Red Lights, Big City

Welcome to part 2 of 7 in-depth posts that analyze Confucianism against the characteristics of tribal “honor” based societies:

  1. Restrictions on the free flow of information
  2. The subjugation of women
  3. Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure
  4. The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization
  5. Domination by a restrictive religion
  6. A low valuation of education
  7. Low prestige assigned to work

Eye Candy (and Nose/Lips/Chin/Jaw Candy) There was a big fuss last week over a set of photos released of the Miss Korea 2013 contestants (technically the contest was Miss Daegu preliminary, but the erroneous version sounded catchier).

Even in this side-by-side layout these women look unnaturally homogeneous, but scroll down halfway down the following page to the animated GIF.

The blazing speed at which the hair and clothes change highlights the uncanny degree to which the eyes, nose, lips, chin, and even jaw remain disturbingly consistent from one photo to the next.

Initially everyone thought that the uniformity came down to plastic surgery, Korea having the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world.

In fact a later photo showed that the women actually look quite distinct in real life, it’s only in glamour shots with makeup and Photoshop where the become clones of one another.

personal aside: Whew, thank god it’s merely that there’s a single archetype of beauty whose signature has become so distinct as to border on trademark.

Regardless, the photos was just a pretext for the Korean blogosphere to launch another round of tut-tutting and hand-wringing on plastic surgery.

After all, it’s such a ripe topic for endless speculation:

  • is it caused by the superficiality of the younger generation?
  • has disposable income risen too quickly to consume meaningfully?
  • is the homogeneity of society leading to an increasingly narrow definition of beauty?
  • is the rise of K-pop as a lucrative export has put a premium on the form of beauty appealing to the widest overseas audience?

I’m an analytic kinda guy.  On concepts as fuzzy as culture, vice, and decadence, I have no idea how to even verify such claims, let alone prove causality.  So let’s stick with a closely related topic that better lends itself to numerical analysis…

Statistics Ain’t Shit (but Hoes and Tricks)

A few days ago, I dropped a big brain dump of data pertaining to that other favorite vice that Koreans love to gnash their teeth about: prostitution.

Per The Korea Times:

Yep, somehow Korea is paradoxically the largest exporter of both providers and consumers in the sex trade.

Prostitution better lends itself to numerical analysis because, when you strip away all the rhetoric and conjecture about moral decay/generational divide/foreign corruption, prostitution is fundamentally a business transaction.

And let’s consider the economic prospects of a Korean woman:

  • Korea’s economy overall is ranked 15th in the world
  • employment rate: 74% for men, 53% for women: a 21% gap (30th of 30 in OECD)
  • wage differential: men make 40% more than women (30th of 30 in OECD)
  • leadership: females comprise 0.7% of CEOs across 1,787 publicly listed companies
  • maternity: 45 days before birth, 45 days after.  Only 60 days are fully paid.  Monthly pay is $450-900 USD, which is not enough for anyone to get by in Seoul.
  • workplace safety: women who contract cancer from working at Samsung chemical plants is injury.  The added insult: “However, the Korean Government refused to compensate her based on the grounds that she could not prove which toxic chemicals she had been exposed to.”
  • unions: speaking of Samsung, its 60 companies has 9 unions, “all are either small, company-supported groups established to meet the letter of Korean laws permitting unions at companies, or ‘ghost unions’ that basically exist in name only” (per Wall Street Journal)

Add it all up, and prostitution looks less like a function of culture turning towards vice, decadence, and immorality, but as rational economic alternative to otherwise bleak job prospects.  It’s a wealth transfer mechanism from men to women, no different from Social Security in the US transfers from the working to the injured/unemployed.

In fact, even before a Korean women chooses to walk the streets the workplace primes her to think about the marketability of her appearances: SOP is to include a photo on the resume, taking it as a given that attractiveness a factor in choosing a female candidate.

The Third Way

Of course, it’s a false dichotomy to say that walking the streets is a woman’s only alternative to a job lacking union protection for sub-par wages in a carcinogenic factory without hope of breaking the glass ceiling.

