An Englishman Who Writes a Feminist Blog in South Korea: Sex, Gender, and the Elephants in the Room

Estimated reading time: 1 minute. Image source: Pixabay.

Which I think is the correct translation of “一个在韩国写女权主义博客的英国人:性、性别和房间里的大象”, a long interview of me by Yiyi Zhang of Q Daily. Unfortunately for non-Chinese speakers, a lot is lost in the translation, but the gist is still there, and I’m happy that the comments generally seem to be positive. Please hit me up in the comments here if you’d like any clarification about anything in the translation, and/or if you just have any of your own questions about life, love, elephants, and what it’s been like blogging about Korean feminism for the last 11 years!

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

On K-pop Stars Dating

Precious few songwriters and MV directors present female K-pop stars as grown women with sexual experience, agency, and desire. But these assigned gender roles can quickly crumble under revelations that they’re actually in relationships, as can as the business models that depend on them.

Estimated combined reading time: 8 minutes. Photo by Zun Zun from Pexels.

Recently, I was email-interviewed by James Griffiths at CNN about Cube Entertainment firing HyunA and E’Dawn for dating. My contribution to the final article is necessarily brief though, so here’s my original longer response to his question about just why K-pop labels are so sensitive about their stars’ love lives:

That some fans feel they have a strong personal bond with their idols, and then feel betrayed when those idols are revealed to be in a relationship, is a problem hardly confined to K-pop fandom. But it is amplified by three characteristic features of Korean popular culture.

First, there is the overexposure of its celebrities. Flick through the channels, and it is entirely possible to see the same K-pop star in an MV, a talkshow, a commercial, and a drama. And for each, they’ll generally be expected to maintain the persona for which they’re best known.

Next, as a broad rule, virginal personas are overwhelmingly preferred for unmarried female K-pop stars. Precious few songwriters and MV directors are prepared to present them as grown women with sexual experience, agency, and desire, as a decade’s experience with censors has taught that their work will generally get banned if they do.

Consequently, in K-pop, most women are presented as scantily-clad, passive objects for the male gaze, regardless of the actual make-up of a girl-group’s fandom. Again, this centralizing of supposed cishet male tastes as the norm isn’t unique to Korea. But the third and final feature is that the Korean media has tended to downplay their criticisms of this, so asamong other reasonsnot to jeopardize the success of the Korean Wave overseas. This deliberate myopia however, has contributed to such phenomena as the rise of middle-ageuncle fans,” who are defined by supposedly only possessing a harmless avuncular love for teenage girl-groups in hot pants—and a lot of money to spend on them.

Clearly, revelations of K-pop stars dating challenge all these tenets of Korean pop-culture, and their fundamentally gendered nature explains why the negative reactions have overwhelmingly been directed at the women in those relationships, who simultaneously get slut-shamed by both their entitled male fans and the female fans of their partners.

Those last two paragraphs link up to my answer to another question of James’s, about to what extent it’s fans or labels that are driving these attitudes to stars dating. And you can guess which way I went in light of this recent breakdown of the top 3 labels’ revenues:

Source: Jenna Gibson, Korea Economic Institute and The Korea Society @YouTube (3:50).

But I’ll cover the significance of those numbers in a forthcoming post. In the meantime, there are many huge generalizations in my answer to James’s first question of course, and it’s also entirely possible that I still look at K-pop through the prism of when I got into it back in 2010, and have had terrible confirmation bias ever since. If so, and you feel the gist of any of my generalizations are outdated, then please do let me know. I would just love the excuse to crack open some new K-pop books and journal articles I’ve been hoarding, and to get back into writing more about the subject here.

No really—please rip my email to shreds! I beg you! ;)

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

“I am a Woman Who Buys Condoms.”

The reaction to having a woman in a condom ad is exactly why we need women in condom ads.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. All screenshots via YouTube.

Korea has only ever had three condom commercials on TV since a ban was lifted in 2006, and none at all for the last five years. Korean women generally rely on men to purchase and use condoms too. I wish these realities weren’t true, and am always looking for evidence to show attitudes are changing. Yet they stubbornly persist.

