“An epic battle between feminism and deep-seated misogyny is under way in South Korea”

(Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 10)
panorama-stad-amsterdam-1935-verhaal-ill-trampassagiers(Source: janwillemsen; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Back in August, I was interviewed by reporter Isabella Steger for her article “An epic battle between feminism and deep-seated misogyny is under way in South Korea”, which came out at Quartz today. It’s a good introduction to current trends and conditions, as well as being a great read. So for this post, let me just add a few links and extra context to those segments attributed to me. Starting with:

In the late 1990s, the Asian financial crisis upended the stability of the Korean “salaryman.” Many men who lost their jobs started to compete with women for work. “A lot of the negative stereotypes about women, a lot of very gendered labels, started appearing in the early 2000s,” says James Turnbull, a long-time resident in the southern city of Busan who writes about feminism.

To be more precise, a large cohort of men lost their regular, full-time jobs between 2002-2004, and started having to compete for irregular work with women, who’d already lost their own regular, full-time jobs five years earlier in the wake of the Asian financial crisis (under the rationale that they would be provided for by their husbands or fathers). Then another point of friction came in 2013, when the percentage of women in their 20s that were working began to slightly surpass that of men.

Tellingly, the media portrayed achieving equality with men as a “tornado” of female power.

For the exact statistics, and my analysis of their implications, see part 6 of this series in the links below. As for those negative labels and gendered stereotypes, see Parts 3 and 4, or Part 7 for a summary.


While overall crime and homicide rates in Korea remain very low, more women in Korea are murdered than men, which is unusual in a developed country, says Turnbull. The United Nations singles out Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea as places with some of the lowest homicide rates in the world but where the share of male and female victims is near parity, with intimate partner violence also an acute problem in Japan (pdf, p.54-56).

In addition to the extra information on that provided in Isabella’s article, see this Facebook post by a friend of mine (which he generously made public) for a breakdown and analyses of the statistics involved, which was originally prompted by the blog post “Women Are More Likely To Be Murdered In South Korea Than The U.S.” by Matt Pressberg.

Reporter John Power also provides some things to think about:


While women have gained some power and independence in Korea, a preference for male children in the 1970s and 1980s has resulted in an excess of men–and the disparity in numbers contributes to tensions. In 1990, thanks to the availability of selective abortion, Korea’s sex ratio at birth was 116.5, meaning 116.5 boys were born per 100 girls, a ratio that since has evened out (paywall). Many of those 1990 male babies are now grown men unable to find girlfriends and wives, says Turnbull. At the same time, more Korean women are choosing not to marry at all.

Again, see Part 6 for more detailed information on those statistics and their implications (also see the tweet below, which graphically shows the number of excess men by age group.) By a huge coincidence, the Korean media would only finally begin reporting on the potential consequences of this imbalance in April this year, just a month before the murder in Gangnam.


To Understand Modern Korean Misogyny, Look to the Modern Girls of the 1930s

(Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 9)
1930s Korean New Girl Modern Girl Stereotypes Criticism(Source, edited: 살구나무 아랫집)

Wasting money on frivolous Western things, gaining financial independence, following their hearts instead of the wishes of their families, and not making enough babies.

All these criticisms of Korean “modern girls” in the 1930s sound eerily like those of “beanpaste girls” today. In so doing, they have much to teach us about the origins of modern Korean misogyny, and why their stories resonate so deeply with its victims over 80 years later.

Take 강심바 for instance, who begins describing the caricatures above as:

“Fucking asshole men’s traditional misogyny. A cartoon from The Chosun Ilbo in the 1930s…”

And then:

“Even back then, stereotypes like the ones in this cartoon were controversial. Wow, there were even labels like today’s “beanpaste girl.” It was prophetic.”

But what does it say exactly? Not recognizing some of the hanja characters, I consulted 예쁜 여자 만들기 (Making Pretty Women) by Lee Yeong-ah (2011). From left to right, the legs read:

Ahn Seok-yeong “If the Age of Woman Comes (2)”, The Chosun Ilbo, January 12, 1930.

1) Any guy is okay for me if he buys me a piano.

2) Any guy is okay for me if he builds me a house. Even a 70-year old.

3) I’m still single.

4) I want to marry a man who has been overseas to study.

5) I love chocolate. Only that one box.

6) I didn’t pay my rent. Please help me.

7) I am a virgin. [But] I like anyone who has lots of money.

8) I am hysterical. You have to understand this.

(p. 242)

Naturally, Lee finds the criticisms unfair, arguing that the cartoon says just as much about the cartoonist and the men who laugh at it as it does about the women so caricatured:

안석영의 이 만문만화는 “물질을 매개로 한 자유연애와 자유결혼의 속내를 ‘선전propaganda’이라는 상상의 장치를 통해 드러낸 작품이다. 만화 속 여성들은 자신의 몸을 내걸고 남성들에게 돈, 선물, 집, 사치품 등을 요구한다. 안석영은 이 만문만화에서 아마도 당시의 상품화한 연애와 결혼을 돈만 밝히는 허영심 강한 여성들의 책임으로 돌리고자 한 듯하다. 그러나 남성들은 어떤가? 위의 그림에서 여성은 다리만으로 표현되어 있다. 프레임 안은 남성들의 시선이 머문 지점이다. 즉 남성들은 여성들의 영혼이나 지성이 아니라 몸과 다리만을 보고 있었던 것이다. 그런 점에서 남성들 역시 왜곡된 연애나 결혼에서 ‘결백’을 주장하기 어려울 듯하다.

(p. 243)

In this cartoon, Ahn Seok-yeong uses an imaginary device called “propaganda” to criticize modern girls by showing their real, very materialistic feelings and motivations behind their embrace of free love and free marriage. The women in this cartoon are asking for money, gifts, presents, luxury items, and so on by using their bodies. It seems that Ahn criticizes the women for being greedy, blaming them for self-objectifying themselves for love and marriage. But what about the men? In the cartoon, the women are faceless. It only shows their legs, as the objects of the male gaze. In other words, men are only looking at women’s bodies, and are unconcerned with their personality and intelligence. In that regard, surely men are equally culpable for a distorted, perverted view of love and marriage?

Lee goes onto describe that, spearheaded by modern girls, the 1920s and 1930s were very much the period when Korea’s modern notions of free love, sexuality, and marriage were first formulated. (As well as the tendencies to judge women in terms of their appearance, and men in terms in their earning power.) Much closer to American flappers than their relatively conservative, usually less financially-independent Japanese counterparts, such notions were especially radical in Korea, where arranged marriages were the norm—and, alas, continued to be for many decades thereafter.

But Lee writes in Korean. For an excellent English source on that instead, see “Sensational Politics of Desire and Trivial Pursuits: Public Censure of New Women in Private Lives in early 1930s Korea“ by Park Bongsoo, who explains:

In the early 20th century, “love” and “love marriage” were new concepts in Korea. When arranged marriage—determined by one’s inherited class and financial status—was the only legitimate way to form a heterosexual union, women’s sexuality were confined in heterosexual relationships for procreation only, and love had no place in it. People of a lower class, who usually freely mingled with each other more than those in the upper class freely mingled with each other, no doubt fell in love and got married; however, middle and upper-class women had no right to assert their will in a matrimonial process. Therefore, the goal of new women’s contestation was not only to change the customary practice of marriage but also to bring a fundamental shift in people’s way of thinking about heterosexual unions. The women of the 1920s sought to overcome the prescriptive definition of women’s sexuality through writing publicly about their personal lives. Without a doubt, their demands were heavily criticized as immoral by elite male. Even today’s scholars criticize their demands as “too individualistic and extreme” and their approach to women’s liberation as “bourgeois feminism” that were said to turn blind eyes to class oppression operating within a gender structure.

