Korean Gender Reader


For anyone interested, auditions for the 3rd annual Busan performance of the Vagina Monologues will be held on the weekend of January the 7th and 8th at the HQ bar in Kyungsung (the performance itself will be at the end of April). See Busan Haps for the details.

1) Single Korean Female, 30. Not Seeking Marriage.

Over at Seoulist, Stephanie Kim has written a great article on the pressures Korean women her age come under to get married. An excerpt:

Much like writer Kate Bolic, I also left a long-term relationship at the age of 28. It is never an easy explanation as to why a relationship doesn’t work out, but more disconcerting than my ambiguous story are the perplexed looks on the faces of my more conservative friends, especially those who believe that certain things must happen at certain times in one’s life….

…My Korean friends tell me that there is a very bad stereotype for a man who dates and then leaves a woman in the twilight of her twenties, letting her waste away into what my Chinese friends call a Leftover Woman. This was hardly my case. My ex-boyfriend was, and still is, a wonderful man. Smart. Caring. Supportive. The easiest answer I can give as to why the relationship fell apart is that things did not “feel right,” and that I was not ready for the next level of commitment, the marriage-minded track. It’s a scary feeling we all experience: everyday you feel one step closer to fulfilling a perfectly planned life, and it’s damn comfortable, but deep in your gut something tells you that that’s not what you truly want. I simply had the courage to act on that feeling. Though I don’t regret my decision, the stereotypes I face every day remind me that I took a non-traditional path.

Read the rest there. Note though, that unfortunately her message is a little confused by her referring to herself as a “Gold Miss” (골드미스), which she mistakenly thinks refers to an unmarried woman in her thirties or above. As regular Grand Narrative commenter Gomushin Girl points out however, actually it refers to women also highly successful in theirs career and/or financially well-off (the Joongang Daily says an income of 40 million won or above is required), which you can read about in depth in this discussion of the Japanese origins of the term at Ampontan: Japan from the inside out.

(Sources: left, right)

Not that I endorse the use of the term in any way: as even the Joongang Daily indirectly concedes in that above link, Gold Misses have little in common besides their salary and marital status, and one wonders at all the media attention on them a few years ago considering there were only 27,000 of them in 2006 (2 years before the article was published).

The explanation is that a Gold Miss is simply an invented role model for 30-something unmarried women to aspire to, all the better to sell them products that (supposedly) help them achieve that goal; or in other words, it’s normative rather than descriptive. This financial motivation becomes obvious when you realize that Japan-based Ampontan overlooks that the term is actually suspiciously similar to the “Missy” (미씨) term first used in 1994, about which So He-lee explains in her chapter “Female Sexuality in Popular Culture” in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and Consumption in the Republic of Korea (ed. by Laurel Kendall, 2002; my emphasis):

As soon as it came out [in a Seoul department store advertisement], it was adopted widely to indicate a particular kind of housewife, a married woman who still looks like a single woman. Even the copywriter was surprised at the speed with which this term took on social meaning and evoked specific images of women and femininity. “Missy” rapidly permeated the Korean language once the advertising industry recognized the consumerist implications of this target age groups’ flamboyant desires.

The essential condition of being a Missy is a preoccupation with being looked at….Another fundamental condition of membership in the Missy club is her professional job.

You could argue that that this was simply luck by the copywriter rather than being part of a grand conspiracy between advertisers and the media, but then both are constantly inventing new terms in order to find one that’s likewise happily adopted by the public, as the never-ending creation of new “bodylines” makes clear. Tellingly, the terms also tend to be quite broad and vague, conveniently leaving others free to further define them as they see fit: say, when they want to blame all Korea’s modern social ills on working women for instance, in an appalling Korea Herald report on “Alpha Girls” that I eviscerate here. So I think So He-lee is a little misguided in assuming that Missys’ “flamboyant desires” came before rather than after that 1994 ad.

2) Questions on Korean LGBT Literature

As explained by Charles at Korean Modern Literature in Translation:

Chasing down a question from long-time commenter Charles (not me^^) and some interesting information about Yi Kwang-su, I came across some interesting work by Gabriel Sylvian at The Three Wise Monkeys, .

I emailed him some questions and the answers were interesting (and lengthy!) enough that I decided to run them individually, with some comments they evoke from me.

Gabriel, a grad student in Korean Literature at Seoul National University, founded The Korea Gay Literature Project  in 2004, and you can read more about him here. In any case, my first question was for background:

Read those questions and answers there, continued in Parts 2 and 3 here and here.