That’s what makes commercials like this one for Common Day condoms so important. Produced for social media in April but only going viral this week, it’s surprisingly sweet, with messages that are very powerful in their simplicity. So why is it so disliked?

Here’s my translation of the captions:

난 콘돔사는 여자다.

여자가 콘돔을 어떻게 사냐고?

약국, 편의점, 인터넷, 성인샵에서

‘그냥, 사면 된다.’

I’m a woman who buys condoms.

How can a woman buy condoms you ask?

At pharmacies, convenience stores, over the internet, and at sex shops.

“Just buy them.”

물론 처음엔 쉽지 않았지

내가 콘돔을 사기 전까지

‘여자답지 못하네’

‘여자가 밝히네’

‘그건 남자가 사야지’

Of course, it wasn’t easy at first.

Up until the moment I finally bought them myself, I thought [people would say]:

“That’s not ladylike.”

“Wow, is she oversexed or what.”

“That’s something only men should buy.”

이런 말들과 싸워왔거든

나만 겪어본 건 아닐거야

근데, 지금은 21세기

‘그냥, 사면 된다’

Actually, I struggled with those thoughts too.

I’m sure I’m not the only who felt like this.

And hey, isn’t it the 21st Century now?

“Just buy them.”

현재의 우린 ‘자기결정권’ 이란 게 있어

생각과 말,

몸과 욕망을 스스로 결정할 권리

누가 준 것도 아니고

빼앗을 수도 없는 거야

내가 원래 가지고 태어나는 거거든!

We in the modern age, have the right to decide what’s best for ourselves

That includes rights about our bodies and our desires

This is something that wasn’t given to me, and so can’t be taken away from me.

This is something that we were born with.

예를 들면,

내가 원할 때 섹스하고

원할 때 임신하는 것

뭐 그런 거 말야

남자가 콘돔이 없을까 불안하다고?

그래서 내가 ‘그냥, 사면 된다’

For example,

I can have sex when I want,

and I can get pregnant when I want—

you know, things like that.

So you get concerned and worried when men say they don’t have a condom?

That’s why you should just buy them yourself!

난 19세기 여자가 아니거든!

난 힘이 있고,

욕망이 있으며,

모든 것은 내가 결정해

난 콘돔사는 여자다.

I’m not a woman of the 19th Century!

I am powerful,

and I have desire,

I decide everything for myself,

And I am a woman who buys condoms. (End)

Awesome, right? Yet it has 8 to 1 dislikes to likes on YouTube. Perhaps, because of this troll below, who replied to the tweet I first found the commercial on. I don’t mean to feed him, but will translate a couple of tweets from his long screed to show what Korean women, condom manufacturers, and sexual-health advocates are up against (I welcome alternate translations; being such a typical troll, he’s not very coherent sorry):

(Source.)

Jeez, this is just such typical BS from a “21st Century woman.” What is it with “women hav[ing] the right to decide what’s best for themselves,” and carrying condoms in case men don’t have them, and choosing for themselves when they want to get pregnant? This isn’t something women should even buy! Men are supposed to buy them! Can’t you make a condom commercial for men instead?

And later, after discovering that the CEO of the promotion company behind the campaign is—wait for it—a man himself:

(Source.)

Ah, now I get it. Your company often provides junk information in its twitter promotions, like you did while selling diet supplements once. In this case, you just make a commercial with commonly-used feminist words thrown in, as you know women will automatically buy anything that says “feminist.”

Sigh. Please head over to YouTube and like the video right now, to encourage more feminist commercials like it. And please share this post and the video too! :)

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

“The Secret to a Perfect Vacation? The Oral Contraceptive Pill!”

A rare Korean government campaign promoting contraception use has many positives. But its motivations are anything but progressive.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes. Image, via @smartlovekorea (Facebook): “Fun Waterplay! Sweet Couple Travel! The Secret to the Perfect Vacation · The Oral Contraceptive Pill ·”

Korea stands out for its over-the-counter access to the monthly contraceptive pill, and that’s awesome. Not just because sexual independence is a good thing in general, but because it’s essential when so many obstacles stand in the way of gaining that independence here, especially for unmarried women.

