Family Matters

For this post I thought I’d share something with you.

My parents are divorced, my father has since remarried and has two more children. This creates some unusual situations and linguistic difficulties in Korea, however. As I’m sure anyone who’s lived in Korea will know, Koreans often ask about your family – how many brothers and sisters do you have, what do your parents do and so on. It’s also worth noting that divorce in Korea is no longer uncommon or even particularly frowned upon – no more than anywhere else anyway. So that’s not the problem. Nobody bats an eyelid when I tell them my parents are divorced, or even when I say my father is remarried. But what do I call my father’s new wife in Korean?

Don’t get me wrong, I know the answer – 새엄마 or 새어머니 are the most common ones. These are the ones I learnt from Koreans. My dictionary also says, 의붓어머니 and 계모. I haven’t heard of 의붓어머니, so perhaps it’s not in such common usage (please correct me if I’m wrong), but it seems an acceptable translation. This makes me wonder why I haven’t heard it more often. I was, however, under the impression that 계모 had more of a negative connotation, perhaps more along the lines of a “wicked stepmother.” The hanja for 계모 – 繼母 – seem to mean “the mother that follows,” or “the mother who succeeded (the first)” – not a particularly affectionate term, but again, correct me if I’m wrong.

So this takes me back to 새엄마, the term most Koreans suggest when I ask how to explain my family. This term means “new mum,” and 새어머니 “new mother.” Now, I don’t particularly like these terms. Divorce and related issues are felt differently by different people, but I would venture that most people in the same situation as me would not refer to their step-mum as their “new mum.” Primarily this is because I still have a mother, but secondly, even if I didn’t the term “새엄마” seems to me to imply that my mother has been replaced, or that her role in my life is now being fulfilled by my stepmother. This clearly isn’t the case, and wouldn’t be even if I didn’t have a mother.

Also, I would like to know from somebody more knowledgeable whether the equivalent term for a stepfather is 새아버지 or 새아빠? I’ve never heard this, and it seems strange that the two wouldn’t be called the same just with father instead of mother. If it is the case that this term isn’t used, does that mean it’s still less socially acceptable for a woman with children to get remarried? Or less of a physical possibility for financial reasons? Or perhaps stepfathers are just not considered “new fathers” – replacement fathers, in the same way stepmothers are considered replacement mothers. I think there are other issues included in this, but I can’t remember everything I wanted to say (I first thought about this post about a week ago), so please do chime in in the comments section.

On top of this, there’s the issue of the children. To me, they’re my half-siblings. In Korean, the most common phrase used is 배 다른 동생, which means sibling from a different belly. I’m not saying I have a problem with this phrase, it’s just different, but suitably accurate. Something I’ve often had difficulties with though when it comes up in conversation is that Koreans struggle with the differences between step-sibling and half-sibling. I often have to explain why one is not the other, but more importantly the significance of that to me. I share 50% the same DNA with my half-siblings, but if I had step-siblings (which I don’t), I wouldn’t share any. It would feel different, although of course this discounts the fact that – as I said above – everyone experiences these things differently. For example, some people may be especially close with their step-siblings.

I don’t want this post to be misunderstood as a complaint or rant – it’s really not. I’m just interested in the differences, and I think it’s an interesting insight into the way Korean society is adjusting to internal changes. I think the term 새엄마 raises some interesting points – is it acceptable to replace a mother but not a father in Korea, is it socially less acceptable for a mother to re-marry than a father, do fathers determine the type of relationship children have with their mothers, step-mothers and even other women, and how is or isn’t that different to other countries and societies? Of course, there are more related issues, and this is a lot to extrapolate from just one little phrase, but they’re interesting topics – and I’d like to read what you think!

