Korean Gender Reader

Korea 2009 Men's Health Cool Guy Contest

I didn’t catch his name sorry, but if you’d like to know more about the winner of the “4th Men’s Health Cool Guy Contest” above, then click on the picture or the Men’s Health Korea site itself for many more like it. In the meantime, with so many stories to report on this week I’ve decided to put them into loose categories to make it easier to find what you’re interested in:


1) Of course, the two biggest stories of the last week were: first, the foreign women on the Korean show “Global Beauties Chat” (미녀들의 수다), who chose to complain about both the foreign (Caucasian) men who supposedly come to Korea because they can’t get a job or girl back home and the Korean women that naively fall for them; and second, intern reporter Choi Hee-seon’s series of articles in The Chosun Ilbo saying much the same thing, as well as accusing said men of sexual crimes against students and Korean women. Needless to say, both provoked an instantaneous and vehement response in the Korean blogosphere (for starters see here, here, here on the former, and here and here on the latter), and with 165 comments at that first link alone I’m not going to enter into the fray at this late stage.

In passing though, let me mention that in response Chris in South Korea offers 8 reasons, and then 8 more reasons, why Korean women might prefer Western guys over Korean men. But while I haven’t read either post nor the comments in any great detail, and I’d be surprised if I didn’t think that there was something to all of them, let me offer a word of caution: when actual Korean women themselves aren’t providing most if not all of the input into such lists, they can very quickly and easily devolve into simple narcissism.

Not that Chris is guilty of this by any means, and in fact I write because I speak from experience, having waxed lyrical on similar points with a Korean female friend years ago only rightly to be told to STFU, and that most Korean women that liked Western guys did so simply because they tended to be taller. Just something to keep in mind.

Park Shi-yeon2) Imported vibrators to penetrate local market. No, I hadn’t been aware that they had been illegal either, and actually I’m not entirely certain that they were: the Supreme Court’s ruling may have been more against the arbitrariness of denying customs clearance for their import than anything else. Regardless, by no means does Korea have a monopoly on absurd and indefensible restrictions on the sale of sex toys.

(Above: Park Si-yeon {박시연} models for High Cut. For more information about the photoshoot, see here)

3) Consensual sex with 13 year-olds is legal. Yes, apparently so, given a recent acquittal of a Busan man for doing so with a runaway in his (unofficial) care and, as Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling notes in the most comprehensive look at the case, mirrors a similar decision 8 years earlier. For further discussion, see this article in the Korea Times by Michael Stevens, and this post at The Marmot’s Hole.

4) Infidelik at FeetManSeoul reports on the perils of not wearing a bra on the streets of Korea . If you’re interested in that, then you may also want to check out this post at Sociological Images about how, in contrast, visible nipples have became more accepted in Western countries since the 1990s.

5) Rules on abortion toughened. Somewhat surreal, given that there are already very few circumstances under which Korean women can legally have an abortion, and yet Korean has one of the largest abortion industries in the world. To put it mildly, the article is somewhat lacking by not providing that context (see here for that).

Worried Moment for Korean Couple

6) The Marmot’s Hole reports that the police would like to close down a Swinger’s Club in Seoul, but unfortunately there is currently no law allowing them to do so. Again, somewhat surreal, given that adultery is actually illegal in Korea, albeit usually with entirely arbitrary prosecutions.

Meanwhile, Brian in Jeollanam-do reports that Education Ministry officials formed the largest group of civil servants caught paying for sex.

7) Not that these are recent news items by any means, but while we’re on the topic you may be interested in the fact that Korea used to be a much more sexually freer place; indeed, as Frog in a Well points out, “just because a society has a reputation for sexual restraint doesn’t mean that it is and always was asexual.” Also, here and here are two excellent Andrei Lankov articles from The Korea Times about how military governments allowed much racier films in the late-1970s and early-1980s (in an opium for the masses sense) and the development of the prostitution industry in Korea before the Japanese colonial period respectively.

Censorship and Media

Ogamdo Posters

8) Dramabeans reports that the star-studded Ogamado (오감도) continues with its provocative promotional material (see #7 here also). For a review of the movie, (which is really 5 movies in 1) see here, and given some of their subject matter then as a commenter over at Dramabeans (#17) noted, it is strange that the posters are as per usual fetishizing the female form and not the men, which leads her(?) to worry that all the sex is only from the perspective of the men.

