Korean Gender Reader, March 22 2010: Abortion Republic No More?

( Alice Park es Gogo by Tetsumo )

Yes, after a long hiatus, I’m starting up this series again, and this time hopefully for good!

( Alice Park es Gogo by Tetsumo )

Yes, after a long hiatus, I’m starting up this series again, and this time hopefully for good!

For new readers unfamiliar with it, basically this means that for your convenience and interest, each Monday I’ll be providing summaries of the biggest Korean gender-related stories of the week before, with a few related and/or interesting ones from overseas also, especially Northeast Asia. But I may sometimes miss some though, so I’ll still always be grateful if you could pass any on that you come across, either just by writing a comment on any post, or via email, Twitter, or Facebook.

With dire long-term implications however, the first story required rather more than a simple summary:

1) Abortion Republic No More?

Starting late last year, but suddenly getting a lot of attention in the international media, the Lee Myung-bak administration has decided to start enforcing Korea’s abortion laws, basically for the first time since they were enacted in 1953. But while the news that the Korean government is actually enforcing its own laws might usually be cause for celebration, unfortunately its abortion laws are amongst the most restrictive in the world, only allowing it in the case of heredity diseases, incest, rape, and/or danger to the mother’s health.

( Source: Chicago Tribune )

For an excellent overview of the topic, with many links to various English-language stories, see Robert Neff’s post at The Marmot’s Hole; assuming that you’ve read that, here I’d like to highlight some of the few points not covered in it, starting with some statistics on whom exactly is getting abortions and why. From the Hankyoreh:

According to the data released by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs (MHWFA) yesterday, the reasons why married women, who make up 58 percent of the women who have undergone abortion procedures, chose to have abortions are because they do not want children (70 percent) and financial difficulties (17.5 percent). In the case of unmarried women, 93.7 percent said they underwent an abortion procedure because they were not married. They are saying that having children is difficult because of child-rearing and economic burdens in the case of married women, and because of social prejudice and financial difficulties in the case of unmarried women.

A second point is while that data came from the MHWFA on March 3, it actually lost its jurisdiction over family affairs on the 19th, which have returned to the Ministry of Gender Equality (now Ministry of Gender Equality and Family Affairs, or MOGEF). Coming with a big increase in staff and 4 times larger budget (albeit from a base of 0.03%(!) of the government total), and partially dealing with problems of overlapping responsibilities with other ministries, again ostensibly this is good news. But also strange; after all, according to The Korea Times:

As a candidate, President Lee Myung-bak promised to expand the Ministry of Gender Equality, but his transition committee ― led by a woman ― first attempted to abolish the ministry and, faced with fierce opposition from feminists, backed down to sharply downsizing it. Equally problematic was Lee’s choice for its top post, a food and nutrition expert who had no experience at all in the female rights movement, under the excuse of “globalizing Korean food.”

( F.A.T.E. by The Dream Seeker )

See here and here for more details. Why this is important is because almost every report I’ve read on this subject has directly or implicitly linked the “abortion crackdown” to Lee Myung-bak’s special taskforce of November 2009, charged with finding a means to improve Korea’s birthrate, one of the lowest in the world. And given the above history, and how disastrous his administration has been for Korean women as a whole, then in my opinion quite correctly too, although to be fair, this link has been denied by the government. From The Chicago Tribune:

“Our plan against illegal abortions is entirely separate from our low birthrate countermeasures,” said Rhee Won-hee, chief of the health ministry’s Family Support Division. “The comprehensive plan is to fight rampant disrespect for the sanctity of life.”

Nevertheless, as it was the MHWFA that was responsible for implementing the crackdown, even setting up a hotline to report on law-breaking doctors or pregnant women, and – as far as I am aware – it is these responsibilities that MOGEF has just taken on, then it remains to be seen what genuinely useful initiatives MOGEF will be implementing to help raise the birthrate other than clamping down on abortions. After all, recall that this is the same ministry that paid men not to have sex with prostitutes, and that will be continuing the MHWFA policy of letting them go home early every third Wednesday so that they might, well, fuck their wives, neither of which, to identify a recurring theme, really deal with the fundamentals of why Korean women are having so few children.