My Response: Gender in Modern Korea

I must start this post by saying that it is written in response to a very good post from The Grand Narrative by James Turnbull. It’s basic framework is taken directly from a far too lengthy comment I posted there, but I’ve since tried to make it a bit more substantial and post-worthy. I strongly recommend reading this post, and spending some time reading the rest of the blog, as it really is the best place to get information and discussion about sexuality, gender, feminism and other issues in Korea. Also, I won’t try and rehash anything that’s been said over there here, because I could never do it as well! Like I said, this is a response to a post.

A statue from Love Land in Jeju-do

A statue from Love Land in Jeju-do

My first remark is unfortunately about something James said that I disagree with. The main reference point for James’s article is a piece by So-hee Lee entitled ‘The Concept of Female Sexuality in Korean Popular Culture,’ taken from the book Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea. In discussing this essay, James remarks that

“in this section of the chapter I think Lee disproportionately blames Korean husbands seeing their wives as asexual, unattractive ajumma (아주마) for their sexless marriages.”

In reality, my personal view is that Lee’s comments are certainly accurate, and this definitely has been very important in shaping the sexual identity (or non-identity) of Korean women. I think the point James was trying to make is that women hold just as many stereotypes and preconceptions about themselves and their marriage, and so this is equally to blame as how their husbands view them. This is by no means inaccurate, but we should not discard just how different the attitudes of Korean husbands (particularly from the older generations) towards their wives are compared with the ones someone might be familiar with if they had never been to Korea. I’m not saying that, by dint of being Korean, these attitudes are wrong, just that there are differences. Of course, in these discussions it can be all too easy to make generalisations, so I must point out that I’m not referring to all Koreans (or even the majority), just an observable and noteworthy number.

I’ve brought this up with many Koreans, male and female, and the general consensus seems to be that husbands, especially of that older generation, would feel in some way guilty if they thought of their wives as sexual beings. The reason for that is that they view it somewhat like incest. The wife is a part of the family, no different to any other member. I’m sure some people would be very quick to ascribe this to Confucianism, but I’m not sure I can, largely because there is nothing prescribed within the Confucian canon about this. Although certainly in the Confucian tradition the husband is supposed to take the “higher” position in the hierarchy, he is also responsible for ensuring that those “lower” than him are well provided for and content. Now, that could be argued to mean that a husband should view his wife as a sexual being if only to ensure her needs are met. Also, my own opinion is that many husbands who are guilty of viewing their wives as sexless ajummas actually do this because they are a mother figure to them as well. The wife bears their children, and then raises them, becoming a mother, but in many ways she does the same for her husband within the home, almost as if she was mothering him, and this is perhaps why a husband would consider it incestuous. On the other hand, in defense of James’s point of view, it can be said that in a male-dominated society, where a woman’s prospects were limited (still mostly referring to older generations – the “traditionals”), her sense of achievement came from performing her “womanly” roles well, and this often meant forgoing self-grooming, manners and a sexually desirable “delicate” image. In effect, she turned herself into an ajumma (아줌마).

Fierce Ajumma

If you study a chart of Confucian familial relationships, there is one very interesting feature that is markedly different from what a similar familial chart would look like in non-Confucian societies (think family tree with titles instead of names). Unfortunately I won’t be able to draw one here, but basically, your parents are called your parents, but their siblings are also referred to as parents – 큰 아버지 (Big father) instead of older uncle etc etc., and the same pattern follows for every generation, a cousin is a brother/sister 4 “measures” distant (4 촌). Therefore, to a married woman, her husbands parents fit into the hierarchy at the same level as her own parents and their generation, and she would even call her husbands parents “mother” and “father” – this is still standard practice for speaking to parents-in-law in Korea, and I’m sure many people will have witnessed it. In effect, this system forces her to fit into the hierarchy on a generational level with her husband, a connection almost equivalent to being his sibling. So it is a bit complicated but still possible to actually explain why sex within a marriage after the kids have been born is considered by some to be incestuous and doesn’t really happen. This explanation, unlike the first one I gave, is clearly a result of a Confucian influence.