9) The Korea Communications Standards Council announced on Monday they will commence deliberations on the fate of Naked News Korea,” which started its racy services late last month both online and mobile. As Brian notes, there far more explicit and sexually suggestive programs are readily available 24/7 on Korean cable television, so this scrutiny is rather strange. Is it because its whole raison d’être and discussions of sexuality are just too blatant for censors’ tastes? To wit:

According to the communications watchdog, the contents of the site have been closely monitored since it began and an episode in which its presenters discussed female orgasms was deemed vulgar and inappropriately suggestive.

In all seriousness, I’d be interested in seeing that. I have the strong suspicion that the notion of women sitting around talking in a no-BS Sex and the City style was a bit too much for Korean censors, and hence any discussion of female orgasms by them would have been deemed vulgar and suggestive regardless.

10) Another commercial featuring kissing…well, actually there’s so many these days that I’m losing track (see here for another recent one). Here is the latest one (via PopSeoul!), featuring AJ and Min Hyo-rin (민효린) and with the tagline “Cool (refreshing) for 20 year-olds” (“스무살을 상큼하게”, at 0:17):

11) As predicted (see #1 here), rapper E.via’s (이비아) latest song, featuring a lot of innuendo and heavy breathing, was indeed deemed inappropriate for Korean TV. For further details, see Extra! Korea here.

12) More on Choi Jin-sil (최진실), who was notoriously sued by a company she had a modeling contract with for ruining their reputation by making her husband’s beating of her public (see here and here, the latter of which has puts the case into the context of domestic violence in Korea). For two opinion pieces in The Korea Times, see here and here.

13) As a result of the case of actress Jang Ja-yeon (장자연), who killed herself in March due to being forced to provide sexual services to various high-ups in the entertainment industry in order to advance her career, Korea is to enhance the right of entertainers (see here also). Meanwhile, the police have determined that she was indeed forced to have sex, and a survey shows that 19% of female entertainers are, although Extra! Korea rightfully disputes the figures.

14) Apparently, Abusive Words Over The Phone Are Punishable. Meanwhile, and more understandably, a cartoonist was summoned by the police after drawing a cartoon insulting the president. As a commenter here notes, regardless of the freedom of speech issues involved, the police in any country are obliged to investigate cases as blatant as this one.

Politics and Economics


15) Korea has the biggest wage gap between men and women in the OECD. See the Korea Times and the JoongAng Daily for more, and see Brian in Jeollanam-do for more information about conditions in Jeollanam-do specifically, which has the biggest gap (image source: J. David Allen).

Economic Participation Rate Among Korean FemalesIn addition, Lee Hyo-sik of the Korea Times reported that male temporary workers are more likely to lose their jobs than women because of the industries they tend to be in, but on the other hand reported a few days later that women are still more likely to lose their jobs overall because they form a disproportionate number of temporary workers. The graph on the right comes from the latter report, and while useful, would have been more so had it been placed into context, which is that Korea has one of the lowest rates of female participation in the labor force in the OECD. For much more on that, see here (source, right).

Not unrelated, the Chosun Ilbo reported that “Korean Women’s Status is Still Low Among OECD Nations”.

16) Korea is to become most aged society in OECD by 2050. Also:The Hankyoreh has an editorial on how its record-breaking low birth rate – “unparalleled to anywhere else in the world” – requires employment policy revisions; there is a list of related recent articles at the Hub of Sparkle! here; and Japanian writes on the implications of the aging and shrinking Japanese population, with obvious parallels in Korea (via Global Voices).

17) 90% of Teachers Back a Quota for Male Teachers

18) Brand Confucian reports that KT recently promoted 3 women to top-tier executive positions.

19) However miserly it sounds, something that may have a lasting impact on the rate of young Koreans living independently before marriage is the raising of the minimum wage to 4,110 won per hour. See Judy Han at Otherwise for the details.

On the other hand, Korean graduates are now forced to flip burgers, and not unrelated is the fact that Koreans as a whole are increasingly willing to overcome their Confucian disdain for manual labour. They are also increasingly unhappy in general, as are Korean teenagers and children.

20) ROK Drop discusses whether the Korean Army should also conscript women, or do away with conscription altogether. Given conscription’s role in a pervasive militarization of Korean society, as I discuss in this series of posts beginning here, then I’m much more in favor of the latter.

Events, Movies, and Fashion

Miss Korea 2009

21) FeetManSeoul’s cover model Lee Seul-gi (이슬기) becomes Miss Korea 2009. I’m a little confused though, because the Korea Times reported that a different woman won.

22) Chris in South Korea (naturally) visited and took many pictures of the Wild Women’s Performing Arts Festival that I mentioned last month (see #17 here).

23) Unflattering pictures of members of girl group 2NE1 (투 애니원) without make-up were publicly released, and YG Entertainment is to take strong action against whomever responsible.