(p. 2)

What fascinate though, are the uncanny parallels between the subsequent backlash and modern misogyny. For more on those specifically, see “How Women Are Represented within the Patriarchal Nationalism in (neo) Colonial Times” by Yewon Lee, who describes how critiques of modern girls first arose as a result of the increasing militarization of Korea’s Japanese colonizer:

Western thoughts such as the concept of natural rights of the individual and equality among man and woman were denied in the ’30s, and the so called “Old women” that stands in the opposite of the “New women” [신여성] that used to be criticized as old fashion, submissive, and dependent were reevaluated as those who retain the virtue of the past tradition. On the other hand, the “modern girls” who voiced their subjectivity on issues such as sexuality were blamed to be ‘selfish’ and ‘morally  corrupted.’ This is not irrelevant with the fact that the Japanese colony was conducting a war that goes beyond their capacity and needed all the resources it can pull, thus, needed the women to become the ‘strong  mothers’ to give birth and raise the ‘strong soldiers’ and be ideologically loyal enough to send their son’s willingly to war. This is the well known explanation of why the discourse of “New women” suddenly shifted to a conservative one in the 1930’s.

(pp. 9-10)

In particular, she argues that Korean men made them the scapegoats for forces over which neither sex had any control:

…not only did the discourse change due to the need of the Japanese colonialism but also it reflects the frustration of the colonized. Many of the Korean men were forced to join the army against their will. There was not much they can do when their mothers, sisters, wives, and lovers were harassed and mobilized as comfort women during the war. The sense of helplessness and powerless the colonized men had to put up with as the rule of the colonization harshens, made them in needs of a object, the women of the nation, to be kept under their control and for times to take out their anger. Thus, the women were safe from reproach as long as they were labeled as the ‘mother’ that gives birth and raise the child of the nation; however, once they insist on their rights as a woman they become an object of criticism. Thus discussions about women’s subjectivity on sexuality and gender equality almost disappear in the public scene by this time.

(pp. 10-11.)

And with that criticism, came a host of body and/or lifestyle labels and ideals for women to aspire to, and/or stereotypes to be criticized for. For an instance of the latter, take the “stick girl” at the top left of the left image below, so-called because her much older partner uses her body as a walking cane. Whether she’s with him for love or money, I imagine that the cartoonist’s real issue is less with the age disparity than with the woman’s brazen freedom and sexual agency. Because would he have criticized a similar marital union arranged between two families of the same class, with the woman getting pregnant shortly thereafter?

Korean and Japanese Modern Girls(Left: “The various types of ‘girls’ in the 1920s to 1930s”; scan, 예쁜 여자 만들기, p. 245. Right: Actor Hideko Takamine, Japanese White Powder Foundation advertisement, 1930s; via The Flapper Girl.)

Either way, the parallels continue, for this label-making has been a strong trend in the last decade too. Also, whereas those feelings of helplessness and powerless are now because of “Hell Joseon” rather than colonial rule, nevertheless they still get channeled by the media into anger against young women, supposedly for taking over “men’s jobs” while the men suffer their mandatory military service. Writing in 2007 though, well before some important developments in Korea’s demographics (an excess of teenage boys turning into men) and labor market (more young women doing irregular and part-time work), instead Yewon Lee stresses the strong anti-American components to the misogyny she witnessed. Her paper is worth reading for that alone, and I’d be very interested in hearing readers’ opinions on how important that component remains nearly ten years later.

So, I encourage readers to check out both papers (actually conference presentations), which deserve to be much better known. Unfortunately PDFS are no longer available online, so please contact me if you’d like me to email them.

What are you waiting for? ;)

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

Update: A must read is “Sweet Dream” at Gusts of Popular Feeling, about the strong critique of modern girls in the form of—sigh—Korea’s oldest surviving movie.

Chinese Eunuchs Confuse Me

What role do Neo-Confucian notions of the “life force” (ki) play in buttressing modern Korean patriarchy?

Warm Nest(Warm Nest by Eugenia LoliCC BY-NC 2.0)

Many years ago,Taeyeon Kim’s “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” was my Communist Manifesto of Korean gender relations. It was short, to the point, and instantly melded everything I knew about the subject into a simple, coherent narrative. It didn’t galvanize me into taking up arms against the bourgeoisie exactly, but it did encourage me to study more, ultimately leading to this blog. Take these quick excerpts to see why:

First, from page 99 (references removed; italics in original):

“To understand the Neo-Confucian body, it is essential to understand the concept of ki. A material force which links the body and mind into one system, ki flows through all things, giving them form and vitality….There is no distinction between the self and the universe. Neo-Confucian men were encouraged to let go of ego and become selfless, that is to have no consciousness of an individual and separate self apart from others….Ki was passed from parent to child throughout the generations, acting as a material link between ancestors and descendants….The family composed a unified body through ki, and the identity of the family and self and family was continuous and undifferentiated.”

Then, from page 100 (ditto):

Neo-Confucian scholars considered women to have inferior ki to that of men. This notion continues to be held today. One study of a village in Korea found that women were believed to be inferior to men because they did not carry the life-giving force (ki) that men did. Women were believed to be passive receptacles of the life which men implanted in them; they played no active part in creating life. Such incubation was perhaps the most important role of a woman’s body in Korea. Her body was a vessel through which the male line and ki could be perpetuated. As such, the most important physical traits for a woman were features that revealed her potential to bear children—particularly boys. “During the Yi [Choson] Dynasty, the attribute valued above all others in a prospective bride was her potential capacity to bear sons. Compared to this, her beauty and wealth were secondary.”

Upon reading that, suddenly I saw a Matrix-like ki (기) pervading everything, providing the ideological bedrock to the many, blatantly patriarchal aspects of Korean society. For instance: Koreans’ preference for sons and consequent sex ratio problem (resolved, but with a legacy of an excess of increasingly misogynistic 20-something men); the hoju system (호주제), only abolished in 2008, under which only fathers or husbands could be heads and/or legal representatives of a family; the traditional (and still prevailing) custom of only having men perform jesa (제사), or ancestor worship rights, and usually only at the eldest son’s home; and Korea’s extremely low adoption rates, with 70% of those that are adopted domestically are girls. Indeed, as The Economist explains of that last:

Traditional Confucian notions of the bloodline family still hold sway, as do aspects of primogeniture. Women who cannot bear children face strong social stigma, as do orphans and adoptees, whose chances of getting a job and marrying are limited. Many adoptions in South Korea are concealed from family and friends—and, in many cases, the adopted child. Parents ensure that the baby’s blood type matches their own; some mothers even fake pregnancy. All this sends the message that adoption is shameful, in turn discouraging more of it. The secrecy also explains why 95% of infants adopted within South Korea are less than one-month old: young enough to be passed off as biological children. A majority of adopted babies are girls so as to avoid difficulties over inheritance and at ancestral family rites, which are normally carried out by bloodline sons.

