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Korean Military: Sex (Part 1)

November 27, 2009

As has been mentioned in the past two articles in my series on the Korean military, I spent a year as a civilian English training officer on a Korean Air Force base.  During that time, I got close to many of the students–both enlisted and officers–that came through my classroom (usually for 3 months at a time). I hung out with them, partied with them (from time to time), and learned as much as I could from them.

One of the things I learned about was their attitudes towards sex, especially sex for sale. I’m going to start out this article with an account of one of my classes. This class was composed of eight enlisted personnel, ranging in rank from 하사 the US Equivalent of E-5 (Technical Sergeant) to 상사 US Equivalent of E-8 (Senior Master Sergeant).  One day, I asked the class “What would you like to talk about today?” during a conversation segment. One Master Sergeant addressed the class: “How many of you have been to see a prostitute?” He raised his own hand to indicate he had. Every member of the class did the same except one Technical Sergeant. We made eye contact and he simply smiled and said “I’m still a virgin.” I was surprised to say the least, and I told the class this. I explained that in the United States, there is a major stigma attached to frequenting prostitutes, so much so that some jurisdictions have been known to publish the names of offenders in the newspaper as a deterrent to others. I asked how many of them were married. All the same hands went up again. “Is this a big secret from your wives?” They all emphatically indicated “Of course!” I asked if this was common in the Air Force [to cheat on one’s wife with prostitutes]. It was explained to me that “everyone does it” and it is a part of “Air Force culture.”

Now, just because a group of people make a pronouncement like that, doesn’t mean one should take it as gospel. So I spent the next six months querying various groups of personnel that I was close enough to. About eighty percent of the enlisted men I queried agreed that “everybody does it” and included themselves in that number. The other twenty percent said “Yeah, almost everybody does it, but I don’t do it.” Reasons for not doing it were primarily either “because I don’t cheat on my wife” or “because I do not frequent prostitutes.”

In addition to the above information, I actually had one student do an hour long lecture on the sex industry in Korea, for me and the rest of his class, in fulfillment of a class requirement (they were tasked with “teaching a subject they knew well”). He talked about how there are red light districts in every city, even the small ones. He talked about how the best prostitutes are in Seoul, and how quality and selection are proportional to city size (there are better pickings in Daejeon than Jinju, for example). He talked about the different types of facilities available (massage/singing room/room salon/etc) and their pros and cons. He showed video of a Korean documentary where they took hidden camera footage of sessions with prostitutes in a red-light district. It was an enlightening hour.

This is part one. The next part is coming in about ten days.


Top Searches

November 20, 2009

Here are the search terms most commonly used to find Jumping the Asymptote. This list is in order from most popular to least.

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After grouping like items together into categories, I can see that 27% are related to teaching/learning ESL, 13% are related to how much cab drivers make, 10% related to Korean rudeness, and 7% related to Korean dating culture (with half of those searching specifically for this post). I also have to thank one special blogger for driving some extra traffic to my “Buddhist Rites of Religious Initiation” post. Thanks Mike! I got over 30 hits from you!

Updates: Buddhist Rites of Initiation & About the Author

November 12, 2009

A photograph has been added to the last post.

The About the Author page has undergone a minor update.

Buddhist Rites of Religious Initiation: The Sugye Ceremony

October 30, 2009

As some may know, I am a Buddhist. While many assume I became a Buddhist as a result of my time spent in Asia, in fact I became a Buddhist while staying at a monastery near San Diego, California. However, in my third year in Korea, I happened to befriend a monk who ran a very small temple near my workplace. We would have lunch after Sunday services.
After a month of this, he invited me to perform sugye (수계), the Korean Buddhist initiation ceremony. The ritual involves formally taking refuge in the three jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma (teaching), and the Sangha (community), and accepting the five precepts (enumerated below). During the ritual, the initiate is touched with a burning incense stick. The monk explained that this is to leave a permanent mark which serves to remind the initiate of his promise to uphold the five precepts. During (or right after) the ceremony, the initiate is given a Buddhist name.

I have translated both the Hangul and Hanja on the card. It reads:

Three Jewels
Buddha Dharma Sangha

Five Precepts
I will not kill.
I will not steal.
I will abstain from sexual misconduct.
I will not lie.
I will not drink excessively.

Buddhist Name:
Initiation Date:

Buddhist College, Jogye Order Special Parish Chaplain
Chunggukseongbul Temple


This religious initiation ceremony is not entirely different from the Catholic sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, sharing some elements of each. In a baptism, a child is initiated into the faith. During confirmation, a person agrees to keep the precepts of the church and is given a new name.

My sugye ceremony was held at a temple on a Korean Air Force base. I was initiated along with about a dozen airmen. The monk asked me before the ceremony whether or not I wanted to be burned. I asked him what he meant. “Some of the airmen do not want to have a mark or scar, so I will touch them with the unlit end of the stick.” I told him I wanted the traditional ceremony. We were chanting as he came around with the incense. I noticed he tapped everyone three times. When he got to me, he jabbed the stick into my arm much harder than the others. After the ceremony I asked him why, and he smiled and said “Because you are my student.” Then he pulled up his sleeve to show me his sugye mark. It was three one-centimeter round burns, which were raised like moles or warts. This type of burn would be caused by temple incense, the kind you buy to make a temple offering. Each stick is as big around as a cigarette. Their commitment is obviously greater than mine!