24) Rebecca Voight at The New York Times loses her head and claims that Korean menswear is innovative. Meanwhile,  Five by Fifty says that pink is both Japanese women’s most and second least-preferred color on Japanese men.

25) (Male) actor Yoo Ji-tae (유지태) is to receive Seoul Women’s Prize.

26) Apparently, Kim Yu-na (김연아) is a champion skater primarily because of her small face. For the details, see here, and see here and here for where such a crazed logic stems from.


27) Keeping Korea Beautiful: read here for an interview with Klaus Fassbender, president and executive director of L’Oreal Korea.

When will the netizens ever be happy.....
When will the netizens ever be happy.....

28) Hopefully not because of netizen’s complaints (see #1 here) and not via starving herself, Kim Yu-bin (김유빈) of the Wondergirls (원더걸스) has lost a lot of weight.

29) Breathless (똥파리 or “shit fly” in typically earthy Korean), a Korean movie about domestic violence that I wrote a little about here, has won its 13th award, this time at the New York Asian Film Festival.


30) Finally, in news outside of Korea, Matt at On My Way to Korea has a post on the way women are presented in North Korean propaganda posters; EqualWrites explains why being catcalled in Vietnam is not flattering; Shanghaiist writes about “homowives”, or heterosexual women married to gay Chinese men (hat tip to Left Flank); and finally, the Economist has an article about Gay rights in China and last month’s Shanghai Pride Week.


Korean Gender Reader

supposedly-fat-kim-yu-bin-김유빈(Source: 원더풀홀릭)

1. God Moves in Mysterious Ways

My opinions on the marketing of teenage girl groups like the Wondergirls (원더걸스) have become much more nuanced since I wrote controversial posts like this and this a year ago, although regardless of my criticisms I never had anything against any of the groups or the singers themselves. And good on Kim Yu-bin (김유빈) above for standing up to the netizens who can’t tell the difference between turning “fat” and turning into a woman.

2. Korea Drops from 64th to 68th in its Gender Empowerment Measure

Probably the most stunning indictment of Korea’s gender relations, it’s worth quoting this Hankyoreh report in full for those of you who haven’t heard of the GEM before:

South Korea fell further out of the mid-low range last year compared to other world nations in women’s rights, a report shows.

According to [2008 data] released Monday, calculated by the United Nations Development Programme for over 100 world nations, South Korea earned a score of 0.54, falling four spaces to 68th from its 2007 ranking of 64th.

The GEM is an indicator of women’s degree of participation in political and economic activity and the policy-making process, using for its evaluation factors such as the number of female legislators, the percentage of women in senior official and managerial positions, the percentage of women in professional and technical positions, and the income differential between men and women. A value closer to 1 indicates a higher level of empowerment.

In the first set of GEM calculations released in 1995, South Korea ranked 90th out of 116 countries, but its ranking gradually rose after that, reaching 68th in 2004, 59th in 2005 and 53rd in 2006. But its ranking fell once again in 2007, as it fell considerably compared to the overall average for nations assessed in areas such as percentage of female legislators and female professionals.

Like Michael Hurt pointed out back in 2006, these figures need to be placed in the context of Korea’s ranking in the Human Development Index (HDI), which combines things like life expectancy and education levels. Roughly speaking, the more developed and better a country is to live in the higher its HDI ranking will be, and usually its GEM will be pretty similar too. But then look at these (click for a much larger version):

south-korea-2008-gender-empowerment-measure-gem-ranking-by-human-development-index-hdi(Source: UNData)

In brief, of the best 25 countries in the world to live in, only 4 are not also among the best 25 countries in terms of women’s rights and levels of economic and political power: Greece on 26, Israel on 29, Japan on 58, and finally Korea on 68. Put another way, women will certainly have a good quality of life in Korea, but they have less chance of becoming a politician or even a middle-manager or computer programmer than in:

  • 59 Kyrgyzstan,
  • 60 the Dominican Republic,
  • 61 the Philippines,
  • 62 Vietnam,
  • 63 Moldova,
  • 64 Botswana,
  • 65 the Russian Federation,
  • 66 Uruguay,


  • 67 Nicaragua, the HDI of which was 120th(!) out of 179 countries surveyed.

In fairness though, Korea has actually improved in absolute if not relative terms:

In South Korea last year, women accounted for 13.7 percent of legislators, 8.0 percent of administrative and managerial positions and 40 percent of professional and technical positions, while the ratio of female to male income was 0.52.