In other Korean LGBT-related news, a gay Korean man recently received refugee status in Canada because of the abuse and discrimination he would be expected to receive during his mandatory 2-year military service (see here also for more on sexual abuse in the military in general); anti-gay art caused a stir at a recent Seoul National University exhibition; and – sorry for not noticing earlier – the Korean gay movie 알이씨REC below came out last month, which you can find many links about here.


3) Japan’s ‘Mancession

As Tokyo-based New York Times reporter Hiroko Tabuchi put it:

Very interesting in its own right of course, that Bloomberg article referred to is also particularly useful in contrasting the Korean government and businesses’ decision to fire women in droves in response to the financial crisis, as in the US and – now Japan – it was actually men that suffered more. Indeed, in the former working women came to outnumber working men for the first time in its history (see story #5 below also).

4) Another Reason to Hate Naesoong and Aegyo

Via Tumblr Kitty Kitty Korea (but actually written by Party in the R.O.K.):

I can’t count all the times I’ve said “I’m going home” and attempted to leave wherever I was, and the Korean guy would be like “Oh, no you don’t!” and grab my wrists or shoulders or take my phone or hold me against a wall so I was physically unable to get out. No, man, I’m not just saying I want to go to be cute; I want to go. It’s not until I start thrashing around and yelling at them that they let go, and then they just act really confused. (I’m guessing that it’s a thing for Korean girls to pretend they want to leave a man so they can watch him beg for them to stay. Korean couples go on all sorts of weird power trips I just don’t get coming from the relatively sane world of American dating.)

Read there for her discussion of what lay behind that confusion. Also, I don’t mean to cause and/or perpetuate negative stereotypes about Korean men, and should be(!) the very last person to ask for dating advice, so please let me know how that does or doesn’t match your own dating experiences.

Update – By a wonderful coincidence, 5 minutes after I published this post this one appeared at Seoulbeats, about how seemingly every Korean drama features the male lead grabbing the female lead by the wrist and literally dragging her away with him like she was his property and/or child, despite her screams and protests. Sound familiar?


5) What do Women’s Groups Think of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF)?

Not much, according to the Hankyoreh, citing:

…its passive approach in the cases of the comfort women who had been coerced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II and a sexual harassment victim who was dismissed from a Hyundai Motor subcontractor. In the latter case, the occurrence of sexual harassment was acknowledged in January by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, and the victim held a nearly 200-day sit-in protest in front of the MOGEF building when she was not reinstated. The ministry made almost no efforts to offer support, merely reiterating that it was “not within our legal authority to help victims.”

And also that:

In addition to its failure to do its job, the ministry has also added fuel to existing conflicts in the most bewildering of places. A case in point was its embarrassment after indiscriminately handing out “19 and older” ratings to songs with references to alcohol in their lyrics. Meanwhile, a late-night Internet shutdown system for those aged 16 and under has stirred up a controversy over violations of freedom.

Hey, I’m no fan of the Lee Myung-bak administration, and indeed I think its mixed performance in other areas of governance pale in comparison to its appalling record on women’s rights, which will be one of its most enduring legacies. Having said that, it’s a real struggle to find a Hankyoreh article that doesn’t criticize the present government in some form or another, whereas MOGEF does have a point about its relative powerlessness (it has only 0.12% of the total government budget for instance), the editor’s assertion that “if its authority is limited, then it can only survive by constantly raising issues and making its voice heard” proving my own point that this is the very impetus behind its constant censorship of K-pop (but not that I’m for that either!). Also, when Lee Myung-bak himself encouraged the firing of women in 2008 (see #3 above), then it deserves at least some praise for its recent efforts at job creation (source, right):

On December 23, MOGEF presented its plans to provide individually tailored job assistance programs for 130,000 people in 2012 before the Korean Youth Counseling Institute with President Lee Myung-bak in attendance.

The plan stipulates expanding the number of job training centers for women to 111 by next year and developing more in-depth programs for those with less access to employment opportunities, such as migrant women and women with disabilities. Furthermore, the Women Friendly City program, which currently counts 30 cities among its members and has received growing interest from regional administrations, will expand to 40 cities. MOGEF will also perform assessments, differentiating for gender, to measure the effects of such programs.

Read the rest at Korea.net. It does have to be acknowledged though, that still much much more is needed to boost female employment in Korea, as today’s final link – this comprehensive report from the Korea Herald – makes clear.

