My name is Mary Perez, and I’m a Documentary Photography student living in the UK. I am traveling to South Korea at the end of February to produce a photo series on Korea’s military and the ways in which the need for conscription manifests itself in today’s society.
I am looking for men currently serving (or have recently served) and girlfriends/family of military men, to introduce myself to and discuss the project with.
Contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you or someone you know would like to participate, or if you know someone who will be serving in the near future. I’m a keen student and would appreciate any research sources that you’d also like to pass my way.
Wait for each other, or split up? It’s a dilemma as old as the military itself. In its modern Korean form, young couples have to decide if they will stay together for his 21-24 months of compulsory military service, with family members and friends competing for his few days of leave. And if they do stay together, lonely and miserable? She’ll worry that he’ll come back a patriarch, and/or have visited prostitutes; he’ll worry that she’ll sleep with his friends, and will wait in dread for a Dear John text.
To counter conscripts’ isolation, one measure developed by the military in 2015 was the provision of sharedmobile phones. But they have limited functionality, and the Korean military still stands out for conscripts’ very limited ability to get in touch with people off-base, offering nothing like the level of contact most young couples would be used to. Physical visits are impractical too, most conscripts being sent to the DMZ, and/or far away from their hometowns or any other urban centers.
Which makes the following KT commercial so poignant:
For non-Korean speakers: both his mom and his girlfriend think the unknown number is just spam, so they hang-up when he calls. With the “olleh Love of Country Plan” though, now his girlfriend can see exactly who it is…only to hang up on him anyway because she’s on a date.
Never fear however, for she happily answers him the next time round. Perhaps the date didn’t go so well?
(Chrome users: Is this showing as grey in your browsers too, or just for me? The video is definitely there!)
I was confused by the phone plan at first, which seemed to offer no more than a glorified caller-ID. Pause the video to read the fine print though, and you can see it also offers 200 minutes of free calls and 200MB of data per month, provided the conscript obtains a “Love of Country Card” first. With that, it explains, he can call from KT phones on bases, from public phones, and even do video calls on a smartphone, and his nearest and dearest will be informed it’s him too. (Presumably, he would have to input a special number on the card first, like with old-style international phone cards.) And good for them.
(Note: The commercials are from early-2015, before the military started providing nerfed mobile phones to conscripts; I don’t know if this service is still available sorry.)
But the commercials got me thinking. I suddenly realized, I see military couples so rarely in Korean pop culture, and military girlfriends even less so. I wondered, is there a shared bond there in the collective Korean female psyche so to speak, that isn’t getting the attention it deserves? Or, with 250,000 men conscripted every year, and probably tens of thousands of them deciding to soldier on with their girlfriends, are military girlfriends’ experiences as diverse as the women themselves? Is it just me that has been overlooking them in Korean pop culture? Or, is it that, being so normalized and unremarkable, no one thinks to give them any attention at all?
I’d wager the latter. Despite their ubiquity, my Korean wife and friends can’t think of any specific terms for “military girlfriend” or “military couple,” and can’t think of any movies or dramas that focus on them either.* I myself can only think of one movie: the slightly old but still very watchable and relatable Crazy Waiting (기다리다 미쳐), a.k.a. The Longest 24 Months or Going Crazy Waiting, an intertwined story about four military couples, but which stresses the girlfriends’ perspectives (I’ll write a review in a later post in this series):
Yet our ignorance hardly settles the matter. One purpose of this post then, is just to throw all those questions out there, and to ask readers to share their own pop culture suggestions. As well as their own experiences of being in military relationships, and/or of people they know.
The second is to stress the importance of simply asking those questions at all.
One needs to take seriously the complicated militarized experiences of women as prostitutes, rape victims, mothers, wives, nurses, and feminist activists in order to make full sense of what happens when women are permitted in limited numbers to soldier in still-militarized militaries. To invest one’s curiosity solely in women as soldiers is to treat the militarization of so many other women as normal.
This focus is relevant to Korea too. Where, as I wrote in Part 1…
…but I’ve yet to see much media attention on present-day military prostitutes (as opposed to comfort women for Japan and then for the USFK), let alone military mothers, wives, and girlfriends.
Continuing with Enloe:
If we adopt the mainstream media’s fascination with women-as-soldiers, and thus devote only meager attention and thought to all other militarized women, we will, by our own very inattention, I think, perpetuate militarized officials’ capacity to manipulate many women’s hopes and fears and skills. Any militarized government’s manipulative capacity has relied on most people not being interested in military wives; on most people holding as “trivial” the mixed feelings of military girlfriends; on most people turning military mothers, wartime rape victims, and military prostitutes into either abstract nationalist icons or objects of shame and exclusion. Inattention is a political act.
