Percentage of the population that is female: 49.93 percent (compared to 50.5 percent in the United States, 53 percent in Estonia and 37.1 percent in Bahrain). Year women obtained the right to vote: 1948, when South Korea was established as a democracy. [Source: World Bank data.worldbank.org ]

Traditional views about women and their sexuality are still deeply rooted and women are severely underrepresented in politics and business. in socially conservative South Korea, which ranked 108 out of 153 countries on the World Economic Forum's 2020 Global Gender Gap Index. It ranked 117 out of 142 countries in the 2014 Global Gender Gap index, much lower than China and Japan, and 118th out of 144 countries in 2017.

South Korea has a relatively low rate of female participation in the workforce - just 56 percent of working-age women as of 2013. Women in South Korea earned only 65 percent of what men did in 2012, a gap that has been nearly unchanged since the mid-1990s and is the widest among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development group of wealthy countries.

On the surface, Korean women often appear docile, submissive, and deferential to the wishes of their husbands and in-laws. Yet behind the scenes, there is often considerable "hidden" female power, particularly within the private sphere of the household. In areas such as household finances, South Korean husbands usually defer to their wives' judgment. Public assertion of a woman's power, however, is socially disapproved, and a traditional wife maintained the image, if not the reality of submissiveness. And, as in other male-dominated societies, Korean men often jokingly complain that they are henpecked. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

A U.N. report examined practices that harm women and girls and undermine equality., It said women in South Korea “still face more domestic responsibilities, a glass ceiling at workplaces and new forms of gender-based violence including online sexual abuse, the report said. Crimes involving dating violence and spy cams have led thousands of women in South Korea to protest in recent years, calling for stricter penalties and enforcement of laws. “A strong civil society and women’s groups are critical to addressing the emerging forms of violence,” Won said. Other countries with a low birth rate included Bosnia and Herzegovina and Singapore at 1.2, and Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Portugal at 1.3. [Source: Yonhap, August 26 2020]

Traditional Korean Female Roles

The tradition of total female submission persisted in Korean villages until relatively recent times. One Korean scholar who came from the conservative Ch'ungch'ong region south of Seoul recalled that when a high school friend died of sickness during the 1940s, his young bride committed suicide. Her act was commemorated in her own and the surrounding communities as an outstanding example of devotion to duty. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Traditionally, men and women were strictly segregated, both inside and outside the house. Yangban women spent most of their lives in seclusion in the women's chamber. It is said that the traditional pastime of nolttwigi, a game of jumping up and down on a seesaw-like contraption, originated among bored women who wanted to peek over the high walls of their family compounds to see what the outside world was like. Economic necessity gave women of the lower classes some freedom as they participated in farm work and sometimes earned supplemental income through making and selling things.

A small minority of women played an active role in society and even wielded political influence. These people included female shamans (mudang), who were called upon to cure illnesses, tell fortunes, or in other ways enlist the help of spirits in realizing the wishes of their clients. Despite its sponsorship of neo-Confucianism, the Chosun Dynasty had an office of shamanism, and female shamans often were quite influential in the royal palace. The female physicians who treated female patients (because male physicians were forbidden to examine them) constituted another important group of women. Sometimes they acted as spies or policewomen because they could get into the female quarters of a house. Still another group of women were the kisaeng. Some kisaeng, or entertainers, were merely prostitutes; but others, like their Japanese counterparts the geisha, were talented musicians, dancers, painters, and poets and interacted on nearly equal terms with their male patrons. The kisaeng tradition perpetuated one of the more dubious legacies of the Confucian past: an extreme double standard concerning the sexual behavior of married men and women that still persists. In the cities, however, many middle class women have begun to break with these traditions.

An interesting regional variation on traditional female roles continued in the late 1980s. In the coastal villages of Cheju Island, women divers swam in search of seaweed, oysters, and other marine products and were economically self-sufficient. Often they provided the main economic support for the family while the husband did subsidiary work — took care of the children and did household chores — in sharp contrast to the Confucian norm. The number of women divers was dwindling, however, and men were increasingly performing jobs in service industries. Confucian ancestor worship was rarely practiced while female- centered shamanistic rites were widespread.

