Groping in Korea: Just How Bad Is It?

(Source: leftycartoons)

I never did think that women should consider street harassment as flattering of course. But still, this cartoon is eerily effective in getting that message across. It’s no wonder that’s it’s received nearly 300 comments over at Sociological Images.

Most of those dealing with the US though, now I’m curious as to how bad street harassment is in Korea in comparison. And in hindsight I realize that I’ve largely overlooked that in favor of covering workplace discrimination previously, most recently the landmark sexual harassment lawsuit against Samsung.

I did know about bbikkie (삐끼) though, or men that literally drag attractive women into nightclubs to encourage men to spend their money there (see here also); that Korean dating culture actually condones stalking; that this sometimes affects foreign women (see #12 here); and that Caucasian women especially are hypersexualized by the Korean media and/or often get confused for Russian prostitutes; and so on.

But groping? I’d never really thought about it, except in passing. After all, what guy does?

Hence my surprise and naivety at discovering that it’s not a problem confined to subways, and in fact was a pervasive problem among crowds during the World Cup, as the following report I’ve translated makes clear. And, even in broad daylight today too, as Krista of Salt City Girl wrote in her email to me that I’ve posted after that.

(Source: Sinfest)

“골인” 환호 순간에 웬 남자 손이…/ In the Moment of the “Goal in!” Cheer, Some Man’s Hand…

Kim Shi-hyeon, The Chosun Ilbo, June 26 2010

서울의 한 고교 2학년 최모(17)양은 지난 17일 강남구 삼성동 코엑스 앞 영동대로에 월드컵 길거리 응원을 나갔다가 봉변을 당했다. 아르헨티나 에 0 대 2로 뒤지던 전반 막판 이청용의 만회골이 터지자 시민들은 일제히 소리를 지르며 서로를 부둥켜 안았다. 최양도 친구와 손을 붙잡고 팔짝팔짝 뛰었다. 소리를 지르며 정신없이 뛰고 있던 중 갑자기 뒤에서 한 남자가 어깨동무를 하며 다른 손으로 가슴과 엉덩이를 더듬었다. 놀란 최양이 뒤를 돌아보자 20대로 보이는 남자 1명이 순식간에 군중 속으로 사라졌다. 최양은 “남자 얼굴을 제대로 보지 못했고 사람들 속으로 숨어 버려 경찰에 신고도 못했다”면서 “월드컵이라 부모님이 특별히 밤 외출을 허락했는데, 완전히 기분을 망쳤다. 앞으론 절대 길거리 응원은 안 나갈 것”이라고 했다.

Choi Mo-XXX, a 16 year-old (western age) second year high school student in Seoul, had a bad experience on the 17th after she arrived at Yeongdong Road in front of COEX in Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu to cheer [the Korean team] during the World Cup.

Korea was losing 2-nil, but then at the end of the first half Lee Cheong-yong suddenly exploded back into the game with a goal, and everyone in the crowd cheered in unison and hugged each other, with Choi Mo-XXX too holding tight onto her friend’s hand and jumping up and down. But while she was doing this and not thinking about anything else, a man who was behind her placed one hand on her shoulders and with the other groped her breasts and buttocks.

She turned around, and saw a man who appeared to be in his 20s, who disappeared into the crowd in an instant. She said “I didn’t really see his face, and he disappeared into the crowd so quickly, that there’s really no point in telling the police,” and added that “because this was the World Cup, my parents gave me special permission to come out and cheer with everyone, but now my feelings have been completely ruined. From now on, I’m never going to attend any cheering events like this again.” (Source, right)

월드컵 기간 길거리 응원을 나가는 여성들에게 ‘성추행 경보’가 켜졌다. 남아공 월드컵은 시차 때문에 저녁 8시나 11시, 새벽 3시 30분 등 어두울 때 경기가 열려 성추행 범죄가 일어나기 쉬운 상황이다. 특히 위기대처 능력이 부족한 여자 중·고생들은 성추행을 당하고도 무서워서 가만히 있거나 수치심 때문에 주위에 도움을 청하지도 못하고 있다.

A big “Groping Alert” to women has been issued to women going to the streets to cheer during the World Cup period. Because of the time difference with South Africa, games are played at 8pm, 11pm, 3:30 in the morning, and so on, providing easy opportunities for gropers to strike. Especially women least able to deal with such a situation, such as middle or high school students, may be so scared as to quietly accept the groping and/or through a feeling of shame or disgrace be unable to ask for help.

인터넷 게시판에는 길거리 응원전에 나갔다가 성추행을 당했다는 제보가 끊이지 않고 있다. 네이버 한 카페에서 ID ‘바람’은 “사촌동생이 거리응원 나갔다가 성추행당했다고 그러더라. (이겨서) 너무 좋고 정신없어서 당시엔 잘 몰랐는데 가슴을 대놓고 만졌다고 했다”고 썼다. ID ‘단탈리안’도 “친구가 길거리 응원 나갔는데 계속 가슴에 어떤 남자의 손이 부딪혔다고 했다”는 글을 올렸다.

