Korean Lolita Nationalism: It’s a thing, and this is how it works

Tzuyu TWICE U+ phoneTurning Boys Into Men? The Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 3

Once upon a time, it would have been considered strange, even shocking to have a 16 year-old girl do a “sexy dance” for a phone commercial. That cardboard cut-outs of her on every corner would present her body for our constant inspection, their text wantonly inviting us to come inside if we wished to see more, her stare seeming to question the virility of any heterosexual man that didn’t. That someone thought she wasn’t attractive enough if she just stood comfortably, so she was made to pose so awkwardly to highlight her willowy hourglass figure. That women’s bodies would come to literally embody phones in the first place, with advertisers both exploiting and even deliberately promoting new body labels and dysphoria.

How did this become the new normal?

There are myriad reasons, and this blog has languished while I tried to explain too many of them at once in previous versions of this post. (Sorry.) So, let me concentrate on just one instead:

Since last summer, the official website of the army provides pictures and videos of sexy girl-groups. The sexuality of the female entertainers is being used for the purpose of boosting the soldiers’ spirits. About one and half years of military service is compulsory in South Korea, during which time the soldiers are encouraged to consume the commercialized sexuality of the females.

(Ha-young Choi, BBC World Service, 21/01/2016)

Put like that, it does sound creepy. In the long article I’ve translated below, even creepier still. Put in the context of the isolation and harsh conditions of Korean military service though, and the long history of performances by girl-groups for morale, as well as conscripts’ quite literal consumption of commercialized female sexuality off-base? Then allowing them to see already widely-available pictures and videos of girl-groups and female entertainers seems, well…pretty innocuous really. It would be also quite difficult to prevent in light of the Defense Ministry’s recent recommendation that “each military unit…widely utilize social networking services for soldiers’ convenience so that they can stay connected to the Internet more freely to prevent further isolation from society.”

So, I’m not against allowing conscripts to see such content. There are more important battles out there.

Likewise, of course there’s no direct relationship between that decision and Tzuyu‘s ads. In Korea, sexualized ads and music videos of teens have been around for almost a decade now. (Not least, because of her employer JYP.)

What I am against is military conscription itself, as well as the Korean government’s deliberate promotion of a “damned patronizing, infantilizing vision of female gender roles and sexuality” to accompany that, as I discussed in Part 1. I’m also against the damned patronizing, infantilizing vision of female gender roles and sexuality promoted by (most) K-pop, reinforced by the government’s censorship of anything that hints at female sexual agency. And, ultimately, I’m against the rationale behind this too. Because however necessary it is to provide internet access to conscripts these days, however harmless it may be that conscripts can now ogle K-pop stars to their hearts’ content, and however mundane both may sound in light of the lolitaesque reality of today’s Korean media, there’s still a difference between allowing conscripts to ogle and encouraging them to ogle.

That is creepy.

Somewhere in the government and/or military bureaucracy though, real people who couldn’t give a crap about the effects on women and girls made the real decision to do so. Just like with all the other mundane, innocuous, completely justifiable decisions that make Korea’s “Lolita Nationalism” possible.

When terms like that begin to sound very abstract and cliched from overuse, not least by myself, this real-life example is, I hope, a healthy reminder of how those actually come about.

Don’t just take my word for it though. Instead, let two former conscripts explain it themselves:

MplusV 27.04.2016(Screenshot, MPlusV, 27/04/2016)
MplusV 28.04.2016(Screenshot, MPlusV, 28/04/2016)

First, in the form of some context from Young-Chun, who many of you will know as the author of The Accidental Citizen-Soldier: The Story of an American in the Korean Army (2015):

…I knew Korean guys, especially sexually deprived conscripts, liked female celebrities (duh, right?), but I didn’t know how bad that affection was. I learned that Korean conscripts in general are obsessed with K-Pop girl groups, in particular Girls’ Generation. By obsessed, I mean really obsessed. A good example of this is rapper Psy’s description of his military service.

In this show, Psy says he was made to stand guard while watching the TV so he could alert senior conscripts that Girls’ Generation was on it. While it wasn’t that extreme in my unit, it was quite normal to see guys flock to the TV whenever GG or other good looking female celebrities were on air. Every Friday and Saturday, when the major networks have those “music” shows parading group after group, entire units would stay glued to the TV. Guys would watch the same music video or performance repeatedly so they could ogle at the girls. Their bare legs exposed, sexy dancing, and terrible music (not a secret among conscripts either), it was pretty obvious there was only one reason for these “musicians” to exist. These girls are glorified strippers, covered in the thin veil of “music” so it doesn’t seem as creepy and sad as going to a strip club. For conscripts, it’s usually the only form of sexual gratification they’re allowed while on base.

One and half years of celibacy is no joke. So, I can hardly blame the conscripts for their exaggerated reactions to seeing girl-groups. Or, for visiting prostitutes while on leave, which Young-chun goes to explain was considered normal.

That said, it’s been a decade since he served. Now, Seoul journalist Jun-haeng Joshua Lee argues, conscripts are indeed effectively receiving the “glorified strippers” they always craved:

Jumping ahead to the relevant section of his SlowNews article, about the Military Mutual Aid Association’s (군인공제회/MMAA) portal site MplusV, which is the homepage of all base computers:

한국 군장병들은 이제 사지방에서 무엇을 보게되는가 / What Do Conscripts See on the Computers on Their Bases?

October 2, 2015 (Also available on his Rainygirl blog.)

군 복무 21개월, 한국 남성은 <사지방>에서 무엇을 보게되는가? / Military Service is 21 Months Long: What will Korean Men See in the Base PC Rooms?

다음은 <군장병 공식포털>의 갤러리 구성이다.

The following is what the MplusV site looks like:

MplusV 1

M갤러리 라는 메뉴에는 ‘걸그룹’ ‘여자스타’ 라는 대분류가 전면에 배치되어있다.
이 뿐만 아니다. 메인페이지 역시 걸그룹 사진으로 가득하다. 10월 1일 기준 메인화면이 이렇다.

In the gallery section, the categories for girl-groups and female stars fill the entire page. But that’s not all, The main page is also full of girl-group photos. It looked like this on October 1:

MplusV 2MplusV 3

정 안되면 만화캐릭터라도 여성을 골라 배치했다 (안돼 아야나미…)

It’s not just the photos; there are even female manhwa characters…

MplusV 4

물론 지난 6월에도 걸그룹이 전면에 배치되어 있었다.

Of course, in June it looked like this:

MplusV 5

< 군장병 공식포털> 에 마련된 갤러리들은 모두 <디시인사이드>의 같은 겔러리를 연동한 것이다. 예를들어 아이유 겔러리의 경우 <군장병 공식포털>과 <디시인사이드> 에 있는 겔러리 내용이 모두 동일하다.

The galleries in this site are all associated with or directly come from DC Inside. [According to Wikipedia, “it is analogous to the English-language website 4chan for its image and influence upon Korean internet culture.”—James] For example, if you click on the IU one, it is exactly the same.

MplusV 6MplusV 7

광야에서 쎽쓰!를 외치는 것 또한 당연히 연동된다.

Jeez, of course even though all those guys are stuck in the middle of the countryside, all they can think about is sex.

MplusV 8

즉 <디시인사이드>에 있는 1700여개 갤러리 중 <<<<여성을 다루는 79개 갤러리>>>>를 <군장병 공식포털>에 연동시키기 위해 따로 빼낸 것이다.

Out of 1700 galleries on the DC Inside site, 79 dealing with women were picked out for the MplusV site.

