In the past few month, South Korea has received a lot of media attention. Most of that attention has been surrounding the usual stories of North Korea, political trouble, and Japan-Korea relations. If you are looking for anything new you will probably stumble onto headlines such as the the December 16th article in Forbes titled “South Korea At The Edge: Should America’s Peace Depend on a Shaman’s teaching?” That article sits comfortably among others such a BBC story from November titled “Does Korea Have a Problem with Hidden Cameras?” The lede includes the line “Pornography exists the world over, but do men go to greater lengths in Korea than elsewhere to take secret photographs of women?”
If you decide you want to educate yourself about East Asian countries, you must go through a complicated maze to find anything worth reading.
The Crisis of Reporting on East Asia
When searching for interesting stories about East Asia, you will never be disappointed. If you read the Korea Times, Japan Today, or China Daily, you will find an endless stream of breaking news stories from a part of the world that is still mysterious to many Americans.
A fascinating problem occurs when you read Western media about East Asia. Many of these incredible news stories are completely ignored and in their place, stories of repressed sexuality, honor cultures, family hierarchy and high competitive drives.
Unfortunately, rather than unique reporting, journalists tend to focus on stories that play on these stereotypes to unfortunate results. South Koreans have been subject to much media attention in recent years, and almost all of it plays into East Asian stereotypes that create a damaging feedback loop.
Stereotypes of “Asian Competition”
In November, CNN published a story called “South Korea’s golfing women: You’re either a champion, or nothing.” The title is problematic. It is supposed to be read endearingly, but actually perpetuates a dangerous Korean stereotype.
In the article, America PGA Coach Brion Mogg says, “Koreans are the most disciplined people on earth. You tell them to do something but they don’t just do it, they do it to the nth degree, and they do it hard and passionate. When you put hard work and discipline together you’re going to create some success.”
Only towards the end of the article do you get perspective from the Korean golfers themselves. Korean golfer Se-Ri Park discusses how in Korea, golfers do not see each other as friends but only as competitors.
“In Western culture, although the winner is important, they respect all competitors and reward them for their effort, regardless of where they finished,” says Park. “In Korea, however, only the winner is rewarded. Only first place. This has an effect on young children who learn from an early age, no matter what form of competition, you are either a champion or nothing.”
Amazingly, instead of continuing to write about the dangers of competition in Korean society, the article glosses over the statement completely and continues to talk about how Koreans are revitalizing golf with their “Winning Spirit.”
What Park was trying to express was how dangerous the style of competition can be. Koreans have the second highest suicide rate in the world and the 1st highest among OECD countries. Suicide was the number one cause of death for Koreans between the ages of 10-39. In America, Asian Americans greatly under utilize mental health care with 2/3 not seeking treatment for depressive disorders. Various studies suggest their shame resides with the fact that “Model Minorities” are supposed to keep it together.
The ABC article “What the USA Could Learn From South Korean Schools” is just as terrible. The article discusses how in the world of globalization, American schools have fallen behind, but how Korea has succeeded.
The article states, “In South Korea where 93% of all students graduate from high school on time. But in the United States, almost one-quarter of all students — more than 1.2 million individuals each year — fail to graduate. Once the world leader in secondary-school education, the United States now ranks a desultory 18th among 36 nations examined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.”
Incredibly the article manages to quote statistics from the OECD, but makes no mention of the South Korean OECD suicide rate that is directly correlated to education.
In a recent survey 8 out of 10 Koreans said they wanted to leave Korea. The youth has coined the term “Hell Joseon” to refer to the poor working conditions and lack of work life balance. 47% of those surveyed were already making plans to leave.
When the Media gets it Right They Still get it Wrong: Sex & Birth Rates in South Korea
Occasionally in the media’s attempt to grab your attention, they will report a story that is considered “outrageous” but actually goes beyond myth and touches the truth. These stories are few and far between and when published show they lack the depth that a Western audience would need to understand the facts.
This is the case in the VICE video “The South Korean Love Industry.” VICE specializes in making outrageous videos, but in this situation their attempt to be controversial results in one of the only true portrayals of struggles that Asian countries face, but give no indication of the true causes.
The video explains how South Korea has plunging birth rates and explains the struggles the country faces in trying to fix it.
In the video we see how Korean couples before marriage go through intricate wedding photos in an attempt to create the perfect wedding.
