Tag Archives: Korea

Day 28: Elections Are Here- Korean Politics and Women

15 Mar

It’s about election time in Korea. It will be held on April 11th, and the hopeful congress-men and women candidates are running around like mad chickens. One thing that the Korean media focused was the fact that the heads of the two major parties –Saenuri Party (conservative- formerly known as the Grand National Party) and Democratic United Party— and one minority party (United Progressive Party- I directly translated, and I’m not sure about their English name) are all women.

For Saenuri, the head is Park Geun-Hye. She is the daughter of a former president Park Chung-hee, who is known as a “benevolent dictator” who held his power for 19 years until he was assassinated. Han Myung-Sook leads Democratic United Party, and she was deeply involved in women’s activism, although not many people seem to know about this. She was also a prime minister for a few years. Lee Jung-hee is a former lawyer who graduated from an elite school yet she has always been with the non-profit law and labor activism. I read an article somewhere that when she was in undergrad, she took a class by Han and was motivated by the feminist education.

So doesn’t Korean politics look more or less over with this gender inequality stuff, no?

But in reality, only 6% of Saenuri’s candidates and 11% of DUP are currently women, and the actual politicians who are at the National Assembly participating actively in policy and law making are even fewer. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only 44 out of 299 seats in the National Assembly were taken by women, and South Korea ranked 87th out of 143 ranks (there were more than 150 countries while some where ranked the same). This is even below North Korea, although they certainly have a very different system than the rest of the world. This is below the world average of 19.7% and Asian average of 18.3%.

There is certainly a long way to go for South Korea’s political scene to be more inclusive of women. We need more women in the National Assembly, because we need more policies and laws to accommodate the needs of every citizen of the country, not just half of its population (male population, to be specific). I would like to believe that policies and laws are meant to provide social frameworks that guarantee better democracy and human rights for everyone. I can’t imagine people who are not necessarily in need of maternity leave even thinking about the necessity of such laws or making a comprehensive, user-friendly policy. I’m not saying that men are not capable of making women-friendly policies and laws, but they are often hindered by male biases, not capable of seeing the other half’s needs.

I honestly don’t know what lies ahead of Korean politics this year, as there are elections for the president as well at the end of the year. But I hope that there would be more women in the National Assembly, speaking up for those who have been muted for long, whether they are policies on women or others who have been disempowered systematically within the society.

Day 27: How Is Your Culture (and Are You) Treating Homosexuality and LGBTQ Population?

14 Mar

While visiting my grandparents in the province, I have had to travel to a place where I have limited internet access. I apologize for the delays, but there is no way that I would give up on the last 4 days of my blogging project, so don’t worry J. What I ended up doing, instead of writing, was reading lots of articles, way more than I usually would, because I still had some internet access through my phone. And I thought a lot about how I could connect those to my writing, and here’s one topic that I will talk about today.

I ran into a very interesting article on the LA Times, which featured a Korean actor, Hong Seok-Cheon. He is not one of those Korean drama stars, but he has acted in many series acting in supporting roles. What is so significant about this guy is the fact that he has been an openly gay public figure since 2000.

You may think, so what? If so, good for you, since it may mean that you don’t really feel any prejudice against homosexual entertainers and individuals alike around you. Or maybe you just think that that’s an irrelevant topic to you, although you may feel a slight discomfort with the subject and want to avoid discussing about it. Or maybe you just feel pure disgust by even thinking about it. Within Korean culture, which is still very much conservative at its core (although it has been changing quite rapidly), being openly gay means risking everything in your life. It was even worse about a decade ago when Mr. Hong came out, especially as a public figure.

Hong had to have a press conference as he could not live in the dark (“in the closet”) anymore. He wanted to be someone who he really is, and that is all he asked for, but to make it so public, I am sure it required extraordinary courage. He was on several shows, but he was kicked out immediately. According to the article, he remembers it as the moment where everyone turned back against him, and he even received many death threats. I still remember his “coming-out” event which happened when I was in middle school. It was a shock to me at first, but then I never gave it a serious thought about what kind of impact it would have on the individual and the society as a whole. I was simply too young, while I was living a “normal” life as a majority in which everyone I knew was living a heterosexual middle class life.