On internet cafes, there is an unceasing stream of information from women who have been groped during World Cup cheering events. On one Naver cafe, a commenter with the ID “Baram” wrote “My younger cousin said she was groped at a cheering event. Without her realizing at first, while she was concentrating on cheering her breasts were roughly grabbed, with no attempt by the groper to conceal what he was doing”. Another with the ID “Dantallian” posted the message that “When my friend went to a cheering event, a man kept feeling her breasts when she was crushed up against him.”

한 인터넷 커뮤니티에는 “거리응원 가서 생각지도 못하게 여자 가슴 만져서 레알(진짜) 기분좋음 ㅋㅋ” 등 성추행을 한 사실을 밝히는 글도 올라 있다.


[But] On another internet community site, there have been messages like “At a cheering event I touched accidentally touched a women’s breasts. But it (really) felt good LOL”, clearly stating that the writers have groped women.

인터넷에는 16강 진출이 확정된 24일 아침 서울의 한 거리에서 남성 5~6명이 핫팬츠를 입은 여성을 자동차 보닛 위에 올려놓고 성추행을 하는 사진이 떠돌고 있다. 지난 21일 경기도 파주에서는 한국과 아르헨티나전 경기 응원 현장에서 여중생 김모(16)양을 성추행한 40대가 경찰에 입건되기도 했다.

And on the 24th, when it was confirmed that the Korea team had made it through to the first round, a picture of 5 or 6 men lifting a woman in hot pants onto the bonnet of car and groping her was posted around on the internet. Also, on the 21st, when Korea was playing against Argentina, a 40 year-old man was booked in the town of Paju for groping 15 year-old Kim Mo-XXX at a cheering event.

26일 열리는 우루과이 전 길거리 응원에서도 여성들의 각별한 주의가 필요하다. 경찰은 우루과이전에 서울광장 15만명, 영동대로에 12만명, 한강공원 반포지구에 12만명 등 전국에서 182만여명이 응원에 참가할 것이라고 예상했다. 서울경찰청 고평기 여성청소년계장은 “월드컵 길거리 응원을 나갈 때는 혼자 가지 말고 어른들이나 여러 일행과 함께 가는 게 좋다”며 “성추행을 당하면 큰 소리로 ‘싫다’고 소리치고 주변 응원객들에게 알려 붙잡도록 하는 것도 방법”이라고 조언했다.

Women need to take special care on the 26th, when Korea plays Uruguay. The police expect 150,000 people to participate in the cheering event at Seoul Plaza, 120,000 at Yeongdong Road, 120,000 at the Han River Banpo Baseball Stadium, and roughly 1.82 million people nationwide. Seoul City Police Women & Adolescent Crime Division Chief Go Pyeong-gi said that “it is better if you don’t go to the cheering events with older people or in groups rather than going alone,” and recommended that “if you get groped, the best method to deal with it is to scream “I hate this!” to the surrounding crowd to make sure they know what is going on and can help catch the groper.”

And now Krista’s experience, whom I’ll let speak for herself. And thanks again to her for giving me permission to print this part of her email (Source, right):

It seems to me that sex, sexuality, gender and race are somehow at more extremes in Korea.

I have never been as groped or inappropriately grabbed at in my life until coming to South Korea. Just a few days ago, I was assaulted by a man in the rainy streets of Chungju in the middle of the day in front of other men. He had no problem at all with putting his hand in my shirt and grabbing my breast. I have resorted to wearing high-necked tops at all times because of the experience. When I shared this experience with a Korean man, he seemed to suggest this was surprising and unlikely to happen because I am “foreign” but then went on to suggest I may be to blame for wearing a low-cut top. I cannot believe either of these instances happened. I did not make that man grab my breast and my low-cut shirt more than covered my breasts. And I certainly expected a more sympathetic ear. But the fact that anyone anywhere thinks it’s okay to grope anyone else is absurd. (I wish I could also explain how demeaning the blatant staring, pointing and discussing of any waygukin woman in the area is.) This hypersexualization of Caucasian women allows an attitude which makes it easier to discriminate against Caucasian women and the people who are willing to help them, work with them, talk to them or have anything to do with them. Obviously the objectification of women everywhere has lead to and continues to allow for misogyny, albeit often in a more subtle form in the US.

It would be a lie to say I haven’t been groped or otherwise harassed in America, but again, it does not compare to South Korea. The behavior is more extreme, bizarre and accepted.  Quite frankly I do not even begin to understand how Korean women tolerate it and I believe it goes a long way towards explaining why it is so rare to find a Caucasian woman who has been in Korea for more than five years. It is something that gives me pause when considering whether or not Korea is a place worth living.

