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)

Korean Students Challenging Slut-Shaming and the Madonna-Whore Complex

ewha-madonna-whore(Source: ‏@smile_ystkyrk)

Today’s post is a collection of encouraging images and words from the incredibly woke students of the Ewha University Women’s Committee (이화여성위원회/@ewhalovewom), which were used in their 16th Feminism Festival.

I hope you’re inspired by them, and I’d love to hear of any similar examples, and/or of anything else you’d like translated. Especially if they’re related to my birthday International Women’s Day that is coming up in a couple of weeks, and will help spread the word about Korean events :)

ewha-16th-feminism-festivalThe title of the festival poster reads “Becoming a slut.” (Lit. “The technology/method of weaving/making a slut.”)

(Source: @ewhalovewom)
ewha-madonna-whore-2(Source: ‏@smile_ystkyrk)

From a noticeboard at the event.

ewha-madonna-whore-3(Source: @ewhalovewom)

It reads:

A word for a “male slut” doesn’t exist. If you search for it on Google, you’ll only find “transvestite.”

“Slut”: there’s no more powerful word for criticizing women. It has the power to destroy them. In practice, it is used in so many ways to attack women.

We are going to think about that at this festival. Everyone’s situation is different, but we need to talk more about the words “slut” and “prostitute,” and to redefine them. When even the most trivial things about women are used to attack them as sluts, rather than avoiding the word shouldn’t we instead reconsider the images the word evokes?

Although what we have written is not eloquent, please enjoy reading it.

Let’s begin the 16th Feminism Festival!

ewha-madonna-whore-4(Source: @ewhalovewom)

ewha-madonna-whore-4aIf you don’t look naturally at the many varied forms of women’s lives, but only look at them through one twisted lens, then that is a form of misogyny. In the end, it’s not that people hate women living alone or studying abroad per se. I think it’s more that people look suspiciously at women who are not under the protection of their families, calling them sluts.

“Nobody can avoid being accused of being a slut.” (Hee-da)

ewha-madonna-whore-4bHow can it be convincing when you say that “The cause of sexual violence has nothing to do with women’s exposure” on the hand, but on the other hand say to women “Don’t wear such revealing clothes”?

“DON’T DO THAT. Don’t do that!” (Yeol-mae)

ewha-madonna-whore-4cIf you talk about women working as tenpro* by just using that label, as if they were just numbers rather than real women with real names, then you’re dehumanizing them and indirectly criticizing them. Instead, we can talk about why they became tenpro, and how come that kind of profession exists.

“Even if they are numbered, their names are not numbers.” (Bam-cha)

*This means “high class prostitute”; am embarrassed to say this was the first time I’d ever heard of this surprisingly common word.

ewha-madonna-whore-4dA teacher and a prostitute. Or, a prostitute and a teacher. I hesitate at the point where these two subjects meet. But the more I hesitated, the more I thought I should write about this. This is about my fear and insincerity when I met a prostitute.

“This is about those things.” (Sung-hyeon.)

ewha-madonna-whore-4eTo victims of sexual violence, people commonly recommend saying that they were virgins. They have to prove that [they didn’t deserve it a little by showing that] they are not bitches, they are not women who exploit their sexual attractiveness, they are not women who just play around and don’t listen to people, and that they are not the kind of women who deserve to get raped, and so on.

“Our society’s S-line.” (Rumble.)

ewha-madonna-whore-4fTo a woman, labeling her a “prostitute” is like a warning to other women, which forces those other women to act modestly and appropriately. Ultimately, it functions to control women.

“A phase of the university festival.” (Yeon-o)

ewha-madonna-whore-5(Source: ‏@smile_ystkyrk)

This one, a test for whether you’re a saint, a kimchi-girl, or a slut, looks like a lot of fun, but formatting it for this post looks a little difficult sorry. But I’ll happily try if anyone asks.