While wedding planning cannot in itself show a true cause/effect relationship to stress, through various studies it has been shown that a large cause of male erectile dysfunction in the country is due to “male expectation anxiety.” The pressure on men and women to both prove perfect has resulted in increased anxiety and performance issues for both men and women.
The video also takes us on a tour of the Jeju Island Park “LoveLand.” The park was designed to reduce the shame and taboos over sex by creating a space filled with blatant sexual imagery. The park is complete with fountains made of breasts and penises over ten feet high.
Korea is a conservative culture based on Confucianism and sex is not always talked about directly. It was found that 37% of high school males used porn as their sexual education. The Korean Research Institute on Sexuality was formed to provide sexual education to students, but on a general knowledge test about sexuality, students of both genders scored in the range of 60%-65%. Although South Korea is one of the most technological civilizations in the world, porn is still illegal, so student use VPNs to find Chinese and Japanese porn instead.
Studies have shown that a high level of sexual education leads to positive attitudes towards sexuality and an improved quality of life and that even many elderly Koreans do not even have that information.
The VICE video also expresses how since so many Koreans live at home, it is hard to find opportunities to date and have time alone. However the number of one-person households has increased from 7% in 1985 to 24% in 2010. Even so, Love Motels are a booming business in Korea where privacy from your family may be uncommon.
An article by Business Insider titled “South Koreas Gender Problem Could Lead to An Existential Crisis” also does a good job of explaining a complicated problem.
Although starting off with a radical assessment of Koreans likelihood of going extinct, it moves into the causes of the low birth rates and dives quickly into the choice women in Korea face between a career and children. The article states that South Korea has a gender gap of 65% and sits at 115th place (just between Burkina Faso and Zambia) in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report. Currently, South Korea sits at 116th place between the Maldives and Angola.
The article also addresses Korea’s extreme work culture as well as its third place spot on the OECD list of longest work hours.
Kim Choe, from the East West Center, cites the improvement of opportunities for women as another part of the declining birth rate. Choe also says that her study found one third of women and one sixth of men have neutral attitudes towards marriage.
What makes the article work is the lack of sensationalism. The article doesn’t feel the need to try to explain the low birth rate through the incredibly confusing lens of modern Confucianism, but instead offers solutions that also explain the causes. The article explains how in France, there is no stigma about young mothers going back to work. This indirectly addresses the South Korean male dominated attitude towards gender roles without trying to explain it.
Important Stories being Ignored
Unfortunately, because Western media loves to focus on Asian Sex (Or lack there of) a lot of important stories fly under the radar.
It has now come to light that South Korean President, Park Geun-Hye was involved in extortion, corruption, and even going outside her cabinet with confidential information to deliver to her friend, Choi Soon-Sil, the leader of a Shamanistic cult. There is a lot of juicy moments for Western media to grab onto and would put even the most outrageous Clinton scandal to shame. Western media has only reported on the tip of the iceberg.
Another important story missed is a story covered extensively in Korean media. When the Sewol ferry sunk on April 16th, 2014 with 300 passengers (mostly children) the President was nowhere to be found. It was 7 hours before the President made a statement. In that time hundreds died and multiple government agencies were thrown into chaos with no real leadership. Video emerged shortly after of the President visiting the Sewol memorial and being booed by angry parents mourning their children.
It has now emerged that it is possible that the cause for the President’s absence is that she was meeting with members of the religious cult “Church of The Eternal Light.” While children drowned and multiple rescues were called off or stalled while waiting for the green light, President Park was most likely with religious members getting their advice on appropriate action. It has come to light that the President didn’t lift a finger for any cause without first consulting religious leaders.
Rumors have spread like wildfire that the ferry accident was caused by the cult as a “Shamanistic Offering.” Those rumors are of course absurd, but it shows the type of people that the president has been associating with. People the public has utter disdain for. Other rumors include the President undergoing plastic surgery at the time of the incident.
Either way, if George Bush can get in trouble for five second of silence after being told about 9/11, the seven hours of a missing President are a much larger issue.
Although it has been hundreds of years since foreigners first visited Korea, the reporting on the country still has a fascination with the stereotypical and damaging fascination of Sex, competition, and Confucianism. Until readers become bored, important stories in Korea will continue to be ignored.
https://goo.gl/wTVNUM – Link to interactive chart