The Truth About Korean Men
Some foreign women travel to South Korea looking for love. But inside the country much has been said about how deeply flawed Korean men are.
The oppa is so handsome. He is distant at first but once he falls in love with you, he gives his all. He shows up whenever you are in trouble, like he has a telepathic link to your mind. He gets jealous, but only to the point of making your doubts about him melt away. He isn't afraid to be cute and cuddly. But he never pushes for sex.
It's a description for any number of male protagonists in South Korean TV romances. And as unrealistic and clichéd as it sounds, some women around the world apparently believe it to be a true portrayal of South Korean men.
That's according to Wellesley College lecturer Min Joo Lee, who "interviewed women from different parts of the world who were inspired by K-dramas to travel to South Korea" for her research. She found out that "a significant subset [...] travel to South Korea for love." One from Germany even confessed that "when she meets a Korean man, she feels as if she's living in [her] own Korean television drama."
One can imagine how these quests often end, in disappointment. Few Korean men can live up to their idealized fictional image, if this needs to be said at all.
Inside the country there is little illusion. Should foreign women (and men and non-binary people for that matter) want to come and snatch up the male half of the population, go right ahead. Domestic competition won't mind it so much.
That may sound harsh, but much ink has been spilled inside South Korea over the past few years on why its men are so unappealing. The first big wave of judgement came in 2014 and onward, as part of what might be dubbed the gaejeossi 개저씨 discourse.
Meaning middle-aged curs, this label was given to numerous Korean men over the age of 40 who are self-centered to the point of being repulsive. Characteristics attributed to them included mansplaining, manspreading, talking down to women and young people, treating subordinates and service workers like servants, having no manners and engaging in routine sexual harassment.
What they also had in common, I wrote back in 2015 in an essay that embarrassingly went viral, was the "singular conviction in the righteousness of their action, and profound puzzlement and even anger when they are rejected or confronted."
The nation seemingly agreed that there was something fundamentally wrong with its older men, with a flurry of articles urging reflection. "Strong before women and the weak, submissive before the strong: your name is gaejeossi." (Donga Ilbo) "Are you a gaejeossi or a gentleman?" (Kyunghyang Shinmun) "The expression may be a bit over the top, but shows another generation's anger and hatred toward this type of men." (Maeil Kyeongje)
One paper even published a guideline for men on "how to avoid becoming a gaejeossi."
But did only Korean middle-aged and elderly men suffer from critical flaws? Sociologist and writer O Chan-ho in his 2016 book Why Did That Man Become Strange? (그 남자는 왜 이상해졌을까) went further and summarized that the average Korean man lack three things: "rational capacity for logic", "understanding of violence as violence" and "the ability to communicate and empathize with others". And he wasn't talking just about older men; younger males can just as easily adopt the gaeossi traits once they experience the three critical paths to male adulthood in South Korean society: mandatory military service, education, and South Korea's "all-pervasive culture of power abuse and irrational hierarchy".
For these institutions have a way of reinforcing a skewed ideal of masculinity that privileges contempt for the weak, success at all cost, and obsequiousness toward those higher in the pecking order.
O was speaking to a growing sentiment about South Korean men in general, reflected in the rise of another popular epithet during much of 2017: hannam 한남—short for "Korean man" (Hanguk namja 한국남자).
And what about them? Said to originate from online feminist communities, the term has been used sometimes in combination with the suffix -chung 충, meaning vermin, which is self-explanatory enough. It conveyed the opinion that Korean men are inherently selfish in nature and harmful to those around them and society, like parasites eating their way into hosts.
But even without that reference to insects, the name hannam alone functioned (and continues to function) as a takedown of classic Korean men. If someone says in Korean, "[so-and-so] is a hannam", as my female friends do sometimes, it conveys that a particular Korean man embodies the same deplorable qualities attributed to gaejeossi. And such beastly creatures are getting younger. Jeong Mi-hwan, a contributor to GQ Korea, noted in 2017:
"Young men today in late teens and twenties learn all the bad habits of hannam from early on: arrogance to the point of being shameless, no attempt to understand anything outside their narrow world, enthusiasm for bluntness, rudeness toward women, and authoritarianism. Why is that?"