Then several years later, I attended a camp called AnyTown during high school in the States. It was a camp to expose teenagers to diverse cultures and social challenges (racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, etc.) so that they can build up more tolerant and vibrant future. I was attending a private school, and it was a privileged environment where I didn’t necessarily experience much diversity. However, AnyTown totally changed my view towards the world as I was exposed to a huge range of social issues besides racism, which I was already interested in. It was my first time to make friends with people who were of LGBTQ origins and to learn about them. Previously, it was not an issue that I had to deal with or was concerned about, because I didn’t have to as a heterosexual female. And the only issue that I had to deal with was mainly related to that of race, being a racial and linguistic minority in the US. But being in the same small group with them, sharing meals, chats and tears, and discussing about intensely personal issues, I became very much aware about the challenges that my friends had to go through in the conservative social norms and hatred-driven (and unreasonable) views towards them. I became a totally different 16-year-old by accepting the diversity that is beyond black and white racial dynamics.

I really believe that anybody can overcome her/his ignorance if s/he is willing to acknowledge the ignorance and prejudices from it. However, I really (and sadly) think that not many people have the ability and courage to do so. Instead, many people learn to dislike/hate others first in the midst of hugely competitive era, where everyone must be a winner of some sort while oppressing those who have some level of disadvantage in the society (whether that be race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical disability, etc). I cannot help but think that we all end up hating ourselves in the midst of the ugly fight, and then hate others even more, just fulfilling a terrible cycle.

Mr. Hong does not have to suffer such extreme hatred anymore. He is now back on TV and is a successful restaurant owner. His restaurant is very famous for the great food and atmosphere, and people want to meet him. He takes picture with the people and proudly walks around the restaurant asking people if the food is alright. Just like a normal person. Nowadays in Korea, I heard that there are even some cable TV channel and social network celebrities who have marketed their “gayness” so well that people actually think that their being gay is actually very “cool.” But there was also an incident about a year ago when a Korean drama series featured a gay couple, many organizations, including national parents’ associations and Christian associations, put a huge ad on a major newspaper saying that “SBS (the broadcasting company which aired the drama) should be responsible if our children die of AIDS.” The advertisement wrongly claimed that the series will make the children want to become homosexual, which is wrong apparently (and where did they get the idea that being homosexual will directly cause AIDS?). Well, have they ever thought that many Korean dramas featuring divorces and couples cheating on each other were actually giving more unhealthy examples of relationships and challenging social norms hence they would be more harmful to their children? Of course, the very same people have not said a word about the influences of such Korean dramas. At least the gay couple in that particular drama actually had a very healthy relationship. What is more family-friendly in this case? Take that.

And for God’s sake, no one has the right to judge someone, because s/he is in love. And everyone should support love, no? Cultures are their to change, so shift your prejudices NOW.

Day 18: The Plastic World to My Eyes

1 Mar

One day in April 2011, it was my first time going to Apgujeong area in Seoul. It takes about an hour and half to get there from where I live, which is just outside of the city, and I couldn’t bother to visit there while my breaks were often quite short and didn’t involve visiting the particular area at all. Well, it is supposed to be one of the richest area in the capital city. There are lots of highly-priced restaurants, fancy clothing shops, and cool places to hang out where one can be very happy if she has enough money to splurge. This area is perhaps the most famous for a very unique feature: The Apgujeong Beauty belt where literally thousands of plastic surgery clinics are filling in the entire stretch of the road. As soon as you get out of the subway, you are overwhelmed by large advertisements by a number of those clinics, and quite often they are very “creative” in selling their skills. Some clinics can take care of anywhere, from the head to toe, and they say they will change your life. And others have specializations, often eyes, facial shape, nose and breasts, and say the same thing: You’ll be happier with bigger breasts. The ads tell you something is wrong with you, if you are content (or even OK) with how you look and if you haven’t consulted those doctors at least once in your life. It is widely known that Korea has one of the biggest plastic surgery industry that is largely fed by the demands in the domestic market as well as international market. By the way, the government promotes medical tourism. Interesting facts are found here.