The overall percentage improved from 2007, but South Korea was pushed down in the rankings through an overall improvement in gender empowerment among other nations examined. The overall average values for the nations studied were 19 percent for the percentage of female legislators, 29 percent for women in administrative and managerial positions, and 48 percent for women in professional and technical positions.

True, the gap between Japan’s HDI and GEM is also so high, and I can’t blame Korea’s low GEM ranking almost entirely on military conscription in this series but also regularly claim deep economic and social similarities between the two countries in other posts. While I do eventually plan to start covering gender issues in at least Japan and Taiwan though, until then I’d strongly caution against looking for easy explanations such as shared Neo-Confucianism, as Singapore’s HDI is 28 but it’s GEM 15(!), and China’s 94 and 72 respectively for instance (unfortunately there are no separate figures for Hong Kong, or for non-member state Taiwan). Moreover, China’s comparatively good GEM score is not due to the number of women in state-owned enterprises, as they almost always held lower, non-advancing positions within them and were the first to go when they were privatized, wound down, or restructured (but it may account for Vietnam’s relatively good one though).

caucasian-and-korean-lingerie-models3. Korean Lingerie Models too Embarrassed to Show Their Faces?

As long-term readers of this blog will know, the main reason that there are so few Korean women in lingerie advertisements is because many Korean porn stars have done so in the past, giving the industry a dirty reputation, although stereotypes of Caucasians’ more liberal sexuality and their role as signifiers of “developed country status” certainly also play a part.

FeetmanSeoul argues that this accounts for Korean models’ virtual disguises(!) at Levi’s “Best Body” fashion show in Myeongdong last week (source, right), although it may well have been the choice of organizers rather than the models themselves.

4. Korea’s Double-Standards Still Devastating for Female Celebrities

As I explain here, it’s still open to debate whether singer Baek Ji-young (백지영) has successfully salvaged her reputation after a sex video scandal in 2000, but another case that deserves to be far better known is that of Ivy (아이비), for whom simply the threat of the release of a similar video was enough to derail her career in 2007. On top of that, despite the trivial fact that the video didn’t actually exist, and that her ex-boyfriend was ultimately sent to jail for making the threat, she was sued by various companies she modeled for and endorsed because of the “damage to their reputations.”

Unfortunately, she is still considered beyond the pale. As PopSeoul! explains, songs originally written for her are now being used by other singers instead.

5. Sexual Violence

  • It’s good that the drunken executives that harassed a 19 year-old student were arrested, but not that she accepted monetary compensation from them rather than pressing charges. As for why this is a feature of the Korean justice system, see here.
  • One of the five teenagers that drugged and raped a 16 year-old in Suncheon is a student at one of Brian in Jeollanamdo’s schools. Make sure to ask him for follow-up details.
  • The Supreme Court upheld a 10 year sentence on Jesus Morning Star cult leader Jung Myung-suk for the sexual abuse of five Korean followers between 2003 and 2006.
  • On Wednesday serial killer Kang Ho-soon was sentenced to death for the murder of a total of 10 women, including his wife and mother-in-law. See here and #5 here for more details.

6. That Movie Poster

Yes, for the movie Ogamdo (오감도, source), apparently causing quite some controversy with it’s depiction of a women’s naked buttocks (a first?), but really quite predictable given things like this (see #1) and this. ogamdo-오감도For more on the movie itself see here (including details on the owner of said buttocks), and there’s a nice…er…meaty discussion at KoreaBeat too.

7. Anti-Miss Korea Festival

Held at Seoul University on Saturday, and now in its tenth year, bizarrely there appears to be a great deal of information on it available in English, particularly in Australian newspapers (maybe this has something to do with that?) but virtually none in Korean, at least for this year’s event! As Australian newspapers are unlikely to report on how it went though, then I’ll keep looking for “안티미스코리아대회” on Naver, but in the meantime you might find this journal article about the 2000-2001 Drama Viva Women (여자만세) that it inspired interesting.

8. The Differences Between How Koreans and Westerners Perceive and Discuss Appearance

What is said to you and about you by Koreans often shouldn’t be taken at face value, but on the other hand is invariably very blunt, and this habit can take a great deal of getting used to. For a big discussion on how to navigate this cultural minefield, see The Hub of Sparkle here.

9. Monsters-in-Law

A Korean take on domineering mothers-in-law. For the religious/ethical and demographic reasons for why it’s no generalization to say that they’re much worse than their Western counterparts, see here and here respectively.

10. Welcome, Brides, But…

A good recent summary of the problems faced by migrant brides, although I concur with J. Scott Burgeson’s criticism of the author as being unable to ‘transcend the “pure-blood” ideology she claims to critique.”