Countering Sexual Violence in Korea (Updated)

Once again, Korea has gotten the lowest score of all high-income countries in a recent survey of gender-equality worldwide. And, at 104th out of 131 countries surveyed, it was bested by numerous much poorer countries at that.

Given that record, then it’s very easy to focus on Korea’s shortcomings when talking about gender issues. But that can mean that we can easily miss the positive developments that are occurring though, and sometimes right in front of our very noses.

Take what this humble-looking subway ad for instance, and what it ultimately represents. First, a translation:

부산 해바라기 여성 • 아동센터

Busan Sunflower Women & Children’s Center

여성 성폭력 피해자와 가정폭력 피해자, 학교폭력 피해자들을 돕고 있는 부산 원스톱 지원센터와 아동과 지적장애인 성폭력 피해자 전담센터인 부산 해바라기 아동센터가 2010년 1월 1일부터 부산 해바라기 여성 • 아동센터로 통합되었습니다.

From January 1, the Busan One-Stop Support Center, which helps female victims of sexual abuse, victims of family abuse, and victims of physical abuse at schools, and the Busan Sunflower Children’s Center, which helps children and mentally handicapped victims of sexual abuse, have joined together and become the Busan Sunflower Women & Children’s Center.


여성부, 부산광역시, 부산지방경찰청에서 지원하고 동아대학교병원에서 수탁운영하는 여성 • 아동 폭력피해자 전담센터입니다.

With support from the Ministry of Gender Equality, the Busan Metropolitan City Council, and the Busan Metropolitan Police Agency, Dong-a University Hospital has been given the responsibility of operating the center, which provides consultations for female and child victims of abuse.

가족폭력, 성매매, 학교폭력, 성폭력 피해를 입은 여성과 아동을 보호하고 지원하고 치료합니다.

Women and children who are the victims of family violence, sex trafficking, school violence, and sexual abuse can receive protection and treatment at the center.

의사, 간호사, 임상심리사, 심리치료사, 성폭력 • 가정폭력 전문상담원, 여성 경찰관 등 각 분야 전문가들이 상주하고 있어 위기상황에서 가장 전문적이고 질 높은 상담, 의료, 심리치료, 수사, 법률 서비스를 무상으로 제공합니다.

Experts in many fields such as doctors, nurses, clinical psychologists, psychological therapists, family and sexual violence consultants, and female police officers and so on will be permanently stationed at the center, and when you are in a crisis you can receive the best professional and highest quality consultations, medical treatment, psychological counseling, legal advice, and assistance with launching criminal investigations. All these services are provided free of charge. (end)


In my experience, usually the amalgamation of two government institutions in any country is in response to cost-cutting. Fortunately however, there’s a great deal of indirect evidence to suggest that that isn’t the case here.

First, note that the ad is actually quite dated, mentioning that the amalgamation was effective from January the 1st for instance (although the center didn’t officially open until February the 9th), and in particular that the Ministry of Gender Equality has a supporting role in it, whereas the Ministry actually reconverted back to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family Affairs (여성가족부/MOGEF) back in March. Presumably then, the ad has already been posted on Busan subway trains once before, probably late last year or early this one.

Why suddenly post the same ones again in late September then? What has changed to prompt that?

As Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling has well-documented, what has changed is the public perception that there has been a sudden and dramatic increase in the numbers of sex crimes against children, whereas in fact they have remained steady (but appallingly high) for years:

There is not a “recent series” of such sexual crimes – this is always happening. It’s just that the media has decided – as it does whenever a particular case angers people – to highlight these cases, which would usually either not be covered or covered by perhaps only one or two media outlets, and which are now linked together in articles in order to point to a great problem that exists. To be sure, there have been several laws passed since the murder of Lee Yu-ri in March (and the Yeongdeungpo case in June), and it’s great that the issue has finally gotten enough attention to get things moving (see here for a brief history of the slow pace of change since 2006). I’m not entirely sure that the solutions being offered are always the best ideas, however, and public fury (and worry) whipped up by this media coverage may be putting pressure on politicians to act first and think later.