But my basic point remains as: I do think it has been very relevant that husbands see their wives as asexual/sexless ajummas, although the wives do see themselves as this as well. They may not feel happy about it in the end, or very fulfilled, but it’s self-perpetuating to some extent, and down to their husbands for the rest.

Gender Equality Minister Byun Do-yoon

Gender Equality Minister Byun Do-yoon - Ironically, definite Ajumma

I was also very interested to see this description of the “missy” term by Lee that James picked up on in his post: “a married woman who still looks like a single woman.” I’m not sure in “western” countries whether you would find people who thought that married and single women look noticeably different. It’s also curious that she said they look different, not that they dress differently, as of course, the married ajumma does look different typically as a person – change in haircut, gait, behaviour are all well-known (and often ridiculed) features of ajummas. I think it’s a signal of so many things that women effectively turn themselves into ajummas at a certain age or after marriage. The biggest issue of course is that the younger generations are fiercely against becoming ajummas, and perhaps the generations before them were as well – if you’re feeling really brave maybe you could ask one, but I’m not going to try! The deciding factor to me seems to be the men – and of course the level of gender inequality/equality. If the men are not open to accepting the sexuality of women in full, both before and after marriage, and before and after having children, then the women stand very little chance of casting off the shackles of sexlessness. Anything towards this end that is to be achieved would have to be achieved solely by the individual women, but to read more about that see James’s post as well as a post by Gord Sellar about Korean women in a consumer society here.


There is also a quote from Lee briefly discussing the “weakening of Korean familism.” I don’t want to stick too closely here to what Lee actually says about this, because James has analysed that in full anyway, but the phrasing does interest me. This idea that Korea has a strong and highly developed sense of familism is, while surely true, drummed into every Korean. Many talk about it proudly, saying things like “In Korean culture family is very important.” But the issue I want to raise is this; in what culture is family not important? Certainly in Korea there are very set actions that family members are expected to perform and so on, and they are important and highly conspicuous, to be sure. These actions are explicit and sometimes representative of hierarchical responsibilities and sentiments. Taking your parents to go shopping on a Saturday morning when you have other things you should be doing means you’re filial and love/respect your parents. Cooking for your husband’s parents means you’re a good wife to him and a filial daughter-in-law. When Koreans talk about “weakening of Korean familism” I don’t think the issue is really that family is becoming less important to Koreans – they just have to express their “familism” (is that really a word??) in different ways, eg. small gestures replacing large ones, saying how you feel instead of performing a set action that is supposed to prove it, acknowledging that you feel what you actually feel, rather than displaying that you feel what you think you should be feeling. I think that young Koreans have adapted in this way the best, but that perhaps leads to a larger generation gap in people’s perceptions of things like “family.”  A son from younger generations may find it hard living with his parents, harder still for his wife. He will naturally try and display his affection for his parents, but the affection they expect is demonstrated by him living with them. It is in individual cases like this where we will be able to really register the change in Korean “familism.” Does the family find a way to adapt to the new pressures and concerns of modern life and find new ways of expressing how they feel that can coexist with that, or will the older values remain unchanged through the will of the parents? And, if change does occur, has that weakened Korean familism or has it just changed, adapted, developed?

Korean Family

That’s about all I have to say in response to James’s post, and it roughly deals with gender issues post-marriage, and how female sexuality in Korea has and continues to change. I do, however, want to add something about female sexuality in Korea pre-marriage, specifically the sexuality of teenagers.