< 사지방> 즉 군PC방의 주 사용층이 20대 혈기넘치는 한국남성이기 때문에 그들의 관심사에 맞추어 걸그룹 컨텐츠를 내세웠다는 것만으로는 설명이 충분하지 않다. 공교롭게도 모든 해답은 이 사이트의 ‘회사소개’ 와 ‘공지사항’ 에서 너무나도 충실하게 다루어지고 있다.

One explanation for this is that since the main users are virile, horny, vigorous men in their early-20s, the material available on the site is appropriate to their interest is girl-groups (boys will be boys). But this explanation is insufficient. Surprisingly, the real reason for the content make-up can be found in the company introduction and announcement section of the site instead.

사기진작 士氣振作 / Morale Support

다음은 <군장병 공식포털> 회사소개에 있는 문구이다.

The following is from the introduction on the website:

군장병들의 사기진작과 휴식의 터전이 될 수 있도록 다양한 걸그룹, 여자스타의 각종 정보를 제공하고 병영생활 정보, 커뮤니티 등 다양하고 유익한 정보들을 제공하고 있습니다. (군장병 공식포털 > 회사소개)

To give soldiers morale support and rest on the base, information about various girl-groups and female stars is provided, as well as other useful information about barracks life and the community.

다음은 <군장병 공식포털> 공지사항에 있는 문구이다.

Next, this is from the noticeboard:

다 양한 걸그룹/여자스타의 콘텐츠 뿐 아니라 군장병들간의 즐거운 소통의 공간을 만들어 줄 커뮤니티와 다양한 즐길거리 뉴스, 만화서비스를 제공하고 있으며…(군장병 공식포털 > 공지사항 > 군장병 공식포털 MplusV 리뉴얼 오픈, 2015.7.23)

There are not just links to information about various girl-groups and female stars, but also forums to help soldiers communicate, as well as news-sites and manhwa strips are provided…

군장병들의 사기진작과 휴식을 위해 걸그룹/여자스타 갤러리를 끌어왔다는 이야기이다. 물론 스포츠나 게임 웹툰등 취미갤러리도 함께 연결해두긴 했지만 생색내기에 가깝다. 메인페이지에는 최신 걸그룹 사진들이 화면가득 채워져있다. 그동안 군 지휘관들이 유해사이트라면서 몽땅 차단하던 바로 그 컨텐츠들이 <군장병 공식포털>이라는 권위를 걸고 군부대 PC방 첫화면에 뜨는 것이다. 여성을 성적 대상화하는 컨텐츠, 여성을 성 상품화하는 모든 컨텐츠들을 모아둔 페이지를 20개월 남짓 군에 복무할 남성들이 <사지방>에 로그인할때마다 매번 만나게 된다는 이야기이다. 여성을 소비하는 컨텐츠로만 똘똘 뭉쳐진 페이지이다. 소라넷 꿈나무는 그냥 생겨나지 않는다. 어느 누구도 이러한 ‘관음적 시선’을 제지하지 않는 곳에서 한국의 젊은 남성들이 20개월 남짓 지내며 여성을 접하고 나온다고 상상해보자. 이 시각 이후 그들의 응큼한 시선은 철저히 한국 군대에서 ‘학습되고 교육된’ 것으로 보아도 무방할 것이다.

This means the site provided these galleries to improve morale and soldiers’ rest periods. Of course there are harmless galleries like for sport and games and webtoons too, but these are only for show, to preempt criticism. Because the main page is just full of the most recent girl-group pictures. Until recently, such content was blocked because it was considered harmful. But now, with the blessing of the MMAA, it’s proudly displayed as the homepage of computers in the military PC rooms.

국가가 제공하는 사기진작 아이템 ‘여성’ / Women Are a National Support Item Provided By Their Country

“저 는 군대에서 여성을 말하는 방식 때문에 많이 힘들었어요. 텔레비전을 보면서 누구를 ‘따먹고 싶다’든가 하며 Rebellious Peace World Without War여성을 성적 대상화하는 이야기들이 정말 많죠. 또 나중에 결혼하면 딸을 낳고 싶다고 그러다가 요즘 세상이 무서워서 딸은 낳으면 안 될 것 같다고 해요. 분열되어 있는 거죠.” (저항하는 평화, 전쟁없는세상 엮음, 2015.)

“I had a hard time because of the way women are thought of in the army. Whenever soldiers see women on TV, they talk about fucking them. Also, they say, ‘When I get married, I want to have to have a daughter. But the world out is too dangerous and scary for them, so I don’t think I should have one.’ They have such mixed, contradictory feelings about women.” (Rebellious Peace, by World Without War, 2015; source right: Redian)

국가의 이름으로 ‘깨끗한 성’을 공급하던 일본군 위안부-한국군 기지촌의 전통은 현대에 들어와 거의 사라지긴했다. (유신공주는 양공주 문제엔 관심이 없었다 / 한겨레 2012.11.30) 그것은 범죄이기 때문이다. 하지만 그 의식의 유령들은 수십년간 군 막사를 떠돌면서 20개월 남짓 군복무를 마친 남성들의 뇌리에 여전히 깊이 새겨져 사회로 배출되고 있다.

The Japanese and Korean traditions of providing comfort women—“clean sex”—to Japanese and US soldiers respectively have disappeared. Because those were crimes. But the ghosts of that sex trade still influence the Korean soldiers who stay in the barracks for 20 months, who then carry those ghosts with them out to society.

여 전히 한국 국군은 여성을 장병 사기진작 도구로만 활용한다. 장병 정신교육을 통해 ‘자랑스런 대한 건아’로서 어머니와 애인을 지켜야한다는 책임감을 끊임없이 주지시키면서도, 남성성을 확인하는 의식으로서의 섹스=성욕배출을 위해 동원되어야 할 대상으로 여성을 다루는 이중적 태도를 견지한다. ‘하나된 남성군대’를 견지하기 위한 수단으로서 여성을 성적 대상화하는 태도는 각군 정훈과의 공식적인 ‘자제 촉구’에도 불구하고 야전에서 공공연히 이루어져왔다. 최근MplusV 9에 는 아예 국방홍보원이 위문열차 공연을 통해 걸그룹을 적극 활용하고 있고 K-POP 산업 또한 ‘군통령’딱지를 담보로 걸그룹을 내어주며 군과 공생하기 시작했다. 군의 사기진작을 이성, 특히 이성의 육체미에 환호하는 것에 내맡기는 것을 공식적으로 금기시해오던 것 마저 이제는 국가기관이 당당히 깨트리고 있는 것이다.

Still, the Korean military uses women for moral support. While they learn from the moral education they receive their duty as proud Korean men to protect their mothers and girlfriends, they also learn to see women as mere objects for their sexual desires, because that is a means to show off their manliness. This attitude, that the objectification of women is necessary to have one united, male military, is no secret, despite its official position condemning that.

(Caption, right: 이건 정상이 아니다, MBC 진짜사나이 2013.9.9 / This is just too much! Sistar performance on Real Men.)

Recently, the Defense Media Agency has been very explicit in its policy of using girl-group performances in order to provide support to troops. In turn, the K-pop industry has been happy to provide those groups in order for them to become the “military president,” a new term meaning the most popular girl-group among the troops. Whereas before such things were officially condemned but widely ignored, now they are blatantly encouraged.

그 연장선상에서, 40만 병사들이 늘 접하게 될 <사지방> 첫화면까지 ‘사기진작’을 명분으로 온종일 걸그룹 여자스타 사진으로 채워지기 시작했다. 방금 살펴본 <군장병 공식포털> 이야기이다. 이러한 상황에서 ‘군대 갔다와야 사람된다’ 라는 이야기가 이제 얼마나 위험한 이야기가 될지 안봐도 뻔한 일이다. 2년 가까이 기다려줬더니 차버린데에는 다 이유가 있고, 군대갔다온 복학생 오빠 속이 시커먼데에도 다 이유가 있다. 그것이 이제 <군장병 공식포털>을 통해 ‘공식화’되었다.