Korean Gender Reader

( Se7en, via Omona! They Didn’t )

With so many stories this week, I’ve decided to organize them by categories to make it easier to keep track.

Pop Culture

1. Social change through comedy?

Not a fan of dramas, normally I’d pay little attention to the news that yet another one is about to premiere. But I did a double-take when I read the following description of Nanun Jonsol Eeda (I am Legend; 나는전설이다) at DramaBeans:

Kim Jung-eun (김정은) plays Jeon Seol-hee (전설희) who leaves her society-wife identity behind after a divorce to front a rock band.

These photos picture her in the early part of the drama, when her character is the put-upon wife of a prestigious lawyer. Jeon Seol-hee was once the popular singer in a band when she was in high school, but over the course of her unhappy marriage, she has learned to speak quietly and act in a manner befitting her uppity in-law family.

Why my interest? Because it sounds a little like the 1996 movie The Adventures of Miss Park (박봉곤 가출 사건), which on the surface was an average romantic comedy, but actually had a radical message for its time. As So-hee Lee notes in her chapter ‘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):

…unlike the convention of most films in the genre, this one ends with a women running away from a domineering husband, achieving her dream of becoming a singer, and finally entering into a happy second marriage, “thus subverting a traditional morality that expects the runaway wife to come back home to restore everyone’s happiness and family security”. (p. 156)

And as such, Lee notes the film director was concerned about how a conservative audience might respond to the uncommon story and its unexpected ending, and hence in many ways the movie was a guerrilla attempt to sneak a serious social message into Korean cinema by presenting it as comedy. Not that Nanun Jonsol Eeda necessarily will attempt to of course, but I’ll keep an eye on it. Meanwhile, see my post Women Getting on Top: Korean Sexuality in Flux in the 1990s for more examples and an analysis of “sexually subversive” popular culture from that era.

2. Common Tropes in Korean Popular Culture

Again by Dramabeans, this new and ongoing series is not just indispensable for understanding dramas, but much about Korean daily life and gender roles too.  For starters, try the posts on the meanings of adults giving each other piggyback rides, and then when and where to use jondaemal (polite language) or banmal (informal language). As you might expect, men are allowed to use banmal to women much more than vice-versa, and Korean broadcasters often repeat that practice when dubbing or adding Korean subtitles to foreign movies and dramas too, even though no such distinction is made in the original language.

( Source: Dramabeans )

3. Feminism through Translation

Via Korean Modern Literature in Translation, I’ve found a review of Theresa Hyun’s Writing Women in Korea: Translation and Feminism in the Colonial Period (2003), which begins thus (my emphasis):

Theresa Hyun’s Writing Women in Korea: Translation and Feminism in the Colonial Period takes up the intriguing and fresh theme of the woman translator in colonial Korea. Although it is commonplace to argue that Western notions of feminism were translated into Korea at the turn of the twentieth century, this is the first study to examine this process through the historical figure of the woman translator. Translation here is no metaphor, but a material practice through which women transform themselves and Korean writing. Women, the author argues, made a decisive contribution to the development of modern Korean nationalism and feminism through their translation activities and their own fiction writing, which developed in correlation with their translation practice.

4. The Millennium Trilogy

Not strictly related to Korea, but naturally I became very interested in buying these books after reading the following review at The Global Sociology Blog:

Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy should be required reading in any sociology of gender course because it is a strong demonstration of the way patriarchy works at all levels of society: individual, interactive, institutional, structural and cultural.

The whole trilogy is a fictional demonstration of what happens to women who don’t know their place and won’t conform to patriarchally-established gender roles and even worse to those who fight back against patriarchal control….

Have any readers read them? I’d really appreciate hearing from you before I buy them!

( “The Woman Who Shaves”. Source )

Body Image

5. Leg Shaving

From Drifting Focus, a blog by a former teacher in Korea:

Women are constantly told by the media, our mothers, and our friends that men don’t like women who don’t shave their legs.  “You won’t find a man that way” they say. I call bullshit.

I would have predicted that it would have been men who had problems with my lack of leg-shaving. Presumably, they’re the ones we shave for, right? Nope.  No man I have ever dated has had much, if any, issue with my shaving preferences.  It’s possible that they’ve just been nice, but from more in-depth conversations I’ve had about that habit with them, that does not seem to be the case.  They simply don’t really care as long as it’s not “totally out of control”.

So where does this “huge amount of flack” that I’ve gotten over the years come from?  Well, that’s the surprising part: other women.