There is another excellent post about this subject by Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling that has all the background research you could possibly want to get a better understanding of the topic and the situation. He also has good posts about teenage prostitution in Korea here and here. What I have to say is short, and a brief internet search will reveal far more detailed statistics and analysis. South Korea has an incredibly high number of teenage girls selling sex, and not just 18 and 19 year olds, rather the concentration seems to be around 14/15, with girls as young as 12 taking part in what are known as “compensated dates” (원조교제, wonjo kyoje/gyoje in Korean). What is perhaps more troubling is that the majority of customers or clients for these young girls are not hormonal pubescent young boys who don’t have the self-confidence to try the “regular way,” rather they are older adult men in their 20s and 30s, sometimes older. It seems that men from all walks of life are “compensating” young girls for sexual services. Once again, don’t be fooled into thinking this represents all or even a majority, but it is still a considerable number. The posts at Gusts of Popular Feeling that I linked to, among other sources, have all the relevant statistics.

So why do men seek out young girls in this manner? My personal view is that in an indirect way these girls are victims, even if they enter into these activities willingly, so I’m not pleased about tarnishing them with this brush, but in essence they are prostitutes. It is also worth pointing out, however, that this is entirely illegal, and not condoned by the Korean government or by society in general, and you only need to search Korean portal/news sites to find evidence of this.

The reason I’ve included this in this post is because many men, once they view their wives as sexless ajummas, for reasons mentioned above or otherwise, some will inevitably seek out other women for sex. Korea has a huge prostitution and sex industry as a whole, and anyone who has the experience of living in Korea will be able to tell you that adultery, especially by men, is quite common. We’re familiar in the “west” with the idea of men seeking out a “younger model,” and this seems to be similar to that on the part of the men. Also, young women – and virgins, or women with virginal qualities – have been held in higher esteem in many East Asian cultures up to a later date than in “western” ones, as evidenced by the greater amounts of what westerners would probably consider to be child pornography. In considering this, we must not make the mistake of trying to impose decidedly western morals or concepts on a different culture or society. Don’t forget, there was a time when, even in the most advanced “western” countries, girls were considered to be of marriageable age from their first period, and youthful features were most highly prized. Also, in societies were women are freer to express their sexuality, and where men are more accepting of this, sexual experience becomes a more desirable characteristic – just think about the term “MILF.” I don’t personally think there’s enough of an attraction towards this sexual experience among Korean men for an equivalent term referring to Ajummas to come into common vernacular. Besides, it would be too hard to pronounce… In Korea, features associated with youth are definitely the most highly prized – although this in itself does not lead directly to seeking out minors, and by no means excuses it.

For me, the real issue is sex education. Anyone who has worked in a Korean school will know that Koreans receive the absolute minimum of sex education, and what they do receive is of a very low standard. It was even worse for the older generations. And, again especially the older generations, what they lacked from their school in terms of sex education was not made up for by their parents. I’ve heard stories even today where grandmothers would be too embarrassed to talk about pregnancy. This means that the offending men likely had very little moral or scientific/factual education about sex. They would know it was required to produce children, and within marriage. But when there’s so much prostitution around them, and they’re disinclined to have sex with their wives after having children, how are they going to satisfy desires and curiosity.

Sex Ed

On top of this, women of a similar age to these men are not presented in a sexual way in Korea. Very few “dress to impress,” and there is certainly little to no sexualisation of Korean women over their early 30s. In fact, the most sexualised women in the media are teenage girls and very young women. The Wondergirls were even used in an advertising campaign against teenage prostitution. How they failed to see that this would cause more harm than good is beyond me. All it could have done was link the idea of a sexualised (albeit artificially) schoolgirl with the idea of paying for sex. In a country where it’s illegal to view pornography on the internet, but there are pictures of the Wondergirls seemingly everywhere you look, it seems to me as though this must create a desire among some older men.

SoHee of the Wonder Girls, born June 1992

SoHee of the Wonder Girls, born June 1992

As for the young girls involved, I think their reasons are similar, foremost among them again being lack of decent sex education, either at school or at home. Firstly, in a matter as important as this, impressionable young people need guidance as to what is and isn’t morally, legally and socially acceptable and why. Also, if young people have boundaries, even though they may overstep them, it will generally not be by too far, but knowing where the boundaries are remains important. If nobody discusses it with them, they have no fixed idea of where the boundaries are. Also, they are quite simply hormonal adolescents, and they are naturally curious. Their education should also fulfill a larger part of their curiosity. The cases of gang rape by schoolchildren when they later said they were emulating pornography shows that if their education doesn’t satisfy some of their curiosity, they will find other ways to do so – it’s natural. It would be much better for their curiosity to be satisfied by proper education than by pornography.

