” commercial:

And the captions:

It’s so good to be home!

What do you think? It’s good, right?

This is the first time I’ve had a man come over.

There is a state of the art security system in this building…

[…So] No unwanted visitors can come in [the building].

The building staff receive everything for me, like mail and deliveries.

If something dangerous happens…

A quick response from the security office is just a phone call away.

From the Remark Vill Facebook page, a highlight of that safe pick-up and delivery system (which can also be seen in the “Features and Services” video, as can real-time monitoring of one’s parking space):

Wireless delivery system. A smart delivery system makes this a very safe place to live alone.

Continuing:

There’s CCTV, and a tight security system overseeing everyone that enters the building.

[So] I don’t need a boyfriend!

Why are you looking like that?

You like me??

Wake up! I’ve never thought of you as more than a friend.

(No caption) Do you want to Netflix and Chill?

Technically, that the male viewer is the first to come to her apartment may only mean precisely that. But the hint of previous inexperience, combined with the desire suddenly awakened by his presence, sounds very familiar:

From Stephen Epstein’s and my chapter “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop” in the Korean Popular Culture Reader (2014), alas, K-pop ages very quickly. Most of the 100 songs we analyzed for it, the young women of 2020 would only have vague memories of hearing as girls.

Perhaps it’s time Remark Vill realized they’ve grown up now too?

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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)

Why Does Korea Have so Many of Those Damn Smutty Ads?

Government inaction on Korea’s ubiquitous, sexually-explicit internet advertising undermines claims that its citizens need protecting from pornography, and has helped shape the Korean #Metoo movement.

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes. Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels. One NSFW image later.

When even the ad industry itself is calling for greater government regulation of sexual imagery in ads, you know Korea’s got a problem.

The main issue is that there’s just no escaping them. In the most recent survey of 155 major web portals, social media services, and online news sites conducted by the Korea Internet Advertising Foundation (KIAF) in 2016, 94.5 percent of the middle and high school students surveyed were found to have been exposed to sexualized ads. Frustratingly, the 69-page report (PDF, Korean) doesn’t also mention what proportion those ads were of the total ads examined. But, maybe the authors simply felt that was unnecessary, as everyone already knows that their numbers are just insane:

See the thread for many more examples. Or like Raphael says, almost any Korean news website. Even alongside the cutesy, assumed safe webtoons my preteen daughters read too, I recently learned, sometimes there’s invitations to meet horny divorcees in our area.

But Korea’s smutty ads problem goes much deeper than just their scale, or their astonishing inappropriateness. For the KIAF surveyors also found that one in four of the offending ads promoted sex work, and/or even showed sex acts. Which is heinous not because either are unethical, but because such ads exist so openly in a society where sex work and pornography are both illegal, and which would never see the light of day if they were placed in traditional media.

Which begs the question: just how did Korea’s internet ad problem get so bad?

In the first instance, it’s simply down to advertisers’ algorithms, combined with the inattention and unconcern of site owners. This was ironically and hilariously revealed by the reporting of a similar survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) in June 2012, when many news sites displaying precisely the kinds of ads the Ministry was railing against alongside the articles about the survey. Even more spectacularly, a few weeks previously many news site editors curiously chose to pixelate the bikini tops and bras of women who had written political messages across their breasts (as in only their clothing, not the messages or exposed skin), while those in the accompanying ads were left untouched:Fast forward to April 2018, when representatives from major Korean shopping portal sites were queried by The PR News reporter An Seon-hye as to why their Facebook ads for products such as headphones and men’s shoes tended to show women with exposed cleavage and/or in their underwear first. They simply blamed the algorithms, implying that somehow those absolved their companies of any responsibility:

페이스북에서 남성 이용자들에게 노출된 쿠팡 광고 이미지 “Coupang advertisement aimed at male users of Facebook.” Image source: The PR News.
티몬(왼쪽) 및 gs샵이 sns에서 남성들에게 집행한 광고 이미지. “Images of Timon(L) and GS Shop advertisements aimed at men.” The woman on the right is Ai Shinozaki, a Japanese gravure model. Image source: The PR News.

…하지만 해당 업체들은 결코 고의성이 없다는 점을 강조했다. 티몬 관계자는 “저희 같은 경우 19금 용품 광고는 아예 노출이 안 되도록 막는 등 선정성 측면에서 신경을 쓰고 있다”며 “자동 로직으로 광고 집행이 이뤄지기에 임의로 자극적 이미지를 사용한 게 아니다”고 해명했다.

“…However, industry representatives stressed that, in the end, there is never any deliberate intention to use sexualized imagery. A representative from Timon said, ‘In our case, from the outset we do work to ensure that no adults-only products are selected to be advertised [on Facebook],’ and that ‘the provocative images that do appear are not random, but are chosen automatically by the algorithm.'”