I hope that gives you some insight into how at least one Caucasian woman sees hypersexualization in Korea.

Not to downplay Krista’s experiences in any way, but I had no idea that things were so bad here that many foreign women were persuaded to leave. Do readers agree that it is a big problem here, or has Krista merely been extremely unlucky?

Update: Read about a slightly bizarre 2-hour long case of groping on a train here and here.

Korean Gender Reader

(Source: Lesion)

1) 60% of underage female entertainers pressured to expose as much skin as possible

Lest that sound like an exaggeration in light of other news articles that state that only 10% are, let me refer you to the relevant section in the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s (MOGEF) own report on its survey of 103 teenage entertainers and aspirants (53 males, 50 females), which specifically says:

19세 미만의 청소년 연예인(88명) 응답을 분석한 결과, 연예 활동 시 10.2%가 신체 부위(다리, 가슴, 엉덩이 등) 노출을 경험하였으며, 여성 청소년 연예인의 경우 60%가 강요에 의한 노출이라고 응답하였다.

Or that of the 88 male and female teenage entertainers interviewed (not aspirants), 10.2% said they had the experience of exposing parts of their bodies (legs, breasts, buttocks, and so on) while performing, whereas 60% of the female ones had been pressured to.

Which remains confusing, but I think it’s safe to assume that the 10.2% of cases of exposure by males and females referred to were accidental (albeit because of their clothing?), and that the 60% of females that were coerced to wear skimpy clothing were in little position to refuse. Whatever the true figures however, they belie recent claims that such fashions are somehow intrinsically empowering in a sexual and/or feminist sense, or that it’s the girls themselves that want to wear them (and recall that Girls’ Generation above, for one, was specifically created to appeal to 30 and 40-something men).

Meanwhile, they’re also pressured to go on diets and get cosmetic surgery and so on, and teenagers of both sexes miss out on schooling and work excessively long hours because, bizarrely, entertainers aren’t covered by child labor laws. See the above links and also Extra! Korea and JoongAng Daily for a summary of all the issues raised by the survey, and kudos to MOGEF for finally doing something within its limited budget (0.12% of the government total) that may nevertheless ultimately have a genuine impact on young women’s lives (unlike here, here, here, and here).

2) Subway groping on the rise

In Seoul at least. By coincidence, Busan Mike saw an incident in Busan last week too, although of course that doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s rising in Busan also.

3) THAT video

Yes, Mamma Mia by Narsha (나르샤) of the Brown Eyed Girls (브라운 아이드 걸스), which a dozen readers passed on to me because it’s so rare to see Korean female/Western male pairings in the Korea media. I can’t really add anything that Mellowyel hasn’t already covered in her own excellent analysis of it though (see here also), but you may be interested in this 2002 S.E.S video that it instantly reminded me of, as the contrast in the treatment of the Western men in it couldn’t be greater:

Despite how it may appear though, Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling argues that in fact they’re a substitute for Korean men, who wouldn’t have accepted being portrayed so negatively. Why not? See this *cough* 4500 word post of mine on that here, in which I place it into the context of Korean social and sexual norms in the late-1990s and early-2000s.

4) Number of female victims of sexual abuse is 8 times greater than actually reported

Unfortunately no details are given about its methodology, but according to a recent study by Korean Institute of Criminology, about 470 out of every 100,000 women were sexually abused in 2008, which is eight times more than the official figure of 58. Of those, 36 out of 100,000 were raped, 9.5 times the official number.

Like the reader who sent those on to me pointed out, of course it’s not news that most cases go unreported, but it is nice to see this fact getting some attention from the national news agency.

Update: Korea Beat has a little more information on it here, noting that “it has been the general understanding that many more sexual assaults occur than are reported, but this study is the first to produce relatively concrete figures” (my emphasis).

5) Korean Demographic Reader

As always, rather depressing news:

More interesting are two stories about Japan, with very similar problems (and for similar reasons). First, an article entitled “Families dictate Japan’s economic fate” from The Japan Times, which describes how one scholar:

…uses the cases of families collecting dead members’ pensions and the rise of “parasite singles” to point out how a rich, vital economy can sink so far it has no realistic chance of climbing back up. Low birthrate is a problem, but mainly as a consequence of Japan’s “failure to create jobs.” The Japanese media has not ignored this connection, but in general they still blame population contraction on social changes rather than economic ones, as if the two were somehow distinct. Men have become less aggressive, women too choosy; so they don’t marry and procreate.