Korean Domestic Adoptions 70% girls(Source: Netizenbuzz)

Of course, ultimately I did realize that ki didn’t explain all that much actually. That, alas, Korean gender relations remained a messy subject, and that I still have a lifetime of learning about it ahead of me. But I hadn’t come across anything to challenge Taeyeon Kim’s characterization of the concept either, so I retained my lingering affection for it.

Then I listened to an episode about eunuchs on the BBC Radio 4 podcast In Our Time, hosted by Melvyn Bragg. That week, it featured Michael Hoeckelmann talking about eunuchs in China, Karen Radner about them in the Assyrian Empire, and Shaun Tougher in the Roman one. Jumping ahead to the sections which made do a double-take (several, in fact, as I’m sure they will to you too):


Michael Hoeckelmann) Most eunuchs came from the lower strata of society. So, if not the eunuch himself had decided to undergo castration—there are some cases in Chinese history where some eunuchs are known to have castrated themselves—then the decision rested with the family. So families that could not afford the Confucian education that was necessary and required for [a career in officialdom], they would decide to have one of their sons castrated, and to send him into the palace, in the hope that once he rose to a considerable position of power he would help his own family, his own kin.


Karen Radner) [The eunuchs, unlike] all the other people in Assyria, did not identify themselves with reference to their father’s name. Everyone else was such and such son of such and such, they were not. That’s very important. Also, as we’ve already discussed, a key attraction [for the royal family] is that they cannot father children; that’s hugely important in a society where the existence of the family across generations is one of the key incentives of human life…you achieved eternal life by having children who would invoke your name in regular rituals. Obviously that couldn’t happen with a eunuch…the royal family instead took on that responsibility. One can describe the eunuchs almost as adopted children of the royal family.

Melvyn Bragg)But then what happened in China, as you began to say Michael, the eunuchs began to adopt children in order that these children would do exactly as Karen was saying—have prayers or whatever…ceremonies after their death to keep them alive as their ancestors.

Michael Hoeckelmann) Yes, indeed. And just as Karen was saying, like in ancient Assyria, kinship and family was all important in China…and when eunuchs were castrated they even kept what was formerly attached to their bodies in order to be buried with them (the so-called “Three Treasures”) kept in a jar because they had to show them to regulators at the imperial court. Anyway, so the eunuchs start to adopt children at a very early stage in order to bequeath their property and in order to continue the family line. Because what they had done, or what had been done to them—the castration—was actually a breach of filial piety; they were not able to continue the family line…at least not biologically.

I know what you’re thinking: Ancient China is not Korea. Also, if Taeyeon Kim’s definition of ki has substance to it (and, my youthful naivety aside, there’s still no reason to suppose otherwise), then it’s difficult to believe that it hasn’t very much provided an ideological buttress to various aspects of Korean patriarchy today. And probably in China also, where, among other things, boys command a price twice that of girls in the lucrative trade in kidnapped children.

But, if it turns out that in Korea too, jesa was and/or is more important than continuing ki—indeed, really quite separate and distinct from it—then I’m still left feeling a little chastised that I came to accept something so readily without examining it properly, simply because it provided a handy, scholarly confirmation of my pre-existing views.

But what you’ve also probably thinking is that Taeyeon Kim is just one source. And, although I’ve read more about Neo-Confucianism since then, most recently The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender edited by Li Chenyang (2000), I have to admit I’ve read nothing about ki specifically. So, on that note, let me end this post with not a revelation sorry, but a), if nothing else, a link to a very interesting podcast for you to take away from it; and b), my again posing the question provided in the introduction: what role, if any, do Neo-Confucian notions of ki play in modern Korean patriarchy?

Thanks in advance to any more learned readers than I who can provide any clarification, and/or suggest links or books for further reading. Also, please feel free to raise just about anything (Neo)-Confucianism-related in the comments, including any interesting stories about what your Korean family and/or friends do during Chuseok or Seolnal, and their attitudes towards the notion of women performing jesa. Thanks!

Related Posts:

Brains & Beauty: With Korean women achieving higher education, why do so many rely on the scalpel?

Hanbok Fashion Show(Source: Republic of Korea; CC BY-SA 2.0)

“I believe in equality and love the Free the Nipple movement. After four years in Korea, I am still intrigued by its thirst for modernity mixed with its fear of losing its cultural past, sometimes to the point of schizophrenia.”

And with that self-introduction, how could I not accept Manouchka Elefant’s proposed guest post?

As well as being a long-time reader, she’s also a Swiss recipient of the NIIED scholarship, and has just completed her Master’s in finance at Yonsei University (see here for her LinkedIn bio). She adds:

“Anyways, a few friends read my paper [for my Modern Korean Society & Culture class] and found it very interesting and suggested I publish it. Since your blog is my reference on the subject I thought I’d send it to you.”

Flattery will get readers everywhere. So, without any further ado, let me present her post:


Women in Korea have come a long way since the beginning of the century. They have more freedom, greater access to education, and higher spending power thanks to their increasing participation in the workforce. This emancipation of women has been accompanied by a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon: the explosion of the beauty industry and in particular the normalization of plastic surgery procedures. Per capita, South Korea is the number one country for non-invasive and invasive plastic surgery performed and counts the highest number of plastic surgeons (Raitt 2014). The peninsula’s history and Confucian heritage has a tremendous impact on women’s growth in society as well as on contemporary beauty ideals. Today cosmetic surgery can be seen as the two sides of a same coin, it is both an appropriation of one’s body and conformation to society’s expectations of women in Korea.

Historical heritage

Analyzing womanhood in Korea requires us to understand the country’s Confucian heritage and its revolutions. Typically, the contemporary obsession for beauty in Korea is seen as “conformity to patriarchal version of femininity in order to maximize women’s chances of success in marriage and the economy” (Ruth Holliday 2012). However, in a relatively short period, the Confucian ideal has gone through a lot of transformations, notably in the 1930’s and after the Japanese occupation.

Confucian Ideal

Confucian scholars would be quite surprised to see that Korean people no longer appreciate women with beautiful moon faces. In their time, “virtuous femininity” meant that upper class women conformed to an exacting Confucian decorum (Ruth Holliday 2012). Whether a wife, mother, or daughter, a woman’s self was fully dependent on that of men. They were restricted to the domestic sphere, and their success was in their “ability to mimic a concealed and deferential ideal, defined by virginity or maternity” (Ruth Holliday 2012).  Chastity and modesty were highly valued and expected of women from a young age (Lee 2014). To some extent, Korean women are still expected to portray an image of innocence and modesty no matter their age.

Also inherited from the Choson dynasty is the concept of embodying one’s social class through one’s appearance, with the “practice of displaying social status through class-appropriate clothing and decorum, and the ways in which they are interpolated in neoliberal discourses of self-improvement and class mobility are evident in the ways in which cosmopolitan subjectivity is embodied through cosmetic surgery as a sign of a desired class, social or gendered identity” (Elfving-Hwang 2013), leading to one of the theories behind cosmetic surgery as a way to achieve social class identity, which seems to be only part of the phenomenon.