그나마 <사지방> PC가 과거처럼 느려터져서, 시작페이지 열기도 전에 사이트주소를 바꿔치기하는 장병들이 많기를 바라는게 우리에게 남아있는 몇 안되는 희망일지 모른다.

In that regard, the first page of the first website 400,000 conscripts visit when they go to the base PC rooms, is full of pictures of girl-groups, provided in the name of morale support. This is what we saw earlier. Given that the military is where Korean boys become men, isn’t it alarming that this is the image of women presented to them? There is a reason that the men split up with their girlfriends once they return from the military, despite the women waiting for them for so long. There is also a reason that returning male students are described as having black hearts/minds, which in Korean means they want to fuck every women they see. But now, that has become official…

All we can hope for, is that, like in the past, the internet on the PCs on the bases is so slow that soldiers go straight to their desired sites while the MplusV one is still loading. (End of translation.)

apink mma(Source: Unknown)

There’s more to the article, but let me close instead by asking the question posed in the introduction—How did sexy ads of 16 year-olds become the new normal?—and by passing on an intriguing answer I found in the unlikely location of “What Was Volkswagen Thinking?” by Jerry Useem in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of the Atlantic. About how large organizations come to make and rationalize questionable, even blatantly unethical decisions, some sections could easily be describing some of the processes discussed in today’s post (my emphases in bold):

The sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the phrase the normalization of deviance to describe a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as “not okay” are slowly reclassified as “okay.” In the case of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster—the subject of a landmark study by Vaughan—damage to the crucial O‑rings had been observed after previous shuttle launches. Each observed instance of damage, she found, was followed by a sequence “in which the technical deviation of the [O‑rings] from performance predictions was redefined as an acceptable risk.” Repeated over time, this behavior became routinized into what organizational psychologists call a “script.” Engineers and managers “developed a definition of the situation that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong.” To clarify: They were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself…

The most troubling thing, says Vaughan, is the way scripts “expand like an elastic waistband” to accommodate more and more divergence…

“Culture starts at the top,” a businessman recently said in an interview with the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. “But it doesn’t start at the top with pretty statements. Employees will see through empty rhetoric and will emulate the nature of top-management decision making … A robust ‘code of conduct’ can be emasculated by one action of the CEO or CFO.” The speaker was Andrew Fastow, the former CFO of Enron, who spent more than five years in federal prison. He got one thing right: Decisions may be the product of culture. But culture is the product of decisions.

Related Posts:

p.s. A must-read is “Thoughts on the low age of consent and light sentences,” posted at Gusts of Popular Feeling as I was writing this conclusion. About the continued indifference to the abuse of Korea’s surprisingly low age of consent (13), it’s difficult not to see links with much of what’s discussed in this post.

Male Privilege at Korean Universities

Lee So-hee (이소희) and friends at Hanyang University (한양대학교) circa 1960s(Source: Michael Sean Gallagher; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Turning Boys Into Men? The Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 2

In Korean universities, the male students are usually two to three years older than the female students. In such a strict, age-based hierarchical society as Korea, that’s kind of a big deal.

They’re older because most Korean men do their military service while they’re students, then return to university to pick up where they left off. I never realized how that how that might impact their female classmates though, until late last year, when a colleague complained that all the women in his classes—and only the women—were missing crucial tests and exam prep. It turned out, they had to schlep across town to the other campus to act as meeters and greeters for visiting high-schoolers. Why only the women, I asked. Just convention, he guessed; after all, Korean “helpers”(doumi /도우미) are exclusively women. Also, they were performance and musical majors, and we later learned that those departments were responsible for providing the students, with certain quotas to be met by each class.

And in those classes, older students pulled rank on their juniors. Who just happened to be women.

These senior/junior relationships are common practice in Korean universities, although usually they operate between grades, and different majors and institutions vary widely in how rigidly their students adhere to them. Obviously, men are victims of the system too. But just as obviously, if students’ ages also matter, then it seems that finishing military service brings explicit male privilege for returning students.

Many would see that as fair compensation, and perhaps they have a point. But with some men feeling that they’re “owed,” there’s always the danger that they’ll take advantage of their juniors, who had nothing to do with their forced military service. I also think that for my colleague’s students, who weren’t happy about “volunteering” but seemed resigned to it, such experiences presage the gender roles and expectations of unpaid labor they’ll face when they enter the workforce, which is even more hierarchical. Either way, it’s a concrete example of how and why military service is a huge socialization agent in Korea, and one that’s often taken for granted. Which is what this series is all about.

What do you think? Whether as a professor, student, or parent, what has been your own experience of this age-based hierarchy at Korean universities? Please let me know in the comments!

Related Posts:

Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 1

Canadian Women's Army Corps vs. Apink(Sources: Left, Big Forehead Kisses; Right, 병무청 Twitter. The heading reads, “Thank you for choosing [to join] the military [early],” the subheading, “You are Korea’s real men.”)

What could be more Korean than girl-group members in high heels and camo one-pieces, blossoming with aegyo for their big, strong oppas doing their military service?

What else but seeking out the cutest, most virginal group possible, then making them representatives for your entire military?

Last March, I learned that Apink had been selected as the first female PR “ambassadors” for the Military Manpower Administration (MMA), which administers Korea’s conscripts. Despite everything, it still felt jarring: what was a girl-group—any girl group—doing representing such a male-dominated (and notoriously sexist) institution?

Apink military 1(The subway ad that sparked this post. Source: 23throom)

Not realizing that appointments like theirs actually had a long precedent as I’ll explain, my first thought was to compare their recruitment posters to some of their (Allied) World War Two equivalents. I expected that most that featured women would present sexual access to them as a motivation for fighting, and/or the denial of that access to the rapacious enemy. But to my surprise, most of the posters with women were actually for women, with the purpose of recruiting them for ancillary organizations and factory work. Borrowing “the seductiveness, sass, and self-assurance” of pin-up girls, Maria Elena Buszek explains in Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture (2006), they reminded women of their choices among active, formerly “masculine” paths in the public sphere, “in what must have felt like an abundance of They're all topssubversive opportunities.” And the contrast with Apink’s roles in the MMA’s campaign for men was striking. (Source, right: Pin Up: The Movie.)

For Apink were not just some random girl-group. When they debuted in 2011, only one member was over 18, with another was as young as 14. So, whereas most entertainment companies relied on ever more provocative “sexy concepts” to get their groups noticed, Cube Entertainment emphasized Apink’s cuteness and innocence instead. Those personas came across strongly in the campaign, indicating they likely played a big role in why Apink was chosen.

And that’s where it became problematic.

Not just because I’m a grouch who thinks aegyo should only be enjoyed in moderation. But because the Apink members themselves, by then almost all grown women, increasingly complained about literally not being allowed to mature. Also, because it was disingenuous, those personas being very much at odds with the sexualized manner in which girl-groups are (naturally) viewed by conscripts, and are presented to them in practice. But most of all, because dig past the many, many layers of bullshit that can and probably will be used to disguise and/or justify this instance of Korea’s pervasivelolita nationalism” (a.k.a., samcheon fandom for a cause), then what you’re left with is one damned patronizing, infantilizing vision of female gender roles and sexuality deliberately being promoted to the 250,000 young Korean men conscripted every year.