**

“Let Me In.” It is a name of a cable channel’s show in Korea. “Me in” in Korean (the sound of it) means a beautiful woman, so the show’s title cleverly uses the English phrase to mean two things. One, let me become a beautiful woman, and two, let me be in the show so that I can become beautiful. It is a show that chooses a woman every week with a dramatic story, and she gets to get a fully-paid plastic surgery makeover. Each woman comes with her own story, and each is quite heartbreaking because the women tend to have been hurt by others deeply throughout their lives by the way they look and have no confidence in themselves. And talking about the scars that they have lived with for very long in public is perhaps one of the most humiliating thing that one can do, especially as a scarred, unconfident individual. Some of them do have some clinical problems physically, but the show is, as you can guess, mostly concerned with making someone look more beautiful through cosmetic surgeries. After the storytelling is done, there is a panel of doctors behind the wall who discuss about the issue, and they are the one who decide if the woman on the other side of the wall will get the chance to change her look (and her life, so they say). There are plastic surgeons, dentists and psychiatrists who quite fiercely discuss the case. They sometimes laugh at how the woman looks like, maybe commenting, “Really, there’s not much that can be done in this case (meaning that she’s ‘too ugly’ that even with their magical hands, that can’t be fixed).” For all the episodes that I’ve watched, all women got chosen, but I couldn’t watch the show anymore.

Every time after watching the show, I looked at myself in the mirror and think, “Something is wrong with my facial shape,” or “My nose could look better.” I mean everyone looked more beautiful and happier on the show, and deep down unconsciously, I was thinking, maybe I can be happier if I can fix the parts that I don’t like.

***

After reading the two episodes above, I hope you are upset or at least uncomfortable. Such trend that I have observed is not just limited to Korea, but everywhere (I do happen to see more about this stuff in Korea, though). Maybe you will say, “Well, isn’t it ultimately the women’s choices that lead them to those clinics and the show? Shouldn’t they have reasonable causes that lead them to such actions?” I argue that women’s “choices” are not entirely theirs when it comes down to plastic surgery decisions. The media and the entire society are telling you that there is something so wrong about your body that you need to hate those parts and yourself. And ultimately, it is not about your ability to have your own intelligent reasoning, but it’s about how you feel (ugly and awful) and how the society enforces its terrible reasons on women. Even as a highly educated woman (for God’s sake, I have a master’s degree), I felt terribly wrong, awkward and ugly whenever I had to stand on the street of the Beauty Belt and whenever I watched that show. There is nothing more discouraging and demoralizing than the feeling of self-hatred, feeling that you are not beautiful hence no one, including yourself, will love you. And these feelings are more serious and important than any other matters to one’s self-confidence.

All women have the right to believe that each and one of them is beautiful inside out. However, unfortunately, many women learn how to find what is “wrong” about their bodies and hate themselves as they grow up, instead of learn to love who they are. The human pursuit of beauty and vanity will never stop, but they should not have to be built upon the self-deprecating, self-hating ground where the media and industries are constantly telling you to not to appreciate yourself so that you may eventually buy into that scheme. If plastic surgeries are done completely free of such negative social baggage which damages women’s personhood, and if one can be completely happy after such surgeries are done, I wouldn’t be so against the idea of plastic surgeries. However, why is it that there are more and more women who are knocking on the plastic surgeons’ offices in the Beauty Belt every year from everywhere in the world? Why is it that I hear women who have had at least one plastic surgery would go for more of them over time?

There is certainly something missing to the (temporary) satisfaction that the perfect plastic surgery gives to a person.

Day 11: On Korean Drama Series…

22 Feb

I have a lot of time nowadays. In fact, I have enormous amount of time that I end up doing the least productive things throughout my days. One of the (terrible) hobbies that I picked up to fill up my time during my “post-school transition period” is watching TV. It’s one of those habits that once you pick up, you can’t get away from it, sort of like an addiction problem (gasp, it might actually be addiction!).

So today, I decided to do something productive out of my mindless hobby: writing about the things I observe and being the critique of it from a gender analysis perspective. I admit that I’m pretty rusty on all the feminist theories and what not, but heck, I’ll just do what I’ve been doing over the past 10 days, and hope you’re OK with my critiquing on K-drama scene.

Living in Southeast Asia for a while, I experienced and lived through the popularity of Korean pop culture. Unlike in the US, I think there are much more common threads between Korean and Southeast Asian cultures, hence Korean drama series are very popular. Trust me, I met so many people who are very much into Korean drama series or Korean novelas as Filipinos call them. It was, in a way, a shock to be reconnected to the culture that I was not a big part of, and hey, I think it actually improves the reputation of Korean people in general in the continent, so I have nothing against the overall positive outcomes and influences.

And now, I’m based in Korea, I get to watch many more of them, and every day, I go in front of the TV at 10pm to watch my regulars. While I watch them without thinking so much, I feel a little bit of guilt, especially looking into the very apparent stories that I know for sure how it’s gonna end, especially in terms of relationships. Yes, the actors and actresses are unbelievably good looking, and that for sure is unrealistic. But what I’m trying to point out is not so much of the unrealistic looks, but more of the gender role that female characters play, and how the media at large is reinforcing how women should be like if they want to have their fairytales and happy endings achieved.