Unfortunately, this also proves to be the case for its “purple-job system” of encouraging flexitime for women and men: again ostensibly commendable, and sorely needed with a workplace culture that uselessly confines people to the office until late in the evening, but all essentially useless when a record number of Korean women have lost their jobs in the last year (see below), and they’re still fired for getting pregnant. Perhaps the money might be better spent in conjunction with the Ministry of Labor in ensuring that companies are prosecuted for doing so?

( Source: I Believe in Advertising; adapted from Grazia advertisement )

Third, there are the motivations of the various interest groups themselves, in particular those of the Korean Gynecological Physicians’ Association (GYNOB; 진오비), a new group of 600-700 obstetricians that has sought forgiveness from the public for performing abortions in the past, probably not coincidentally receiving a great deal of media attention at about the same time that Lee Myung-bak’s taskforce was formed. While the New York Times at least emphasizes the religious affiliations of the group, and points out that it doesn’t have the support of the 4000 member Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (대한산부인과학회), I suspect that simple corporatist interests will soon increase its support among them, as according to The Korea Herald:

Obstetrical and gynecological clinics in Korea have long struggled from old issues such as low medical fees, ceaseless legal conflicts and a shortage of specialists.

Under the system, most private clinics have given up risk-bearing delivery services. But practicing cheaper gynecological treatment does not make a profit. As a result, a growing number of specialists do abortions or turn to other more favorable departments such as dermatology and plastic surgery.

And indeed the report then makes an explicit, corporatist link:

Young doctors started sensing that they could be the nation’s last generation of gynecologists, resulting in the establishment of GYNOB…

Presumably the idea being that gynecologists and obstetricians did not enter the field simply to perform abortions. Lest the argument that they’re simply looking out for their jobs sound cynical on my part however, consider how last year the Korean Medical Association (대한의사협회) started blatantly scaremongering about the contraceptive pill, despite the fact that already surprisingly low numbers of Korean women use the pill (in no small part due to previous scaremongering), and that it is widely acknowledged (outside of Japan at least) that Japanese gynecologists and obstetricians, for instance, deliberately blocked the introduction of the pill there for over 30 years in order to maintain their own extensive abortion industry. Granted, the KMA is not GYNOB, but it would be interesting to see who exactly in the KMA was responsible for that (needless to say, perhaps some are members of GYNOB?), and to hear alternative explanations for the KMA’s sudden concern.

Meanwhile, the corporatist interests of the Korean state are clear. As Sara Mendkedick at Change.org puts it:

Abortion shouldn’t be the only, desperate choice of women whose voices are silenced by their society, and it shouldn’t be used as a form of population control by the government. It should be one option for women who have the power, education, and awareness to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, it seems South Korea still sees abortion as one more issue for men to deal with, one more choice they make when and how they feel like it.

And for the best source on the history of Korea’s population control policies, almost as draconian as China’s “One Child Policy”, see Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (2005) by Seungsook Moon (see here for a review; source right: Japan Focus), a good illustration of the zealousness of which is the fact that the Marine Corps was mobilized to perform IUD insertions and vasectomies on isolated islanders in the late-1970s (p.84). Moreover:

In the second half of the 1970s, female sterilization was introduced and aggressively applied to fertile women in the form of free one-shot surgical sterilization. Necessary postsurgical care was often ignored. The practice of female sterilization reached its peak in 1979 and then decreased. Perceiving this decrease as a crisis, the state accelerated its sterilization campaign in the 1980s, into what can only be described as sterilization mania. Between 1982 and 1983, 2 million women were sterilized, making up 58% of the total cases of sterilization during the past 25 years. Statistics in 1988 indicated that 48% of all fertile married women were sterilized. Sterilized women also made up 63% of all female contraceptive users. In addition, 83% of these women had been sterilized for free by the state’s agencies, operating primarily in the form of mobile services. The semiforced mass sterilization led to abrupt reductions in the fertility rate and the rate of population growth in the 1980s. According to official statistics, the average number of children an adult woman would bear during her lifetime dropped from 6.3 in the early-1960s to 1.6 in 1988. (pp. 84-85)

Needless to say, I find it appalling that the government of a now supposedly developed, democratic society is applying the mindset of a military dictatorship to population control, and personally this is the straw that broke that broke the camel’s back as far my opinion of the Lee Myung-bak Administration, albeit something I should have expected from someone that saw fit to offer Seoul to God. Seriously, are poor Korean women going to be forced to go overseas or use backstreet abortionists from now on? In 2010?