The other main option is, of course, the most traditional one: marriage.  But that only works so long as the woman can leverage the threat of divorce to ensure fair treatment.  Otherwise, marriage can go from being an escape hatch to just another trap.

The first trap is in deciding what kind of marriage to enter: with a foreigner, or with a Korean.

Marrying a foreigner carries obvious personal/cultural risks: not surprisingly, mixed marriages have a very high divorce rate.  But there are less obvious legal pitfalls too.  In one case, the husband took off for his native country, stranding his wife in judicial limbo, with no legal recourse for seeing her child.

And marrying a Korean man just involves a different set of legal risks:

  • No such thing as no-fault divorce
  • Conciliation proceedings are a prerequisite of divorce filing
  • Judges have tremendous discretionary power over divorce, property, and custody.  One court rule that while it “fully acknowledged the woman was mistreated by her husband, it was more proper for her to remain and care for her husband.”
  • Age is a factor.  The same court ruling above used the justification that “fifty two years ago, patriarchal authority was stronger than now and their marital vows were made at that time”
  • domestic violence: until last year, being drunk was a valid defense for a man raping his wife.  This law was only overturned by the supreme court, not by any popular legislation.  One can imagine how much else a man can get away with in a marriage.


Korean society has adopted enough western liberalism that women can live independently as a prostitute, but retains enough tribal misogyny that neither marriage nor employment are appealing enough.    They’re voting with their feet that these alternatives need to be reformed to be competitive.

Talk about culture, decadence, vice, and generational gaps are just a distraction from these simple economic and legal realities.

And circling back to the initial discussion, this framework makes sense of the high rate of plastic surgery without appealing to “culture” arguments.  Whether walking the streets, applying for a job which requires a photo with resume, or simply trying to attract a husband (who hopefully isn’t of the wife-beating persuasion), plastic surgery is an investment.  Within this system, it’s the rational course of action for maximizing the probability of a favorable outcome.

What needs to change:

  • jobs
    • prohibit requiring photo on resumes
    • tighten enforcement of workplace safety laws
    • increase maternity leave benefits
    • mandate Samsung to allow real unions with actual teeth
    • increase number of female CEOs (quotas?  other mechanisms?)
  • marriage
    • no-fault divorce
    • limit number of times couples must attempt “conciliation” before filing divorce
    • reduce discretionary leeway given to judges in divorce and custody proceedings
    • divorce laws must be age-blind and based on contemporary interpretation of law
    • tighten enforcement of domestic violence (e.g. interview directly at hospitals)

Until these changes take place, Korea can point to its vibrant economy all it wants; its laws and practices belie an underlying attitude no different from a Middle Eastern prince or emir who wears the trappings of sophistication but still regards his wife as chattel.

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7 Responses to Red Lights, Big City

  1. Pingback: Red Lights, Big City Cont’d | twinkiesandeggs

  2. All of your posts are well laid out presented. I hope you continue to write. I wonder if your perspective will change after you spend more time in Korea.

  3. Pingback: Mother’s Mother’s Mothers’s Day (Part 3 of 3) | twinkiesandeggs

  4. Lawrence Freerick says:

    These are dubious generalizations to say the least. The rate of participation in prostitution is actually about the same in every society in the world, give or take – the differences are minor. Women are not engaging in the sex business because they cannot get unionized jobs ( obviously men can’t get them either ) and the economic imbalances between genders are in any case universal and explain nothing at all; and no, Korea actually is nothing like a Middle Eastern “emir” ( whatever that means ) when it comes to the position of women. Korean women are among the wealthiest, best educated and longest-living humans on earth. Men, meanwhile, go to prostitutes everywhere on earth, and at about the same rates and they probably always will. Disallowing photos on job applications is not going to change that one iota. They go to prostitutes in massive numbers in Sweden too but I wouldn’t want to spin a sociology out of that. In all, I have to wonder how well you actually know Korea, or any other Asian country. Your assumptions seem massively orientated towards British and American ones, but I may be wrong. By the way, there is a huge hook-up culture in Korea, actually, as there is in every Asian country – way more than in the West, in my humble experience. Again, that doesn’t mean anything. But I can’t quite see why anyone would think American sexual culture is “normal” and Korea’s is “pathological.”

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