…Women who serve militaries’ needs differently usually do not see themselves as bound together by their shared womanhood or even by their shared militarization. In fact, some militarized women will see their own respectability, income, or career chances thrown into jeopardy by the actions of other militarized women. Mothers of soldier-sons, for instance, do not have any automatic political affinity with women soldiers. A woman who is a military wife may go to considerable lengths to not ask about the women who work in the discos around his base. Feminists working to help women soldiers overcome the institutional barriers of sexual harassment and homophobia inside the military may not give much thought at all to women as militarized mothers, wives, and prostitutes.
…Military officials and their civilian supporters go to great lengths in order to ensure that each of these groups of women feels special and separate.
p. 294, emphases in original; bold emphases mine
Next, a rallying cry for this series, condensing thousands of my own words:
…militaries and their supporters in both government and the general public have needed not only women, flesh and blood creatures. They have also needed ideas, especially ideas about femininity. Just as important to the maintenance of military life as has been the ideology of manliness, just as important as parades, alliances, and weaponry, have been certain feminized ideas—”the fallen woman,” “patriotic motherhood,” “marital fidelity,” “racial purity,” “national sacrifice,” and sexualized “respectability.” Sometimes militaries even have needed a very particular version of the idea “liberated woman.”
And finally, in the strange event that you’re not yet having a braingasm yourself, and aren’t emailing me begging me to use my photo-to-pdf app on the five-page essay:
Precisely because the U.S. Military has become so physically and ideologically influential in today’s  post-Cold-War world, we do need, I think, to pay special heed to American manipulation of ideas about women and to the appeal that those militarized ideas have for so many women. In the late-1990s the American armed forces provided not only traveling trainers, but their own formulas for AIDs prevention and peacekeeping…Each one of these international training programs is providing a site for the export of American ideas about what should be expected of a man, what should be expected of a woman—not just of a woman in uniform, but a woman in a soldier’s home and a woman in a militarized off-base disco.
p. 296; bold emphases mine
And if that’s the case for the U.S. military overseas, why not for the Korean military in its own country? An institution that affects a far greater proportion of both men and women than the U.S. military ever will of U.S. citizens?
Please send me your thoughts. And, has anyone else seen Crazy Waiting BTW? Let’s (re)watch it in the next two weeks for my review! :D
“Couple in Ewha on their last date before he left for military service, in September, 2007,” by feetmanseoul; used with permission.
*Update) With thanks to Bunny Bones who commented on the blog’s Facebook page, there is a word for military girlfriends: “고무신/곰신” (go-mu-shin/gom-shin), which literally means “wearing rubber shoes,” but comes from the expression “고무신 거꾸로 신다,” (go-mu-shin goh-gguro shin-da), or “wearing rubber shoes the wrong way.” There’s also a term for military girlfriends whose boyfriends have finally returned: “꽃신” (ggot-shin), literally “wearing flowers.”
The first term did ring a bell for my wife (I’ve yet to ask my friends), but not “wearing flowers.” That’s probably because, Bunny Bones explained, it’s from 규찌툰 (Gyuzzi-toon), a now defunct but still very much available webtoon about a military couple.
Now I sense that, outside of rare mainstream film and TV portrayals, there may be a whole wealth of alternative pop-culture representations of military couples and girlfriends out there. And if so, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong about their invisibility!
Turning 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 bodieswould come toliterally 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.
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. (Notleast, becauseof heremployer 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.
…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:
한국 군장병들은 이제 사지방에서 무엇을 보게되는가 / What Do Conscripts See on the Computers on Their Bases?
October 2, 2015 (Also available on his Rainygirlblog.)
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:
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:
정 안되면 만화캐릭터라도 여성을 골라 배치했다 (안돼 아야나미…)
It’s not just the photos; there are even female manhwa characters…
물론 지난 6월에도 걸그룹이 전면에 배치되어 있었다.
Of course, in June it looked like this:
< 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.
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.
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.
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 여성을 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.” (RebelliousPeace, 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. 최근에 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.)
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.
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.
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-basedhierarchical 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 isevenmorehierarchical. 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!
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 (PDF download) 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 subversive opportunities.” And the contrast with Apink’s roles in the MMA’s campaign for men was striking.
Not 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 pervasive “lolita 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.
Also, there is the elephant in the room that is the historical role of prostitutesaround 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, female humans. 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;
…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:
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):
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.” Source: Fusion.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
Jung Eun-ji: We are like [the soldiers’] little sisters next door…
…We will try to sing a lot to help keep your spirits up…
…Cheer up! We love you!
Further 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:
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 othergroups, 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 sex workers.)
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 year-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).
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 above 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:
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!)
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?
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:
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 providetwo 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 willinglyby 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:
Ironically though, thebacklashin much of the 2000s wasnot 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:
To 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:
With 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 thisArirang news video:
What’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:
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…
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.
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 responsibilityto carefor 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.