South Korea’s Invisible Military Girlfriends

Turning Boys Into Men? The Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 5

The Longest 24 Months

(Source: HanCinema)

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 shared mobile 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.)

(Update: Thanks to Eames (@Eames29), who tells me it is:)

(Source)
(Source)

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?

(Source: MovieDiary)

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.

Don’t just take my word for it though. Read some excerpts from “Militarizing Women’s Lives” by Cynthia Enloe, a short essay in The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics, ed. by Nancy Holmstrom (2002), which I just finished yesterday. And which has left me with such a buzz, I could quote from it all night:

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.

(p. 293)

This focus is relevant to Korea too. Where, as I wrote in Part 1

[The current economy] is so terrible…that even women are showing interest in the limited—but growing—number of positions open to them, despite the extreme discrimination and harassment they face once inside.

…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.

(Ironic image source, left: Ilbe)

…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.”

(p. 295)

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 [2002] 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.

(Source: Wikitree)

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!

Related Posts:

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:

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

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

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

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

Take 강심바 (@kang_simba)* for instance, who begins describing the caricatures above as:

미친놈의 전통적 여혐국가. 1930년대 조선일보 만평. 나는 처녀입니다 돈만많으면 좋아요 나는외국유학생하고 결혼하고자합니다 나는문화주택만지어주는이면 일흔살도 괜찮아요 만평 제목은 ‘여성 선전시대가 오면’.

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

And then:

이 만평은 이미 화제였던 듯한데 반응은 대개 그시절에도 된장녀가 있었군요, 수십년후를 소름끼치게 예언헀네요 이다.

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

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

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

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

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

3) I’m still single.

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

5) I love chocolate. Only that one box.

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

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

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

(p. 242)

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

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

(p. 243)

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

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

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

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

(p. 2)

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

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

(pp. 9-10)

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

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

(pp. 10-11.)

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

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

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

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

What are you waiting for? ;)

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

* Note: The twitter account @kang_simba was public at the time of publication; it has since been set to private.

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

Morning-after Pill Remains Prescription Only

In the continued financial stand-off between doctors and pharmacists, Korean women’s health and sexual freedom remain a low priority.
MV 010 - 2 - SBS Family's Honor (2008-2009) - This I Promise You(Source: withhyunbin; CC BY-NC 2.0)

Remember back in 2012, when the Korean FDA announced the monthly birth-control pill would become prescription only?

In isolation, there are many reasonable arguments for such a change. In the context of the criminalization of abortion though? Plus the slut-shaming that compels many women to rely on their male partners for contraception, combined with Korea’s woefully-inadequate sex education? Then that freedom of access was important.

What’s more, while the monthly pill was to become prescription only, the morning-after pill was to be made over the counter.

That made no sense, whatever one’s feelings about either pill. And indeed, there were no sudden new medical reasons provided to justify the changes. Instead, as I wrote this January:

…it was a transparent attempt to forge a compromise between the competing financial interests of the Korean Medical Association and the Korean Pharmaceutical Association. And a blunt demonstration that women’s health and sexual freedom were the least of the government’s concerns.

Fortunately though, it backed down in the face of outrage, and because the outgoing Lee Myung-bak Administration resolved it was not worth creating a political headache for Park Geun-hye’s presidential campaign. Also fortunately, Park Geun-hye hasn’t tried again since gaining power. A surprise, frankly, given her continuation of Lee Myung-bak’s equally bizarre and women-unfriendly policy of (re)criminalizing abortion in order to raise the birthrate. (And in practice, only serving to make abortion services much more expensive and difficult to find.)

Four years later, she still hasn’t. And it’s wonderful that the monthly pill remains over the counter.

Alas, that doesn’t mean the government hasn’t been busy. Earlier this week, it decided that the morning-after pill would remain prescription only. As the Korea Bizwire reports:

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety revealed that after a comprehensive review of contraceptives’ actual usage statistics, side effects, and general public awareness, it would continue to categorize emergency contraceptives as ethical drugs.

Ethical drugs, also referred to in Korea as ETC drugs, are defined as drugs that require a doctor’s prescription for usage, and the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety revealed that the decision to keep emergency contraceptives under the category of ETC drugs was due to serious concern over the possible abuse of these contraceptives by the public.

On the other hand, the ministry will maintain its categorization of regular contraceptive pills, which are to be taken prior to sexual intercourse, as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.

Recent trends show that the production and imports of emergency contraceptive pills are both increasing – growing from 2.8 billion won to 4.4 billion won in 2014 and then 4.2 billion won in 2015 – according to a study on contraceptives’ actual usage statistics, side effects, and general public awareness conducted between 2013 and 2015 by the Korea Institute of Drug Safety & Risk Management on 6,500 individuals of both genders between 15 and 59 years of age.

