By Andray Abrahamian
Expats in China have been lamenting the recent media and bureaucratic crackdown on foreigners.
Now expats in Korea have something to complain about: an MBC program “Viewing the World Moment to Moment” (Sesangbogi Sisigakgak) broadcast last week titled ``The Shocking Truth About Relationships with Foreigners.”
The ``shocking truth” in this rather unfortunate piece of ``journalism” is that Korean women sometimes sleep with foreign men. More shocking, perhaps, is the piece’s implication that not only are Korean women being corrupted, but that they are being robbed and abused as well as become pregnant with unwanted babies and get AIDS.
It’s not a hugely influential program (most Koreans this author has spoken to haven’t watched or even heard of it), but the piece has traveled fast over the last week on English-language social media. It has been all over the blogosphere and Facebook. A subtitled version uploaded to YouTube had garnered about a hundred thousand hits by Monday morning.
Most of the comments on these forums decry racism and xenophobia. They also balk at the notion that all foreigners are the same. Many even complain that Korea’s sexual values are not as pure as people might think, citing the promulgate red-light and love-motel districts or sex tourism to Southeast Asia.
Nevertheless, foreigners in Korea sometimes forget that the era of both Korean poverty and subjugation at the hands of others is not so far away. Xenophobia is the product of a perceived need to protect one’s country, culture or race from outside threats.
Sometimes these threats are real, and sometimes they are overemphasized to achieve social and political goals. Many former colonies have been able to move past xenophobia more successfully than Korea, where an ``us vs. them” mentality was not discouraged during the era of rapid economic growth in order to achieve development goals.
Now, traditional sexual mores in Korea are struggling to survive as a younger more progressive generation approaches sex differently to their seniors. In part driven by a much sexualized pop-cultural environment, more and more young people view premarital sex, co-habitation and homosexuality as acceptable behaviors. These things are anathema to many of Korea’s conservative older generation. Yet perhaps ironically and more disturbingly over 50 percent of sexually active seniors have paid for sex at brothels.
The cultural battle of conservative and liberal values is often projected onto women. Patriarchal societies ― which are basically ``all” societies ― tend to view women both as objects to own and as weak creatures in need of protection. For many men, the idea that they cannot ``keep” their women from outsiders really resonates and causes distress. Men in poorer countries might understandably be jealous that rich foreigners swoop in and easily attract women merely using their economic status.
Of course, as Korea has turned itself into a wealthy society, foreign men no longer necessarily offer local women the economic escape that they once did. They do, however, offer women a social escape. A liberal, young Korean woman faces enormous social pressures. In some ways, dating a foreign man represents opting out of many of the implied responsibilities of a relationship with a compatriot.
The final ingredient in this unholy media cocktail comes from media’s need to pick on easy targets. This is not unique to Korea, as a quick scan of Britain’s Daily Mail or The Sun reveals. Foreigners are easy targets for ``are-our-children-safe” or ``our-values-are-being-eroded” stories.
The MBC piece was rubbish tabloid television at its worst, consisting largely of hidden cameras in nightclub districts. When a phone call by a journalist asking a woman to talk about being a ``victim of a foreigner” elicits nothing more than an ``I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the curious conclusion is that ``most victims avoid telling the truth.”
Finally, the main interviewee who recounts horror stories about women and foreigners is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a man.
Expats in Korea should be pleased that Korea is more often relegating these kinds of stories to more obscure venues. The MBC piece may reflect some unfortunate attitudes, but those attitudes will continue to be challenged by Korea’s increasing openness and multicultural-ness.
Andray Abrahamian is the Executive Director of Choson Exchange, a non-profit organization focused on knowledge exchange in economics, business and law in North Korea. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.