Gender Roles and Statuses in South Korea

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “The constitution stipulates equality of all citizens before the law, but the norms and values that guide gender relations in daily life continue to be influenced by an ideology of male superiority. The interplay between these gender role ideologies complicates the patterns and processes of social change in the area of gender role performance and the relative status of women and men. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“One of the consequences of these dual gender role ideologies is the behavioral pattern that compartmentalize the social arena into public versus private spheres and formal versus informal situations within each sphere of social action. The patriarchal gender role ideology tends to guide people's behavior at group levels in public informal situations as well as private formal situations. Democratic egalitarianism is more readily practiced at the societal level in public, informal situations, and at the individual level in private, informal situations. Thus, a woman can and did run for the presidency, but women are expected to behave in a submissive manner in public, informal gatherings such as dinner parties among professional colleagues. In private, informal situations such as family affairs, however, urban middle-class husbands tend to leave the decision making to their wives. Nonetheless, male authority as the household head (hoju ) is socially expected and the law favors husbands and sons over wives and daughters.

“The main sources of social change in gender status have been the women's movement and the role of the state in legislating to protect women's rights and improve their status. In response to feminist activism, some men organized the first National Men's Association in 1999. Complaining of reverse sexism, they asserted that laws enacted to prevent domestic violence and sexual harassment unfairly favor women and vowed to campaign to abolish the exclusively male duties of military service so that both sexes may shoulder the duties of national defense.

Women Customs and Smoking in Korea

Many Korean women cover their mouth when they laugh. Traditionally, a woman that laughed too loud or openly was considered uncouth and ill bred.

It is considered inappropriate for Korean women to smoke. Women generally try to hide their smoking from men, although these days more and more women are smoking openly, especially in Seoul, where you often see coffee shops filled with women in their 20s lighting up. Many Korean men look upon women smokers with disgust and consider smoking a very unladylike thing to do. Men will scold them and other women will sneer. Over the past decade of so smoking and drinking has increased dramatically among women. It is still largely done privately or discretely.

Adult women who smoke: 5.7 percent; Adult men who smoke: 53.3 percent [Source: WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic (2008) Wikipedia ]

Donald N. Clark wrote: “Rules change for women who are past childbearing age. A woman above the age of fifty whose children are grown is excused from many of the rules. She is still not free to associate with unrelated men, but she may go out in public as she pleases and engage in behavior that would be forbidden to a younger woman. She may smoke tobacco and drink alcohol. She can join groups and associations and express herself without anyone else's permission. Women with a little extra money often join kye, revolving credit associations, playing the stock market and financing small businesses. Women of all classes enjoy outings with their women's associations, picnicking and entertaining each other on spirited outings. On the highway one has only to follow a bus full of slightly inebriated elderly women singing and dancing in the aisle while the vehicle rocks from side to side to understand that older women do not have to obey the same rules as younger women. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Married Women and Housewives in South Korea

The status of a Korean woman has traditionally been determined by her success at being a wife and a mother, often measured by performance of her children in school. Many Korean women seem shy, demure, innocent and sweet when they are young, and become rough, loud, and pushy ajummas after they get married.

Wives usually handle the family finances and are in charge of raising the children. But otherwise they have a lot of time on their hands. After their children and husbands leave the house, often until late at night, housewives fill their days by hiking, swimming, taking music lessons and meeting their friends. A member of housewife prostitution ring told police, "I had plenty of time to spare and was bored so I decided to become a 'working girl.' I started out of curiosity but got hooked."

There is often tension between the wife and mother-in-law in Korean families because the mother of the husband often expect here daughter-in-law to be her servant just as she was servant to her husband's mother in law.

Sons and Mother Power in South Korea

In a study by Kim and Han (1996) participants were read the statement "A son is necessary to carry on the family line". Among respondents, 44.5 percent disagreed (including mild opposition and strong opposition) and 30.5 percent agreed (including mild agreement and strong agreement). The agreement rates were higher among married and under-educated women. [Source: Mee-Hae Kong, asienhaus.de 1997]

“As presented seen below ratio of newly born boys in 1994 is almost 116 per 100 girls, and this indicates 9 percent increase rates compared to 1980. Especially this imbalence gender ratio becomes severe in the case of the third (206) and the fourth (238) born babies. In Kim and Han's study (1996), as many as 13.2 percent of women said that they would feel guilty if they did not bear a son. This feeling is more common among married women, those in their 40s and older, and the under-educated.