Firstly, I have made a list of female characters that may show in Korean drama series.

Type 1. The beautiful one who has lost everything but has the men of her dreams nearby

This is the most common one I think. As I said earlier, most of the actors are beautiful in the series, but the female protagonist is always the most beautiful one. She often possesses next to nothing (maybe an orphan, or with an alcoholic father, or left with younger siblings that she has to support by herself), but she is always an optimist. She is unbelievably nice, so the world may give her all the difficulties possible, but she always survives, often with the help of a nice guy (that she will end up being together “happily ever after” by the end of the series). She doesn’t know how to be angry, so a jealous girl (who will be explained as a “type 2” character) may do everything possible with her will power and money, but she eventually wins. There are usually two guys, who are very handsome of course and hey, very wealthy as well. They can be cousins or very good friends who end up competing for the unfortunate nice girl.

Female Type 2. The beautiful one who has it all but wants to take away the main male character from the nice girl

She seems to have everything, wealthy family, a good job, and what not. The world envies her for what she has, and she is admired by those who surround her. But she is often very unhappy and bitchy. All she wants to do is taking away the only happiness that the Type 1 girl has: the main male character (who is really nice, good-looking and rich). She does anything and everything possible to get his attention, and he may pity her as a friend, but his heart is always with the type 1 girl. She will never get her happy ending, because she is the “evil” one who pursues what she wants.

Female Type 3. The lovely tomboy who eventually realizes her feminine side eventually (and gets to live in her fairytale eventually)

This is the newest development in K-drama, I believe. More of romantic comedy material character. She is someone who is definitely not perfect in terms of her behavior. She makes a lot of mistakes, and she sometimes acts like boys (and this is supposed to be the proof of her imperfection). She is clumsy, too. Usually, the main male character doesn’t consider her has a potential romantic partner, but hey, it’s OK. The way she acts is so lovely that he will eventually fall for her. She gradually develops her love for the guy and tries to act more “like a girl” so that he will pay attention to her. By going through lots of accidents together, they eventually realize that they are in love, hence, happily ever after.

 

Yes, these are stereotypes, and each story carries different characters, but I think these are pretty much what I have seen over the past years when I have had the chance to watch a series even partially.

As I said in my previous posting, I believe that the media tells the viewers a lot about how they should be like in their everyday behaviors, while the ideal is often impossible. Whether we want it or not, the drama series are of great influence on the society’s imagination of “perfect womanhood.” And the influence that they have on women, especially young women in their 20s and 30s, is rather uncomfortable for me.

Through the unreal characters like the three types above and their romantic and human relationships in general, the viewers unconsciously learn about how their behaviors and relationships “should be.” The shows tell the viewers how women should be like if they want to be loved, whether by a potential romantic partners or by the world. If one wants to be liked, she has to be nice, but it’s OK if she is clumsy and not so smart. She is always in need of help, and the prince will surely help resolve the issue, while she by herself often can’t get out of the mess that she is in. But she should never be assertive, because being assertive means that she speaks her minds, and of course no one likes a girl who is expressive. She doesn’t know how to actively pursue what she wants (whether social status or the love of her life), but she sits there and waits until they come to her. And hey, don’t forget that she is flawlessly beautiful. In other words, a smart, confident, go-getter woman cannot be someone who is loved, but someone who is just foolishly nice and needy can achieve a successful relationship with the man of her dreams and with the world. WHAT?

Yes, it’s easy to tell people, “well don’t watch the shows if you don’t want the influence.” But how could that be even possible while internet portal sites are talking about the stories, the main topic of conversation amongst your friends are about the series, and the current cultural trends simply carry these stories in our everyday lives? Everyone knows that they are not real.  But the shows magically realize our fantasy world as if they can become real, something that could potentially happen. The show producers constantly produce and reproduce the unreal images, and they sell really well, not just in Korea, but in many other countries, too.

But how many more of the three types of women do we have to bear, simply to satisfy our voyeurism for impossible fairytales?

Day 5: Why South Koreans Won’t Have Kids- And Why Policy Cannot Solve the Low Fertility Issue (part 2)

16 Feb

In the last post, I said that the overarching policy frameworks are mainly patriarchal, and that is what is preventing the formation of long-term policies. And the specific problems that I can think of (or heard of) are below.

