Visit Seoul: The Unintended Undertones of Sex Tourism

ké radar

The tourism ad was meant to be displayed in New York City, promoting Seoul as a vibrant city where old meets new. Instead it faced immediate backlash due to its apparent sexualization of women’s bodies and unintended undertones about sex tourism. This prompted Seoul City Government to cancel the original design, only several days after introducing it to the public.

The ad depicts the silhouette of a woman wearing a traditional Korean hanbok dress against the backdrop of one of three well-known tourist sites in Seoul: Gyeongbokgung Palace, Gwanghwamun, and Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP).

Visit Seoul ad in NYC (Gwanghwamun)
(Source: Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government)

Some South Koreans criticized the ad of sexually commercializing the female body in order to attract foreign tourists. The suggestive manner in which the female character is holding the goreum bow on her chest could also be interpreted as an act of undressing, critics said. Some argued that the phrase “Unforgettable experience in Seoul,” coupled with the picture of the woman, could sound like an invitation to experience sexual pleasures during one’s stay in the South Korean capital.

An official at Seoul City’s international press team, who refused to be named, citing official rules, said the city acknowledged that the ads could be viewed in a negative light. The intention was to highlight the traditional beauty of South Korea in light of the recent trend of foreigners wearing hanboks when they come to Seoul.

When pressed about the choice of a female character to embody traditional beauty — as opposed to a man — the spokesperson said the female figure fitted well with the beautiful line of the hanbok.

“[The ad] suffers from a poverty of the imagination, which fails to go beyond the gisaeng tourism of the 1970s and 80s,” tweeted Oh Hyun-joo, co-founder of civic group People’s House.

Gisaeng were female entertainers, part of a selective system thought to have originated in the Goryeo dynasty (918 – 1392 CE), which lasted throughout the Joseon dynasty (1392 – early 1900s). The gisaeng women were often taken by the elites as concubines or secondary wives, and performed a variety of functions including entertainment, medical and needle work, but also sexual services.

Gisaeng performing sword dance
Gisaeng performing a sword dance, date unknown. (Source: FriedC Via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

South Korea in the 1970s saw the rise of the sex tourism industry, advertised as gisaeng tours and predominantly destined for Japanese men. According to John Lie, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, the government not only encouraged the sex tourism industry but promoted gisaeng tours as a matter of national policy. It even created a system to supervise and certify sex tour prostitutes, and commended them for their contribution to the country’s economic growth, according to Lie who quotes a Japanese publication.

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that some South Koreans are reacting sensitively to Seoul City’s latest advertisement.

Seoul’s press team confirmed to Korea Exposé that the revised ads would omit the women in the hanbok.

In a press release issued on Nov. 30, Seoul said the advertising campaign would be run jointly with New York City over the Christmas period for one month, displaying the ads on 1,000 digital screens throughout New York including in Times Square, and on 155 buses. Reciprocally, Seoul would run ads promoting NYC tourism in Seoul.


Cover: Posters of Seoul advertisement destined to be displayed in New York’s Times Square. (Source: Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government)

Raphael is a freelance journalist and fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies from Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.