And see past Korean Gender Reader posts for more details of those and other sexual crimes. By coincidence, one of the most notorious of those – the murder of Lee Yu-ri – also occurred in Busan, and several of my coworkers here have reported seeing rooms like that on the right pop up in Busan public schools they teach at in the months since, although unfortunately they have no information on the quality of their staffing or how often they are utilized. Have any readers also noticed them, in Busan or elsewhere?

(Note that the English translation on it may be a little misleading though: a better one would be “Consultation Room [for] Mental Anguish [caused by] Sexual Harassment or Sexual Violence”)

Regardless, the point is that given the current climate then it would be wise for the government to highlight all it is doing to prevent sexual violence, let alone to continue or even increase funding to women and children’s centers. And however cynical and reactionary the motives, this is to be applauded.

Granted, the amalgamation was decided and instituted well before the public outcry over the supposed recent spate of sexual crimes against children. But that doesn’t necessarily imply it was the result of a reduction of funding: although it may receive little if any funding from MOGEF for instance, I find it significant that the Ministry’s assumption of old responsibilities came with a big increase in staff and 4 times larger budget (albeit from a base of 0.03% of the government total), so when the plans for the change were announced late last year there was already a political climate conducive to more funding for feminist causes.  Signs of a change of heart from President Lee Myung-bak also perhaps, who originally promised to abolish it before his election, only to back down and merely considerably downsize it in response to protests afterwards?

Alas, quite the opposite: in fact, he is using MOGEF to raise the dire birth rate by – wait for it – criminalizing abortion, as I explain in detail here. But to play devils’ advocate however, perhaps this blinds us to some of the positives that it has achieved?

One is its survey of teenage entertainers in August, which – among other things – revealed that many were pressured by their managers to wear revealing costumes, and which ultimately resulted in the National Assembly’s setting up of a committee (albeit under a different ministry) to further investigate MOGEF’s findings. And which after hearing evidence from entertainment company CEOs has just laid down new regulations for the treatment of minors in the entertainment industry (see here and here also for more background).

And finally, take the recent video produced by MOGEF below, which encourages people to pay more attention to the needs of immigrant women. Granted, it’s just a video, and again it may be just be in response to the recent murder of a Vietnamese bride by her husband after only 8 days in the country (see #13 here), but then it’s not like such efforts started only recently. One thing that instantly comes to mind for instance, is the above survey that was sent to all foreign spouses in Korea in August last year (see #3 here), in an attempt to better find out their specific needs.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Any other positives readers can think of, however minor, then please pass them on!^^

Update: As per request, here is what the voiceover in the video is saying (and I’ve put the additional text in brackets as it came up):

이주여성들을 힘들게 하는건 (부부갈등 상담 8, 452건)

The things that make it difficult for migrant women… (8, 452 consultations for married couples having difficulties)

어려운 한국어와 (가정폭력 상담 4205 건 [2009년 이주여성 긴급지원센터 상담통계)

…are difficult Korean… (4205 consultations over family violence/abuse [2009 Statistics from Migrant Urgent Help & Consultation Centers])

낯선 환경, 다른 문화

…the strange environment, the different culture…

그리고 우리의 무관심입니다. (국제결혼 이주여성 16만여명)

…and our indifference. (lit. international marriage migrant women 160,000 women [James: just in 2009?])

이주여성들에게 작은 관심은 큰 힘이 됩니다.

Just a little help and support helps migrant women a great deal (same in the text)

이주여성들의 힘이 되어주세요.

Please be strong and supportive to them.

이캠폐인은 여성가족부와 복권위원회가 함께 합니다. (이주여성긴급지원센터, 1577-1336)

This campaign is brought to you by MOGEF and The Lottery Commission. (Migrant Women’s Urgent Help & Consultation Centers: 1577-1366)

And by coincidence, something else positive that MOGEF has some role in: a seminar about women’s career development at my university tomorrow (stalkers, take note of which one). Things like this seem to go on there at least once a month or so.

Maybe this has something to do with that, which I only just noticed today:

Please let me know if anyone would like a translation of the first poster. Meanwhile, do any other Korea-based readers have anything similar at their own universities?

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.