Lastly, the societal expectation of young girls (and really older unmarried women as well) is that they are “pure” and devoid of sexuality. However, as mentioned before, their role models in the media are highly sexualised. They aren’t shown as having no time for anything but studying, their spots are hidden, and they can aspire to be with rich, doting men. They are also symbols of consumerism, where status is apparently granted by what you own. Compensated dating makes the girls richer than they could ever be doing legitimate work, and enables them to keep up with the latest fashion trends. In fact, the statistics from Gusts of Popular Feeling show that the majority of girls who take part in these dates do so for the money. On top of that, there’s the factor of curiosity, the sense of being wanted, feeling pretty and being doted upon. It would also have a sense of the risque. Also, in the same way as the rate of suicide, I wonder if perhaps this phenomenon has a snowballing effect – these young people, and older ones too – see it around them and it becomes subconsciously more acceptable to them.

This post has grown greatly from what it started off as, but I’m very keen to read what anyone else has to add or comment on. I know there’s a variety of topics, but it seems like there could be so much for further discussion contained within all this, so please do comment.

Hello, annyŏng – The First Post

Welcome to Asadal Thought, a blog about all that is Korean Studies, by a Korean Studies student. If you would like to know more about the aims of this blog, or about me, please visit my About page –> I would also be very interested to see if any Koreans find their way here, and what they think about what I discuss. I do speak Korean, so please do comment or leave messages!

Unfortunately I’ve been inspired to begin this blog after deliberating for some time during the penultimate week of my penultimate year of my degree. More worryingly, in the final week I’m required to give two presentations, one about the economic implications of reunification of the two Koreas, and one on any topic of my choice related to contemporary Korean society, which is where this post comes in. One thing more contemporary (albeit not exactly academic) than just about anything else is the success in recent times of a crucial figure in South Korea’s history:

Park Ji-sung.

Yes, my first ever post on a blog about Korean Studies themes will be about a footballer.


Since he moved to Manchester United in 2005, Park has become the first Asian player to play in four Champions League semi-finals, has won three English Premier League titles as of this afternoon, two League Cups, the Club World Cup and the Champions League. But this was of course not the great moment that it should have been. He should have been the first Asian player in history to play in the final of the European cup, let alone win it. But he was left out of the squad for the final, denied the chance for this unprecedented glory. The revelation of the team selection for that match came as a huge shock, considering the part Park had played in the quarter and semi-finals, and it was later revealed that manager Alex Ferguson apologised to Park, saying it was one of the most difficult decisions of his managerial career.

I was living in Seoul at the time, and I remember staying up well into the early hours of the morning to watch the final, and I was as shocked as everyone else seemed to be. It was particularly devastating for Koreans, who had been waiting to see one of their own lift the greatest trophy in club football for the first time. It was supposed to be a moment of immense national pride for Korea, but instead Park had to sit it out in a suit, and watch as his squad-mates went up to lift the trophy.

Koreans seem to act as one when it comes to success on the international stage, whether it be sporting success, business success or even being known for being good at maths. They crave success and they have a marked desire for the rest of the world to notice them. I can recall various instances of Korean friends asking me whether or not British people knew that Park Ji-sung is Korean, and that we didn’t think he Japanese. Same question relating to Samsung. And Hyundai. And do they know about the Korean War? And Ban Ki-Moon?