And yet, the study also found that only 44 percent of females in the study had accurate knowledge about emergency contraceptive pills, such as their side effects.

[Emergency contraceptive pills have] a high risk of side effects compared to regular OTC contraceptive pills in that the drastic hormonal change could be a considerable burden on the female body.

The Korea Herald adds that only “36 percent of female teenagers were accurately informed about the drug and its possible side effects” (as opposed to the 44% of women mentioned above). Unlike in 2012 though, now it appears that the Ministry has Korean women’s and teenagers’ health very much in mind.

I call bullshit.

This is dubious, retroactive justification of a decision made entirely on ideological grounds.

First, consider the track-record of the Park Geun-hye administration, which is unusually beholden to conservative vested interests. In the absence of (sufficient) political pressure from the Korean Pharmaceutical Association, and/or the ever-dwindling pool of young female voters, it would be extremely unlikely to ever make such a female-friendly, sexually-progressive move as increasing access to the morning-after pill.

Next, recall that under-18s aren’t actually allowed to access information about contraception on the internet, in which case that figure of 36 percent could even considered a positive. (Search on portal sites, and a social security number login will be required.)

(Update: It turns out, that login may only be required for information about condoms.)

Finally, and in particular, the Korean Medical Association has a long history of scaremongering about the pill, which likely plays a big role in why only 2.5% of Korean women actually use it. This makes me very, very wary of the Korean government’s claims about the dangers.

Sure enough, just this week Fusion offered a damming rebuttal of those, via an article on why US universities don’t offer the morning-after pill to students:

…Medication abortion is really, really safe. Since 2000, more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. have used it to terminate early pregnancies. While the pill can cause side effects such as nausea, fever, and cramping, it has an adverse effect rate of only 0.2 percent. That’s way less than adverse effect rate for the asthma inhaler Advair (27 percent), the antidepressant Wellbutrin (22.3 percent), the anti-anxiety drug Xanax (13.9 percent), and the cholesterol medication Lipitor (12.9 percent).

And just two months ago, the FDA revised its label of the abortion pill mifepristone to match the evidence-based protocols already being utilized by physicians nationwide—a protocol that allows for the drug to be given up to seventy days into a pregnancy, instead of forty-nine days and states that a smaller dose can be given to efficiently terminate a pregnancy.

But I’m clearly biased in favor of over the counter access, for just about every non-invasive/non-surgical contraception really, so please let me know what you think. Also, let me pass on the following video report for Korean speakers, although it doesn’t add much to the English articles already linked sorry (unless readers spot something I missed?):

Update:

Claire Lee at the Korea Herald has just penned a must-read on the angry response of Korean women and Korean women’s-rights groups, and the utter uselessness of visiting doctors for the morning-after pill. Not least, because of the frequent slut-shaming involved.

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“Women Are Voting With Their Vaginas”

A Tale of Legendary Libido (Source: HanCinema)

Just a quick quote of mine from Fabian Kretschmer’s article for the German Taz newspaper, about Seoul’s very cool, very inclusive, very female-friendly sex-toy shop Pleasure Lab.

Alas, I wasn’t actually referring to what I hope is (or will be) Pleasure Lab’s great popularity with Seoulites though. Rather, to successive Korea governments’ utter failure at raising the birthrate, primarily due to their ideological inability to regard educated, working women as a) people, and b) men’s equals. But, if you’d rather not be reminded that sex often leads to babies though, and would really, really like to visit Pleasure Lab for yourself, then head over to Taz to read more about it in German, and/or Maxine Builder’s article in English at The Establishment. Please let everyone know in the comments what it’s like too (of course, anonymously if you prefer).

What are you waiting for? There’s still many cold winter nights to go before spring, especially in Seoul! ;)

Update: Just for shits and giggles:

(Still) Empowering Korean Women: Over-the-counter contraceptive pills

Increased access to the pill in the US provides a reminder of how good it’s always been in South Korea.
Korea Contraceptive Pill Commercial(Source: YouTube)

Have you heard? Women in Oregon can get hormonal contraceptives directly from pharmacies now, without having to go to a doctor for a prescription first. And in California, they’ll be able to do so from March, whatever their age.

Which is great news. But with health and reproductive rights being such a quagmire in the US, it will be a long time before that’s the case in the other 48 states. Indeed, some supporters think the new legislation will even slow down that extension of access, due to the lengthy FDA approval process required for converting prescription contraceptives to over-the-counter products.

Whatever happens, I was struck by the stark contrast to Korea, where the monthly contraceptive pill has been available over-the-counter for 48 years. As Jordan McCutcheon explains, in her recent article “12 ways Korea ruined me for the US” for Matador Network (my emphasis):

Before I left to go abroad, I was told my insurance wouldn’t cover a year’s worth of birth control at one time (shocker). In Korea, birth control is over the counter, and it’s cheap. I asked for the active ingredient in the medicine I took at home, and the pharmacist found a similar brand. So, for ₩8,000 ($7) I can buy as much as I want whenever I want because I’m a woman who knows what’s good for my body, and what it doesn’t need is another US male politician regulating my right to not reproduce.

