Mom was worried when she knew I was going to South Korea. Not so much because of the ramifications attached to living in a country still officially at war. On this small detail, she told me that in case of an armed conflict, it ‘would be good for my business’. Ignoring potential explosions, torn limbs and other unseemly dismemberments, she just did not want to see me suffer the sexism she imagined was everywhere.
At the origin of my distinguished mother’s concerns, this story, told at every family lunch, of a business school graduate (Harvard Business School I think), who serves coffee to her boss. Recently, foreign media have stated, however, that sexism in Korea is disappearing, that the country has demonstrated its willingness to become more progressive by electing a woman, Park Geun-Hye, at its head. Except that for Koreans, this person is not a woman.
A word on it, a precision, courtesy of a colleague. To be considered an integral part of Korean society, a man must serve his country two years for the military service. Legally, it is possible to avoid it, for example for medical reasons – as is actually the case of this gentleman. However, he has no hope of ever being elected president, because he has not had this experience unique to Korean men. He is therefore in this sense not considered a typical Korean man. Just as Park Geun-Hye is not a Korean woman.
Park is a war machine, a princess, or the representative on earth of her late dictator father. She is a ‘dysfunctional’ woman, mainly because she never experienced femininity in South Korea. She is not married, she doesn’t have a child (though I learnt that there are rumors), she was never treated like a woman in college, a woman in the workplace, a woman who takes the subway, etc.. Neither men nor women see her as a woman.
Is South Korea a sexist country, despite its president?
T’s grandmother, in her youth, belonged to a wealthy family of the center of Seoul, in the Jongro district. This lady of steel with a strong personality, Ok-Sun, was one of only two local girls to have gone to high-school (before the Korean War would force the family into exile even further south to Busan). Two generations later, an enormous difference – now almost all girls go to college.
A young woman in South Korea may have aspirations. Yes, her salary will still only 63% of a man’s, but it is not uncommon to see female CEOs, especially in the Hi Tech industry. Proportionally, however, it is still more difficult for a woman to be an executive (less than 5% are women).
The evidences of a huge social difference between men and women are numerous and overwhelming, here are a few:
- Korea is the last country in the OECD to hire female graduates (according to The Economist, this plays to the advantage of foreign companies that can benefit from Korean women’s talents).
- The physical standards that women are expected to reach are absurd, to the point that even though Koreans are the thinnest people in the OECD – yet Korean women are the ones with the worst body image, and 20% admit to have had a plastic surgery between 19 and 49.
- It is expected of pop-stars to showcase the aspirations of young women – they must not have sex. The case of IU (pronounced Ayu), who had the misfortune to tweet a picture where she appeared alongside a young man, a pop-star as well, is a good illustration. The ‘scandal’ has had consequences only on her career.
- It is frowned upon to smoke in public when you’re a woman (it does not stop me from indulging – but it is easier for me to ignore drunk old men’s derogatory comments).
And then we find some delicate attentions, touching with sheer stupidity:
- My team leader whom, hearing that I was going to marry, thought his duty was to warn me very seriously that “all men change after marriage.”
- My partner’s uncle, who believes that as I have to take care of my future husband, I must by extension serve all the males of the family, and of course he had to tell me.
- Harassment At Work Awareness Day in my company, where we learned that women mistreat men (3 examples) and sometimes men may put their foot in their mouth (1 example). Poor things. Especially when these wicked women use their superior hierarchical position (not really a social reality). We foreigners had a good laugh that day.
Why is this so?
Confucianism, if not the cultural and social base which determines most interactions – especially inter-generational – stops frank conversation between people of a perceived different level, hierarchical, within a company, a high school class, a family structure. No situation warrants honesty, whatever the case, because it is fashionable to ‘take it on’.
It is not uncommon to see young Korean girls in almost in their thirties, hiding to their parents that they have a boyfriend, they smoke and they drink alcohol. This scheme is not exclusive to religious families. To see these young women having a curfew while their brothers, considered men since they did their military duty, are much freer, is somewhat sad.