Korea has spent the last half a century driving for economic success, modernisation and globalisation. They resented being weaker than their neighbours as well as the Western powers at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries, and so they begun this trend. I think that there is a need for validation of all the work they have put in as a nation, as well as a natural desire to be considered by other countries as powerful and important. Koreans have had this instilled in them from an early age for years. The country’s military triumphs of the past are all well known, as are they great figures from history, their success in business, and they are all sources of great pride for the Korean people. They have received very little recognition, however, for sporting success. When Park Ji-sung moved to Manchester United, one of the top teams in the world, it seemed like this barren spell in the international sporting arena was going to come to a glorious end.

Park is a talented, hard working and very professional football player. Alex Ferguson clearly appreciates him, as do the Manchester United fans. It is foolish to question the selection policy of the most successful manager in English football history, despite what a good season Park had last year. This year, if anything, he has been even better. He shone against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final, and even scored a goal today that was wrongly disallowed. He deserves to be named among the squad for the final this year, and it will rightly be a very proud moment for Koreans and for the man himself.

Park has earned the right to be considered a sporting hero in Korea. In my opinion, he is not only very good, and successful, but he is also one of the best sporting role models that Koreans have. The Beijing Olympics provided some new success stories for Korean sportspeople, most notably the baseball team, now ranked 2nd in the world, female weightlifter Jang Mi-ran and swimmer Park Taehwan, all of whom won gold medals. Yet despite their success, none are as prominent in the Korean mind as Park Ji-sung. In my opinion the best way to analyse him as a positive role model is to compare him with Kim Yu-na.

Kim is undoubtedly a fine athlete, having reached the very top of her sport at a very young age. You only have to watch this video to see that:

But for some reason the Korean media constantly demand her to be more than a top sportsperson. She has to be an entertainer, a singer, a dancer, attractive, sexy and clean-cut. Evidently, she is a very good looking young woman, and attractive young women in Korea tend to have their careers and to some extent their lives dominated by that characteristic. The same is happening to Kim, and it is entirely irrelevant to what she does and who she is. She’s marketed through her appearance, and by being something of a jack-of-all-trades on TV shows, see this video:

If only more focus could be placed on her sporting prowess and achievements, and not just the whole isn’t this amazing, a girl who does well at sports and she’s pretty, isn’t she talented! I can’t imagine that all the tv appearances and over-exposure will do her skating career much good, but the Korean media seem more preoccupied with making her fit the template of the Korean star than anything else. I suppose the point I’m really trying to make is; what would have happened to her if she was ugly? Take the weightlifter I mentioned previously, for example, Jang Mi-ran. She lifts in the 75+ kg category, and is not the most conventionally attractive woman. However, she is perhaps even more successful and dominant in her own sport than Kim Yu-na is in hers. If you were to type both their names into Korean Google in Korean, Jang Mi-ran (장미란) comes up with 427,000 results, whereas Kim Yu-na (김연아) produces 13,800,000. Enough said.

A Park Ji-sung search produces slightly less results than Kim Yu-na, at 7,240,000, but this is still considerable. Firstly, because he is not known for his good looks. He is also not marketed in this way. He is not known for any misdemeanors, self-promotion or theatrics. He gets on with his job, performs very well, and comes across as a nice guy, who is always professional. He has spoken of overcoming the difficulties of being a flat footed footballer, and his dedication to training from a young, following his heart, rather than pressure to only focus on study.

As I’m sure James Turnbull over at The Grand Narrative would agree, it is a great shame that such a talented woman as Kim Yu-na is becoming almost more renowned for her looks and various other talents (Being good looking might as well be a talent if you listen to some Koreans) rather than for what she is truly good at, and it is disappointing to me that the media continue to portray her this way. I haven’t embedded the video because I think that the comments on YouTube prove that the media has drastically altered her image and what she stands for, and it’s quite sad that they (and she) feel that she should be branded in this way.

Park is exactly the sort of sporting hero Korea needs, and I for one sincerely hope that he will feature in the final later this month.