For years I’ve described Korea’s universal, mandatory male conscription as a profound socialization experience, which practically—and to an extent even legally—has or still excludes a great many groups from effective participation in Korean economic and political life, most notably LGBT individuals, the disabled, mixed-race children, and, of course, women. But sorry—it’s been a while since I’ve given an actual example of how that works in practice. Also, while it’s a still a must-read, it’s been ten years now since Seungsook Moon’s Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea came out, and, in hindsight, she barely mentioned the role of popular culture in supporting and propagating the ideologies outlined therein. So, to compensate for both, here’s Part 1 of a #verylongread below, and one which I hope Apink fans will realize has nothing against Apink themselves…

Supporting the Troops—A Quick History

(Something) For The Boys(Sources: left, @ThemeTimeBob; right, dcinside)

There are many reasons no-one should be surprised by the appointment of a girl-group to represent the MMA. If anything, it’s stranger that it didn’t happen much sooner, because:

1) Korean girl-groups and female entertainers performing for the military in Korea is a significant part of Korean popular-culture, with roots going back to the Japanese colonial and US occupation periods, and with spillovers into performances for schools. So the notion that one such group would come to officially represent the military is hardly a radical step.

Also, there is the elephant in the room that is the historical role of prostitutes around US bases, originally with official approval. That’s a far cry from K-pop performances of course. But, if nothing else, it’s indicative of the Korean state’s long-standing, very collusive, and very objectifying view of women vis-à-vis the military.

Here’s Apink performing on a base themselves, shortly after they debuted in 2011:

(Watching the conscripts, no-one can blame them for their over-the-top reactions to, well, females. But it all comes across as a little creepy when you realize they’re professing their love for middle-school girls, and begs the question of what such a young group was doing there.)

2) Just a cursory examination reveals a host of regular, albeit usually temporary “honorary ambassadorships” by girl-groups and female performers for a range of organizations. Examples include the Ministry of National Defense appointing 4Minute as ambassadors for its Korea Armed Forces’ 29 Seconds Film Festival; the appointment of Hello Venus to make the music video/dance/song Soldier for the recent 6th CISM Military World Games;

…the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, which also relies on conscripts to a large extent, appointing BESTIE to make a stirring song about stamping out school violence;

…and the appointment and later promotion of IU as an honorary police officer by the national police agency. Indeed, that was over a year before the appointment of Apink by the MMA, which makes me wonder how far back using women to advertise and promote still overwhelmingly male organizations goes?

I’m thinking probably quite far, given what I’ve just been learning about regular girl-group performances for the police. Which gives me a chance to totally stan this amazing 2NE1 video by way of example:

3) Korea, along with Japan, has one of the highest rates of celebrity endorsements in the world (among developed markets). This includes being the face of public campaigns and/or for governmental organizations, which sometimes have a profound impact on public opinion.

One memorable example is the National Election Commission’s choice of The Wondergirls to encourage voting in local elections in April 2008, which was somehow best achieved by outfitting them in faux, tight-fitting school uniforms, and despite—notice a trend here?—two members still being of middle-school age (15):

Two years later, Girl’s Generation would do something similar (although by that stage, no members of that group were underage). As described by Yeran Kim in “Idol republic: the global emergence of girl industries and the commercialization of girl bodies” (Journal of Gender Studies, 20:4, 2011):

At Korea’s 2010 national election, the most famous girl idol group, Girls’ Generation was recruited for the campaign to promote citizens’ participation in the vote. Girls’ Generation released a single, album and music video of the campaign song titled ‘LaLaLa’. Girls’ Generation also appeared on TV campaigns in which each girl member was visualized as a Tinkerbell-like mini-sized icon, while the citizen voters were represented by male citizens. Girl idols are equally utilized for important international events; for instance, Girls’ Generation were appointed as Customs Promotion Ambassadors in preparation for the G20 Summit Conference in 2010 in Seoul. The girl idols are, at least in appearance, presented as agents who have the power of motivating, seducing or interpellating citizens to become involved in the project of global nation building.

Also, to get yet another elephant in the room out of the way early on. (With K-pop, they tend to come in herds.) Yes, a lot of the things described in this post were modeled on Japan:

Here’s a cheerleader telling you everything you need to know about Japan’s population trend .. Old people up, young people down.(“Here’s a cheerleader telling you everything you need to know about Japan’s population trend: Old people up, young people down.” Source: Fusion)

4) Though (probably) few in number, there have been some prominent gender-bending Korean ads in recent years. Examples include: Kim Sa-rang endorsing Gillette razors; Hyun Bin endorsing a tea-drink that supposedly gives you a V-line (albeit part of a process to encourage men to get hitherto “feminine” V-lines, thereby increasing the market); various male celebrities endorsing lingerie; and Yoo Yeon-seok endorsing feminine-hygiene products:

Korean Advertising Celebrities(Sources: Nemopan, 초아의 퍼스트드림 이야기)

5) The Korean military currently has one hell of a PR problem. In short, because it is still very much stuck in the 1970s. Let me explain.

Seventy-five percent of Korean soldiers are conscripts, who are paid minimal wages, and have to endure “abysmal living conditions.” Essentially, they’re a huge, convenient slave labor force, who not only “have to pave roads in the mountains or dig up snow” for the government, but have to do even the most menial of tasks too—”such as cleaning the pool of the general’s house.” This discourages expensive mechanization and modernization, as well illustrated by the following anecdote given by Ask a Korean!:

…the Korean has a friend who spent his military years in the eastern mountain range in Korea. One day, the general decided that he would have fresh sashimi for his guest. The Korean’s friend and his squad mate drove in a truck for two hours to the shore, and managed to acquire fresh, live fish. But how to bring them home fresh and alive?

A normal person’s answer would be, “Rent a truck with equipped with a tank and an air compressor, the kind that would deliver live fish to sushi restaurants.” But remember, this is the Korean military. It does not have the money to rent such a truck, but it does have the manpower of two soldiers.

So what did the Korean’s friend do? He sat in the back of the truck, churning the water in the tub so that air would go in and the fish would be kept alive. (His squad mate got to drive the truck because he joined the military a few months ahead of the Korean’s friend, therefore outranking him.) This was in the middle of winter, and the truck bed was exposed to the freezing wind as the truck drove into the mountains. The Korean’s friend nearly froze to death, but the fish were alive until they were served on a plate that evening.

Stories of this type, coming out of Korean military, are dime a dozen.

But for the victims, such stories are probably only amusing until well after their service is completed. Because with such perverse demands on conscripts, comes an unusually strictly defined hierarchy and secretive nature to ensure compliance. This leaves them vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse, which has culminated in a spate of high-profile suicides and killings in recent years. (Including on the very day I typed this.)

What’s more, this unprecedented media scrutiny comes at a moment when it’s increasingly struggling to maintain its numbers, as Korea’s low birth rate begins to make its impact felt. Probably then, the military is now very concerned about softening its image.

(That said, currently it has more men wanting to sign up than there are spaces available, but that’s only because they want to get their conscription out of the way while the job market is so terrible. Indeed, so terrible in fact, that even women are showing interest in the limited—but growing—number of positions open to them, despite the extreme discrimination and harassment they face once inside.)

When the Korean police had the same problem, this was one of their solutions:

Podori, Posuni, Riot Podori(The male is called “Podori,” the female “Ponsuni.” Yes, that’s really Podori in his riot gear on the right. Source, left: Chuing. Right: unknown)

Did I say I was surprised to see a girl-group in camo? I didn’t say that, someone else must have. Because anyone up to speed on K-pop and the Korean media could have seen the time was ripe for a girl-group to represent the MMA. The cutesier, the better.

But Why Apink?