First of all, in my opinion, Korean culture (along with others) has demanded women’s tremendous sacrifices for their families, although its women got to take various social roles outside of their homes over the past several decades. In traditional Korean household, she is the one who takes care of domestic duties while the husband is the “breadwinner” who works outside, bringing income to the house. However, Korea’s economy has modernized in a very short time span, without giving people enough time to change the traditional family/social norms. Hence, even if both the husband and the wife are working, woman “naturally” has to take care of the work outside and inside household. For example, both of my parents work as teachers, and they bring similar amount of incomes to the family. However, my mother’s work doesn’t end at 5pm when she gets out of her workplace, but continues as she has to cook dinner, clean the messy house and fold laundry. When I was much younger, she breastfed me, read to me and helped my homework when I was enrolled in school, along with doing all the house chores. I don’t remember when the last time my dad actually did any of the work (no offense to him), and if he did anything, it was him offering help, not doing his duty. My mother was often at a place where she had to feel guilty as she had to leave me with my grandmother (who raised me since I was born until 9) and had to ponder whether she had to choose either her work or her wife/mother duty. And this was the 80s and the 90s.

Is it any different now in Korea overall? I don’t think so, unfortunately, although the modern fathers are more involved in childrearing than my parents’ generation. Even today, many young mothers have to ponder whether they are going to keep working, take some months off (maternity leave) or just quit her job so that they can devote their time for their babies, thanks to family friendly labor policies and practices. It is commonly believed that the child has stronger bond to the mother than the father, but I think it’s a matter of how we humans make it to be (i.e. it’s not a matter of nature, but nurture). I don’t think women are any more caring than men, especially in terms of parenting. What I mean is that many fathers have not been actively involved in raising children ever since they were born, and seriously, other than the fact that man can’t produce breast milk, there is no difference with the mother in terms of parenting. The child is the product of the two people, and let’s face it, the parental responsibilities have never been fair. Culture dictates people’s behaviors, while “policy making culture” within the country is the space for policy makers to influence the social norms (how things “should” be for the general social wellbeing). Policies which does not seek to influence shifting of cultures and behaviors are short-sighted and doomed to be ineffective. Korea needs a very deep gender role overhaul.

Another reason for not having children seems to be the economics of having children which is not economical at all. It’s just too darn expensive to raise even one child in a family. Even if both wife and husband work, it is impossible to have big savings from the beginning, as the housing cost is getting quite expensive in the urban area. Many couples start their lives with some debt, and then when they finally decide to have a child or two, the expenses are tremendous, starting with all the basics like diapers, formulas, and clothes (that they will grow out of so quickly). I remember watching news on how expensive these items are, way more than other countries with the similar purchasing power. When the child grows, they have to go to nurseries, kindergartens, schools and extracurricular activities, but they all cost tremendous amount of money that the parents may not have. The government came up with “free pre-school education policy” for the bottom 75% of the economic strata, but to be exact, the education is not free as the government provides about 150USD a month per family with a preschooler, while the monthly fee of a private kindergarten is often easily 300-500USD (or even more). So the name of the policy itself is pretty populist in itself as you see. I can’t imagine having 2 kindergarteners in my family and supporting them with my pay. I mean over 1000 dollars a month just for schooling? Even if both of the parents work, it is a huge chunk of spending. Now, the elections (both for the national assembly and presidential) are coming, the politicians decided that they will expand this to all households with pre-school age children as of this year. And what would happen to the budget of this country? I have no idea, and it’s only scary to think of the terrible cycle of near-sighted populist welfare policies and budget limits. I mean I’m all for welfare, and South Korea’s welfare system has a long way to go, but I hate these populist politicians and their policies playing with the tax money without much planning, while all they need is just a few more votes.

I’m sure there are many other reasons for low fertility rate. Some couples agree to not to have children, and it’s their life style choice that I have nothing against. Others choose not to marry, which reduces the chance of having children tremendously (In Korea, alternative family forms, such as single parents raising children without partners and gay couples adopting children, are not very common and perceived with much cultural stigma).

But in sum, Korea has many different elements that prevent young women and men from having more children (or having kids at all). Human, cultural elements are missing in family policies very often, causing other issues which require more new policies. Some Korean policy makers now seem to realize gradually that it’s not just “women’s problem” but there are a lot of obstacles to overcome in terms of social and gender norms, and policies should have long term goals which can drive the change of traditional mentality. After all, it is most important to create an environment where people can willingly have children, not because of the national economic issues, but because they want to have the joy of having more family members.