Underneath, people are encouraged post about taboos and unwritten rules they’ve heard. The three examples at the top read:

  • “Don’t go on a working holiday to Australia, people might misunderstand [your reasons for going].”
  • “Isn’t that lipstick shade too slutty-looking?”
  • “Don’t wear that short skirt!”
ewha-madonna-whore-6(Source: ‏@smile_ystkyrk)

Apologies that the festival was actually held two years ago BTW, as eagle-eyed readers will already have spotted. But those images still resonate, which is probably why they somehow surfaced in my Twitter feed last week. So too this tweet below, which I think is speaking about stereotypes of passive Korean women, but am not sure if it’s critiquing them or perpetuating them sorry (even my wife struggled with its meaning). Hence this post, just in case in was the latter!

asian-women-western-women-false-dichotomyRelated Posts:

Radio Interview on Australian Immigration Tonight, 7pm

White Australia Policy(Source)

Tonight I’ll be on Busan e-FM’s Let’s Talk Busan again, this time talking about Australian immigration, working holidays, and multiculturalism, prompted by the recent, possibly racially-motivated murder of a Korean woman in Brisbane. You can listen live on the radio at 90.5, online here (please note that you’ll have to download Windows Media Player 10 first), or via an archived version here later in the week.

Unfortunately(?), there are precious few links to Korean feminism, sexuality, or pop-culture to explore, except perhaps in so far as Australia has become a destination for Korean sex-trafficking. As The Joongang Daily explains, “some data say that about one-sixth of all women providing sex for money in Australia are Korean,” a surge in 2012 “largely attributed to legal loopholes in the working holiday visa system and a lack of administrative monitoring” according to The Korea Times. From experience though, probably there’ll be little time or opportunity to cover that angle, especially as the emphasis will be on racially-motivated attacks.

One personal link however, is that by coincidence my last job was teaching English to and preparing students for working holidays in Brisbane, just like the victim was doing. Teaching them for 4 to 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, I got to know them very well, and read the recent news with wide-eyed alarm, before remembering that they’ve all long since returned.

Another link is that as a former immigrant there myself, Australian immigration policies and multiculturalism have long been big interests of mine, and I devoured Stephen Castles’ books on the subjects as an undergraduate. Likely, many readers themselves have heard of the White Australia Policy (1901-1973), which figures prominently in Australia’s history. So, in keeping with the themes of this bog, let me pass on an interesting Australian ABC podcast about how its contradictions coalesced in a national “rapture” over Chinese-Amercian Anna May Wong’s visit in the late-1930s. Fascinating in her own right, I’d appreciate any suggestions for how and where to watch her movies:

Annie May Wong Australia(Source)

Anna May Wong was Hollywood’s first Chinese-American star. Her career started in the silent movie era, peaked in the interwar talkies and faded in the early years of television. Racist censorship laws meant she could never be cast as the romantic lead, instead she shone in sinister vamp and villain roles alongside the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks. It’s a little known fact that this icon of Hollywood’s golden age spent three months in Australia on the eve of the Second World War.

Anna May Wong was at a crossroads in her career when she came to Australia to appear on stage as the star attraction in a vaudeville show on the Tivoli circuit, Highlights from Hollywood. She was sick of the typecasting and wanted a chance to reflect on her career at a distance from Hollywood. As it turned out, Australia was her last taste of the high life.

Since Federation, Australian national identity had been formed around the exclusion of the Chinese, but for Anna May Wong the red carpet came out. This feature traces the vivid details of her time in Australia and explores the contradictions of White Australia’s rapture over Anna May Wong.

Naturally, as Koreans’ experiences of racism in Australia will be very different to my own, and as I haven’t actually lived there since 1990 (my father still does; my last visit was in 2008), then during the show itself I’ll be deferring to other guests for most of time, particularly one who has just returned from a working holiday in Australia. Here’s looking forward to learning some new perspectives tonight!