Ratio of Boys to Girls (100 persons) by Birth Order:
Total: 105.6 in 1980; 109.4 in 1985; 116.6 in 1990; 115.5 in 1994.
First-born: 106.0 in 1980; 106.0 in 1985; 108.6 in 1990; 106.1in 1994.
Second-born: 106.5 in 1980; 107.8 in 1985; 117.2 in 1990; 114.3 in 1994.
Third-born: 110.2 in 1980; 129.2 in 1985; 190.8 in 1990; 205.9 in 1994.
Fourth-born: 110.2 in 1980; 146.8 in 1985; 214.1 in 1990; 237.9 in 1994. [Source: Republic of Korea, Statistics Institution, 1996]

In her study "Male Dominance and Mother Power: The Two Sides of Confucian Patriarchy in South Korea", Cho (1996) discussed the two sides of Confucian patriarchy: extreme suppression of women on the one hand and extreme idealization of motherhood and encouragement of mother's accomplishments on the other. She argues that patriarchy legitimizes mother power to be a way of accommodating women under a male-dominated social system. That is, instead of excluding women from the public and political domains, patriarchy institutionalizes mother power and this does not threaten the patriarchal system.

Mother power is based on their son or son's well-being. Institutionalized mother power enables women to be independent from their husbands. This independence, in fact, is limited within the simbiotic nature of mother-son relationships. Without the mother-son relationship, women hardly establish their identity as autonomous individuals. Thus, Cho (1996) contends, "The heavy emphasis on the identity of women as mothers is, in fact, the major stumbling block in the women's rights movement in Korea today. It is not motherly to feel oppressed".

Mother power — as an "overdependence" between mother and son — play a critical role to maintain an extremely conservative social system in Korean society. As Cho (1996) suggested, the fundamental social change and women's empowerment can not be possibly obtained without deconstructing or reconstructing mother power, exclusive familism, and the distinction between the dual public/private domains.

Women's Education in South Korea

South Korea has one of the best educated female populations in the world. During 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis, children were pulled out of school and most of them were girls. In 2000, female enrollment rate was 94 percent in primary school, 102 percent in secondary school and : 52 percent in higher education. Literacy and school attendance rates for males and females are more equal than decades ago but still slightly favor males. .

Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write): total population: 98 percent (2019); male: 99.2 percent; female: 96.6 percent. School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education): total: 17 year; male: 17 years; female: 16 years (2013). School life expectancy (SLE) is the total number of years of schooling (primary to tertiary) that a child can expect to receive. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”:Modern Korean women have had the same opportunity as men for education, although cultural factors account for their somewhat lower educational attainment. Nevertheless, contemporary Korean women are highly educated and share a thirst for study with their male compatriots. The proportion of women with college and advanced educational backgrounds has steadily increased from 2.4 percent in 1975 to 13.1 percent in 1995. In the case of men, the share of those with college and higher educational backgrounds was 26.6 percent of the total male population in 1995 or twice that for women. In 1999, women made up 37.2 percent of students enrolled in professional colleges and 35.8 percent in academic higher educational institutions. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Despite a huge improvement in the higher education gender gap, women still tend to concentrate in traditionally female fields. Girls from poor families tend to be forced into vocational schools, which is much less true for boys from the same economic milieu. Political and economic leadership positions are still dominated by men. Express measures to help change the mentality of the society in this regard are needed.

“Ewha Women's University, started as a school for young girls in 1886 under the name of Ewha Haktang, achieved full university accreditation in 1946. As of 2001, with an enrollment of 17,000, it was the world's largest institution of higher education for women. With 14 colleges, 13 graduate schools, and special graduate courses, it offers 56 majors. The graduate school offers master's degree courses in 55 areas and doctoral degree courses in 42. Each year, more than 900 candidates graduate with master's degrees and 80 with doctorates.

“Despite Ewha's remarkable record, Korean women in general do not get the same education as men. Not only do they receive fewer years of education on average than men do, they pursue what have traditionally been considered women's fields. As of 1998, female students were a majority in such traditional fields. For example, 73.1 percent of all students at teachers' colleges were women. Female students accounted for 64.8 percent in educational departments, 57.3 percent in arts and athletics departments, 56.1 percent in humanities departments, and 44.2 percent in departments of medicine and pharmacology. In social and natural sciences departments, the share of female students were 32.9 percent and 22.1 percent, respectively. Gender inequality at higher educational institutions was particularly acute in the sciences and engineering. In the natural sciences, the share of women earning M.A. and Ph.D. degrees is very low. In engineering, female students accounted for only 5 percent of all recipients of B.A.s, 4 percent of M.A.s, and 2 percent of Ph.D.s. This trend of gender separation makes it all but impossible for women to explore various career paths without regard for gender restrictions while substantially increasing the likelihood of women being employed in traditional women's areas. In an age when science and engineering are key, the paucity of women in those areas is viewed as a grave problem for women's advancement in society. Underlying causes include separate curricula for men and women, textbooks that reinforce traditional gender role divisions, and teachers' attitudes discriminating between male and female students (2000).