I’d welcome suggestions as to what us, presumably mostly non-Koreans, can do about this. At the very least, I’ll be following developments closely here, and it’s not all doom and gloom: women’s groups are protesting, albeit at the moment in surprisingly low numbers. Meanwhile, for those of you further interested in the pervasive militarization of daily life in Korea that this policy is a manifestation of, then please consider my Gender and Militarization series (and which I finally have Part 4 tentatively scheduled to appear on Thursday the 8th of April!), and I also recommend this post by Korea Beat on avoiding compulsory military service, which he and I both think is an anachronism.

( Source: ROK SPOONFUL )

And now, in no particular order, the remainder of last week’s stories…but starting with some good news for a change:

2) Pregnant teenager allowed to graduate from high school

As the Joongang Ilbo reported:

The National Human Rights Commission said yesterday that any school that forces a student to drop out because she is pregnant is being discriminatory and infringing on her right to an education.

The announcement follows the case of Kim Su-hyeon, 19, a teenager who was forced to drop out during her senior year of high school last year because of a pregnancy.

Though many Western countries allow pregnant high school students to complete their educations, Kim’s case is the first of its kind in Korea to be decided by the commission.

Kim agreed to reveal her real name to the JoongAng Ilbo, commenting that she hoped her case would help other teenage mothers who have been forced to end their studies.

See Gusts of Popular Feeling for an overview and the wider context, and ROK Drop also has a brief comments thread in which comparisons to the US are made.

3) Korea to abolish adultery law

Self-explanatory (but good!), much more interesting is some additional information on the abortion issue that I’ve just noticed in the report from The Chosun Ilbo:

The committee is also reportedly discussing permitting abortions, which remain illegal in Korea. “We have not reached any conclusions since it is a very controversial issue,” a committee member said. “But discussions are under way allowing abortions if they are conducted before a certain period of pregnancy and clamping down on those that take place after that phase as seen in advanced countries.”

Hear hear!

4) New shows bring gay love to prime time

Long taboo on Korean television, this month not one but two dramas deal with homosexual relationships: Personal Taste (개인의 취향; also known as Personal Preference) and Life is Beautiful (인생은아름다워). See the JoongAng Daily for an overview, and Dramabeans at the above links for the details.

(Yes, I realize that that’s actually a man and woman on the right: as it turns out, Lee Min-ho (이민호) just pretends to be gay in order to room with Son Ye-jin (손예진) in Personal Preference)

5) G-Dragon Not Guilty

See SeoulBeats for the details, and here for the background.

6) Cambodian Government Temporarily Bans Marriage Between Cambodians and Koreans

Big news of course, but somewhat inevitable considering the treatment many Cambodian women receive in Korea, and hopefully this will prompt both countries to take a closer look at their mutual international marriage industry.

For an overview see The Marmot’s Hole and The Hub of Sparkle, and between them they link to an article at the Deutsche Press-Agentur and another at The Korea Herald that appears to have been written (but not published) just before the ban, which ironically claimed that most migrant women were happy with their marriages! To those I can now add this report from the JoongAng Daily, and an editorial from the (rather embarrassed?) Korea Herald.

7) Plastic surgery clinic accused of violating patients’ privacy

A woman in her 20s who lives in Gwangju has asked police to prosecute a plastic surgery clinic and its owner for placing on the Internet, without her consent, before-and-after photographs of her plastic surgery.

Read the rest at Korea Beat.

8) Sex offenders banned from entering country

And those already in the country will be immediately deported. Not that I’m necessarily against the ends, although using retroactive legislation as the means does seem problematic, as in the case of MOGEF working to make sex-offenders’ details available on the internet also.

Update: Robert Koehler and Brian in Jeollanam-do have more information on the former case here and here.

9) Korean 28 year-old jockey commits suicide

But perhaps a silver lining is provided by the light her death has shone on the harsh practices of the Korean racing industry, the second by a (rare) female jockey at Busan racecourse? See The Korea Times for details, and some additional analysis is provided by Roboseyo and Aaron Bruckhart (source right: Korea Times).