Day 4: Why South Koreans Won’t Have Kids- And Why Policy Cannot Solve the Low Fertility Issue (part 1)

15 Feb

I have a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and master’s in Public Policy. While I have these swanky titles after 20 years of formal education, I honestly cannot tell you what these disciplines are about and what I actually learned. But I can tell you for sure that I learned how to think about various social issues from the perspectives of the both disciplines. And today, although my cold meds are bothering me extremely, I really want to get this off of my chest. It’s about birthrate in South Korea.

Many demographists and others have pointed out that South Korea has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, fighting for the top (?!?) along with Japan and Singapore, two other developed economies in Asia. Just to get some perspective, I have found the CIA data on global birthrates, which ranked the countries with the highest birthrate on top and the lowest at the bottom.

Not so surprisingly, out of 221 countries, South Korea ranked 215 (in other words, 7th in low birthrate) while Japan ranked 220, Hong Kong 219 and Singapore 216. Yes, the data might be a bit skewed because Monaco, Hong Kong (which is not a country, but oh well) and Singapore’s population sizes (and samples) are perhaps not so compatible with those of South Korea and Japan. Regardless, low birthrate is one of the greatest threats in more developed countries as the aging population is rapidly increasing, posing financial threats to the country’s welfare budget, further economic development and many other elements. So maybe to many people’s minds, it is a policy problem, and I totally agree. But I would argue that it is also a greater social and cultural issue that should be attacked from a much wider angle, while globally, we are still facing the issue of population explosion rather than lack of people.

Korea’s Two-Child Policy

Perhaps you are familiar with One-Child Policy in China which is strictly enforced by the government. But Two-Child Policy of South Korea was rather a series of campaigns from South Korean government in the 1970s and the 80s to encourage couples to have only 2 children. I don’t believe that there was any penalty for having too many or incentives for having fewer than 2, but it was a campaign under dictatorship, so many people were often more or less collaborative to government’s policies and campaigns.

Of course there were legitimate reasons. South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world after the Korean War (even worse than North Korea and Ethiopia at the time), and as the government pushed for economic development, controlling the number of population became a key factor in promoting this national goal. Since Korea traditionally had been an agricultural society, a family easily had over 6 kids. There were simply too many mouths to feed in the country and families while there were too few economic opportunities (i.e. jobs). But with the rigorous campaign during the 60s and the 70s along with truly miraculous economic development, the average number of kids per family dropped to 4 kids, then to 2 kids during the 80s. As part of the campaign, the posters below were distributed by the Ministry of Welfare and Korea Family Planning Association. The top one says, “Let’s have only two kids whether sons or daughters,” while the bottom one says, “Even two are too many.” Obviously they did not foresee the problems that the future would face while there are too few kids around to support the national economy.

Source and more information: http://www.prb.org/Articles/2010/koreafertility.aspx

I don’t feel that the campaigns were incorrect, and they were necessary moves at the time to lift the country out of poverty (and for the population of developing countries, I believe that encouraging fewer kids while promoting proper nutrition and education is a key development strategy). Korea then and Korea today have completely different economic situations and needs, and I believe that developing countries should actively participate in lowering birthrates.

However, South Korea’s policy did not consider the potential sex-ratio imbalance, as people still had strong preference for sons over daughters. Girl children were often aborted illegally (abortion has been illegal in Korea), and it caused sex-ratio at birth of 108, meaning 108 boys for every 100 girls (in 2005), according to a UNFPA report. Although the son preference has been reduced (and nowadays, there’s actually a general sentiment towards daughter preference) and the ratio is more or less normalized (around 105:100, which is considered almost “normal”), there is a whole policy challenge regarding marriage migration (i.e. “importing” wives from other countries —a new form of mail-order brides– mainly from China, Viet Nam, and the Philippines, but not limited to) and increasing number of multicultural families. The trend is a challenge for welfare and education policies among others, while Korea has been a relatively homogeneous country for many years. This policy showed the necessity of considering human behaviors and cultures into the policy, while cultural and social norms greatly influence people’s behavior reacting to policies.

Why are family policies not working today?