“The situation for women is rapidly changing, however. As of 2001, more than 35 percent of high level information technology positions were held by women and more than 100 of Ewha's Information major graduates held chief executive positions at companies specializing in new technologies (Cohen).


Middle-aged, Stay-at-home mothers are known as ajummas. Crystal Tai wrote in Quartz: “There’s an old Korean joke that the country has three sexes: men, women and ajummas. Transitioning into ajumma-hood, usually somewhere between the ages of 30 to 40, also brings with it a barrage of negative social perceptions. “I remember when I was growing up, people in my generation hated becoming ajummas,” said Jie-ae Sohn, a visiting professor at the Ewha Womans University Graduate School of International Studies. “It was considered a sign that you were no longer female.” [Source: Crystal Tai, Quartz, May 24, 2017]

“Traditionally, women were expected to quit their jobs and become consummate homemakers once they got married. Sohn said: “When you’re younger you have to take into account what other people think of you based on your appearance. You try to look nice, you try to behave… There’s a certain power, and freedom, to being an ajumma. You don’t have to be as demure or mild-mannered as you would be expected to be when you are younger.”

“One of the “negative” stereotypes around ajummas is that they are tough women, demanding, even selfish, shaped by the economic and politically turbulent years of the 1960s and 1970s. On the train, ajummas will run for the only available seats,” said Audrey Kim, a 25-year- old student. “They don’t care about the people around them. I think it’s quite a negative stereotype.”“

When scandal that brought down South Korean President Park Geun-hye “ first unfolded, after news reports that Park’s friend Choi Soon-sil had undue influence over the president, Choi was often referred to as a “Gangnam ajumma,” an unflattering term used to describe the well-to-do housewives who reside in the affluent Gangnam area of Seoul. While Gangnam ajummas may be more affluent and well-educated than the women usually referred to by the appellation, they are still considered to partake in selfish ajumma-like behaviors.”

Ajumma Perm

The ajumma perm is signature hair style of ajummas. Crystal Tai wrote in Quartz: “Whether offering praise or condemnation, most of the time the public has been reacting to pretty much one single hairstyle — variations of the “ajumma perm,” which has a storied history in South Korea. The defining characteristic of the ajumma, a term used to describe (usually) married older women, the ajumma perm is a short or bobbed curled hairstyle. Adopting the perm, and abandoning more youthful hairstyles, and especially straight bangs, is often a rite of passage for women when they hit middle age. [Source: Crystal Tai, Quartz, May 24, 2017]

“Traditionally, women were expected to quit their jobs and become consummate homemakers once they got married. After children arrived, as busy full-time homemakers, ajummas had little time to do their hair. “What that perm represents is you don’t have to do anything with your hair. Once you get that perm done, all you need is to shampoo it every once in a while,” said Sohn. “It doesn’t get into your eyes, you don’t have to tie it up, you don’t have to do anything because it’s not going to get in your way… [You can] take care of the kids, bathe them, cook for them, clean after them. It’s the epitome of efficiency.”

“Nowadays, with more South Korean women having chosen professional careers alongside family life, the perm has also become symbolic of the busy professional woman. The ajumma perm can be liberating in its own way, says Sohn. “When you’re younger you have to take into account what other people think of you based on your appearance. You try to look nice, you try to behave… There’s a certain power, and freedom, to being an ajumma. You don’t have to be as demure or mild-mannered as you would be expected to be when you are younger.”