10) Crime

MOGEF’s plans in #8 are undoubtedly in response to the case of alleged rapist and murderer Kim Gil-tae (김길태), over whom there is a great deal of public anger directed towards the government because he was a convicted sex-offender but whose privacy is protected by current legislation. Further details that have emerged in that case since my last post on it are that he claims to have been too drunk to remember his crimes, and that some netizens opened a “cafe” in support of  him before that confession, albeit more in a “groupie” sense than in a genuine belief that he was innocent.

Meanwhile, singer and radio host Kim Beum-soo (김범수) is under fire for shock-jock comments about his stalking of women while he was a student, rather tasteless and alarming even without the above case, and the Hankyoreh accuses the ruling Grand National Party of exploiting the Kim Gil-tae to create a  “climate of fear” to “enact hardline measures”.

And in other crime news:

…two soccer players of Kyunggi University in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, were arrested for rape, police said. The school is seriously considering disbanding its soccer team to take responsibility for the crime, a school spokesman said.

11) Economy

Not only has youth unemployment reached a 10-year high of 10% and is still rising, but the number of jobless female graduates has hit a record high, and the JoongAng Ilbo has a report on the structural and discriminatory practices responsible. Not that it gladdens me to be proved right, but this was somewhat predictable considering the fact that women were overwhelmingly targeted for recession in the financial crisis, as I reported in my very first Korean Gender Reader post in January 2009 (source right: Korea Times).

12) Breaking the myth of Korean homogeneity

While not a gender issue at first glace, actually it’s difficult to think of a gender issue, or rather sexuality issue, in which Korea’s “bloodlines”-based nationalism and its preservation doesn’t play a role, and for more on which I highly recommend Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, And Legacy (2006) by Gi-Wook Shin. Here, Halfie Trots the Globe translates and discusses the article Indian Ayodhia’s twin-fish motif as evidence of its marriage-based relationship with Gaya by Kim Byeongmo, a professor of Anthropology and Archaeology at Hanyang University, and which demonstrates India and Korea’s historical relationship and evidence of some intermarriage 2000 years ago.

13) Northeast Asia

– Taiwan launches million dollar baby-making slogan search

Alas, while Taiwan has much the same problems as Korea with its low birthrate, it isn’t that desperate, and the prize is for 1 million Taiwanese dollars, or US$30,000. My apologies, but I don’t know if English slogans are acceptable…

– Domestic violence cases souring in Japan

But this may actually be positive, reflecting greater awareness and reporting:

The number of domestic violence cases police recognized in 2009 soared 11.7% from the previous year to 28,158, the highest since an annual survey began in 2002, the National Police Agency said Thursday. An NPA official ascribed the rise to increased reports to police and consultations with them by citizens amid growing awareness of domestic violence in Japan.

See here for links a brief video offering some background, from April 2009. And actually, despite appearances, much the same revolution is occurring in Korea, primarily because of women’s greater willingness to report and prosecute abusers and a sea-change in the police’s attitudes towards it (see here for a long post providing some background also).

( Left: Don’t Belong by The Dream Seeker; Right: Change Begins Here by Self-portrait_Girl )

– Ex-Prada employee sues Japanese division for discrimination

To be precise, she was fired for refusing to fire staff because they were “ugly”. From New York Magazine:

An ex-retail manager for Prada’s Japanese division, Rina Bovrisse, has followed through on her pledge to file a discrimination lawsuit against the company. Bovrisse claims she was asked to fire store managers and retail staff members whom Prada Japan’s CEO found visually unappealing. After filing a complaint about this with the Tokyo District Court in December, she was fired from the company

– Tokyo municipal government plans to outlaw child-porn manga

According to The Economist:

The Tokyo municipal government plans to vote on March 30th to amend an ordinance against child pornography to include “non-existent minors”. Much Japanese porn comes in forms that escape rules covering photos and videos: manga; anime (cartoons); and video-games. Existing bans are meant to protect the child victims. “Virtual” porn—where there is no harm to a real person—is illegal in some countries to protect public morals and ensure a safe environment for children. Last month an American court sentenced a man to six months in prison for possession of Japanese manga child pornography.

With qualifications for the age of viewers and the context in which it is received, then personally I’m completely against the banning of simple drawings, no matter how morally objectionable the content. But regardless, see here for more on a (belated) crackdown on the photos and DVDs in 2008, and which of course I was completely in support of.


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