Read the rest here. With the proviso that Northeast Asians don’t tend to have as much body hair as other ethnicities, would readers say that that is also the case in Korea?

6. “What? Use some NORMAL-sized models??? I quit!”

Sociological Images looks at the issues raised when designer Mark Fast decided to use four plus-size models (US sizes 8-10) in his catwalk show at London Fashion Week in February, which prompted his stylist and creative director to quit, leaving him just three days to find replacements. As they explain, it is “possible that they thought being associated with the show could hurt their chances of success in a very competitive career,” but on the other hand it says a great deal about an industry “that stigmatizes fat so powerfully, ” that “it might be terrifying indeed to be seen as endorsing it.”

Can anybody think of any similar initiatives and/or reactions in the Korean fashion industry?

7. Koyote’s Shin-ji has no plans to go on a diet

Nice to see a positive role model for a change:

As is evident through K-pop’s many girl groups, Korea’s entertainment industry consists of a long line of ridiculously thin girls. (It doesn’t help that netizens are hawks when it comes to capturing the slightest bit of belly fat). In a recent interview, Koyote’s (커요태) Shin-ji (신지), who is known in Korea for being more on the chubby side, was asked if she was ever saddened by the harsh comments and jokes she received regarding her weight.

Shin-ji answered:

“I feel blessed to be a singer that older audiences like. In the past when I was thin, many said that it was unattractive. Now, I don’t plan on going on any diets. It really damages your body. Since I debuted when I was in my teens, I received a lot of stress regarding diets. It really weakened my health. These days, if I were to diet I would not be able to endure.“

Read the rest at allkpop. Admittedly the image above is a little old (source), but then much thinner celebrities are also regularly criticized for their weight: see #28 here for instance).


8. Queer in Seoul

The 3 Wise Monkeys pass on a rare 2005 overview of the evolution of the gay community in Seoul over the last few decades.  As explained there, “Gabriel Sylvian, the founder and torch-bearer of the Korean Gay Literature Project at Seoul National University, recommended it for all readers to get an idea of the LGBT life in the capital.”

9. Queer in China

Over at The Peking Duck, Richard discusses an article entitled A modern tragedy: Pressure on Chinese gays to marry that he was surprised to see in his local Arizona(!) newspaper. Meanwhile, Gender Across Borders provides a review of Backward Glances: Contemporary Chinese Cultures and the Female Homoerotic Imaginary by Fran Martin:

…Exploring popular media produced during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, author Fran Martin addresses the ways in which same-sex love between women is commonly depicted, and the ways in which those depictions simultaneously reinforce and challenge the conventional discourse on homosexuality in China.

On the surface, many of the novels, television dramas, and films Martin analyzes do not appear to be particularly transgressive. A common theme among the media she explores is memory; stories of same-sex desire between women are often presented as a fleeting childhood fantasy, something that perpetually exists in the past and can never be fully realized by adults in the present…

10. Snakes are victim of men’s search for sexual prowess

See The Korea Times for the current mania for snake soup in Korea, openly praised by some celebrities despite snake soup restaurants being illegal and many of the snakes endangered spaces.

While I usually try to avoid generalizing and stereotyping, I can’t help but always be simultaneously amazed and appalled at how virtually anything that’s phallic is considered an aphrodisiac in this part of world.

11. Korea’s Low Birth Rate Continues to Decline

When even government-propaganda channel Arirang begins to report the following, things must indeed have reached crisis proportions (paraphrased slightly):

…according to the government’s internal assessment report on childcare policy, new measures lean too heavily towards childcare support and fail to address other major issues such as the disadvantages women face at work after taking maternity leave. Fear of discontinuities in their careers is currently the second biggest reason why Korean women refuse to have more than one child.

The other major problem with government policies mentioned is that financial aid is heavily targeted towards low-income families, with little funds left over for middle-class families that comprise 65% of the population. This is discussed in more depth in a Chosun Ilbo editorial.


12. Possible serial killer of sex-workers in Pohang

See Korea Beat for the details.

13. Vietnamese bride killed by mentally-ill husband after only 8 days in Korea

Like the original Dong-A Ilbo report from Monday says, since 2002 the man had been hospitalized or treated for depression and mental illness 57 times, so whether whether the matchmaker had prior knowledge of the man’s condition is crucial for determining wider responsibility. But however unethical, would the matchmaker actually have committed a crime?