History of Ajumma Perm

Crystal Tai wrote in Quartz: “It’s taken nearly 80 years for that perm to become as ubiquitous as it is. The first perm in South Korea became available at a department store in Seoul during the Japanese occupation in 1937, according to a report in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, which said that a perm back then cost as much as two bins of rice, an unaffordable luxury in those times of shortages and poverty. Only a handful of actresses and privileged women sported the look. [Source: Crystal Tai, Quartz, May 24, 2017]

“By 1940, the already-rare perm became prohibited under Japanese imperial rule for its perceived association with the sexually liberal norms depicted in Hollywood films. Japanese imperial rule ended five years later, but it was not until after the Korean War ended in 1953 that perms made their resurgence. “At the time, the quality of perming products was very poor,” said Helen Kim from Kim Sun Young Hair Design, which opened four years after the war ended. Women used iron tongs meant for ironing hanbok, Korea’s national dress, to curl their hair with crude chemical formulas, added Kim, who is not related to the founder but has worked at the salon for two decades. Choi Young-shin, a grandmother in her 60s, remembers doing that. “The resulting curls were very short and very tight,” said Choi. “It was also dangerous because of the strong chemicals and heat. Our scalps would burn and flake off, and the tongs could burn our necks and faces easily.”

“During the dictatorship of Park Geun-hye’s father Park Chung-hee in the 1960s and 1970s, when strict social rules were in place, skirt lengths were monitored, but perms got a pass and became a way to express being modern, Choi remembers. “In the 70’s, miniskirts were illegal but perms were still okay,” she said. But they were still expensive. Young women short on cash began turning to Korea’s burgeoning wig-making industry to fund their first perms. “Wigmakers would go to the countryside areas of Korea and meet with young women who still had their long, natural hair. They would ask for their long hair and in return, provide rural women with free modern perms,” said Choi. “That’s how normal women began to be able to get perms.”

“By the mid-1980s, when electricity became widely available, perms really took off. “The government provided initiatives for the beauty industry, and many churches also had programs for teaching young women how to cut and style hair for free,” said Choi. By the 2000s, perms became common for men and women of all ages, and even children began getting their hair permed. But it’s most common among older women of all classes in South Korea, when they reach the age when long hair seems like something they must leave behind. Helen Kim, creative director at Kim Sun-young Hair Design says older women generally perm their hair and cut it short because of hair loss and lack of volume. “When they were young, they had lots of hair and strong hair, but after they got to their 40s and 50s there are lots of changes. They had babies, hormonal changes and stress, and their hair begins to thin out.”

Ajummas: Pushy, Gossiping Deadbeats or Pillars of the Nation

Ajummas are sometimes characterized as deadbeats who just love to gossip and shop. Some are fed up with the stereotype. Others like Kim Yong-sook — founded "Ajumma are the Pillars of the Nation" — are doing something about it by helping forge a new identity and boosting their self image. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2010]

John M. Glionna wrote in the New York Times: Kim Yong-sook is fed up and she's not going to take it anymore. She's weary of women between the ages of 30 and 60 being ridiculed as selfish and unstylish — bossy, gossiping magpies with bad perms who pinch pennies and hog seats on the subway. They're known as ajumma, a word long applied to married women with children but which in recent years has taken on a pejorative connotation that irks Kim.

“Among many South Koreans, it's now often used to conjure an image of homemakers who disdain full-time jobs to while away afternoons on park benches, in coffee shops and at social clubs, bragging about their children and, if they've got the money, go on shopping sprees. At 58, Kim has empathy for her fellow ajumma, who she insists have too long been misunderstood and ridiculed. Ajumma are not deadbeats, cracks in Korea's economic engine. "Actually, we're running the nation," says the mother of one, a son. "We've got one foot in the house and one foot in society."

“A decade ago, Kim formed a support group called "Ajumma are the Pillars of the Nation." Since then, she has attracted thousands to her declaration of independence. She's written a book and consults with business and government. Her message: Ajumma unite! Don't take the snickers, behind-the-back finger-pointing and jibes lying down!

“Kim figures there are more than 10 million ajumma, married women with children. She sees them not as being forgotten or overlooked women but as a force that can be harnessed to make their own individual statement. Kim, a petite woman with black swept-back hair, has become a role-model for South Korean mothers in search of a new cultural identity. When she married decades ago, Kim says, wives in the then-more-conservative culture were expected to bear children, cook and keep the house clean, nothing more.”

Ajumma’s Go to Work

John M. Glionna wrote in the New York Times: Leave the important work, like earning a living, to us, husbands would say. But Kim was having none of it. "I gained my financial independence from my husband," she says. "He didn't fight me. He knows I'm stubborn. Even if he had demanded that I stay at home, he knew I wouldn't." She worked as a flight attendant and television actress and later started her own clothing manufacturing business. But the business went bankrupt. She was sued for back taxes, and, without money for a lawyer, she says, she was forced to represent herself. "I was like a child in court. I wasn't prepared for the challenge," she recalls. "Half the time I didn't even understand what the judge was saying to me." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2010]

Despite the disadvantage, she won her case. But another, more personal, verdict hit hard. "I thought I was successful, but I realized that I just didn't have the modern social or survival skills to make it in this society." Kim saw that the world had changed. Young men no longer wanted their partners to do nothing more than stay home and bear children. Now they expected double incomes to survive the roller-coaster South Korean economy. Young women might be going to work, but their mothers seemed trapped in another time. Many didn't even realize that the times had left them so far behind, she says.