So back to the question of why South Koreans do not have enough children…

Firstly, I believe that the policy makers’ perspectives are starting out on a wrong foot. To me, many policy makers on families, children and women (which all fall under the vague category of welfare policy) have been asking the wrong questions. They have been asking, “Why are women not having kids?” But you all know very well that it takes two to have a child. Such a question inherently blames only women for not being married and pursuing other goals in lives, stigmatizing women for “going against the nature.” Well, it might not be so surprising that such policy question is asked, because the entire policy framework regarding this issue is constructed under patriarchal assumptions just like many other policies. I am aware that women are also parts of the policy formation, but one’s sex has nothing to do with the role that one chooses to play, even in policy world. As long as birthrate is considered primarily “women’s issue,” or women’s issues are considered the same thing as family issues, further policy discussions would not make much progress.

In addition, there’s a problem in considering population simply as numerical values, not humans. As seen in Korea’s two-child policy, the government did not necessarily consider the cultural preference of having son, and that those sons may not end up with partners because there are simply too many men compared to the number of women (potential marriage partners). It seems that the sustainability of family units was never a big question to the policy makers. The campaign did not penetrate well enough to change a certain culture and behaviors that are discriminatory and sexist against female children. Part of the reasons is that policies are quite politicized and the policy makers have to implement those policies that would bring the most bangs for the buck they spend within the fiscal year or until the next elections. When the discussion of having children and raising them is only focusing on the economic impact and numbers, such as potential “units” who will participate in economic activities and the number of tax payers, we dehumanize the meaning of family and bring further challenges throughout the implementation of policies. Women’s bodies are only valuable because of their reproductive organs and their “natural roles” as the caretakers. Children are only future workers and tax payers. Men are a small part of reproduction and breadwinners. The gender role assumptions are quite stark in policymaking while humans become simple units of a country, no?

Part 2 will continue tomorrow (when I can think and breathe better). I will write about what the actual problems are in birthing and raising children in South Korea.

Day 2: 8 Years and More- The Inspiration Still Continues in My Life

13 Feb

Have you ever heard of 10,000-hour Rule? It’s a rule/theory appears in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. He observes extraordinary people in human history such as Bill Gates and claims that for these successful achievers, one of the key elements was putting in approximately 10,000 hours into specific tasks throughout their lives. Well, I’m not here to write about Bill Gates, and I’m not sure if I actually buy his whole “theory,” but I can agree for sure that one has to put in continuous exercise and trials in order to really become knowledgeable and good at what she is doing. And when they are combined with passion, one will definitely become extraordinary without a doubt.

Today, I will talk about women who have inspired me, perhaps putting in 20,000 hours (or more) into what they have been doing and still loving their work.

I mentioned briefly in my last post (hope you read it, ha!) that my feminism was started by participating in an advocacy organization’s activities. I want to talk about The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery during WWII by Japan (phew, mouthful, so I will refer it as the Korean Council from here on). It is not just an organization, but a group of people which have influenced my life so much over the past 8 years of my life. But before I get to anywhere, let me talk about the issue of military sexual slavery which has been popularly as “Comfort Women” system. For your information, I could not quote anything from academic sources, because it is coming out of my own knowledge accumulated so far.

For most of East and Southeast Asians, the histories of colonial period are still rather painful to talk about. Korea, my native country, was not an exception. Being geographically right next to Japan, it was one of the first countries to be colonized in the early 20th century as the land provided the road to the whole continent and had resources that could be exploited. During Japan’s march to create an Asian Empire through colonization, numerous lives were sacrificed through battles and exploitation, and starting in 1930s, the Japanese government created a system called “Comfort Women” system to draft women of colonies (although initially it started with poor Japanese women on voluntary basis) for rape camps under the military. The reasons were to 1. prevent local rape incidents in the colonies (which had negative impacts for the colonial rules while the locals had growing ill feelings against the colonizers, especially after the Nanking Massacre) and 2. provide sexual outlet for the soldiers right inside the military barracks. Yes, it was OK to exploit certain women, especially if they were from colonies, and especially if they were poor and desperate to work.

Many women in Korea were lied that they would be working in a military factory, earning money for the family. Some were kidnapped on the street. Others were drafted instead of the men of the family since the “citizens” of Imperial Japan were supposed to contribute something to the war. Scholars estimate that 100,000-200,000 women of colonies (Korea, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc.), and over 80% of the women were Korean, although it is not possible to know the exact number as all the “Comfort Women” related documents were deliberately destroyed around the time that the war was over. Korean women were often taken as far as Singapore and Indonesia, not knowing how their fate would unfold. Based on the survivor testimonies, each woman whose age ranged between 12 and 24 had to “receive” 10 to 50 soldiers a day, without getting any day off, even during their periods. Their medical check-ups were only for venereal diseases for the health of the soldiers, and if the women were sick, there was no way that they could get proper treatments. When they became pregnant, they were forced to have abortion which often endangered their own lives as well.