Education at school on the human reproductive system, respect for one’s partner during sexual intercourse, or protection and contraception, is ridiculous. Young people can not have open conversations about how-it-works-down-there, and what a functioning couple looks like. They then will use two sources for information: Internet (Internet is magic) and cultural products.
The problem of Internet in Korea, is that there is no porn (the classics – PornHub, YouPorn, RedTube and others – are inaccessible without VPN). About porn in Korea, it is worth noting that in 2006 the Koreans were the number 2 global consumers of porn. But the problem of Korean net, which in itself deserves a careful study, is that everyone gives his opinion and it is difficult to trust any information there. Above all, Internet is not considered by the parents as an appropriate source.
Let us see the cultural products, for example the ‘dramas’, an international explosion, part of the Hallyu wave (also including K-pop). That is to a lot of young women – and their mothers – the ideal model of life of which they are told they dream. In a huge percentage of soap operas, the characters reach the end of the story by marrying, as a final reward and a universal life goal.
A diagram appears in most of these dramas, which often offer a romance between four characters. The heroine is a young woman as pretty as a heart, a bit silly but pure; she works hard to help her family strangely almost always in need. She meets a rich man, handsome, young and brilliant – but very obnoxious. And I do not mean a little egocentric. I mean atomically ignominious The kind who says to a young woman: “how dare you stand before me with clothes showing how poor you are?”
She falls in love with him, of course. However, this young man has a brother/cousin/best friend also handsome, though somewhat less rich, who realizes that this girl has a diamond instead of a heart, and falls desperately in love with her. She will never see him. And the fourth character is a beautiful woman, sexier, more comfortable in society, better educated, and often rich, too. She loves our odious hero, and is willing to do anything to get him. She is heavily demonized.
All this sends two messages to young Koreans, both poisonous. The first is that the rich and sexy girl is almost mandatorily evil and that it’s better to be clumsy and not very educated (The mother-in-law is also a witch, but that’s hardly exclusively Korean). The second message is much more dangerous: if the man is rich and handsome, he can be obnoxious, it’s not serious, it’s just that he loves you. However, a less rich and handsome man who loves you and respects you with all his heart, is no less than a parasite.
The drama Secret Garden struck foreign spectators as the perfect image of an unhealthy male/female relationship:
During the 20 episodes, the male protagonist Joo-won insults, scorns and looks down on Ra-im for belonging to a lower class, and yet she just tolerates it and is still there waiting for him when at the end of the series he decides he actually loves her.
From there to a battered woman, there’s only one step, that is taken more often than we can think : 50% of the women interrogated here admitted to being/having been beaten.
And anyway, we don’t really care about what they want, these women in the dramas – which is annoying because they cater mostly to women. For more information on this subject, here is a list of blogs worrying about the misogyny of Korean dramas. And here is a series of very telling images.
What are the consequences?
Sometimes, women who live in the real world – outside of the sweet ‘paradise’ pictured by dramas – subject to an enormous family and social pressure with no one really being interested in their individuality, they blow a fuse.
One friend’s wife, one evening she was drunk, attacked him with a kitchen knife. Fortunately there was no injury – but still, it was the second time. He warned her: if she does it again, he leaves her, this time for good. But he knows that his threats are empty, because at the end he loves her, and if he leaves, he has failed in his role as husband, and he will have to give up on his little girl , and that, to him, is unbearable.
The situation is even more advanced on the side of another friend’s mother, who stabbed her husband with an iron bar on her way home from the hospital where she’d gone to cure her depression. She was discharged with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Her daughters are emigrating at the moment.
These cases may seem extreme, and it is true that such things exist everywhere, but it is almost commonplace in South Korea. After the two most important family celebrations of the country, Chuseok and Seollal, the only moment when everyone has three days of vacation, online shopping sites record their biggest profits. The reason: women’s compulsive buying as a result of three days of stress with their in-laws.