Apink MMA(Source: APinkPanda)

To many of you reading, who are already aware of Apink’s reputation, probably I’ve already answered that question. However, you could argue that Apink was chosen simply because of their popularity at the time. You’d be wrong, but I admit it’s a plausible first explanation. For instance:

Apink Military Charts(Source: TickTalk)

Technically though, all of those were after their appointment in March (although they’re still indicative). Possibly more influential then, was their winning the military charts in January, which apparently are a thing. Here’s a video about that and some screenshots of their reactions to the news, which give strong hints of the sorts of roles they’d be performing for the MMA campaign two months later:

Apink Military 1Jung Eun-ji: We are like [the soldiers’] little sisters next door…

Apink Military 2…the soldiers must have felt we were familiar…

Apink Military 3Park Cho-rong: (To the soldiers) Girl-groups are like the star candies in the hardtack snack

Apink Military 4…We will try to sing a lot to help keep your spirits up…

Apink Military 5…Cheer up! We love you!

Apink Military 6Further adding to the notion that Apink was chosen simply for their popularity, in the year and a half since their appointment the MMA has been happy to have a range of girl-groups pass on cutesie messages or songs to cheer the troops up. Regardless of where their reputations fell on the virginal-cutesie-aegyo to slutty-sexy-concepts scale:

For example, from 9Muses this September:

From two members of SISTAR (I can’t identify the male rapper sorry):

From EXID in July:

From Hyeri of Girl’s Day:

From GFriend:

Indeed, check out the video history of the MMA Youtube channel, and barely a month goes by without some girl-group making an appearance. Here’s 4Minute in September 2014:

And here’s Ladies’ Code in a video uploaded in December 2014. Somewhat strangely and tactlessly, that was actually two months after two members (2nd and 4th from the left) had died in a traffic accident:

Add that Apink’s popularity rapidly moved on to other groups, the implication of these examples is that any girl-group would have done really, and may well have been chosen if they’d been more popular at the time. And sure, why not? After all, despite the constant bullshit about girl-power from the Korean media, the Korean government, and Korean entertainment companies, most supposedly “sexy” and “mature” girl-groups seem to combine their revealing costumes and erotic dances with off-stage personas that are just as saccharine as their “cute,” “innocent” counterparts.

As one might expect with, usually, everyone but the women themselves telling us how grown-up and independent they are.

But with sexy groups, there is always the danger that their provocative costumes and choreography will overstep the limits of favorable netizen and public opinion. Also, and in particular, at about the same time Apink were appointed, many K-pop groups were beginning to suffer from dating “scandals”—that is, being revealed to be in relationships at all—with the women receiving the brunt of fans’ anger (from female fans for dating “their” male idol, from male fans for not “waiting” for them instead). Without condoning the double-standards behind that backlash, and indeed deploring those fans whose liking of a celebrity is contingent on his or her sexual history, I can appreciate why relationships are a sensitive subject for conscripts, many of whom either split up with their girlfriend before enlisting, or constantly fear that she’s cheating on him while he’s serving. (See the 2008 movie Crazy Waiting for an exploration of this.)

(That being said, the girlfriends have equal cause for concern, as it’s not uncommon for conscripts to visit prostitutes.)

So if a cute, innocent, non-dating girl-group was required, why not select the group with the strongest reputation as such, and the least likely to radically change?

Indeed, one so strong as to be blatantly contrived for ajosshi/samhcheon fans? For instance:

  • While promoting their third mini-album in July 2013, Apink told an interviewer that Cube Entertainment suggested that they transition to more mature concepts, but they wanted to maintain an innocent one. They also pointed that several members were underage, preventing the group from doing those sexy concepts. (Although only one—Oh Ha-young—still was as of March 2014, and she turned 18 that July.)
  • In April 2014, it was revealed that 20 Fei yeah rightyear-old So Na-eun had never dated. Yes, technically after they’d been hired by the MMA, but again it’s indicative (I’m sure I could dig up earlier examples).
  • Also in April 2014, and in particular, they claimed that as no members had ever even kissed, then “they [had to think] of their fans while dancing the key choreography moves for Mr. Chu.
  • That was because they described it as “a pop dance song about a first kiss shared with a loved one, featuring Apink’s bolder but still shy way of confessing love.” But not so bold though, as to further stress the sensibilities of delicate fans, who had been concerned about a possible concept change ever since they saw the members wearing—wait for it—red lipstick on the album cover.

That is to say, the Korean media made that last claim, which is never shy of putting the concerns of ajosshi/samcheon fans front and center; click on the GIF to see what (generally quite knowledgeable) Omona They Didn’t commenters thought of all that, and for more examples of the Lolitaesque subtext to Apink’s repeated claims of innocence. I’ll return to those in later posts, as I will the third elephant of the herd: that, all that time, the Apink members may have just been parroting the lines provided to them by Cube Entertainment, as indeed they may have been later when they started expressing their frustrations with their continued infantilization—an issue at the heart of how we judge K-pop, yet something that we usually just don’t know.

But we do know that, whether speaking for themselves and/or their employers, the change in tone is significant, and, having just made a deal with the MMA, not exactly in the latter’s interests. We also know that, even just judging by the campaign alone, that a cute, innocent group was indeed required for it, and obviously so:

Apink military(Source: MMA Facebook Page; left, right)

These poster templates were used often, with the text changed as per necessary. The titles in these ones say:

Left: Those soldiers who make the bold choice to make the army your career (and get paid), we cheer for you.

Subheading: You can also choose to be in the special forces.

Right: Thank you for choosing [to join] the military [early].

Subheading: You are Korea’s real men

Apink Letters(Source: CSBNTV)

The MMA’s tweet reads (the poster is about the same thing):

If you write a letter, you will receive a mobile voucher [you can spend at coffee shops etc.] #MMA So let’s write a letter to the soldiers! #Apink #Nam-ju wrote a letter too!

And Kim Nam-ju’s own “letter” reads (see here, here, here, here, and here for similarly-themed messages in the series from other members):

Hello, this is Nam-ju from Apink! You are having a hard time, right? Aww…But I want you to always cheer up and find strength. Hee-hee. While listening to our songs, always cheer up and eat well and plentifully…I hope you get stronger. Ha ha ha…since friends the same age as me (in our 20s) are also doing their military service I worry more and more (cry cry). Always cheer up! If you laugh, you’ll be happy! Smile! I love you Korean soldiers! (Salute!)

Apink PR MMA Ambassadors(Source: Mogahablog)

Rest assured, there’s much more where that came from.

But why didn’t I just lead with all these examples? Why have I so labored the point that Apink was so well suited to the cutesie MMA campaign, when probably nobody, not even the most dedicated of Apink fans, needed convincing in the first place?

Good questions.

The main reason is that to critique the MMA campaign, and specifically to demonstrate that it was disingenuous, you need to show the disconnect between the intent and the reality. But I can’t definitively claim that Apink wasn’t just chosen for their popularity in early-2014 of course. Or, for that matter, that they weren’t just chosen because of some special financial arrangements between the MMA and Cube Entertainment, that simply weren’t offered to and/or possible with other entertainment companies for their own groups. Again, we just don’t know.

What we can say though, is that entertainment companies and the military are joined at the hip. That away from the performances on bases that get most of the media’s attention, girl-groups of all stripes are constantly presenting the same sorts of cutesie messages to conscripts, and acting like children in front of them. That, even if Apink wasn’t necessarily the only group able to fulfill that role on a permanent basis, that it was the most reliable choice to do so. And, lest we forget, that the companies or institutions doing the hiring of K-pop groups that call the shots, and that entertainment companies are only too willing to compromise their groups’ brand images or concepts for the sake of the hard income their advertising campaigns provide. A lesson I personally learned from DSP Media, who quite literally presented a new, very womanly side to KARA through the choreography to Mister back in the winter of 2009, only then to have them acting like my children in a commercial for Pepero by the following spring:

KARA Butt Dance(Source: FLV)

Ergo, the MMA wanted a cutesie, virginal girl-group, and that’s what they got. But how about the conscripts themselves?