After the war, they were not free to come back home, especially when they did not even know where they were at. They were subject to mass killing after the defeat of Japan was clear, and many were also just “thrown away” like trash. Even those who could make it back to Korea after the war was over, they were so afraid of being stigmatized as “prostitutes” who lost their virginity to the dreaded Japanese men, they could not tell their stories to anyone, even to their own family members, during the period where the social norms for women were extremely oppressive. Most were unable to marry because they could not bear children, and they all lived in destitute condition, suffering from physical and psychological trauma from the war period. Since this issue came out in the late 1980s by a courageous female researcher who was almost drafted in the 1930s, Japanese government has denied its legal responsibility of apology and reparations while denying that such horror ever happened sometimes and partially acknowledging yet denying its current responsibilities.

So this is the “brief” history of the issue that I have been passionate about. I have left out many details, but hope that this gives you an overview. Lots of this knowledge came from my senior thesis during Uni years, but it’s an accumulation of experiences with so many women and men of extraordinary courage and passion.

The summer of 2004 was the first time that I contacted the organization. I was extremely shy about calling the Korean Council without knowing any insider, but I just felt that I must do it. I never regretted making that blind leap that really changed my life. The office was housed in a small office space in Seoul, and the relationships I got to form from the beginning were incredible. I helped out with anything from making copies to translating documents between English and Korean. I attended the Wednesday Demonstration where I got to meet the courageous survivors who were in their 70s and 80s mostly (and now 80s and 90s) and leading weekly protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul since January 1992.  December 2011 saw the 1000th mark of the painful weekly event. The first several times, I ended up shedding tears, witnessing the clear injustice still happening several decades after the war, while the survivors have suffered so much.

But the more I attended the protests and got to know the individuals who were parts of this movement, I learned that the survivors were more than victims and the activists were more than supporters of the survivors. What they immediately demand has always been the serious legal and diplomatic commitment from Japan. However, what they, both the survivors and activists, pursue in this movement is global peace without violence against women around the world.  The survivors have actually become human rights activists themselves. They were not just “fighters” and “protesters” but have been forming a sense of sisterhood in order to improve women’s human rights globally and perhaps upset the patriarchal orders that perpetually have made the same mistakes of violating powerless women on daily basis.

Coming in and out of the office, I got to meet some incredible supporters as well. There are activists who have committed their own time and resources in order to hold fundraising and conferences on the issue and made academic commitments by choosing this issue and activism as their main research topic. I have encountered scholars and activists from Korea, Japan, the US, and many other countries. The beauty of activism is perhaps this human connection that one is making with others for the same cause. I’m an introvert myself (and some of you may think, “really?” but I am!!!), but within the space that is created through the connection, I always feel so connected with the people and with the movement. Perhaps it was a natural course for me to pursue feminism and be interested in many women’s human rights related issues.

Considering this big picture, the issue is not simply just an issue of patriotism (which is the discourse often mistakenly taken by many nationalists) or issue regarding women. To me, it has always been about making my identity as a woman, a feminist, a Korean, a cultural hybrid, a scholar and an individual who would like eventually contribute to the social wellbeing whatever it might be.

On this Friday, I will be volunteering to be an interpreter for Ms. Gay McDougall while she will be visiting the Korean Council and the shelter for some survivors (more information found here about her). She is a Professor at Georgetown Law and an Independent UN Human Rights expert who has been deeply involved with minority rights during armed conflict around the world. I remember doing translation work and reading her UN reports several years ago as she also focused on the “Comfort Women” issue. Although my role is merely being an interpreter, I hope that I can be a decent bridge of language between the two languages that I love and the topic that I’m passionate about. Most of all, I’m so thrilled meet a rock star in this field.

I have been involved in the cause (if I may say this) for about 8 years. I can’t say that it is the same level of commitment as the survivors or the professionals who work at the Korean Council, but I can feel that I have become someone who is very aware of the issue. And who would have thought I can be committed for almost a decade and still feel passionate about this? I hope that my commitment would continue for the next several decades as well.

I might be far away from my 10,000 hours, but hey, I know that I will get there one day.