Among other consequences of this type of gender imbalance, you can also list the funny transformation of Korean women who lose their reproductive value after menopause, as shown below in an image that has been shared all around the Web:
We can also mention that women have for the most part an image of underachievers in the workplace, that they push their children to succeed at what they themselves have failed in a rather violent case of life by proxy, thus becoming Tiger-moms. That’s a life of sacrifice for the sole benefit of being cared for and then inspire fear in their children. (Obviously, this is an exaggeration).
So is South Korea the Eden of men?
At first glance, yes, but the reality is quite different, and this is the thing – and I think it is unfairly ignored.
To be perfectly honest, we must still admit that the Korean man is the ideal example of the disposable human, a concept explained in length and very interestingly here:
The disposable man is the man who can be replaced by any other man, and whose role is to protect his family and ensure offspring – to have worked at the continuation of humanity. But this man is interchangeable, because as it says in the video, one man can impregnate numerous women. It is therefore necessary that man should be useful to society, for the simple fact of being is not enough (unlike women).
Korea, in 1953, at the end of the Korean War, was a Third-World country (for more information on South Korean economy, see here and here). One of the reasons why the country has experienced one of the most impressive growths ever seen is the sacrifice of a whole generation’s individual happiness. No more family, no more weekends, no more education either: just a massive effort. The men worked day and night, and women procreated and took care of the house.
This generation is now between sixty and eighty years – and they are at the top of the social pyramid. Their ideas are those that are heard and respected (because of the pyramidal structure) and it is they who rule the country through Chaebols (conglomerates) and government.
They standardized the expected attitude of young Korean men. Working overtime is normal and the law says that they should be paid for that – except that many companies have their employees signing a contract where the employee agrees not being paid for over-time hours (funny note, I also agreed not to ask for my monthly day off provided for periods).
Some employees rarely return home after work before midnight. Moreover, Koreans work the longest hours amongst countries of the OECD (and ironically, are also less productive). And when the day is over, the Korean employee must still go drinking with his colleagues and his boss. And that’s not even counting the “Workshops” (I can them binge outings), which can last up to several weeks to teach the employee that his only real family is the company.
Their hopes and desires, beyond the limited core consisting of his wife and children, don’t really have any importance either. They remain under the control of their parents who have all the rights (including the order given by his grandmother to a friend to not emigrate to Australia, because ‘I would not see your child grow’, a brilliant, shameless, opportunity destruction by egoism).
And how can we ever forget the greatest inequality? Korean men must spend two years in military service, a stint in the army that we should really write a book about. Once the military service is completed, the man is two years behind in his studies compared to women (and therefore it is difficult for him to find a partner) but must still find a good job.
He must accumulate money fast, because as soon as he turns thirty, he must own a home and a car. Then he must marry. I heard a young man tell me that he was thirty, and he owned a car, he soon had to marry a Korean girl. When I asked him if he had a girlfriend, he told me he did not – but it did not seem to upset him.
Once married, the pressure is not over since the man must fund a child. Then make sure that the child is the best – goest to the best school. The man must pay for it all while the woman provides love and tenderness to the charming toddler; only one person is responsible for providing the family with money. Like Korean women, Korean men lives a life full of obligations in order to be an honorable member of society.
How do you live that?
I am in my third year in South Korea, so I’m just a beginner. However, it seems pretty obvious to me that these issues only marginally affect me.
Firstly, having received a very different education, I have the intellectual weapons to protect myself. I do not think anyone deserves respect simply for being born before me. My definition of respect also does not imply a total lack of criticism for the respected person. I also have the luck of being naturally respected – if sexism is present around me, I’m never the victim from important members of my partner’s family. They all give me a lot of undeserved affection and respect.
I also have a magical power in Korea, which makes life difficult at times, but usually opens doors: it’s called the Foreigner card. Like Park Geun-Hye, and for the same reasons, I am not a woman for most Koreans. I do not share the life experiences of Korean women. With that, I can assert and validate skills over a pair of breasts.
And if by chance someone crosses the line with me, I can always pretend to not understand and ignore them disdainfully.
Much of the references listed here were picked from James Turnbull’s very interesting The Grand Narrative, of which I highly recommend the fascinating reading.