Modern Girl

The 1920-1930’s with its fun flapper girls in the West, dancing to jazz and smoking were in stark contrasts to the Confucian doctrine, yet this new “modern girl” had a strong impact on Korean women and their an seok-ju modern womanaspiration to emancipate themselves from constraining paternalism (appendix 1, source: Gusts of Popular Feeling; rather than in the original separate appendix, I’ve posted images and tables as they came up—James). The modern girl’s short hair was in direct clash with Confucian values and was seen by many as a sexual revolution (Chung 2012). However, the modern girl was associated to decadence, bourgeoisie, and conspicuous consumption.  “A woman drawing attention to her own sexuality – body and desire- was frowned upon in traditional Korea” and the modern girl came to symbolize more than women’s freedom, but also the “fracturing of class [poor versus bourgeois] and citizenship [Korean versus Japanese]” (Chung 2012).

Furthermore, the modern girl was not a mere imitation of Japanese or American influences, it went deeper than hair and clothes, “it mirrored the changing social consciousness, the collective identity of traditional womanhood as an aspect of modernity and modern conditions in colonial Korea” (Chung 2012).

Additionally, the modern girl “challenged the traditional gender roles and centuries of Confucian morality by accumulating products that enhanced female beauty and sexuality” (Chung 2012), which also meant that one was able to alter their appearance and other’s perception of them through consumption. We can wonder if it was a precursor to contemporary Korea’s constant availability of cosmetics and clothing shops.

However, in the context of occupied Korea, the modern girl was highly criticized for being influenced by the Japanese media and to some extent for supporting the colonial agenda. It was seen as another way in which Japan attempted to impose itself as a modernizer over Korea and that “the modern girl phenomenon evolved in the framework of this cultural and economic subordination of the era, which led to its conflicting popular reception” (Chung 2012). Paradoxically, people were attracted to this new image of femininity, spurring their “voyeuristic participation in mass culture, titillating the public while inviting condemnation at the same time” (Chung 2012). It can be similarly observed with today’s pop-culture idols, with the public simultaneously attracted by these sophisticated girl bands while criticizing their over-sexualized image.

Wise Mother Good Wife

At the other end of the spectrum is the ideal of wise mother good wife and although it also served to empower women, its motivations were quite distinct from the modern girl. This concept was at the complicated “intersections of patriarchy, colonialism, nationalism, and western modernity” under which women followed, fought back, or appropriated the predominant male dominated world (Choi 2009).

The wise mother good wife ideology was used by different groups, each with its agenda. Korean nationalists reinforced the role of mothers as educators of Korean children and as supporters for their husbands. Japan’s gender program used it both at home and in colonial Korea “with the aim of producing obedient imperial subjects and an efficient, submissive workforce” (Choi 2009), while protestant missionaries saw it as a way to spread their faith with a “pious mother and wife as a moral guide in the Christian family” (Choi 2009). All of this contributed to the education of women in Korea.

This ideology was deeply rooted in a patrilineal social structure, promoting chastity, marriage and motherhood. It was in direct clash with the modern girl, which was highly criticized for her vanity, her consumption, and her relatively open sexuality. Nevertheless, wise mother good wife also served as a platform to empower women, even if within a restricted domain. The women who “benefited from this education centered in domesticity paved the way to new domains for career women” (Choi 2009). Women were however, not educated for their own benefit and advancement as individual beings, but rather for what they brought to men and society, therefore not for their emancipation. Nonetheless, it set the path towards higher education and more freedom for Korean women.

Women’s Growth in Korean Society

Women’s Education

As we saw, there were several different movements promoting women’s education in Korea, from the protestant missionaries to the Japanese regime. However, some Confucian scholars, influenced by the West, also associated the advancement of women as a sign of a modernized society. They thought that “woman is the foundation of human society and the girder of the house and thus if she is weak or ignorant, she would not be able to fulfill her central role” (Choi 2009).

With Korea’s independence and its efforts towards development, education became widely available to both genders. Educating women therefore was modernizing Korean society, as well as increasing the Higher Education trend for men and women in Koreaworkforces’ overall education level to achieve economic development. In 1966, only 33% of girls went from elementary school to middle school. Similarly, 20% continued to high school and 4% to university. However, by 1998, 61.6% went from middle school to high school and 61.6% to university (Korean Overseas Information Service n.d.). By 2006, the number of women reaching higher education was as high as that of men, with 81.1% and 82.9% respectively entering college and university (table 1)  (Ou-Byung Chae 2008).

This remarkable progress in the number of women achieving higher education also came with its own challenges. Although women achieve higher education there is still a strong gender bias both in the educational curriculum, in the family sphere, and in the workplace.

Women’s Employment

Today, Korea is known for its high educational standards but also for the high inequalities between men and women in the workplace. Last years’ World Economic Forum ranked Korea 111th out of 136 nations in its Global Gender Gap report. While in 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) pay gap report placed Korea in the top of the list with a 39% differences between men and women’s pay (McKay 2014).

Although women have made a lot of progress in Korea’s work environment, according to Statistics Korea’s latest figures, they still only participate for about 50% in the workforce, whereas men reach over 73% participation. Furthermore, the market research firm CEOScore found that in 2013 about 1 out of 1,430 employed women reached a corporate management job against 1 out of every 90 men (McKay 2014). On top of it, Korea also shows the poorest level of female graduate employment among the OECD countries (McKay 2014).

Granting the Korean government has made it part of its objectives to change the situation, a number of factors create this tense work environment for women. It is commonly perceived that women in Korea suffer from higher job discrimination, starting from the hiring process all the way to corporate advancement. The Korean work culture and social expectations of gender roles both have an important effect. High unemployment further reduces women’s chances of finding good jobs, with the economy feeling global pressures and a staggering number of overqualified job hunters, women are often passed over for men in an environment where youth unemployment has been around 8% since 2010 (Park 2014). Both women and men, see being good looking as the next level to compete in the job market and “employment cosmetic surgery” is growing in popularity with both genders (Korean Overseas Information Service n.d.).

Furthermore, preconception of women’s gender roles as mothers and wives results in discrimination in the workplace. The government’s policies to increase women’s participation in the workforce are not “working well because companies still view men and women’s societal duties as different” (McKay 2014). Additionally, the prevalent perception that women are supposed to quit working after getting married to focus on raising children means that “women are being forced to choose between having a career or having a family” (McKay 2014). Very few women go back to work after having had children in Korea, not necessarily by choice. During recruiting, a lot of companies prefer male recruits over young women, apprehensive at the prospect of them getting pregnant (maternity leave cost). As a result, a lot of women choose to delay having a family (Lee 2014).

Breaking the glass ceiling is particularly difficult, with a male dominated work culture. After-work bonding, involving copious amount of alcohol, can improve work relationships and even impact promotions. However, these are not widely considered as appropriate for women, especially if they have children, and whom often don’t want to drink as much as their male colleagues. With numerous reports of male colleagues using alcoholic intoxication as an excuse for sexual harassment, it also puts women in a vulnerable position. Of reported workplace sexual harassment 44.5% of them happened at a hoesik (McKay 2014).

Additionally, there is a strong form of blatant sexism in the workplace. Taking the form of pressure against women not to take roles with responsibilities, to their abilities being questioned on the basis of their gender. Today’s sexism “arises from […] subordination for male authority, especially in the current capitalist environment where women are gradually gaining influence” to the point that some men feel threatened by women taking jobs they consider as being theirs (Lee 2014). Even more, “powerful women are facing negative sentiment among people in general” (Lee 2014).

On top of it all, women are expected to be feminine and complacent, to conform to social expectations (Lee 2014). In Korea, this usually means conforming to the rigid code of beauty.