Convinced that women of her generation needed a lightning rod, Kim began organizing. For the 2002 World Cup in Seoul, she solicited volunteers to host foreign families without charge, a way for the women to stand up and serve as national ambassadors. She also organized teams to help make garbage a green energy source and started a consulting service for middle-aged women.

“Yoo Eun-hee is one of her proteges. The 50-year-old former homemaker watched Kim and asked, why can't I do that? Always a good cook, she took her talents out into the job market and was hired as a chef. "Working with this group gave me confidence," Yoo says. "It made me see that I could do something for myself. I could see a wider world out there." Kim's mantra is not that every Korean mother and homemaker should go to work to find an identity. She just wants to help women who seek to shake off stereotypes she says are still reinforced both inside the home and out.

“Lee Jiwon has also learned from Kim. "I'm still one of those coffeehouse women," she says. "But I understand myself better. Meeting with my friends is a way to blow off steam. I live this life because I chose it. It's not a sentence." But Kim knows that some women cling to home and family as a refuge, out of fear, and she says they often become defensive and selfish as a result. "I think trying to reason with these women would be a waste of words," she says. "I do it through action, creating jobs, breaking down barriers and providing more channels for their success."

“Yoo also sees the ones left behind. And it makes her sad. "They're afraid to take the chance to try to be innovative. Deep down inside, it's not that they don't want to get a job, they just don't know how to go about it." Kim knows the biggest obstacle for many ajumma is not their husbands, parents or even their culture, but themselves. "That's the lesson we try to teach women," she says. "You don't need anyone's permission to follow your dreams."”

Ajummas Go to Work as Bounty Hunters

AFP reported: At first glance, middle-aged Seoul housewife Jennifer Chung hardly looks like a bounty hunter tracking down lawbreakers, but every morning, after sending her two sons and husband off to school and work, she sets out in search of local scofflaws — such as cram-school teachers, restaurateurs or owners of beauty salons. “Some of them charge parents more than state-set tuition limits, don’t disclose on the menu the origin of food they serve or give skincare treatments which only doctors are allowed to perform,” 54-year-old Chung said. “These are all against the law … I need evidence to report them to the authorities,” she said, sporting a high-definition camcorder hidden in her purse with the lens peeking through a tiny hole. [Source: AFP, February 30, 2011]

“On a typical undercover mission, Chung poses as a regular customer, videotapes conversations or scenes at offending establishments and sends the videos to authorities. Each time she collects cash rewards from various departments which add up to more than two million won (US$1,700) a month. Chung is far from alone. Many South Koreans, especially middle-aged women, have joined a growing number of “paparazzi” snoopers. They cash in by videotaping minor lawbreaking by fellow citizens, instead of the lives of the rich and famous. With the government continually expanding such rewards, schools for snoopers are thriving. They teach pupils how to stalk their prey and get them on film, and even how to play the innocent to dodge suspicion. “This has become a pretty lucrative industry now … some people are doing this as a full-time job,” said Moon Seung-ok, founder of Mismiz, a paparazzi school in Seoul.

“A textbook he wrote lists scores of violations linked to rewards, ranging from dropping cigarette butts or dumping trash in the wrong bag to prostitution and insurance fraud. The most common targets in the education-obsessed nation are cram-school owners who overcharge parents or run late-night classes, breaking state rules aimed at curbing spending on private education and pressure on kids. “Cram schools are everywhere, and housewives can easily act like ordinary parents asking for quotes for tuition,” Moon said.

The education ministry said it had paid 3.4 billion won in rewards since the system was adopted in July 2009, with one person alone raking in nearly 300 million won by making more than 920 reports. A cat-and-mouse game has developed between snoopers and their increasingly wary prey. Chung often sneaks into a cram school in the evening and hides in a toilet for hours, until teachers have locked the door from inside to try to keep out the snoopers. Janitors often catch me in the toilet. I tell them I had sudden diarrhea and urgently needed to go to the bathroom,” Chung said.