I’m sure you can guess. But it’s always best to get first-person accounts, so I’ll provide two in a later post (update: in Part 3). Then, because not all of you may share my instinctive distrust of all things aegyo, in another I’ll consider an interesting perspective on Apink’s from May 2012, which—dare I say it?—demonstrates it can have some positives when done willingly by and for teenage girls…but which makes the negatives of young women performing it unwillingly for men in 2015 all the clearer. Finally, I’ll discuss the alternative gender roles the MMA could have presented in their campaign, as suggested by those World War Two recruitment posters.

I really don’t like making the split, as frankly this post has been a real labor of love for the past *cough* three months, which I feel works best at a whole. But at a combined total of over 10,000 words, it’s a necessary, reluctant concession to reality. Please help me make the best of it then, by adding your own thoughts in the comments, which I’ll consider and maybe incorporate as I finalize the remaining post(s). Thanks!

(Update) This post and the intended follow-ups ultimately became an ongoing series:

Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 6: What is the REAL reason for the backlash?

Misandry Large 1Misandry Large 2Misandry Large 3(Source: Unknown)

Whenever one group suddenly starts competing with another for jobs, there’s going to be a backlash. That’s just human nature.

Especially if one group has any real or perceived advantages in that competition.

In Korea, the targets are young women, who are exempt from doing two years of military service. They are often made scapegoats for young men’s inability to get work, rather than blaming the government which just reaffirmed that it’s only men that must spend so much time out of the workforce, and/or lose opportunities for further education and gaining extra qualifications. Previously, former conscripts were compensated with extra points when applying for jobs with the government or public organizations, but that policy was ruled unconstitutional in 1999, on the grounds that it was discriminatory. Repeated attempts to reintroduce it have failed.

(To clarify, I’d prefer an end to conscription and the creation of professional armed forces instead, despite the difficulties Taiwan is currently having with that.)

Ironically though, the backlash in much of the 2000s was not due to women taking over “men’s jobs”. In fact, it was the other way round, with a significant number of men losing better paid, advancing, more secure, regular work and being forced to compete for the irregular jobs that were—and still are—primarily done by women. You can see this in following slides I used in my last presentation (see here for the source and a more detailed explanation).

First, here are graphs showing the percentage rates and numbers of all workers (both men and women) doing regular and irregular work over time:

Korea Regular vs. Irregular JobsTo be clear, the above graphs give no indication that it was primarily men that lost those regular jobs, and were forced to take up irregular ones instead. However, unstated is the fact that women with regular work were already targeted for layoffs in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, with the result that they took up irregular work in droves before 2002. So it’s a safe assumption.

What’s more, there’s the next graph, which shows the the percentage rates and numbers of men and women doing irregular work. As women’s rates barely changed, the implication is that the regular jobs men lost weren’t taken over by women:

Korea Irregular Jobs Men vs. WomenWith rates settling in 2004 though, it’s a bit of a stretch to blame the ongoing backlash in 2014 on the shift (although it certainly echoes in popular culture, with today’s freshmen—of both sexes—espousing the negative stereotypes). Today’s generation of young, job-seeking men are much more used to the difficulties of finding regular work, and certainly have no objective reason to fear or resent working women.

Or do they? See my next slide, a screenshot from this Arirang news video:

Korean 20s Economic Participation Rate 2013 ArirangWhat’s more, Yonhap just reported that the gap has continued to widen—in fact, that the crossover occurred as early as 2010. As translated by koreaBANG (my emphases):

The trend in the employment rate of female to male workers in their twenties over the last 4 years has made a historic reversal. Due to so-called ‘female power’, the gap is getting larger.

According to the National Statistics Office’s statements on the 19th, the employment rate of 20-something female workers last year was 57.8%. This is 2.1 percentage points higher than their male counterparts(56.8%)…

…Since 2010, the employment rate of female workers in their twenties has been higher than their male counterparts.

In 2010, the employment rate of female 20-something workers, at 58.3%, surpassed the rate of males by 0.1%. In 2011, the lead increased to 0.4%, and in 2012, as women lead by 1.5%, the gap continues to widen.

The rate of economic participation of female 20-somethings was 62.5% in 2011, then rose to 62.9% in 2012. Conversely, the men went from 64% down to 62.6%, being surpassed by the women for the first time by 0.3%.

The labor market is changing little by little as women obtain higher levels of education and more positions in the workplace.

In every part of society, the female tornado is blowing strong even in specialized careers, and women are making considerable advances.

A gap of 2.1% hardly sounds like a “tornado” of “female power” to me, and much more like natural variation. But I can understand how news of women’s “considerable advances” might rankle, especially in the context of Korea’s lowest twenty-something employment rates since 2000, and the numbers of students deferring graduation nearly doubling in the last two years. It’s not at all difficult to empathize with a male graduate stuck working at (say) a convenience store, frustrated at how some women he went to university have regular jobs because they gained skills and qualifications during the two years he was stuck in the military.

Still, likely that’s not the only reason he’s angry:

Korean Gender Ratio 1981-2012(Source: Cinnamon Ginger Tea; reprinted with permission)

Put simply, most of Korea’s extra boys are now men, and many of them can’t find girlfriends and wives. Most likely, precisely those who lack the steady jobs and money to be considered good partners.

Yes, I know what you’re all thinking, so let’s not mince words. I mean they can’t get laid.

That may sound facetious, and/or that I’m laughing at them. I’m not. Because fourteen years ago, frankly I was in a very similar situation myself. After graduating, I too couldn’t find a good job, and had to work three part-time ones just to scrape by (when my Doc Martins got holes in them, I had to put cardboard in them every day until I could afford new ones; yes, really). Needless to say, I didn’t have much time for dating, and wouldn’t have been very successful if I did.

I felt trapped.

Fortunately, I had the privilege of being able to take up a well-paying job (for a 24 year-old) in Korea, and, desperate in more ways than one, I took advantage of that just six months after graduating. So, while I can definitely empathize with how my students must feel today, on the other hand I can only imagine what it must feel like to never have the option to escape that I had, with no prospect of a partner or steady job for your entire twenties or beyond.

Still, I wasn’t spewing hatred about New Zealand women back in 2000, and likewise most of Korea’s angry young men (or indeed, China and India’s) aren’t destined to be misogynists in 2014 either. Most do direct their anger at the government and chaebol that deserve it.

Unfortunately though, all too many seem to firmly believe in such charming stereotypes as ‘kimchi bitches‘ instead. Moreover, China and India’s own “angry young males” are already considered huge sources of instability, crime, and sexual violence in those countries. Why would Korea’s be any different?

Also, the data raises a simple but important question: do the statistics about twenty-something men and women’s economic participation rates take into account the fact that there’s actually far more twenty-something men than women out there? That while a greater proportion of women than men are working now, that more men than women may still be working overall?

If not, then that “tornado” of “female power” may prove to be nothing more than hot air. Which makes you wonder why the media seems so full of it…

angry-chinese-man(Source: GR × HERMARK, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Either way, of course I’m grossly overgeneralizing in this post, so please feel free to call me out on that, and add any important information I’ve overlooked (I acknowledge I’m no great statistician too, and would appreciate any additional sources of data). But I think these demographic realities do significantly add to the many, often quite legitimate reasons for many young Korean men’s sense of anxiety in post-crisis Korea (which is not to say that things are any rosier for young Korean women), and it’s also fair to say that anxiety seems to be manifesting itself in excessive, distorted, and/or caricatured critiques and stereotypes of women. So at the very least, I hope knowing about all the extra men out there provides some much-needed context to current employment statistics and women-blaming. In hindsight, it’s extraordinary that any discussions of either wouldn’t take them into account.