URGENT: International Day of Protest against Violent Abuse and Murders of Sex Workers

Korea Prostitution Violence Protest(Source)

I’ve just been asked to pass on the following. The organizers apologize for the last minute notice:

International Day of Protest against violent Abuse and Murders of Sex Workers
세계 성노동자 폭행 및 살해에 대한 항의의 날

On July 19th, 2013, people are gathering in 35 cities across the globe to protest against violence against sex workers.

Following the murders of Dora Özer and Petite Jasmine on the 9th and 11 of July 2013, sex workers, their friends, families, and allies are coming together to demand an end to stigma, criminalisation, violence and murders. In the week since the two tragedies occurred, the feelings of anger, grief, sadness and injustice – for the loss of Dora and Jasmine, but also for the senseless and systemic murders and violence against sex workers worldwide – have brought together people in 35 cities from four continents who agreed to organise demos, vigils, and protests in front of Turkish and Swedish embassies or other symbolic places. JOIN US on Friday the 19th at 3 pm local time and stand in solidarity with sex workers and their loved ones around the world! Justice for Dora! Justice for Jasmine! Justice for all sex workers who are victims of violence!


Main Website:
http://jasmineanddora.wordpress.com/

Seoul: http://jasmineanddora.wordpress.com/seoul

Meet at Yeo-i-yean Office (Center for Women’s & Cultural Theory) from 1pm
여이연(여성문화이론 연구소) 오후 1시

Bring pink roses and red umbrellas!
분홍 장미와 빨간우산도 준비해주세요!

Contact:  밀사 @Milsa_

Visit the Facebook Event Page

English-to-Korean Translator Needed!

English-to-Korean Translator Wanted(Source)

I’ve been asked to pass on the following:

Research Project Korea is urgently looking for an English-to-Korean translator for a one-off translation job.

In May, leading German news magazine DER SPIEGEL published a deeply flawed and heavily biased cover story about the alleged failure of the German prostitution law. (see here) The article, published in German and English, is since being used by anti-prostitution activists and politicians as “evidence” that the German prostitution law lead to an increase in human trafficking in Germany, although official statistics by the federal criminal police (BKA) show the opposite is true.

A Korean sex worker has informed me that several Korean newspapers recently published articles about the SPIEGEL report, which jeopardises the ongoing review of Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law by the Korean Supreme Court. We are therefore looking for a translator who will translate a detailed critique, written by Sonja Dolinsek and myself, in which we debunk the claims of the SPIEGEL report, to make it available to Korean audiences.

Does legal prostitution really increase human trafficking in Germany? | Feminist Ire
The text has 17,382 characters (with spaces), equalling 316 lines. You can view the article here.

Please contact Matthias Lehmann at yongsagisa[at]gmail[dot]com and include a sample of your work and a quote of how much you would like to be paid. We are planning a fundraiser to be able to pay for the translation.

Research Project Korea examines the impact of Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law on sex workers’ human rights. If this is the first time you visit our blog, please read the About page or our guest post on The Grand Narrative.

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)

Workshop: “U.S. Military Camptown Prostitution in Korea: 1945-Present”

I’ve been asked to pass on the following:

As you may or may not know, the House of Sharing International Outreach Team has recently regrouped under the name, Women’s Global Solidarty Action Network. Our new expanded goals include focusing on issues of sexual slavery, trafficking women and the “comfort women” issue. This Saturday (June 9th), we will be hosting a workshop under the title “U.S. Military Camptown Prostitution in Korea: 1945-Present”. The workshop will be given by Professor Nah Young Lee.

To get to the center, take line 4 to the Sungshin Women’s University Entrance (성신여자대학교입구) stop. Go out exit 4 and a building with a traditional Korean roof (hanok) will be in front of you. Go into the building and up to the second floor. Please note the center is very close to exit 4, and not on the University’s campus.

For more information, email womens.global.solidarity@gmail.com, visit the Facebook event page, or contact Shannon at 010-4534-1553.