Life and Death in Queer Korea
By Huso Yi
South Korea's rigid gender hierarchies looms large in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people there.
The Yin and the Yang
In the influential Woman's Four Book, written in 1736 and last reissued in 1987, the husband is compared to the sky and the wife to the obedient ground. The first chapter, entitled "The Chapter of the Low and Weak Status," puts it this way: "The sky is high, the ground is low; yang is strong, yin is weak. Lowness and weakness is woman's destiny. If the woman wants to be strong on her own, she violates the law of justice."
Elsewhere, we're informed that one of the seven evils of a wife is not bearing a son. "A son-in-law is a guest for 100 years; a daughter-in-law is an eating mouth 'til the day she dies," cautions a Korean proverb.
In 1989, 23.3 percent of all South Korean women worked as prostitutes. In 1994, a staggering one-fifth of all females there aged 15 to 29 (1.6 million) worked as prostitutes. That's 2 out of every 10. Most weren't traditional prostitutes confined to red-light districts or plying the streets, but part of a booming and perfectly legal prostitution industry grafted on to the hotel, restaurant, entertainment/cultural and household services sectors. In other words: in South Korea, as long as the primary purpose of a business is providing food, drinks, entertainment, or even household cleaning, it can legally sell sex on the side. Sociologists there call this phenomenon, which began in the 1970's when the country's economic development took off, "industrial prostitution."
Male Privilege: Life
This has produced a marked sex-ratio imbalance in third and fourth-born children. In 1971, the sex ratio for third-born children was 109.7 males per 100 females; by 1993 it was 202.6. For fourth-born, and over, the 1971 sex ratio was 110.1 males per 100 females; by 1993 it had shot up to 237.9 males per 100 females. Although lower, the 1997 figures were still severely eskewed towards males (133.6 for third-born children, and 155.4 for fourth-born ones).
Abortion is routinely used as a form of contraception, although South Korean law only allows it up to the eighth week of gestation and only in cases of transmitted or genetically diseases, incest, rape and when the health of the mother is at great risk. Between 1.5 and 2 million abortions are performed annually. That's nearly three times the number of deliveries (600,000 newborns per year). South Korea has the second highest number of abortions in the world.
One out of two married women has had an abortion. Eighty percent of abortions are done for gender-selection purposes, to abort female fetuses. In a study of abortion cases in South Korea's 20 major hospitals published by the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea in 1996, the overwhelming majority of women who have had an abortion 77.9 percent of married women and 71.3 percent of unmarried ones reported satisfaction with the results of the abortion.
Lust for Sons
According to South Korea's ho-ju or head of family or household law, once a woman marries, she is no longer considered a member of her father's family, but becomes her husband's dependant. Her name is deleted from her father's family register and transferred to that of her husband. In other words, her husband becomes her new ho-yu, or household head, instead of her father.
If a woman divorces, she is removed from her husband's family records. Children remain on his records, though, even if they live with the mother. This makes it difficult for the mother to prove her relationship to her own children, which has an impact on things like getting health insurance or applying for a foreign visa.
"After the divorce, my sons and I will not be in the same family legally. Even though I am allowed to raise them, we are considered to be just living together in a house," a 31-year-old working mother told Reuters at a recent rally in Seoul against the ho-ju system. South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun made a campaign promise to abolish the ho-ju system, but conservatives are bitterly opposed.
If the husband dies while they're still married, the next household head is the couple's son, and then any grandson. If there are no sons or grandsons, then the unmarried daughter will become head of the family. Only after the daughter marries can her mother become head of the family. Once the mother dies, however, the family becomes officially extinct. That's every Korean's worst nightmare.
Such a legal system makes bearing a son imperative for married women. To have a son is considered their most important obligation. It's the only way they will be respected by the husband's parents. That son will likely be regarded as "property" by the husband's family, as well as the means for the survival of the family lineage. If a family has only one son, and he is gay, the pressures and psychosocial burdens on him are crushing. Coping with them is extremely difficult.
Rape and harassment
Violence against women and sexual harassment have continued unabated, despite heightened public awareness created in recent years by South Korea's growing women's rights movement and laws against domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace enacted in 1998 and 1999, respectively.
In 1997 there were incidents of domestic violence in 31.4 percent of South Korean households. That year, the Korea Research Institute for Culture and Sexuality, found that almost half (45.5 percent) of female high school students had been sexually molested by males, with fondling of breasts and genitals the most common offenses.
Rigid gender ideology, entrenched in every aspect of Korean life, from inheritance law to reproductive rights, is one of the most daunting challenges facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists in South Korea.