기본적으로 특정 시간대에 특정 연령 타깃군이 어떤 상품을 많이 봤다는 데이터가 쌓이면 이를 해당 타깃에게 동일하게 추천하는 방식으로 로직이 짜여 있다는 설명이다. 이번 노출도 이같은 설정 때문에 벌어진 현상일 수는 있지만, 의도한 건 아니라는 설명이다.

“Basically, when collected data on a site suggests that a certain time is the most heavily frequented by a targeted demographic, the algorithm automatically recommends products that demographic is likely to be interested in. The same logic applies to the revealing images accompanying them, but has never been the deliberate intention [of our company.]”

쿠팡 관계자 역시 “쿠팡이 고의적으로 선정적인 광고를 남성에게 보이도록 조작하지는 않았다”며 “활용되는 이미지 역시 판매자가 올린 것을 활용한 것”이라고 밝혔다.

“A representative from Coupang also claimed that their company ‘did not deliberately manipulate ads to target men with sexualized imagery,’ explaining that ‘the images of products [available from our site] are simply taken from available sellers.’ (end)

By all means, gratuitous T&A does sometimes work, especially when those objects belong to popular K-pop girl-group members. Yet it infuriates me when some, more radical feminists—especially anti-pornography activists—start from the position that such narrow portrayals of women are an accurate reflection of most—or even a significant minority of—cishet men’s tastes; examples like these demonstrate just how disingenuous and utterly unfair that assumption is. It’s also very patronizing for companies to advertise this way, says Sejong University Professor Kim Ji-heon elsewhere in the above article, and has the potential to put men off offending brands. Accordingly, evidence of sexualization’s effectiveness on Korean consumers is mixed, one 2017 study by Yonsei University researchers (PDF, Korean) for example, discovering that young Korean men actually preferred cute to sexy female models in game advertisements (which may be problematic for other reasons, but that’s a story for another post). Also, lest we forget, not all consumers are young men, with another study from 2012 (PDF, Korean) by Sungkyunkwan University researchers demonstrating that despite soju companies specifically targeting female consumers at the time, somehow women just weren’t responding to the ensuing “sexy” advertisements.

I can’t imagine why:

Screenshots from this summer 2009 commercial for ‘Cool Soju 168’; the logic was that “168” referred to a low 16.8% alcohol content, which supposedly helped women maintain their figure vis-a-vis stronger brands. One NSFW image follows shortly.

Nevertheless, Coupang’s algorithms at least, have hardly been tweaked since The PR News report came out, as any male Facebook user in Korea can confirm. Take this advertisement I was blessed with on the subway a few weeks ago for instance:

Facebook has given me 24 hour bans for far less.

Of course, in reality, no algorithms are value-neutral, so can’t be used as an excuse. Yet, to reluctantly play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, perhaps one reason Korea’s algorithms have the settings they do is that advertisers generally lean more heavily on sex-sells tropes during recessions, and one indication of how bad Korea’s is at the moment would be its highest youth unemployment rate in two decades. Another explanation of why they tend to be sooo eye-catching is that Hangul, the writing system, lacks capitals. This, which has factored into Korean webdesign from the get-go, is why Korean websites tend to be so GIF-heavy and cluttered to Western eyes, but is familiar to and preferred by Koreans. (Japanese websites are very similar, due to similar issues with kanji and kana.) Ingrained media culture and consumer habits go some way toward explaining why Japanese and Korean advertisers over-rely on celebrities to get your attention too.

But all of these contributing factors are decades old. I first noted the alleged link to the economy ten years ago, and the numbers of smutty ads have only increased since. Korean websites have overwhelmed me with GIFs since I first started having to navigate them in internet cafes here nineteen years ago. And the over-reliance on celebrities dates back to the early-1980s, when fifteen seconds became the standard length for TV commercials.

If so many features of Korean advertising are products of ingrained culture and long-term habit then, surely this over-reliance on sexualization could be as well? So too, that it just so happens to be a very stereotypically male-gazey version of it at that?

Noteworthy in this regard is men’s domination of multiple sectors of the Korean media:

However, the Korean advertising industry is absent from that Twitter thread, and I’m personally unaware of its male-female make-up as I type this (sorry). So, let me defer to someone with inside experience: Seoul National University Associate Professor Olga Fedorenko, who conducted fieldwork in winter 2009-2010 at the agency responsible for the delightful Cool Soju 168 commercial from summer 2009 above. And in fact, in that agency at least, women made up roughly half of the employees. But it was indeed male-dominated, as no women there were above level five of the eight ranks within its internal hierarchy, “with truly managerial responsibilities [only] beginning at level six.” Also, the ensuing work-culture there could certainly be described as male-dominated too:

To assert that “sex sells”—the axiom that no one doubts in advertising and perhaps few do in society at large—was the usual way to deflect my criticisms of sexualized portrayals of women in much of Korean advertising, and women repeated that adage as eagerly as men.