Possibly: Extra! Korea mentions that police are investigating, but an editorial in The Chosun Ilbo also says that only from November must they “unveil records of previous marriages, health conditions, occupations and criminal histories of both the brides and grooms,” so the issue of criminal fault remains a little unclear. Regardless though, there will still be no way to check the validity of information about grooms provided from November, and the industry as a whole remains very unregulated, with virtually anyone able to open an international matchmaking business: 44% of the 1250 companies in Korea are staffed by just one person (and 33% by husband and wife teams), the ensuing intense competition not exactly encouraging companies to make their clients look any less marriage-worthy.

On a slight positive note though, the government now requires all prospective Korean grooms to attend “marriage ethics” classes before heading overseas to find wives (image source).

( Source )

14. Curbing Sex-Offenders

From The Korea Herald, an update (see #3 here) on moves to enact retroactive legislation aimed at sex-offenders in the wake of a perceived spate of sex crimes against children and teenagers:

Prosecutors will be able to request that sex offenders who were not already given an electronic anklet be electronically tagged after a legal revision takes effect Friday.

The revision allows authorities to retroactively apply the anklet to criminals convicted before the law took effect in 2008.


Some, however, argue that the anklet is not the answer.

Earlier this year, a convicted rapist cut off his anklet and escaped, though he did not commit any other offense before he was apprehended.

The ministry will introduce stronger anklets by the end of August, said officials.

The new law has met some criticism for the retroactive application of the anklet system.

Meanwhile, KBS announced that the police are also going to enlist the (volunteer) help of community leaders to protect youths, and last month a law for allowing chemical castration as a possible punishment for child sex offenders was passed in South Korea. See The Marmot’s Hole for more details.

Work & Economy

15. Young People Face Continued Employment Crisis

Further compelling young Korean adults to live with their parents until marriage, recent improvements in the economy that have meant that more than 10 million Koreans are legally regular workers for the first time have largely bypassed those in their 20s or 30s, the only demographic still losing jobs. And to add insult to injury, not only was the minimum wage only raised 8 won (US$0.01!) last month, but 4 in 10 young people stuck in irregular and part time work weren’t even getting that anyway.

Hell, no wonder they have to be specially taught to smile at customers (source).

16. “More college girls work part time at massage parlors performing sexual services”

And who can blame them considering the above?

17. S Korea posts lowest employment rate for educated women among OECD countries

See here for details. Also recall from this book that in 1998 at least, the more educated a woman was the less likely she was to be employed, the only country in the OECD in which this phenomenon occurred. As far as I am aware, this is still the case today.

18. Korea lags behind in economic opportunities for women

Not unsurprisingly in light of the above, compare Korea’s latest dismal figures from the Economist Intelligence Unit’s survey with the UNDP’s “gender empowerment measure” last year also (see #2 here), both of which demonstrate that despite living in a developed country, in fact women in many developing countries have far more political and economic power.

This is both cause and effect of Korea being one of the rare exception to the worldwide “mancession”, which prompted headlines like “Is female dominance a success for feminism?” in many US feminism blogs. Also see The Wall Street Journal‘s report on Japan for an alternative sense of perspective, as it is a country with many of the same structural and ideological impediments to women’s employment; as you read how bad it is there, bear in mind that unfortunately the Korea situation is actually much worse!

19. Korea lacks gender-parity in education

This graph came as a big surprise, as I’ve frequently read that the equal provision of education to both sexes was one of Korea’s crowning achievements of the post-war period:

Originally found via Surprises Aplenty, the graph comes from Marginal Revolution, which unfortunately has only a minimal discussion of it. Assuming that the result is accurate (Korea is the green dot at the top left), then what do you think accounts for the gender difference?

East Asia & Overseas Koreans

20. Twenty-three percent of female homestay students from East Asian countries reported being sexually abused in Canada

Much more complicated than that headline suggests however, see Extra! Korea for an excellent summary for a summary of all the newspapers on the topic, and The Marmot’s Hole’s post for its typically vociferous (but often informative) comments thread.

21. Japan split over granting married women the right to their maiden names

A big difference with Korea, where married women retain their names, unfortunately the Democrats’ plans to allow this have stalled in light of recent political setbacks. See The China Press for more details.

( Source: Korean Lovers Photoblog )

Enjoy the rest of your weekend folks!

Prosecutors will be able to request that sex offenders who were not already given an electronic anklet be electronically tagged after a legal revision takes effect Friday.The revision allows authorities to retroactively apply the anklet to criminals convicted before the law took effect in 2008.