That said, only 2.5 percent of Korean women actually use the pill. Probably, due to a combination of 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.

Also, there were alarm bells in mid-2012, when the KFDA announced bizarre plans to make monthly pills require a prescription, but morning-after pills over-the-counter. (Basically, the opposite of the existing situation.) But there was no medical justification provided. Instead, it was a transparent attempt to forge a compromise between the competing financial interests of the Korean Medical Association and the Korean Pharmaceutical Association. And a blunt demonstration that women’s health and sexual freedom were the least of the government’s concerns.

Fortunately though, it backed down in the face of outrage, and because the outgoing Lee Myung-bak Administration resolved it was not worth creating a political headache for Park Geun-hye’s presidential campaign. Also fortunately, Park Geun-hye hasn’t tried again since gaining power. A surprise, frankly, given her continuation of Lee Myung-bak’s equally bizarre and women-unfriendly policy of (re)criminalizing abortion in order to raise the birthrate. (And in practice, only serving to make abortion services much more expensive and difficult to find.)

In the meantime then, Korea remains one of the few developed countries where the monthly pill is over-the-counter. Which makes we wonder: in terms of attitudes towards and use of the pill, in what other ways does Korea stand out?

With that in mind, I was struck by the emphasis on appearance in the following recent commercial.

The voiceover says “My body? ‘A.’ My personality? ‘A.’ My style? ‘A.’ [The reason for?] my success? Alesse contraceptive pills,” followed by the text also mentioning it’s a good treatment for acne.

Should women with “normal” bodies try something else then? What about those with only so-so fashion sense?

That can’t compare with the Koreanness of this next one though, with its mention of “bagel girls” and use of aegyo:

So much so, it may actually be a satire: its title is “Pill Ads These Days,” and I can’t find any mention of the company. Either way, it stresses that even women who look great in a white one-piece, women on a diet, women with great bodies, and women who do aegyo with their boyfriends…all get mood swings and PMT. And all of which can be solved by rearranging their cycles with the pill.

Which I’m sure is indeed empowering. Yet, watching these, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the pill is sometimes used to prevent pregnancy too.

Or is that just me? Please let me know your own thoughts in the comments, about these commercials, how they compare to pill commercials overseas, and/or about contraceptives in Korea in general. And if I’ve been reading too much into these two examples too—no matter how much fun I’ve had doing so! ;)

Just in case though, I’m happy to point out that Mercilon’s commercials at least, do seem to acknowledge that they can be used for that thing called sex too (which is also fun):

Update 1: Satire or not, the second commercial is very similar to this genuine one for Myvlar:

Update 2: According to Stuff, there’s a strong possibility the pill is going to be made (more) over-the-counter in New Zealand also. Most commenters are supportive of the move, and question just how useful and necessary visits to GPs are. For instance, according to “BenzyY”:

In my experience, doctors tend not to provide any real advice or counselling about the use of the pill anyway. When you first start taking it they tell you to read the information leaflet. That is all. And once you’re on it, all they do is harass you about your weight and medical history, and when asked about spotting, imply that boyfriends/partners/husbands have been cheating and have given you an STI.

Bring on pharmacy visits.

Meanwhile, the author of Vintage Ads was stuck at “how condom ads [in Western countries] have changed from ‘prevent pregnancy’ to ‘prevent disease’ over the years.” I wonder then, if these Korean pill ads are so coy about their pregnancy prevention because of Korean sensibilities, or whether they’re more a reflection of recent, international trends in contraceptive advertising?

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Calling all Korean-Western Couples!

A Mixed Relationship(Source, edited: ufunk)

I’ve been asked to pass on the following by Dr. Daniel Nehring, a British sociology lecturer:

My project looks at the experiences of Korean-Western couples currently living in Korea, of any sexual orientation. It involves conversational interviews of approximately one hour, covering various aspects of everyday life in a transnational relationship; I interview the Western participants in English, while my Korean (female) colleague interviews the Korean participants in Korean. I work according to the code of ethical conduct of the British Sociological Association, so participation is confidential and anonymous, which includes not divulging one partner’s responses to the other(!). I am looking for participants aged 25 to 45 who are settled in Korea and currently live in a long-term transnational relationships. I could meet participants in a place of their choice; alternatively, the interview(s) could take place on Skype. I would be happy to answer any further questions about my research; my e-mail address is d.nehring@worc.ac.uk.

I’d add that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Daniel several times, and that he has conducted similar projects in Mexico and China; see here for one of his journal articles on the latter, which is still ongoing, while the Mexican interviews ultimately became part of a book.