Despite that, only 2.5 percent of Korean women actually use the pill. Probably, due to a combination of not being educated about contraception at all in school or university, aggressive sterilization programs in the 1970s and ’80s, a knock-on tendency to leave contraception in men’s hands, and because of scaremongering by the Korean Medical Association. More recently, desperate efforts to raise Korea’s birthrate have dissuaded from government efforts at promoting contraception use in general, and played a big role in the (re)criminalization of abortion in 2010.

But that last was implemented by disgraced, former governments. So far, while the current Moon Jae-in administration has been no radical reformer of sexual rights, it is left of center, and operates in a shifted political climate of Me-too and the Gangnam murder. It is legally required to respond to a recent popular petition to legalize abortion, and this week was further pressured by the Korean College of Ob & Gyn’s announcement that its members would no longer perform abortions while its members faced punishments for doing so. Also, governments are never monoliths, as different ministries can oppose each other as they jockey for funding and jurisdiction. In particular, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) has officially supported legalization since as of this May, a 180 degree shift from its position under Moon Jae-in’s predecessors, and at odds with the Ministry of Defense that is concerned about its shrinking pool of conscripts. And there have always been excellent initiatives by various sex-education teachers, women’s rights groups, feminists, and NGOs operating in the background.

Which of those actors was behind this poster, encouraging hetero couples to use the pill? What were their motivations? Trick question—eagle-eyed readers will have already noticed the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s (MOHW) logo. Which makes it all the more remarkable.

Yes, remarkable. Sexual themes may well pervade the Korean media, but recall that even condom commercials are considered too risque for Korean consumers, only two ever making it to television screens in the 12 years since they were legalized. That’s indicative of how there are still such limits to discussing sexual relationships in Korea, which is why I’m so drawn to the rare, no-BS conversations about them favored by Korean feminist groups. And why I was so surprised to discover a government ministry acknowledging that, sometimes, people have sex just for fun.

Yet however refreshing, it seemed odd to focus on the pill, which doesn’t protect against STDs. For the sake of Koreans’ sex-lives, empowerment, and general well-being, shouldn’t the MOHW encourage the use of contraception in general? Including of those ever so vulgar French letters?

Fortunately, it does. Perusing the source, it emerges that many alternatives have indeed been promoted in the Ministry’s “Loveplan Campaign.” The “combined method” of the pill and the condom for instance, which I learned all the cool kids are now referring to as the “Double Dutch” method:

Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare Facebook page

And shortly after I saw the poster promoting the pill, there was a new post about using condoms, with good advice about using a fresh one if there is a tear, to not use oil-based lubricants, and so on:

Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare Facebook page

There are many more examples like it, which is just awesome. Any government should promote greater contraception use, and help spread awareness of all the different types available, as well as how to use them properly.

But I also learned the campaign was launched 3 years ago. And it got odd all over again.

Because that was during the Park Geun-hye administration, which was notorious for its hardline on abortion, and for using the aforementioned crucial access to the pill as a bargaining chip in a dispute between doctors’ and pharmacists’ associations—as well as making numerous other backward steps in Koreans’ sexual health and rights. In particular, the MOGEF, ironically, had been at the forefront of many these developments. So, if the MOHW had actually been its liberal, sex-positive counterweight during all that time, you can bet I would have noticed.

I hadn’t, because it wasn’t. As explained in The JoongAng Ilbo at the campaign’s launch, sadly it was never about sexual empowerment per se. Rather, it was entirely aimed at reducing the number of (illegal) abortions:

‘성’을 주제로 한 방송프로그램이 인기를 끌고, 숙박업소 광고도 안방에서 쉽게 접할 수 있을 정도로 ‘성문화’는 빠르게 개방되고 있다. 더불어 일명 ‘가출팸’ 사건과 같은 청소년 성범죄 비율도 10대 강력범죄의 70%를 차지할 만큼 빠르게 증가하는 등 그 문제점도 속출하고 있어 다양한 접근의 해결책이 요구되고 있다.