The Female Ideal of Beauty

In all cultures and societies, beauty norms and representations are not frozen in time, but are constantly changing. The place of women in society has a very strong impact on what is deemed appropriate for their appearance. “Historically, Korea is a nation founded on Confucianism that places women at the bottom of the hierarchy and that treats women as inferior to men” (Lee 2014). Furthermore, Korea seems to be special in the way that the traditional model of beauty from the Choseon era lasted a long time without drastic changes until the country opened up to external influences (voluntarily and involuntarily) and at which point it was completely transformed. During the colonial period new beauty ideals started to emerge, but it is from the 1960’s on that a beauty revolution took place and accelerated with the country’s development.

Korean Beauty Standards

With the rapid transformation of Korea from a rural economy to a developed one, the role of women in society tremendously changed and with it the norms and customs of beauty. Looking back at pictures from the first part of the 20th century (appendix 2, below), we can see women with round faces, often with a center part in their hair. For many centuries, thick glossy hair, fair skin, thin eyebrows and small lips were the symbols of beauty. Make-up was often home-made from spices and plants and used minimally to enhance features. It was only acceptable for entertainment ladies to wear white powder or colorful products. In the 1930’s the Korean garb still was the norm and only very wealthy women would occasionally wear western clothing. Since the Choseon period (1392-1919) a simple yet elegant appearance, associated with a dignified behavior and humble manners, were considered the quintessence of beauty and elegance following Confucian standards. However, as the country suffered from poverty, most women did not have the means to spend on their appearance, only wealthy women could. Western fashions were for the wealthy and city folks while the average person still wore traditional clothes. “Korea was not a strong country, and people’s efforts to protect and preserve their identity served to strengthen their conservative values” (Lee 2014), which also translated in the way they portrayed themselves. This shifted slowly until the 1980s when Korean clothes started being reserved for special occasions and western fashion became the norm.

Examples of Korean women in the 1900’s(Appendix 2, L-R: Portrait of four women, Peng Yang, Korea, 1924; Bride, Gishu, Korea, 1926; A young ‘kisaeng’ in full Korean traditional dress, ca. 1904. Source: University of Southern California Library)

After the war, Korea opened up further to western culture, which became synonymous with development and modernity. Until the 1987 Democracy Movement “Confucian tradition was largely responsible for dictating the roles of women” (Lee 2014) and with it the way they should present themselves in society, but The 'S' Shapethis new era transformed both the role of women, bringing them from the home to the workplace, and the perception of beauty. “Under consumer capitalism Korean women’s bodies have entered the public sphere, no longer hidden away but now available for scrutiny and consumption” (Ruth Holliday 2012).

In Korea, there is tremendous pressure on women to conform, and most women are conscious of the “harsh criticism that comes when [they] deviate from the norm” (Lee 2014), leading to a strictly defined beauty ideal. The contemporary beauty ideal is quite far from the prevalent model of only 20 years ago. Nowadays, the Korean ideal of beauty looks nothing like the moon-shaped beauties of the past. Fair skin is still admired, but beautiful features are singularly different than in the past. Eyes should be big and open, the bridge of the nose should be high and its tip slender, the face should be small with a narrow jaw, the body should be very slight yet show an “S” shaped curves (appendix 3, source: The Grand Narrative). To some extent, this new ideal looks more like a comic book character than a realistic image of women, and can rarely be achieved without constraining one’s body or altering it drastically through cosmetic procedures. Yet it is omnipresent in the media, advertising, and in the messages directed to children from an early age (appendix 4).

Bean paste S-line V-line(Appendix 4: Messages directed to young children carry messages of beauty, physiognomy and conformity, here in an advertisement for bean paste. Source: The Grand Narrative)

This standardization of beauty is especially strong among young women who want to emulate celebrities and are constantly being reminded by the media and society that showing good care for one’s appearance is essential for achieving a good marriage and a successful life. The popularity of cosmetic surgery is such that it is considered normal for celebrities to be redone and still represent role models. It is hence no wonder that Korea is the countries with the highest number of children having plastic surgery and double eyelid surgery is a common gift for graduation from parents.

The paradox goes even further, asking women to embody simultaneously images of innocence and purity, while being glamourous and exciting to the male gaze. However, “expressions of sexual subjectivity remain a big taboo in Korea” where we “can have a 25 year-old’s S-line quite literally highlighted for a heterosexual male gaze, but heaven forbid she admit to having sexual feelings and experience herself” (Turnbull 2012).

Standardization of beauty is also spread through the assignment of different letters to exemplify the ideal shape, “while this practice is seemingly frivolous on the surface, it actually belies much more pernicious trends in society at large, when you have celebrities vocally espousing their alphabet-lines and therefore actually objectifying themselves as a conglomeration of “perfect” body parts rather than as whole, genuine people” (Turnbull 2013).

Fueling the Korean cosmetic industry’s steady growth of more than 10% per year for the last few years, the beauty obsession is constant, from adds for plastic surgery and dieting in public transportation to the “mushrooming cosmetic shops, which have increased 37% a year on average” (Raitt 2014). In a patriarchal society where women are not yet treated as equals, these all reinforce the belief that “pretty girls are more valuable” (Lee 2014) and push for conformity. It is a new way to impose the demure Confucian-influenced image that is wanted and anticipated of women.

Conforming to the Ideal

Some researchers assign plastic surgery in the “Neo-Confucian ‘culture of conformity’, where the unity of the whole is more important than the individuality of the one, producing beauty as a new requirement of decorum’ for women” leading to an environment where women are “obsessed with their appearance” (Ruth Holliday 2012).

Furthermore, the backlash in Korea can be very strong and according to scholar Lee Sang-Wha three factors have “helped uphold Korean society and eventually led to the demure girl image of today: gender segregation, division of gender-assigned labor and the subordination of women” (Lee 2014). It left no place for feminism in Korea’s Confucian heritage where the old values still push them to “appear subordinate and innocent” (Lee 2014).

However, important changes in Korean society can offer another reason behind contemporary beauty trends. The political and economic transformations of the past 30 years, accompanied by an incredible speed of democratization and industrialization, offered new social opportunities for women. As we have seen earlier, university attendance is extremely high, and Korea actually has one of the highest rate for women’s enrollment in college globally according to the OECD.  Some sociologists argue that this “recent upsurge in female societal empowerment may be associated with an oppressive backlash in media portrayals of gender ideals” (Turnbull 2013). This unrealistic expectation on women has also been observed in other regions and “historical data suggest that societal shifts toward gender equality are often accompanied by increased media portrayal of unrealistic gender norms as a reactive “tool of oppression” by mainstream society” (Turnbull 2013) further pressuring women to conform to the beauty ideal.

All of these negative forces appear in the private and the public spheres. The “care of self and cosmetic surgery increasingly link notions of ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ appearance with performing adequately in society as a social subject” (Elfving-Hwang 2013).

Plastic Surgery’s Normalization

The numbers speak for themselves, the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons’ global ranking places Korea number one in procedures per capita in 2010 (table 2, below), ahead of the United States and Brazil, and also tops the list with the biggest number of registered cosmetic surgeons per capita (Elfving-Hwang 2013). According to the Korean Association for Plastic Surgery, “1 in every 77 people in South Korea has had [at least one] plastic surgery (Raitt 2014). The Fair Trade Commission also stated that one quarter of the world’s plastic surgeries take place in Korea, representing a 500 billion won industry (Raitt 2014).