Many Japanese still believe that the country’s economic and social problems can be solved by regaining so-called traditional values related to family and community…

And as it demonstrates, that is patently not the case. But as for more detail as to why, see the recently published Contemporary Japan: History, Politics and Social Change Since the 1980s by Jeff Kingston, reviewed here by the Economist:

THE modern image of Japan is built on shaky foundations. In the 1980s nearly all Japanese considered themselves middle class. Other abiding beliefs include companies looking after workers through lifetime employment and the yakuza, Japan’s mafia, being guardians of the lost samurai spirit. There is some truth in all this but, as with other national myths, their real importance is in what they reveal about those who hold them dear.

If the Japanese nurse old-fashioned conceptions about their national identity, so do foreigners. Throughout the 1980s Americans gobbled up books that painted a Japan that was poised to surpass the United States by dint of a superior education system, low crime rate, good labor relations, bureaucratic acumen, familial ties and (let it not be forgotten) racial purity. Most foreigners still see Japan in the rear-view mirror, as an egalitarian, socially cohesive society.

“Contemporary Japan” by Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan, does sterling service in stripping away or qualifying many of these misconceptions…

(Source: A Muchness of Me)

6) We married Koreans

Unfortunately for us, Diana of Going Places is now back in the US, but she’s still taken the time to write a review of We Married Koreans (2009), “a collection of 12 true stories of interracial, intercultural marriages between American women and Korean men in the 1960s”. A quick excerpt:

…It tells a fascinating history, both personal and cultural, of Korea as it struggled towards democracy (one woman’s husband was imprisoned for anti-government demonstrations in Korea) and America as it struggled towards racial equality (many of the women speak frankly about some of the racial epithets hurled at their children). The couples mostly met, married, and lived in America, but most lived for at least a short time in Korea and one missionary couple spent most of their marriage in the Korean expat community in Brazil. I feel like I just sat down and read 12 very good personal blogs about Korea.

Read the rest here. By coincidence, the World Federation of Korean Intermarried Women’s Association’s 6th annual conference, whose members are Korean women married to foreign men, was just held in Seattle, the first to be held outside of Korea.

7) Korea’s national motto is  “Just Bear It”?

Gord Sellar makes quite a convincing case:

Pretty much every time someone I know is doing something against his or her better judgment, something he or she clearly ought not to be doing — working a job he or she absolutely hates, coddling an abusive or infantile parent, turning down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, or studying a subject for which he or she feels no interest — you can usually find a number of people have told the person that it’s important to “just bear it” — ie. bear with it, put up with your dissatisfaction, ignore your instincts, and do the thing you know you shouldn’t.

While I’m sure long-timers especially need little convincing, let me buttress that with the following from the Samsung Economic Research Institute in 2008 (my emphasis):

…In sum, Koreans still regard their jobs principally as a means of livelihood. This mirrors the reality here in Korea where work does little to enrich the life of the people.

Many workers still take it for granted that they have to tolerate anything in return for getting paid. This kind of job atmosphere produces a negative influence on both companies and employees alike. With this in mind, businesses need to make more efforts to develop new programs, aimed at bringing a higher sense of value of work and satisfaction to their employees.

And I can vouch that even my wife finds it surprisingly difficult to conceive of how one’s job can ever be anything but sheer drudgery, let alone something one can enjoy and/or find it fulfilling.

Focusing on the gender dimension here though, Gord was prompted towards the above by a recent encounter in a hospital with a family with an abusive husband and father, and while I concur with his assessment that the wife was at least partially responsible for her situation, his story does provide a very human face to the extreme financial difficulties middle-aged women, most of whom are housewives, have in leaving loveless and/or abusive marriages (although it’s amazing that the divorce rate is so high nevertheless).

(Source: entomol10)

8) Civil service exams to be abolished

While that may sound trivial to Western readers, in Korea it is anything but, as over 200,000 young Koreans are studying for them at any one time.

Why so many? Because the civil service remains one of the few institutions after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 which still provides  “jobs for life”, unlike the rest of the Korean economy which now has the highest number of irregular workers in the OECD. Consequently, the various exams are extremely competitive, and indeed one of my own sisters-in-law spent over 4 years studying for hers before finally qualifying…for a series of grueling interviews, which many applicants still fail (including a friend of mine), but fortunately she made it through those as well.

Why this is a gender issue is because despite the difficulties, at least it is entirely meritocratic, and as such it has a disproportionate number of female applicants. Compare the private sector in contrast, where Gord Sellar’s partner was recently required to provide answers like the following in her application for a job at a major Korean company for instance:

  • list your brothers and sisters, and their places of employment
  • how old are your siblings?
  • what is your father’s job?
  • is your mother a housewife?
  • what is your height?
  • what is your weight?
  • what is your religion?
  • are you the descendant of a war veteran?

And don’t forget that a photo is also required, which as you can see above, has led to a flourishing photoshopping industry catering to job applicants.