Through the popularity of television programs with sexual themes, and the increasing ease of finding love hotel advertisements, a “sex culture” is rapidly opening up. In addition, as the proportion of teenagers’ sex crimes such as “Runaway Family” incidents* account for 70% of all teenagers’ major crimes and is also rapidly increasing, various measures should be addressed in order to tackle these problems.

*(“Runaway Families” refers to runaway teens living together for support; implicit is that many must turn to sex work to do so.)

특히, 개방된 성문화로 인한 무분별한 인공임신중절 시술의 문제점으로 95%정도가 불법시술인 것으로 나타났으며, 이로 인해 청소년은 물론 성인들의 신체적, 정신적 건강을 위협하고 목숨까지 앗아가는 등 심각한 사회문제로 대두되고 있다.

In particular, this opening sex culture is responsible for 95% of casual, illegal abortions, and this is causing serious social problems due to the damage caused to teenagers’ and adults’ physical and mental health, even leading to suicide.

이와 같이 나날이 증가하고 있는 무분별한 인공임신중절 사례, 만연하게 퍼진 생명경시풍조 등과 같은 현 사회적 세태에서 보건복지부가 진행하고 있는 「2015 인공임신중절 예방 캠페인: 러브플랜」은 생명존중 문화와 올바른 성문화를 조성하고자 하는 점에서 중요한 의의가 있다…

Consequently, the MOHW is launching a “Loveplan, 2015 Abortion Prevention Campaign” to create a culture of respect for the sanctity of life and encourage a healthy and responsible sex culture…

…보건복지부는 청소년에게는 생명존중의식과 미래의 건강한 부모가 되기 위한 책임 있는 선택을, 미혼남녀에게는 양성평등에 입각한 책임 있는 사랑과 계획을, 가임부부에게는 건강한 아이를 출산하기 위한 계획 임신 등 상황에 따른 메시지를 전파하고 있다. 이는 인공임신중절 예방을 위한 실질적인 실천으로 이끄는 견인차 역할을 하고 있다.

…The MOHW is committed to spreading the message of the importance of respecting the sanctity of life, and to promoting sexual responsibility and planning based on gender equality for unmarried men and women, in order that they will become responsible parents in the future and raise healthy children. These goals drive its emphasis on promoting practical contraceptive methods for the prevention of abortion.

The article goes on to talk about its various promotion methods, which include(d) working with “LifeLove Supporter” university groups. For example, with Pyeongtaek University students, Hongik University students, and these students from an unspecified Busan university in 2016 (photo above); with Daegu University and Yonsei University students in 2017; and with these students from an unspecified Jeonju university this July. In fact, these groups predate the Loveplan campaign, which itself seems heavily based on an earlier “Lovekeeperscampaign.”

It’s difficult to feel any anger towards such friendly-looking, probably genuinely helpful and concerned young students. And even among pro-choice activists, who wouldn’t want the abortion rate to go down? The students are also mainly just educating people about contraception, and promoting men and women’s equal involvement in their use. So, all power to them, right?

Wrong. Because it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, when someone comes towards you with a big sign that that says something about loving or respecting “life” on it, 99 times out of 100 you know it’s not your lovelife that they’re advocating for.

And with this campaign’s stress that abortions are illegal and to be avoided, implicit is that they are morally wrong.

But abortions are not a necessary evil, the last, distasteful resort of irresponsible couples. Contraception doesn’t always work. People can change their minds as they realize they’re not ready for a child. Couples can break up. Raising a child isn’t easy, and societies shun single mothers (especially Korean society). People can lose their jobs, and realize they can no longer afford to have a child. And so on. And hell, irresponsible couples have just as much of a right to abortion as anyone else too.

In other words, people will always need abortions, and will always have abortions, whether they’re legal or not. The only difference their legality makes is whether they can have safe ones, or whether many will die from the procedure.