Abortions in Korea

October 17, 2009

Recently on a post over at Hub of Sparkle, Western Confucian talks about abortions in Korea.

I have a friend who is a doctor in Korea, and I asked him about Korea’s ban on abortions. Here is what he had to say (paraphrased from memory): In Korea, it is illegal to perform elective abortions. Because of this, most doctors performing abortions will report that the abortion was necessary for the health of the mother.

According to the post on Hub, a group of gynecologists is banding together to take doctors performing illegal abortions to task. That seems difficult if doctors can claim it is for the health of the mother, and patients of course won’t be coming forward. This would require a level of monitoring that would cost money. A lot of money. We’ll see what happens.
In the United States, doctors have a practice obliquely related to this one. I once had a cyst removed from my face. My doctor said “Listen, I know with 99.9% certainty that this cyst is benign. However, your insurance won’t pay for me to remove a benign cyst, so we’re sending it in for biopsy, not because we need to check, but just so the insurance companies are satisfied that it isn’t an “elective’ procedure.” But it was an elective procedure. I had that cyst for years before I finally had it removed.
So in both countries, doctors are claiming something different from reality in order to justify an elective procedure that might otherwise not be allowed.

Negotiating with Koreans

September 23, 2009

The other day I interviewed for a part time job with a Korean hagwon. They told me the maximum rate they pay their part timers, and I told them I typically get 25% more than that. They asked me if I’d accept 12.5% more than their maximum instead. I told them that would be acceptable. We agreed on a schedule, and I left. Three days before I was to start, they called and asked me if I’d accept their standard maximum. I told them I would not. They said “Well, thanks for your time then,” and hung up. Then they called yesterday and said “Can you start in two hours, if we meet your payment requirements?”

This reinforces the idea that in Korea, the deal isn’t agreed upon until the contract is signed, even if a verbal agreement is reached, or one party declines the offer.

I’d like to stress the fact that when negotiating with Koreans, it is vital to have an alternative to working with them that you don’t find unappealing. Having a good fallback gives you much more negotiating strength. If I absolutely NEEDED that job, I would have had to take their offer.

NOTE: Someone left a comment to this post expresssing doubt over whether or not I am in Korea. It was written in rather pointed terms and violated my one rule: be nice, so I did not allow it to appear. However, I will answer it. I am currently NOT in Korea. This interaction took place outside the country, which is why I didn’t mention specific amounts of money, as they are not in won. I have worked for Korean-run hagwons teaching Korean students English in three countries.

Korean Military: Transfers and Command

September 16, 2009

This is the second post in my series on my observations while working for the Republic of Korea Air Force.

The Korean military has a vastly different system when it comes to assignment of personnel. Most enlisted conscriptees doing their military service go to recruit training and then are assigned to a base, to which they usually are attached for their entire term of duty. Those who are accepted into the officer program (called “short-term officers” may be transferred once or twice during the three years they must serve. Long-term (career) officers are usually transferred yearly, although in some cases may spend two years in a single place.

This means a Colonel retiring after 30 years service has between 25 and 30 different units on his service record. I was told it “looks good” to have served in many different units. In practice, I find it highly inefficient. It often takes the new commanding officer four to six months to learn the job, get to know the strengths and weaknesses of key personnel and the unit as a whole, and then after six to eight more months, he or she is gone. Initiatives that may require more than a year’s oversight are difficult to maintain. I say “maintain” because they do not seem difficult to begin. It is not uncommon for new commanding officers to immediately reverse plans or policies that a previous CO may have enacted with an eye to the future.

Another interesting thing is how absolute orders seem to me. I will tell a story to illustrate what I mean. My unit arranged for me to privately teach several lieutenant Colonels, a full colonel, and a brigadier general (base chief of staff). I became known as a “person of influence,” because of this, although this was not really the case. One day a coworker with whom I was friendly came to me, to tell me that he had orders to another unit. This was a unit he had previously been attached to, and he did not want to go. He asked if I could pull some strings and get his orders changed. I was taken aback, not by his asking for help, but because he actually thought that I somehow might be able to.

I asked him what he thought I could do. “Talk to your colonel friend or your general friend,” he suggested. This didn’t make sense to me. In the U.S. Navy, when orders are issued, they come from BUPERS (Bureau of Personnel), and its equivalent in the other services. These orders are generally arrived at through complex manpower planning. Any given colonel could not pick up a phone and stop a captain from being transferred. Said colonel could make a request: they could explain to personnel why the captain in question should remain. Even so, it is a given that no person is irreplaceable in the military. Such requests are rarely made, and even more rarely honored. I explained how it worked in the USA, and he said “Oh, not in Korea. Any higher ranked person can get an order changed or belayed. Our commanding officer has already tried to help me, but he was recently promoted to Lt. Col., and the Lt. Col. who signed the order is senior. I need a colonel or higher to help me. One of your friends could do it with a single phone call. He just needs to call up the Lt. Col. who signed my order and order him to assign someone else.”

I was pretty surprised. I’ve asked a half dozen other officers who all tell me that his facts are correct. If this is the case, how does the South Korean military do any sort of cohesive personnel planning?

End to the story: Making this kind of phone call and stopping a transfer requires use of a kind of “social capital” that high-ranking officers are loathe to give up without good cause. If you go around meddling in other people’s command decisions on a regular basis, you develop a bad reputation which may hurt your chances for promotion. He was transferred the following week.