Plastic Surgery Procedures per 1000 population, 2010There are two categories of cosmetic procedures. For the non-surgical procedures, the most popular ones are in order of importance: Botox, hyaluronic acid injectables, laser hair removal, autologous fat injectables, and IPL laser treatments (Raitt 2014). These petite surgeries are highly popular as they are non-invasive, cheaper, and require no down-time, exemplified by Botox which counted 145,688 procedures in 2012. On the other hand, the surgical procedures in order of popularity are: lipoplasty, breast augmentation, rhinoplasty, blepharoplasty (double eyelid), and abdominalplasty (table 3, source: source: the Korean Consumer Agency).

Top plastic surgery procedures in 2010As shown by these statistics, plastic surgery in Korea is increasingly normal, with more and more women, and men too, opting to go under the knife. However it is important to point out that women are not passive consumers of beauty, on the contrary they are “highly informed, active agents in their engagements with cosmetic surgeons” (Ruth Holliday 2012). Cosmetic surgery is seen as something positive, that enables access to a desired social status and becomes a symbol of middle class and gendered identity (Elfving-Hwang 2013). Furthermore, the liberalization of cosmetic surgery is also seen as “democratizing practice” and the high growth rate of complex surgeries with high risks, such as the chin and mandibular reduction operation, reflect the trivialization of the practice (Elfving-Hwang 2013).

Confirming earlier arguments about the culture of appearance, plastic surgery has become a marker of consumer middle class identity, of wealth and social status. In turn it “emerges as a highly effective force encouraging individuals to perceive aesthetic surgical intervention as a practical and normative option for self-improvement” (Elfving-Hwang 2013). However, it carries an important weight as well, creating an internalization of patriarchal beauty standards, where “women constantly examine their bodies in a negative and pathological light” (Ruth Holliday 2012) in their insatiable quest to an unrealistic body image.


Women’s place in Korean society, their assigned gender role and idealized representation, is the fruit of the country’s Confucian heritage as well as external influences from the West and Japan. Korean women have not yet reached emancipation as shown by the fact that they still do not own they own body and image and that they are subjected to the paternalistic ideal of beauty. Women’s higher education level is met by tough sexism in the workplace, and although they have more freedom and spending power they still suffer from the constant pressure to conform to beauty standards and expected behavioral traits. The strong backlash against those who do not conform also serves as a way to keep women in check and limit their emancipation.

However, all is not negative. With the new generation coming of age, more and more women are fighting against the system to gain recognition and equal rights in the workforce and it ripples to the private sphere through their increased independence. Korean gender roles are still changing and women will find a way to reconcile their need belonging to the group and their want for self-determination.


Choi, Hyaeweol. 2009. “”Wise Mother, Good Wife”: A Transcultural Discursive Construct in Modern Korea.” Journal of Korean Studies, Vol.14(1) , pp.1-33.

Chung, Yeon Shim. 2012. “The Modern Girl (Modeon Geol) as a Contested Symbol in Colonial Korea.” In Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia, by Aida Yuen Wong. Hong Kong University Press.

Elfving-Hwang, Joanna. 2013. “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture.” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 2.

Kim, Taeyon. 2003. “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society.” Body & Society 9(3): 97–113.

Korean Overseas Information Service. n.d. “Women’s Role in Contemporary Korea.”

Lee, Annie Narae. 2014. “The Fight for Equality: Women’s Struggle to Defy Prejudice, Stereotypes and Tradition.” Groove, Issue 91, pp.58-65.

McKay, Anita. 2014. “The Working Woman: Is Korea Ready for Women in the Workplace?” Groove, Issue 91.

Ou-Byung Chae, Jung-Hae Choi. 2008. “Korean Society in Change: Statistics and Sources (I, II, III, IV).” Korean Journal of Sociology 42.

Park, Hyejin. 2014. “Qualified, trained and nowhere to go.” Groove, Issue n.91.

Raitt, Remy. 2014. “The Big Bucks in Beauty: From cosmetics to eyelid surgery, vanity spurs Korea’s economy.” Groove, Issue n. 91.

Ruth Holliday, Joanna Elfving-hwang,. 2012. “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea.” Body & Society, Vol.18(2), pp.58-81.

Turnbull, James. 2012. “Bikinis, Breasts, and Backlash: Revealing the Korean Body Politic in 2012.” The Grand Narrative, Korean Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture.

—. 2013. “Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 3: Historical precedents for Korea’s modern beauty myth.” The Grand Narrative, Korean Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture.


From Explorers and Missionaries to Vagabonds and Potential Criminals
(Source: Facebook Event Page)

Hello everyone. Just to quickly let you know about an upcoming presentation not to be missed, some worthy causes, and some Youtubers that deserve more promoting.

First up, next Saturday (the 25th), Matt VanVolkenburg will be giving a presentation in Seoul for the 10 Magazine Book Club titled “From Explorers and Missionaries to Vagabonds and Potential Criminals: Two Hundred Years of Teaching English in Korea.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the name, let me add that he’s the author of the Gusts of Popular Feeling blog…which I’m sure will have you scrambling to check out the Facebook Event Page before you even finish this sentence!

Next, via The Kimchi Queen:

99 Film‘s new queer movie “Butterfly” is being crowdfounded on GoodFunding aiming for 2 million won in donations (about 2 thousand dollars). 99 Film has used this method for other films (such as “20”) and they have been in general successful in getting their target funding goals.

About working in a (gay) host bar, see The Kimchi Queen for more (English) information, or go directly to GoodFunding for more information in Korean.

Next, via Hollaback Korea 할라백 코리아 comes Rainbow Teen Safe Spacesfourth letter to donors. It begins and ends:

Rainbow Teen Safe Space will soon be launched. The project has been focusing on fund-raising activities so far. Now it is time for a new round of dealing with organizational issues. On July 13, we had a meeting to talk about a new organizational structure for this project to be a common cause of the LGBT human rights movement. We decided to set up the secretariat and hire a full-time staff to set out the street counseling program in September. The secretariat will share the office with Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea. We are also in preparation to form an advisory committee of experts in various areas such as law, medical care, counseling and human rights…

…We haven’t reached our fundraising goal yet. For the street counseling activities to start on a solid foundation, please join our fundraising effort for Rainbow Teen Safe Space project. If you, donors’ help come together, it would be such a great strength to all of us.

See the link for much more information about its activities, the video above for a quick introduction (it’s in English), or here for its fundraising website.

Finally, I’ve been asked to promote a couple of video producers. First, a small, Daegu-based organization called Stompy Ruffers Cultural Fusion, which “takes Korean culture and blends it with American culture to create some fun and exciting products/events.” See here for more information about them, or here for a selection of their videos—including the “How to Order Food at a Korean Restaurant” one above, which I think would be better titled “But we’re speaking Korean!” after the Japanese version, and which I’m I sure all too many expats in both countries can relate to (Update: Actually, the Korean video came first sorry!).

Last but not least, from Stephanie Rosier (whom I have to thank for this post), also based in Daegu, who has been making video blogs about Korean culture:

I talk about everything you can imagine really. The blogs are an average of 20 minutes long and usually include various photographs and short videos of my adventures here. I can speak Korean at a conversational level (or Topik level 4 to be exact) so I have been able to talk to, and make friends with a wide range of Korean people, from hair dressers to grandmothers, and learn about Korea from an insider’s perspective.

