On April 4th, The Argus published an article, “‘Let’s Dance’ Addresses Issues of Abortion in South Korea”, concerning a documentary screening organized by Wesleyan’s Korean Student Association (KSA). The documentary—“Let’s Dance” directed by Se-young Jo— is about abortion in South Korea, and is comprised of stories on Korean women’s experiences with abortion. When I read the article, I immediately realized that my fears before the event had been confirmed. I was worried that the audience would have a false conceptualization of the film stemming from simplified conception on Korean culture: the idea that South Korea, my home, is inherently misogynistic, discriminatory, and violent towards women.
The first edition of the article said, “‘Let’s Dance,’ screened by the Korean Students Association (KSA) last Friday, April 1 follows Korean women who are tired of the shame and uncertainty surrounding abortion, and have decided to come forward and tell their stories… Korean culture makes no secret of when it defines the beginning of life, making the process of abortion extremely shameful and full of guilt.” Later, the article was updated, and it said, “4/8/16 – This article has been updated to clarify that the common notion in Korea that life begins at conception is separate from Korean culture.”
It is true that the KSA and I organized the event to create a dialogue about the social issues that are constantly affecting Korean women. It is also true that women’s rights in Korea are in severe danger. According to the employment data published by OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) in 2014, South Korea had the biggest wage gap between men and women out of all 34 OECD countries, including the U.S., Japan, the U.K., Turkey, and Estonia. As reported by 2015 statistics analysis published by Korean Women’s Hotline, one woman in South Korea dies every 1.9 days due to violence by men that they were in an intimate relationship with. It will stab and tear my heart apart, but I can tell you about personal accounts of these dangers. Last October, two children and their mother were murdered by their stepfather in Jeju Island, South Korea, the village that I live in. The mother’s husband, the stepfather of the children, had sexually assaulted his wife’s daughter. After being convicted for his crime, he decided to murder all three of them and hang himself. When I went back home for winter break, I realized that nothing had changed. My next door neighbor was beaten up by her husband; I heard everything, but I could not do much for her. One of my friends in Korea got pregnant when she was sixteen years old, and her parents dragged her to a women’s clinic. She somehow fell asleep, and when she woke up, she was no longer pregnant; an abortion was performed on her body without her consent. When I was twelve, my ethics teacher in middle school assaulted my friends and me; I clearly remember how the whole school and the judicial system in Korea only further victimized us. I can also tell you about countless occasions when I was sexually harassed in public spaces of Korea.
My goal for the film screening was to raise awareness on the social issues in South Korea and to eventually provide a platform for shaping Korean society for the better. During the event, we had a 30-minute discussion in which I shared with the audience my fear that they might have negative misconceptions about Korean culture. Janet Shin ’18, one of the co-chairs of the KSA, and I made it clear that sexism is not an endemic issue exclusive to South Korea. Sexism is an issue in most countries, although with varying gravity. To question why sexism is performed in varying gravity, one can look into the economic, historic, and political situations surrounding a culture. In other words, culture is not a concept that should ever be put in a simplified statement. Culture is never inherent; culture needs a cause for its formation. Culture always has a potential to change for the better from its existing injustices and social issues. This is the reason why equating black and brown communities with high crime rates, or Islam with terrorism and misogyny is not only extremely offensive but also contains a large argumentative leap. We should not assume that anything has inherent qualities, especially if something has negative implications.
Yes, I truly believe that the writer was well-intentioned, and that their aim was to raise awareness about the issues of South Korea. However, when they wrote that “Korean culture makes no secret of when it defines the beginning of life, making the process of abortion extremely shameful and full of guilt,” they not only created a general assumption about the culture but also perpetuated the idea that such injustice in the culture is inherent and natural.
During the discussion session, I asked the audience, why, in the film, married, older women appeared to be much more open with sharing their abortion experiences compared to young women. It is because the shame on abortion in Korean culture is not so much about the culture per se. The shame is tightly linked to the policies carried out by the Korean government in the 1960s-1970s under President Jung-hee Park, when overpopulation was a serious problem in Korea. The South Korean government carried out a countrywide plan to increase access to birth control methods, and even provided free vasectomy procedures for men. However, as South Korea came into the 21st century, under-population became a new critical problem, and only then did the discussion of abortion come above the surface. All of this was explained in the documentary. I repeat: a culture itself is not a problem, but the situations surrounding it are the cause of problematic social issues. We are people, just like anybody else, who have different emotions, different forms, even if we are grouped into a nationality, religion, or race. If simplification of a culture is not a form of dehumanization, what is it?
Furthermore, such generalization of a culture gives the false impression that the victimization of certain individuals is warranted. This idea also suggests that since the culture is inherently so, there is no space for evolvement or progress. However, injustice done unto certain groups is neither inherent nor natural. Patriarchy is a social structure fueled by sexism, which is a fabricated ‘belief’ that a certain sex is inherently inferior, while another is superior. Patriarchy is not natural, but exists as an excuse to dominate and discriminate against anybody but men. It’s not inherent, neither to Korean culture nor to humanity in general.
I know that the Argus is comprised of capable, highly intellectual people. Yet, I wish to question if this article was properly reviewed before it was published. The article didn’t include the entirely of what Janet Shin said during the event. When published, the article read: “One of the most jarring scenes in the movie was that the women were coerced into sex, … They were under the impression they would just be holding hands. I don’t know how to reconcile that.” However, the article left out the next sentence, which was: “However, I do not want to impose my American perspective onto their experiences because I feel that that would be misguided.” Such omission of quotations turned a hesitation toward potential cultural judgment into a firm statement on a culture.
I clearly remember the incident on the BLM article that happened during my freshman fall. One thing that struck me the most about the series of discussions following the article was about “freedom of speech.” Here, I wish to add to the conversation surrounding it. Freedom of speech is not merely about the act of letting words fly through our mouths. It should also be about how, through our speech, we can maintain a constructive learning process to gain intellectual depth and freedom. One of the ways of doing this is by continuously putting in effort to deliver well-informed and thoughtful speeches. Therefore, I suggest that the Argus consult individuals that are knowledgeable about a culture before printing articles about it, for the sake of mutual learning. Such individuals could be students or professors who are knowledgeable of or have extensively studied the culture, to prevent false, simplified, and unintended impression and misunderstandings.
Lastly, I sincerely hope that this is the last time I feel compelled to defend such cultural misrepresentations published in the Argus. I am more than happy to engage in a constructive conversation about my culture and my identity. Yet, writing to defend my own culture against the largest media outlet on campus, and risking my social life for the sake of my culture is emotionally taxing.
I know that this suggestion will not be the ultimate solution to the issue of unintended misrepresentation. We should therefore remind ourselves that it is a learning process, which is and should be continual. Let’s make more of an effort to learn together. Let’s make a platform of mutual learning in order to minimize making general assumptions on a culture. You don’t just go to one cultural exhibition and then write a simplified article about the complex, flexible concept. Let’s talk with each other before we talk at each other. We can do better than this.
Yang is a member of the class of 2019.