Daughter-In-Laws in Korea

There is often tension between the wife and mother-in-law in Korean families because the mother of the husband often expect here daughter-in-law to be her servant just as she was servant to her husband's mother in law. Traditionally, when a man moved into his parent's house with his wife, his wife was expected to be a kind or servant to her mother-in-law and in some cases couldn't even leave the house without her mother-in-law's permission. This naturally created a lot of friction and wives have traditionally not liked their mother-laws.

Dominique Mosbergen wrote in the Huffington Post: ““Questions are increasingly being raised now about the honorific titles and other language used in familial relationships and in the marital setting in Korea. Like, why is it that a woman needs to use formal terms like “miss” or “young master” when referring to her husband’s family members? [Source: Dominique Mosbergen, Huffington Post, February 7, 2020]

“Young-ju Kim, author of “A Daughter-in-Law’s Letter of Resignation,” was a good daughter. She got married in 1989 to the eldest son of the eldest son in a large extended family, which meant she had to become a manmyeoneuri, or the eldest daughter-in-law. It was a role that would long consume her life. She quit her job and worked as a daughter-in-law, mother and wife for decades.”

When asked what she thought about the deferential terms used to address her husband’ family, Kim said: “I’m very empathetic. When I got married, I addressed members of my husband’s family as “miss” or “young master” ― but I felt like I was a maid. I remember calling my husband’s 6-year-old brother “young master,” but in informal settings, I would use his real name. When an elder relative got wind of this, however, he told me to call him “young master” instead. I thought it was irrational.

“Daughters-in-law are often required to speak deferentially to their husband’s family members. The language contains respect. But there’s not much respect for the names of women. It is a problem that my generation does not dare to touch, but I think that it will change in the next generation.

On what it was like being the eldest daughter-in-law during the major holiday, Kim said, “There was a family gathering at the end of last year .… That day was winter solstice... It all centered on preparation and cooking. It took two to three days to buy all the groceries. I had to go to traditional markets, big supermarkets and even small shops when I needed a specialty item...I had cooked for the entire family all by myself...I bought piles of groceries and cooked all alone. I also had to make a lot of side dishes on top of the main holiday foods. It was so hard and stressful... No matter how good “a duty of obedience” is, no one enjoys doing it. It feels demeaning.

Korean Daughter-In-Law Resigns

After 24 years, Young-ju Kim quit being the dutiful daughter-in-law and literally tendered here resignation. Dominique Mosbergen wrote in the Huffington Post: “She felt she’d done enough ― and decided to live the life she actually wanted before it was too late. She filed for divorce in 2012 and submitted a “letter of resignation” to her parents-in-law just before the 2013 Chuseok holidays, a major harvest festival in South Korea. Her loved ones complained and asked how she could do such a thing. But she had no regrets. She felt like nothing would change before she died unless she acted on her decision. There was nothing to lose. [Source: Dominique Mosbergen, Huffington Post, February 7, 2020]

“Her declaration of resignation as eldest daughter-in-law changed almost everything. Her husband, whom she moved in with again after knee surgery in September 2017, finally began to listen to her, and the annual ancestral rites and holiday ceremonies, which had been a source of immense strain and stress, were simplified. She and her husband grew in respect for one another, and ended up not divorcing. The change that occurred in her daily life was significant enough that she has called it a“miracle,” even a “small revolution.” “I, myself, must be happy first and foremost,” Kim said. “Put off the pressure of having to play roles in the family; make sure that you are happy first. That’s what’s most important.”

On what the holidays are like now, Kim said: “My father-in-law bought red bean porridge, my mother-in-law boiled the cabbage soup, my sister-in-law went grocery shopping, and my husband’s brother and his wife washed all the vegetables while others grilled the meat. I brought side dishes from home. My husband washed all the dishes. Everyone from all three generations prepared the dinner and washed the dishes together. My son bought coffee after he finished eating, and everyone was very happy to have coffee and tea together. I felt so content because I felt a great sense of cooperation and equality. I realized again that my ordinary life had changed like a miracle.

“We have three generations. My parents’ generation, my husband and my generation, and our son’s generation. When we meet, we talk about social issues. We all have different ideas and perspectives. Nevertheless, we don’t ignore others, and we don’t say, “you don’t know any better.” By listening carefully, we can at least understand where others’ ideas stem from ― even if we don’t necessarily share those opinions.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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