Ergo, abortion is a GOOD thing.

In the past, friends of mine have been amused when I’ve accidentally said I’m “pro-abortion” rather than “pro-choice”, but that’s no longer a mistake on my part.

Here’s hoping for a positive, very overdue response by Moon Jae-in to the petition for the legalization of abortion then. And with it, a refocusing of this campaign.

Related posts:

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

One for the Korean Sexuality Geeks!

Estimated reading & viewing time: 9 minutes.

Last week, I caught Sean Pablo’s interview of Nara Kong about dating culture and the sex education she received—or rather didn’t receive—in North Korea. Short and interesting in its own right, I recommend watching the entire video, and subscribing to both Youtubers. But it was the section from 1:30 that will really bring out your Korean sexuality geekgasm:

For those of you also completely turned on right now, but frustrated because you can’t put your finger on exactly why, let me lend a helping hand: it’s because you once read that things were very similar in South Korea in the 1980s. Specifically, from the opening to So-hee Lee’s “The Concept of Female Sexuality in Korean Popular Culture” (pp. 141-164) in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea (ed. by Laruel Kendell, 2002), recalling her embarrassment and confusion when she attended some English literature lectures at Cambridge University in the mid-1980s (pp. 141-2):

My topic was “Women Characters in Victorian Novels”. During the lectures and seminars, I was acutely embarrassed by what I heard. Why was everyone talking about sexuality, masculinity, and femininity? What was the relationship between those terms and feminist literary criticism?

In those days, Koreans did not have exact counterpart terms for “sex”, “sexuality”, “sexual intercourse”, and “gender”. I was very confused as I struggled to determine the appropriate meanings. In Korean, one very general term “seong” (성) could be used for these four concepts, its particular meaning dependent on the speaking and listening context.

(It’s actually a little more complicated than that, the specific Chinese character she’s referring to—there are many different ones rendered as “성” in Korean—also meaning “nature” and “life” as well as “sex.” But that just adds to her point.)

Korean society in the mid-1980s did not find it necessary to make sharp distinctions between these concepts. At the annual Korean Women’s Studies Association Conference in 1989, the issue of sex language was raised and discussed. More recently, the Korean counterpart of the term “sexual intercourse” (성교) has gained wide usage, accompanied by the frequent use of the a Korean counterpart for the term “sexual violence” (성폭행)….Sexual violence has now become a recognized issue in need of a discourse.

Korean concepts of sexuality have changed profoundly since the Democratic Revolution of 1987….In 1995, the most popular topics among university students were sexuality, sexual identity, and other sexual subjects. There are many reasons for this…

One of those reasons being all the (female sexuality) taboo-shattering movies and books that came out in the mid-1990s, the focus of her chapter. For more on those, see my post “Women Getting on Top: Korean Sexuality in Flux in the 1990s“, then “Korean Women and the 2002 World Cup: The REAL origins of the kkotminam craze” for even more taboo-breaking in the 2000s.

But wait, there’s still more!

As an added bonus to those who have read this far, who can consider themselves the true Korean sexuality geeks, let me also pass on Jo Kwon and Lia Kim’s dance to Lemon by NERD & Rihanna, my gateway video—thanks Asian Junkie!—to becoming a complete fanboy* of both:

A song with a lot of seong that. What more could you ask for on a Monday? ;)

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

(*I’m really, really wincing at the high-heels in this one though. And Lia really shouldn’t have had a pre-teen dancing alongside her to Starships by Niki Minaj in her latest video either. But I only criticize out of love!)

“Girl-groups in Hot Pants” Isn’t a Concept That Always Sells a Product. Except When it Does. Damn.

Compared to men, women are almost 60 times more likely to be wearing revealing clothing in Korean advertisements.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes. Source: @Sulllllimmmm

“I’ve seen many pictures of Seol-hyun, but I think these are the first ones I’ve ever seen that haven’t sexualized her or shown off her body.”