What have I missed?

Update: Meanwhile, note that Korean women’s overall employment rate remains one of the lowest in the OECD, and that this is one of the main reasons for its equally dismal birthrate. However, as reported by Asian Correspondent yesterday, the Korean government is not about to upset gender norms by making life any easier for working parents. Lest that sound like an exaggeration, recall that the previous Lee Myung-bak Administration also (re)criminalized abortion in order to raise the birthrate, a policy continued by Park Geun-hye (my emphases):

In a nationwide survey conducted by the Federation of Korean Industries in 2010, marriage was the leading cause for South Korean women to quit their jobs – not childrearing. According to the poll, females in general have a 37.8 percent higher chance to give up work after getting married than if they were single – a percentage that shoots up to 58.2 for those in their 20s. The likelihood, however, of married mothers to leave their jobs was only 2.9 percent higher than married women without children. The federation explains these statistics by saying it is due to the foundational social belief that females should be full-time homemakers…

…Despite these numbers, measures to change cultural expectations – that it is not only the woman’s responsibility to care for children – are being opposed. In January, the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance rejected one of President Park’s campaign promises: mandatory paid paternity leave, or “Father’s Month.” Ministry officials quoted potential financial problems such as the depletion of employment reserve funding for the opposition against the bill. They added that they will work towards a resolution but are unsure how they will initiate it.

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

Korean Sociological Image #79: The Anti-Communist Hyundai Car

Anti-Communist Hyundai(Source: Moreska. Reproduced with permission.)

As described by the photographer Moreska:

“This bizarre prize giveway ad, with a Hyundai car and hidden-treasure puzzle, circa 1985, features an ‘anti-communism’ prize – first prize, Hyundai car; second prize, set of steak knives; third prize is your fired….oops wrong contest – the first prize is a “anti-communist” Hyundai vehicle and the second prize is a “unification” prize….down the list there’s a Mount Paekdu prize and Mt. Kumgang prize. A really weird one.”

This reminded me of the “Consumption is Virtuous” (소비가 미덕이다) slogan I once read in a Korean newspaper from the late-1970s, back when economic development was explicitly conflated with national security. Previously, I’ve overemphasized how much that sentiment still applies today, not realizing that government and the media actually began to criticize (alleged) overconsumption by the 1990s, in what were really just thinly disguised attacks on women’s new economic rights and freedoms (and important precursors to the “beanpaste girl” {된장녀} stereotypes of the 2000s). This ad though, demonstrates how things were indeed very different just a few years earlier.

Or does it? Moreska, whose Flickr feed is a treasure-trove of retro Koreana, points out how strange it is — so it may have been the exception rather than the rule, even before Korea democratized in 1987. Can any Korean history buffs help out?

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

Korean Sociological Image #72: Girl-group performances for the military

In the commercial above, a conscripted soldier is happy that his girlfriend is coming to visit him. What really gets him and his buddies running though, in a play on the faster downloading speeds of KT’s 4G LTE network, is the arrival of a girl-group on his army base.

With 300-350,000 new conscripts annually, one of the longest conscription periods in the world, and a grisly — but improving — record of bullying and abysmal living conditions, keeping the troops entertained can safely be assumed to have long been a big concern of the South Korean military. Accordingly, televised visits by girl-groups and entertainers have become a recognizable part of Korean popular culture (although they originally performed for US soldiers). Here’s an example with actress Shin Se-Kyung (신세경), performing on an army base as part of the very popular Infinity Challenge (무한도전) show last year (episode 269, aired October 1):

For those many more conscripts not lucky enough to have pretty female celebrities come to their own base though, the blog Sorry, I was drunk provides an interesting, *very frank* insider account of what they thought of girl-groups, as well as prostitution, cheating on partners, Caucasian girlfriends, and marriage. Here’s what the author wrote about the former:

…I knew Korean guys, especially sexually deprived conscripts, liked female celebrities (duh, right?), but I didn’t know how bad that affection was. I learned that Korean conscripts in general are obsessed with K-Pop girl groups, in particular Girls’ Generation. By obsessed, I mean really obsessed. A good example of this is rapper Psy’s description of his military service.

In this show, Psy says he was made to stand guard while watching the TV so he could alert senior conscripts that Girls’ Generation was on it. While it wasn’t that extreme in my unit, it was quite normal to see guys flock to the TV whenever GG or other good looking female celebrities were on air. Every Friday and Saturday, when the major networks have those “music” shows parading group after group, entire units would stay glued to the TV. Guys would watch the same music video or performance repeatedly so they could oggle at the girls. Their bare legs exposed, sexy dancing, and terrible music (not a secret among conscripts either), it was pretty obvious there was only one reason for these “musicians” to exist. These girls are glorified strippers, covered in the thin veil of “music” so it doesn’t seem as creepy and sad as going to a strip club. For conscripts, it’s usually the only form of sexual gratification they’re allowed while on base.

See also:

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

Korean Sociological Image #41: Mothers of Warriors

(Source)

A quick question: who would you choose to sell hormone-treatment and anti-depression medication to middle-aged women?

Barring Bae Young-joon (배용준) above, notoriously popular among them, then I’d wager that middle-aged women themselves were your most likely answer. And your least likely? Probably men in their early-20s, which begs the question of why they’re the only ones actually speaking in the following commercial from Dongkook Pharmaceutical (see below for a translation):

Of course, the reason the young men are featured at all is because Korea has universal male conscription, which makes parting scenes like those featured above a normal part of the Korean life-cycle. So while the leaving ceremony itself may be unfamiliar to most Western observers, a company encouraging consumers to associate its product with it is really no different from a bank using imagery of, say, children’s university graduation ceremonies to sell retirement savings plans.

Still, that’s not to say that it’s just any old commercial. For in relying on an emotional event for Korean mothers and sons to sell its products, but quite literally denying only the mothers a voice in that, Dongkook Pharmaceutical has ironically provided an apt illustration of Korean women’s expected role in any public debates about military conscription. Which is in short, to be seen and not heard, their opinions taken for granted by others.

For instance, in 1997 the Korean media revealed that the sons of Lee Hoi-chang (이회창), the then presidential candidate of the then ruling Shinhangukdang (New Korean Party; 신한국당), had been exempted from their military service due to medical grounds; popularly believed to have used his wealth and influence to secure this, the backlash against Lee for failing to fulfill his paternal and nationalist responsibilities was so intense that his political career was soon over. And yet according to Insook Kown in A Feminist Exploration of Military Conscription: The Gendering of the Connections Between Nationalism, Militarism and Citizenship in South Korea (2001), even in the midst of all that:

…women were voiceless. Those who accused Lee, answered the accusations, reported the matter, and contributed articles were all men. In public, the conscription scandal seemed a matter for men only. Sometimes, mothers were used by men as a reference symbolizing a certain group of women only concerned about the welfare of their sons. Many male editorial writers represented the angry emotions of mothers to show South Korean popular opinion. One editorial writer in the JoongAng Daily (22/08/97) described the anger of many mothers of sons. According to him, these mothers wrote a slogan on the calender for Election Day: “Let’s never forget the exemptions of Lee’s sons”.  (p. 43)

(Source: anja_johnson)

And later another editorial writer in the same paper (27/08/97) illustrated the emotional background of the issue by using a motherly perspective:

People did not deal with the exemption by making accusations of immorality or illegal intervention in the exemption, but with emotional anger like, why did your sons not have to go into the army, while my son is suffering in a life-or-death crisis. What made women angrier than anyone else, was caused by this kind emotion. (p. 43)