Maybe because "too many flawed role models are everywhere", as Jeong answered her own question. South Korea is full of men who give their kind a bad rep. Former leader of the rightwing opposition People Power Party—once known as Saenuri—Kim Mu-sung made global headlines in May 2017 by behaving exactly like a gaejeossi, coming out of the airport arrivals gate and pushing his suitcase in the direction of his aide without so much as glancing.
Then the #MeToo movement started to sweep South Korea in early 2018, and many powerful men had their sexual transgression exposed, not least the left-leaning mayors of Seoul and Busan, the governor of South Chungcheong Province, a lawmaker, celebrity poet Ko Un (often touted as having a shot at becoming the first Korean to win the Nobel Prize in literature), and director and Venice Film Festival prize winner Kim Ki-duk.
The revelations were accompanied by heightened awareness of another very prevalent form of gender-based violence in this country: molka 몰카—secret recordings, often by men of women, in compromising situations without consent. Women protestors began gathering monthly to condemn the practice and jolt the government into action. At some point it felt as though everyday men after men were being arrested for illegally filming women in public toilets, on the subway, at work, inside motel rooms and even in women's own homes.
Unsurprisingly in South Korea there has been considerable interest, not to mention no small number of books, dedicated to understanding just how men have come to be like this.
If the 2016 publication Birth of the Grandpa (할배의 탄생) explored "poor masculinity" of low-income elderly men on the margins of society, Analyzing Korean Masculinity (한국 남성을 분석한다, 2017) and Korean, Men (한국, 남자, 2018) put the spotlight on the conventional Korean expectation for what a man ought to be: a dependable breadwinner rewarded with respect and offspring for his financial contribution. This arrangement, in place for centuries, behooved women to assume inferior positions in both family and society, and withheld social acceptance and success from 'unmanly' men—who deviate from the norm or critique the system.
While the changed economic circumstance in the aftermath of the 1997 financial crisis has dealt a blow to the historical practice of a married man supporting his entire family's middle-class lifestyle, the male privilege is maintained in South Korea "through violence and various social systems", Choi Tae-seop, the author of Korean, Men, argues. And much data on earnings difference between men and women or extremely low percentages of women in decision-making corporate and government positions supports his view.
But some, if not many, South Korean men still feel threatened by the progress women have achieved, and turn their anger against feminism and the other sex, instead of critically examining their own misconceptions about what women ought to do for them.
One Korean man recently commented on KOREA EXPOSÉ's Facebook page, "Feminism earned a bad wrap [sic] in Korea especially over the last few years. And in part for good reason too" and problematized "the uniquely Korean version of feminism (especially the online advocacy arm of it that is highly radicalized)".
And some incel-type South Korean men's rights activists with their feet in mainstream politics haven't been shy in demanding an outright restoration of the patriarchy as it used to exist. They are convinced that women should relegate themselves to the traditional role of housewife.
"These shameless [Korean men] still dream of so-called 'women with common sense' (gaenyeomnyeo 개념녀) [meaning women who don't subscribe to feminist convictions] who will be their housekeepers, temptresses, mothers of their children and docile daughters-in-law", says Choi.
In response to mounting evidence of toxic Korean masculinity, male-dominated online communities decry what they call a gross generalization of their nature.
But the Korean language is peppered with neologisms based on generalizations about Korean women: kimchinyeo (kimchi ladies), Kim Nyeosa (Madam Kim), mamchung (mommy parasites), and pongpongnyeo (women laundering their sordid past) to mention a few. They suggest that men have long painted wholesale pictures of women as wasteful, vacuous, exploitative and immoral; and that their outrage over being generalized themselves is at best hypocritical.
If all this doesn't stop you from still looking for love in South Korea, come and try. It's fair to say that not all its men are gaejeossi or hannam, and it's possible that at least a few of them may even conform to the ideal presented in K-dramas.
Or, as Min Joo Lee at Wellesley College concludes, be prepared for "love and romance that don't aways have a happy ending."
Cover: an ideal Korean boyfriend, featured in the recent K-drama Business Proposal (source: Netflix)