Me too.* Which is not to say I’m against either, of any consenting adult. Sometimes, a famous figure in tight-clothes is just what is needed to grab your attention, whatever your sex or sexuality. Especially in a commercial’s all too brief 15-second window:

But that one by Hani for Yanolja, a motel-finding app, was only successful—10 million downloads, in a population of 51 million—because it combined its celebrity face and sexual frisson with such a catchy jingle and distinctive dance. Imitated and parodied by Korean fans all summer (especially my daughters), who demanded Hani perform it on the street, in hindsight it was an obvious winner.

Or was it? Compare this 2013 commercial by Sistar for Ottogi set rice meals, which I used in a recent lecture I gave to The 11th Korea-America Student Conference. Mostly, because the incongruity of all the flesh with the actual, rather mundane product is just so jarring: were all those legs really needed, and those belonging to an expensive girl-group in particular? Also, because I couldn’t find a single news article about it from 5 years ago, in contrast to all the attention Hani’s commercial is getting today:

Sources: *cough* Ilbe

But after the presentation, thinking again about the commercial got me hot and bothered, and not in a good way. I realized my making the point with the screenshots had overshadowed the commercial itself, which I hadn’t actually seen in many years. Once I did, I realized it did have its own jingle and dance, and a sort-of chorus-girl concept which the hot pants weren’t necessarily out of place in:

Sure, neither the jingle nor dance are quite as distinctive as Hani’s, but they’re there. So, without that hindsight, who’s to say that this commercial would flop, whereas Hani’s would be a guaranteed success?

Especially as it didn’t flop, damnit. As a renewed search revealed:

또 주요 소비자층인 20~30대 남성이 선호하는 걸 그룹 ‘씨스타’를 활용한 프로모션을 전개하면서 지난해 세트밥 매출을 2012년 대비 95% 늘렸다.

“Compared to 2012, Otoggi’s promotion with the girl-group ‘Sistar’ in 2013 led to an increase of 95% in sales among the major consumer group of men in their 20s and 30s.”

The Korea Economic Daily, 5 March 2014

Well duh, although I like to think more men need more than just legs to be sold on a meal (thinking we would be is still kinda patronizing, TBH). And my next reaction was that what worked for young men in this case didn’t necessarily speak for other demographics, Korea’s brutal M-curve meaning it’s housewives that do the food shopping for most households. But with Korea’s rapidly-rising single household rate, that’s probably not the case for these convenience meals in particular. Hence:

오뚜기는 편의점 유통 물량을 늘리는 한편 자사 페이스북에서 다양한 이벤트를 진행해 소비자와의 소통을 강화했다. 이런 노력에 힘입어 오뚜기밥 전체 매출은 전년 대비 50% 이상 증가했다.

“Ottogi’s strategy of increasing sales volumes at convenience stores and strengthening its communication with consumers, such as by hosting events on Facebook, has led to its rice sales increasing over 50% compared to the previous year.”

So, my path for future lectures was now clear: to seek out new commercials and new girl-groups in hot pants, to boldly question if they really do work, where no one has questioned before. And to seek out successful Korean femvertising, or just simply those successful commercials by women wearing actual clothes. Because in the revised version of my lecture, the final slide will continue to feature the following troubling fact about Korean life, which has my daughters increasingly running for the scales rather than happily dancing being kids. I wish I was joking:

Source: News Tomato

“Females were 5.9 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed (vs. fully dressed) in Hong Kong advertisements, whereas females were 22.89 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed in Japanese ads and 56.83 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed in South Korean ads.”

Prieler, M., Ivanov, A. & Hagiwara, S. (2015). Gender representations in East Asian advertising: Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. Communication & Society 28(1), 27-41, p. 34.

Please let me know of any examples in the comments, of either the good or the bad, and your thoughts of any of the above :)

*On the theme of shattering convenient narratives, I noticed an ad featuring a fully-clothed Seol-hyun on the same day I noticed the tweet:

Fortunately for my paranoia about conspiracies to undermine my lectures though, Seol-hyun’s ads for Dashing Diva nails do follow a predictable pattern. Er…Yay?

(0:14)

Related Posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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