Still, despite their professional embrace of the “sex code,” women showed a certain distance towards its centrality to advertising. They occasionally mocked male managers who favored sex-appeal strategies by default, “just because they like to look at pretty women,” as Chin’a put it, as she vented about wasting an afternoon the day before because her team’s Creative Director asked her to accompany him to help pick a female model for a commercial. “He said he wanted a woman’s opinion but in reality he just picked the model who he personally liked and who was flirty with him,” she said rolling her eyes in front of me and four other women as we were having lunch. Chin’a thought that the selected model was not the best choice, but the Creative Director never asked Chin’a’s opinion and even went as far as to re-schedule the shoot around the model, without consulting the convenience of other team members. Chin’a wished she had spent that afternoon working on their team’s other accounts.

Technically however, Fedorenko does not state if the same agency was responsible for the Cool soju commercial I criticized; I should have only said it “probably” was, because it was responsible for a new campaign for same product during Fedorenko’s time there a few months later. Ironically, a largely women-created and targeted, sexually-progressive, feminist, and therefore controversial one:

Which would seem to contradict the points made about work culture above. So too, that they’re from a snapshot of just one agency, and a decade old.

However, it’s also telling that there’s been almost nothing quite like that campaign in Korean advertising since, by any agency. Despite my fetish for Korean ads showing actual grown women with sexual desire and experience, I’m only aware of less than a handful produced in the last decade. Meanwhile, compared to men, women are almost 60 times more likely to be wearing revealing clothing in Korean TV commercials, a figure that is over twice as high and nearly ten times as high as their Japanese and Hong Kong counterparts respectively.

And yet, despite everything, I’m reluctant to attribute all that simply to the likely dominance of men in the industry.

Yes, we can all bet good money that the coders behind offensive internet algorithms are indeed sexist pricks. Or their bosses. Or at best, that they’re unoriginal and conservative.

But to claim that Korean ads are the way they are because men dominate the industry, is to make the assumption that most of the men within are also sexist pricks.

Hey, I’m not dismissing the possibility. In fact, I’d bet good money on that too. Given what we know about Korean ads, and that Korea has the biggest gender gap in the OECD, and comes 121st out of 193 countries in the ratio of female legislators to males, then there’s absolutely no reason to suppose that Korea’s toxic, patriarchal work culture hasn’t also infected the Korean ad industry.

But where does that accusation get us? If we want to persuade industry insiders to embrace change, what good would simply calling them sexist pricks actually achieve?

And cishet men’s sexuality, I can’t stress often enough, is so much richer and broader than its blokey, infantile stereotypes suggest. There are men of other sexualities in the ad industry too, not to mention (probably) equal numbers of women. I refuse to believe that all the admen, by definition among the most creative and artistic men in Korean society, all chose their careers based on no more than a shared dream of putting more boobs on phone screens, and that every man and woman who doesn’t share that grand vision is simply forced to acquiesce.

The issues raised in this post may even be well-recognized problems within the industry already too, but are intractable due to the influence of Korea’s patriarchal work culture as alluded to earlier, one big influence being the rigid hierarchy and visions of women and male-female relations learned before entering the industry from that vast socialization experience known as universal male conscription.

Or not: my apologies again, for lacking the money and time to translate dense Korean advertising tomes to find out. But either way, suggesting practical, actionable steps that the industry may already be receptive to does sound much more helpful than simply rolling our eyes at THE MENZ.

I think this is where we came in.

Recall that we started with the industry itself calling for more regulation. Specifically, the KIAF, responsible for the 2016 survey:

“Although there are guidelines for the level of sexuality permitted in online advertising, they lack effectiveness since they tend to be too generic and ambiguous,” said the KIAF official. “Regulations that manage such advertisements are scattered across government departments, and they need to be revamped.

A state of affairs which sounds suspiciously similar to the messy censorship of K-pop in the early-2010s:

The recent guidelines by the Fair Trade Commission are demonstrably inadequate, and laws are required instead. But considering that any limits on such a vague concept as sexualization are by definition arbitrary, then it is crucial that 1) the ensuing legislation process is transparent; 2) that implementation of the laws is consistent; and 3) that only one, preferably independent, organization has the power of censorship. Currently, that last is divided between a plethora of competing media and government organizations, and the ensuing unpredictable and often bizarre decisions ― including banning a music video for the singers driving without wearing seat belts, or allowing exposed navels on men but not on women ― have thoroughly undermined the credibility of attempts to curb the sexualization of teens in K-pop. A fresh start is urgently needed.

“Restrictions Imposed on 18+ Controversial ‘Wide Leg Spread Dance’”, April 2011. Source.