Kwon argues that the Korean state has always very much had a stake in accepting feminized forms of self-sacrifice in its name, whether as factory workers, prostitutes to the US military or Japanese tourists (a crucial source of foreign exchange in the 1960s and 1970s), or mothers of conscripts. Focusing on the latter here, consequently they have so far lacked:

…room to represent their own sacrifices in public. Mother’s concern and pain over their son’s conscription has remained hidden under the taken-for-granted necessity of military conscription for national security. Their voices have been deprived of a space for expression; and because their emotional attachment to their sons has been translated into a private matter, they have not mobilized as a group. (p. 37; tenses have been changed)

Not that this lack of representation means that mothers are necessarily opposed to conscription. For example, Cynthia Enloe, who has written extensively on the subject of “patriotic motherhood” narratives constructed by militarized states, argues that in fact they can have attractions for women whose mothering role has been evaluated as personal and private. Indeed, it can be a chance for them to completely revalue their maternal duty:

Some women feel deeply validated when some politician goes on the call for mothering to be defined as a vital contribution to the nation’s war effort, because warfare has been imagined by many to be the quintessentially public and national activity. (Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, 2000, p. 11, quoted in Kwon p. 46)

Moreover, what are these “sacrifices” referred to exactly? Kwon’s analysis is a little weak on this point, as although she provides a comprehensive and convincing demonstration of how in fact all women suffer from the conscription system (a subject taken up in this series), there is little evidence that mothers specifically suffer beyond that aforementioned “concern and pain over their son’s conscription”. As the commercial demonstrates however, that may be rather more than a Western observer might expect.

At which point it is prudent to provide the translation of it(!). Below, the text featured on the screen is written as normal text below, while everything spoken by the conscripts or in the voiceover I’ve put in quotation marks. I’ve also provided the commercial again to make it easier to follow along:

엄마…..그동안 받기만 해왔습니다

Mother…..(I’ve) only ever received things (from you)

엄마…이제 처음으로 엄마품을 떠나네요

Mother….this is the first time I’ve left my mother’s (your?) bosom”

엄마…고맙습니다

Mother…thank you

듬직한 대한민국 군인이 돼서 엄마가 믿고 의지할 수 있는 아들이 되겠습니다

I will become a reliable, trustworthy Korean soldier whom you can trust and depend on

이제는 우리가 엄마를 도와드릴 차례입니다

Now it’s our (my?) turn to help our mothers

어머니 잘 다녀오겠습니다. 사랑합니다. 사랑해

Mother, I will do well before I return. I love you (formal). I love you (informal)

엄마, 사랑합니다. 충성!

Mother, I love you (formal). Loyalty! (Fealty?) (Devotion?) [James: whatever the exact meaning, it is said when saluting]

대한민국 갱년기 어머니들의 10명 중 8명은 다양한 갱년기 증상으로 힘들어하고 있습니다

Out of every 10 mothers of the Korean public who experience menopause, 8 suffer from various symptoms

(Above, left and right): 여성 갱년기 극복 갬폐인 & 동국제약

Female Menopause Conquest Campaign & Dongkook Pharmaceutical

엄마에게, 사랑의 마음을 전하세요. 훼라민큐가 함께 합니다

Tell your mother the love you feel in your heart. With HeraminQ.

이제, 엄마의 갱년기를 도와주세요. 훼라민Q.

Now, please help with mothers’ menopause. HeraminQ.

(In very fine print): 의사, 약사와 상의하십시오. 부작용이 있을 수 있습니다

Please consult with a doctor or pharmacist. Side effects are possible.

Update: Seamus Walsh has provided a slightly more accurate translation (with explanations) in the comments.

(For another post: the impact on sisters and girlfriends of conscription? Movie poster for The Longest 24 Hours, (기다리다미쳐, 2007), a lighthearted look at military service from the perspective of conscripts’ girlfriends; also known as Crazy4wait. Source)

While this may sound a little hypocritical at first, let me begin my discussion on the subject of the mothers’ feelings by highlighting those of the men; actually, that is the original reason I wanted to write this post, for let me stress that you were seeing men in their early-20s crying at the thought of leaving their mothers. What did that make you think of them?

Well, at risk of sounding insensitive, personally I found them to be pathetic. Not that I was all that mature at the same age of course, and in many senses my reaction may simply be because of cultural differences. Like Brian in Jeollanam-do once put it:

…everything in Korea tries to be cute, in the same way everything in the States is “Xtreme” and too cool for school. Korea uses a cartoon to advertise where the US would have a gravelly stoner voiceover, and Korean videos often feature cuteness exaggerated to a sickening degree where American videos would lots of brooding and feigned indifference.

And not unrelated is how different average Koreans’ and average Westerners’ life-cycles are at that age, although 30-somethings like myself should be wary of projecting their own experiences onto today’s 20-somethings. Nor do I want to make light of the hardships conscripts have to endure either.

(Source: anja_johnson)

But then I’m not:  in that commercial at least, thinking about those hardships is not why they’re crying. Moreover, to describe the crying as a simple cultural difference underplays the extent to which this practice is unique even within Korean culture itself, as beyond obvious cases such as funerals, my (Korean) wife for one could think of no other situations in which it is so socially acceptable for a man of that age to cry publicly. That they can and do then, is partially because a) the vast majority of Koreans don’t actually think of any male as a “man” until he has fulfilled his military service, and b) this uniquely strong bond between mothers and conscript-sons. Indeed, there is:

…a widely held popular belief that a father should encourage his son to go into the army, and to fulfill his national defense duty to achieve real citizenship. In this gendered construction, mothers represent emotional attachment such as compassion and pity toward their conscripted sons. In other words…the emotional part of the work of conscription….

…At the most emotional step of the conscription process, the father disappears. For instance, in two recent guidebooks published for pre-conscripts, the authors, both male, make almost no mention of fathers. The only ‘object’ for whom male soldiers are expected to feel concern about in the family is the mother. (p. 44)

And as you might expect, this is well-represented in popular culture, and in addition to commercials like the above I have frequently seen conscripts brought on to the stage after a girl-group has performed on an army base to wax lyrical about their performance and their attractiveness…only then to break down in tears and leave a very emotional message to their mothers watching back home (indeed, often they’re literally choking on their words so much that Om-ma “mother” is the only word you’re able to discern).

Unfortunately for readers however, this is yet another case of something interesting to outside observers that is unremarkable to Koreans themselves, and so I’ve spent over an hour unsuccessfully looking for examples to post here (videos of girl-group performances typically finish just before the soldiers are brought on stage). If any readers find any I would appreciate it if you could pass them on, but in the meantime let me finish by passing on what Kwon says about the program Ujeongdui Mudae (우정의 무대), or Stage for Friendship, the only program about conscripted soldiers in the 1990s, and which had:

…one famous section, ‘Yearning for Mother’. An unidentified  mother talked about her son from back stage. Following her talk, a lot of soldiers ran on the stage shouting “Mother” and insisted she was their mother. Finally, the mother appeared on stage and hugged her son. Finally, the mother appeared on stage and hugged her son. Accompanied with deeply moving music, both mother and son cried, as did other soldiers and everybody watching the TV show. (p. 44).

For your interest though, I did find this 2008 commercial with Moon Geun-young (문근영) for GS Caltex (칼텍스), which features a mother visiting her son during his military service (and impressed with how much of a man he has become):

And for the record, Dongkook Pharmaceutical did produce more “normal” commercials for HeraminQ with middle-age women, here, here, and here, as well as another one in the “life-cycle” series featuring mothers’ high-school children taking their life-determining university-entrance exams:

Thoughts?

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here; for more on the effect of conscription on Korean society, see here and here)