See here for the blogs, or the above video for her “Spring Video Project: Asking Korean People 한국 사람한테 물어보자: 봄 동영상 계획”.

If any readers also have any event, worthy cause, video, or just about anything else they’d like to promote, please just shoot me an email (but please add as many pictures and details as possible!) and I’ll add it here or in a later post.

“Fucking is Fun!”: Sexual Innuendos in Vintage Korean Advertising

Lee Hyori Vita500 따먹는 재미가 있다(Source: Loading… 100%)

Once upon a time, decent, honest Koreans wouldn’t stand for sex and nudity in their media. Gratuitous bikini models sparked outrage. Women had to appear demure and virginal in soju posters. There were no such things as “chocolate abs” to show off, so young male celebrities could make money without ripping their shirts off. The Korean internet wasn’t inundated with ads for male enhancement pills. Only slutty Caucasians were prepared to be lingerie models. And so on.

Instead, advertisers had to rely on sexual innuendo to manufacture outrage. Mirroring Korean entertainment management companies today, who regularly claim shock and surprise that pelvic thrusts could be considered anything but wholesome family entertainment, PR representatives would feign ignorance of double entendres that every high school student already knew full well.

Then along came “sexy concepts,” advertisers relying on cheap, “sex sells” gimmicks during the financial crisis, and the relaxation of censorship in the Korean movie industry. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Eun Ji Won Worries That There Are Too Many Sexy Concept Girl Groups(“Eun Ji-won Worries That There Are Too Many Sexy Concept Girl Groups.” Source: Soompi)

Or is it? That’s certainly a convenient narrative, and probably has a grain of truth too. As I begin to examine the impact of K-pop on Korean advertising over the last eight years or so, I fully expect to confirm what everybody already knows: that there’s more sexual themes over time, and that K-pop stars, especially women, wear a lot less clothes than other celebrity endorsers.

But does that necessarily mean that sexual innuendo used to be much more common in Korean ads, when standards were stricter? It isn’t mutually exclusive with wearing revealing clothing, and you could easily argue that more liberal attitudes would actually lead to using it more often. Indeed, now it could make an otherwise boring and routine “sexy” ad stand out, as could the strategic use of Konglish too (source, below: The PR News).

Just something to bear in mind as you enjoy the following examples from 2006 and earlier, which caused quite a stir as people began to notice more and more ads like them. Some are so obvious that anyone can get the message; others, you’d Feel the Climax Ocean Worldneed to be very familiar with Korean slang to notice them at all…which makes me wonder what examples may be right under my nose today. By all means, please let me know of any, and/or of some more older ones to add to this collection.

First then, the opening one by Lee Hyori for the vitamin C drink, Vita500 (as an aside, one of the few Korean vitamin C drinks which didn’t—doesn’t?—contain carcinogenic benzene; this being Korea, only foreign news outlets would name which ones were safe). As I explained when I first wrote about it, perhaps five years ago:

…notice the “따먹는 재미가 있다” line next to her face. Simply put, the first word (not to be confused with “다먹다,” or “eat all”) is a combination of “따다, ” which has many meanings but in this case “open; uncork” would be the most appropriate, and “먹다,” which is to eat; then the next word is “재미” meaning “fun, interest,” and a “가” which must attach to it because of the final word “있다,” or “to have.” So literally:

“The act of opening and eating [this] fun has”

Eating often means eating and drinking in Korean. Naturally, a better English translation would be:

“Opening and drinking [this] is fun.”

Still a little awkward, yes? But the point is, “따먹다” has another, entirely different meaning. For instance, a Lee Hyori Vita500 2006guy might say to his friends:

“그여자 봐? 난 따먹었어요”

Which means:

” You see that woman? I opened and ate her.”

“Eating” someone doesn’t have the same connotations in Korean, but you’re on the right track:  “I fucked her” would be the most accurate translation, and so apparently Lee Hyori is saying “Fucking is fun” in the ad (End. Source, right: Kwang-Dong Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd).

Back when I first wrote about the ad, I could see nothing but the humor in it. Now though, I have mixed feelings: I appreciate that that phrase is (was?) usually used in a conquest-like, objectifying way, which is why so many women felt insulted:

“Too Lewd!” Lee Hyori’s Subway Advertisement is Surprisingly Suggestive

Kukinews, 15.03.2006

인기가수 이효리가 모델로 등장한 한 식음료 제품 광고의 문구가 지나치게 선정적이라는 지적이 일고 있다.

A food product advertisement with popular singer Lee Hyori has been getting a great deal of attention for the use of a certain phrase in it.

이 광고는 K제약이 지하철 주요노선과 지면에 사용하고 있는 광고다. 네티즌들은 이효리가 등장한 광고 속에 ‘따먹는 재미가 있다’는 문구가 불쾌Lee Hyori Vita500 shop window하다는 지적을 하고 있다. 해당 광고는 K제약이 지난 15일부터 병뚜껑을 따서 속을 확인하는 경품 행사를 홍보하기 위해 제작됐다 (source, left: dongA).

This advertisement by a medicine manufacturer* has been used on a major subway line in Seoul since the the 15th of March. Netizens have been indicating their displeasure with the phrase used by Lee Hyori in it to promote a competition that gives prizes to those who find marked bottletops.

(*Because of Korea’s draconian libel laws, the real name isn’t given, even though it’s blatantly obvious. This is standard practice for the Korean media.)

네 티즌 ‘구구콘’은 “난감한 지하철 광고”라는 제목으로 문제의 광고 사진을 한 인터넷 커뮤니티에 올렸다. 이에 네티즌 ‘sevenstarcider’는 “여자로서 정말 화가 나는 광고”라며 “광고 목적을 모르는 것은 아니지만 도가 지나쳤다”고 지적했다. 네티즌 ‘피부미인’도 “건강음료라는 생각보다 음란한 음료라는 생각이 먼저 든다”고 꼬집었다.

A netizen by the name of ‘Cuckoo-corn’ uploaded the above photo under the title “Strange, puzzling subway ad” to a community site about problem advertisements, and there ‘Sevenstarcider’ under the post title “An Ad That Really Makes Women Angry” wrote “it’s not that I don’t know the purpose of this ad, but that is just too much.” Also, netizen ‘Skinbeauty’ cynically wrote “my first thought is not that this is a health drink, but some kind of aphrodisiac instead.”

K 제약측은 이에 대해 “섹스 어필할 의도는 전혀 없었다”고 해명했다. 홍보팀의 한 관계자는 “광고대행사가 경품행사의 성격을 반영해 제안한 문구였다”며 “(성적으로) 이상하게 유추하는 사람들이 있지만 이효리씨의 건강미에 초점을 맞춘 것 뿐”이라고 설명했다.

About this advertisement, a representative of the PR company behind it explained that “there was absolutely no intention to use sex appeal in it,” that “the text is a simple reflection of advice about the promotion being advertised,” and finally that “while there are people who infer something sexual to it, Lee Hyori’s focus is only on the health and beauty benefits of the product.”

그동안 성적 연상효과를 노린 광고 문구들이 적지 않았던 탓에 ‘야한’ 광고가 다시 도마에 올랐다.

As there have been lot of advertisements with sexual innuendos in their text so far, this subject is again becoming controversial.