This segue into K-pop is no mere confirmation bias from a trusted source: for the body with the most responsibility for censoring K-pop then was MOGEF, which it did with a relish. As Lee Yoo-eun at Global Voices explained in 2014 (links added by me):

The censors of the ministry are notorious for accusing several thousand songs of being “hazardous” whenever they notice references to liquor, cigarettes or sex in the lyrics. Once a song is labeled as “inappropriate for youth under the age 19″ it can only be broadcast after 10:00 PM, and children are forbidden from buying it as well as from listening on the internet. Many young people get around this by using the IDs of their parents to login to Korean portal websites or watch on YouTube.

Music industry people…say it is troubling that the censorship is applied only to some randomly selected albums after they have hit the market, and not universally to every album. Many people see this as part of a new reality where the South Korean government is tightening control over citizens and free speech.

And this zealousness was in stark contrast to the complete inaction by MOGEF over smutty advertisements, despite raising the alarm in 2012 about their surging numbers as discussed. Indeed, it wanted the industry to do its own work for it instead:

여성가족부는 작년과 비교해 유해 광고는 늘었지만 법 위반 언론사들이 대폭 감소한 것을 감안해, 언론사에는 우선 자율 규제를 촉구하겠다는 입장이다. 청소년매체환경과 관계자는 “작년에 34개 언론사가 법을 위반했는데 올해에는 다 시정됐다”며 “언론사들을 직접 규제하기 보다는 인터넷신문협회 등에 자율규제기구인 인터넷신문광고심의위원회의 설치를 촉구하겠다”고 밝혔다.

“Although MOGEF points out that the numbers of harmful advertisements have increased since last year, the fact that there are actually less media companies breaking the law also needs to be taken into consideration, so first MOGEF is going ask media companies to regulate themselves. The official in the Division of Youth Media Environment continued: ‘The 34 media companies that broke the the Information and Communications Network Law last year have all since rectified their mistakes,’ and so ‘a self-regulatory system is preferable to direct regulation, and we demand that the Korean Internet Newspaper Association and so on establish an internet newspaper advertisement consideration committee.'” (end)

Further inaction still is evident from how, in the 2010-2016 period, MOGEF’s Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education (KIGEPE) was given the task of monitoring mass media for cases of sexual discrimination, sexual prejudice, and sexual insults, but was given extremely limited resources to do so, and didn’t even cover the internet; ultimately only four cases were ever acted upon in those entire seven years. A subsequent study in 2016 found an undisclosed number of issues, of which the KIGEPE said “the results from their monitoring [had] resulted in 19 cases of corrective action [as of March 2017], insisting more education and appropriate measures need to be provided for TV show makers to achieve gender equality in the TV industry.” (More recently, this January the Korea Communications Standards Commission {KOSC} noted problems remained in variety shows specifically, without suggesting any measures to combat them.)

Yet that’s just MOGEF, which—without absolving it for its inaction—admittedly had very low resources and was in a precarious political position under previous conservative governments. If we look at the Korean media and its various overseers as a whole however, inaction over misogyny and problematic content is endemic, Korean dramas in particular being notorious for depicting dating violence as romance, but which the KOSC has washed their hands of. And don’t get me started on the media’s constant framing of the sexualization of minors in K-pop as good, clean, harmless family fun.

Source: Netizenbuzz.

In that wider context, inaction on smutty ads emerges as less the exception than the rule in the Korean media, and underpins a pervasive culture of indifference and desensitization towards degrading images and videos of (overwhemingly) women. That culture is evident in the decade-long foot-dragging in the shutting-down of Soranet, a hugely popular pornography site notorious for the sharing of hidden camera videos, as well as in the Korean #MeToo movement’s unique emphasis on punishing the purveyors of such videos, a central component in the current Burning Sun scandal. I can’t help but ultimately see links to the culture of indifference and desensitization towards sexual abuse by teachers in Korean schools too, with over 40 percent of perpetrators in the January 2013 to September 2018 period still teaching, and again only, finally, being aggressively challenged due to the Korean #MeToo movement.

Nextshark: “The School of Performing Arts Seoul, the alma mater of numerous well-known K-drama and K-pop stars, is facing co‌ntrov‌ers‌y after its former students a‌‌c‌‌cu‌‌s‌e‌‌‌d the school of c‌o‌rrup‌tio‌n and se‌x‌u‌al ‌ex‌‌pl‌oita‌‌tion of minors [through a music video].”

But perhaps it’s a too much of leap from boobs on my smartphone to tolerating “asking students for ‘sexiness’ and ‘inappropriate touches’ during school performances”?

Or not. Either way, if the government started to enforce the same standards for internet ads as it does for all other forms of pop culture, that would surely be the perfect way to find out.

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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)

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