지 난해 배두나와 신하균이 모델로 나선 한 무선인터넷 광고는 “어,끈이 없네”, “밖에서 하니까 흥분되지” 등과 같은 대사로 시청자들의 비난을 샀다. 1990년대 모 아이스크림 광고에서는 여성 교관이 남성 훈련병에게 “줘도 못먹나”라고 말해 세간의 입방아에 오르내렸다. 90년대 후반에는 영화 ‘원초적 본능’의 여배우 샤론 스톤이 등장한 국내 정유회사 광고가 논란에 휩싸였다. 빨간 스포츠카에 올라탄 샤론 스톤이 “강한 걸로 넣어주세요”라고 말했기 때문.

For example, last year [2005], Bae Doo-na and Shin Ha-kyun appeared in an advertisement for a wireless Sharon Stone Korean Ad 1995internet company which included the line “Because [we] do [it] outside, [it’s] much more exciting!,” which generated a lot of complaints. Also, in the early 1990s, an advertisement for an ice cream company featured a female drill instructor saying to a new male recruit “I gave [it] to you to eat, but you can’t eat it [well]!,” and finally in the late-1990s a gasoline advertisement featuring Sharon Stone climbing into a red sports car had her saying  “only put strong [things] inside.” (James: See below for the latter two).

광고주들은 섹스어필 의도성을 강하게 부인해왔다. 그러나 한 광고업계 종사자는 “광고 문구를 지을 때 섹스어필한 표현을 찾기 마련”이라고 귀띔했다 (source, right: *cough* Ilbe).

While in public advertising companies strongly deny that they use sexual innuendos in advertisements, an industry insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, revealed that of course they do in reality.

K제약 측은 올해 이효리가 출연하는 3편의 광고를 더 제작할 계획이다. 이효리는 지난 1월 K제약과 1년동안 계약금 8억원에 광고모델 출연계약을 맺었다.

In January, the medicine manufacturer signed a contract with Lee Hyori to appear in three more advertisements for the company over the next year, for the fee of 800 million won (End).

Now for some more examples, found via a list compiled by this blogger. Predating Youtube though, and with very little information given, sorry that I was only able to find half of them. Also, sorry that I’m struggling to see anything even remotely sexual in some of them, let alone funny; again, they defy shoehorning into some narrative about Korean media liberalization, which is why I haven’t placed this post into my “Korean Sociological Image” series. Hopefully though, the tuna fish commercial alone will more than compensate…

“벗겨도 벗겨도 변함없고, 먹어도 먹어도 깊은 그 맛…”

“Even if you take it off, it’s the same. Even you eat and eat, that deep taste…”

“줘도 못 먹나?”

“I’m offering it. How come you can’t eat it?”

Via The Paris Match, a related eclair ad that had my wife ROTFL at the repeated references to how long and sweet it was, with all its creamy goodness.

“따 먹고 합시다!!!”

Just in case you miss the symbolism of the shellfish for the women’s tuna, and the peppers for the men’s, at the end they all say “Let’s open [it] and eat [it] and do it!”.

“난, 샤론 스톤, 본능적으로 강한 게 좋아요. 강한 걸로 넣어주세요”

“I’m Sharon Stone, I instinctively like something strong. Please put something strong in.”

“오늘도 촉촉하게 젖었습니다.”

“Today too I am wet”

“사람들이 저보고 너구리래요.  너구리가 뭐가 어때? 통통하고 맛만 좋은데…”

“People call me ‘Raccoon.’ What’s wrong with being a raccoon? It’s chubby and tasty…”

No innuendo here: the blogger just notes that Song Yun-ah has her legs open as the car approaches. Even I thought that this was reading a bit much into it though (she’s hardly spread-eagled, and the car is approaching from the wrong direction!), even if it does have an exploding fire-hydrant straight after the shot of her.

(남자 엉덩이를 때리면서) “줄 때 받자….”

(While hitting men’s bottoms): “Receive it when I give it to you…”.

Not to detract from the very real sexual harassment which women face every day, or that its victims are overwhelmingly women. But still: it’s difficult to see anyone accepting this commercial if the sexes were reversed.

Finally, see here and here for some more examples from 2009, and probably many readers will find this list inadequate without the following, supposedly banned ads. I’m not sure that either actually went to air though:


Korean Sociological Image #83: Vintage Contraceptive Pill Commercials

Spending the weekend looking for 8 year-old contraceptive pill commercials, as one does, I ended up finding some adorable 38 year-old ones instead:

Take the title dates with a grain of salt: this brief post says that they actually come from 1982, 1976, and 1976 respectively, and the second at least is corroborated by very similar print advertisements appearing in 1976 newspapers. The writer gains further credibility by noting the names of the actors in the first (An So-yeong/안소영) and third ones (Yeon Gyu-jin/연규진 and Yeom Bok-soon/염복순), and by pointing out that the 1970s ones would have appeared in cinemas rather than on television—although as TV bans on contraceptive commercials weren’t actually lifted until 2006, then presumably the same goes for the 1982 one too.

Here’s what Yeon Gyu-jin (love his expression!) and Yeom Bok-soon ‘say’ in the last one, although I confess I’m a little confused by the end caption that says it’s a “contraceptive pill that you don’t take” (먹지않는 피임야):

M: 이봐, 이봐, 첫 아기는 아들이야. / The first one has to be a son.

W: 어휴, 어휴 아들 좋아하네. 누구맘대로. 딸이 좋단 말이예요. / Tsk. You like boys, but it won’t happen. I like girls.

M: 글쎄 아들이라니까. / Well, I said I like boys.

W: 어휴, 어휴 딸이란 말이예요. / Well, I said I like girls.

M: 당신같은 딸 낳아 누굴 또 속 썩일려구. 어휴…. / If we get a girl like you, she’ll be a handful…

W: 그럼 자기 나 닮은 아들, 딸 어때요? Then, how about a boy and a girl that look like me?

M: 에이,,에이.. 그게 당신맘대로 할 수 있어? Is that something you can happen just because you want it to?

W: 그건 저한테 맡겨 주세요. 제가 자신있으니까요.  You leave that up to me. I’m confident!

Korea Contraceptive PillCelebrating 50 years of the pill in — where else? — a nightclub :) Source.

However charming the commercials may appear now though, any nostalgia for simpler times would be misplaced, as in reality Korea’s population polices were every bit as systematic and draconian as China’s back then. What’s more, the state tended to view the pill as a temporary or supplemental contraceptive at best, much preferring one-shot and permanent methods. In the 1960s, that would be the “patriotic” and “ideal” IUD; by the 1980s, sterilization.

In light of that, these pill commercials become all the more exceptional(?) and intriguing. I’d appreciate any additional information readers can provide about them.

Likewise, it’ll be interesting to see what contraceptive commercials appear — or rather don’t appear — on Korean screens in the future as the Park Geun-hye administration grapples with Korea’s ironic world-low birthrate. Because on the one hand, it is regrettable that the former Lee Myung-bak administration saw no need to defend women’s access to the pill, and it is preposterous that his (re)criminalization of abortion — which simply puts women’s lives at risk — is likewise viewed by his successor as a viable method of baby-making. But on the other, because of course Korea is now a democracy, and finally aired its first condom commercials on television in July last year, and with a firm sex-is-fun message at that (in contrast to the PSAs that were briefly allowed in October 2004). Here’s hoping there’ll be a lot more coming this year too! ;D

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