Korean Sociological Image #41: Mothers of Warriors

James Turnbull's picture
( Source )

A quick question: who would you choose to sell hormone-treatment and anti-depression medication to middle-aged women?

Barring Bae Young-joon (배용준) above, notoriously popular among them, then I’d wager that middle-aged women themselves were your most likely answer. And your least likely? Probably men in their early-20s, which begs the question of why they’re the only ones actually speaking in the following commercial from Dongkook Pharmaceutical (see below for a translation):

Of course, the reason the young men are featured at all is because Korea has universal male conscription, which makes parting scenes like those featured above a normal part of the Korean life-cycle. So while the leaving ceremony itself may be unfamiliar to most Western observers, a company encouraging consumers to associate its product with it is really no different from a bank using imagery of, say, children’s university graduation ceremonies to sell retirement savings plans.

Still, that’s not to say that it’s just any old commercial. For in simultaneously relying on but quite literally denying a voice to emotional Korean mothers, Dongkook Pharmaceutical has ironically provided an apt illustration of Korean women’s wider role in any public debates about military conscription. Which is in short, to be seen and not heard, frequently spoken for but otherwise only noticeable for their absence in rare policy debates, editorials, and opinion pieces and so forth on the subject in the media.

For instance, in 1997 the Korean media revealed that the sons of Lee Ho-chang (이호창), the then presidential candidate of the then ruling Shinhangukdang (New Korean Party; 신한국당), had been exempted from their military service due to medical grounds; popularly believed to have used his wealth and influence to secure this, the backlash against Lee for failing to fulfill his paternal and nationalist responsibilities was so intense that his political career was soon over. And yet according to Insook Kown in A Feminist Exploration of Military Conscription: The Gendering of the Connections Between Nationalism, Militarism and Citizenship in South Korea (2001), even in the midst of all that:

…women were voiceless. Those who accused Lee, answered the accusations, reported the matter, and contributed articles were all men. In public, the conscription scandal seemed a matter for men only. Sometimes, mothers were used by men as a reference symbolizing a certain group of women only concerned about the welfare of their sons. Many male editorial writers represented the angry emotions of mothers to show South Korean popular opinion. One editorial writer in the JoongAng Daily (22/08/97) described the anger of many mothers of sons. According to him, these mothers wrote a slogan on the calender for Election Day: “Let’s never forget the exemptions of Lee’s sons”.  (p. 43)

( Source: anja_johnson )

Moreover, another editorial writer in the same paper (27/08/97) illustrated the emotional background of the issue by using a motherly perspective:

People did not deal with the exemption by making accusations of immorality or illegal intervention in the exemption, but with emotional anger like, why did your sons not have to go into the army, while my son is suffering in a life-or-death crisis. What made women angrier than anyone else, was caused by this kind emotion. (p. 43)

Kwon argues that the Korean state has always very much had a stake in accepting feminized forms of self-sacrifice in its name, whether as factory workers, prostitutes to the US military or Japanese tourists (a crucial source of foreign exchange in the 1960s and 1970s), or mothers of conscripts. Focusing on the latter here, consequently they have so far lacked:

…room to represent their own sacrifices in public. Mother’s concern and pain over their son’s conscription has remained hidden under the taken-for-granted necessity of military conscription for national security. Their voices have been deprived of a space for expression; and because their emotional attachment to their sons has been translated into a private matter, they have not mobilized as a group. (p. 37; tenses have been changed)

But what are these “sacrifices” exactly? Kwon’s analysis is a little weak on this point, as although she provides a comprehensive and convincing demonstration of how in fact all women suffer from the conscription system (a subject taken up in this series), there is little evidence that mothers specifically suffer beyond that aforementioned “concern and pain over their son’s conscription”. As the commercial demonstrates however, that may be rather more than a Western observer might expect.

At which point it is prudent to provide the translation! Below, the text featured on the screen is written as normal text below, while everything spoken by the conscripts or in the voiceover I’ve put in quotation marks. I’ve also provided the commercial again to make it easier to follow along:

엄마…..그동안 받기만 해왔습니다

Mother…..(I’ve) only ever received things (from you)

엄마…이제 처음으로 엄마품을 떠나네요

Mother….this is the first time I’ve left my mother’s (your?) bosom”


Mother…thank you

듬직한 대한민국 군인이 돼서 엄마가 믿고 의지할 수 있는 아들이 되겠습니다

I will become a reliable, trustworthy Korean soldier whom you can trust and depend on

이제는 우리가 엄마를 도와드릴 차례입니다

Now it’s our (my?) turn to help our mothers

어머니 잘 다녀오겠습니다. 사랑합니다. 사랑해

Mother, I will do well before I return. I love you (formal). I love you (informal)

엄마, 사랑합니다. 충성!

Mother, I love you (formal). Loyalty! (Fealty?) (Devotion?) [James: whatever the exact meaning, it is said when saluting]

대한민국 갱년기 어머니들의 10명 중 8명은 다양한 갱년기 증상으로 힘들어하고 있습니다

Out of every 10 mothers of the Korean public who experience menopause, 8 suffer from various symptoms

(Above, left and right): 여성 갱년기 극복 갬폐인 & 동국제약

Female Menopause Conquest Campaign & Dongkook Pharmaceutical

엄마에게, 사랑의 마음을 전하세요. 훼라민큐가 함께 합니다

Tell your mother the love you feel in your heart. With HeraminQ.

이제, 엄마의 갱년기를 도와주세요. 훼라민Q.

Now, please help with mothers’ menopause. HeraminQ.

(In very fine print): 의사, 약사와 상의하십시오. 부작용이 있을 수 있습니다

Please consult with a doctor or pharmacist. Side effects are possible.

( For another post: the impact on sisters and girlfriends of conscription? Movie poster for The Longest 24 Hours, (기다리다미쳐, 2007), a lighthearted look at military service from the perspective of conscripts’ girlfriends; also known as Crazy4wait. Source )

While this may sound a little hypocritical at first, let me begin my discussion on the subject of the mothers’ feelings by highlighting those of the men; actually, that is the original reason I wanted to write this post, for let me stress that you were seeing men in their early-20s crying at the thought of leaving their mothers. What did that make you think of them?

Well, at risk of sounding insensitive, personally I found them to be pathetic. Not that I was all that mature at the same age of course, and in many senses my reaction may just be because of cultural differences. Like Brian in Jeollanam-do once put it:

…everything in Korea tries to be cute, in the same way everything in the States is “Xtreme” and too cool for school. Korea uses a cartoon to advertise where the US would have a gravelly stoner voiceover, and Korean videos often feature cuteness exaggerated to a sickening degree where American videos would lots of brooding and feigned indifference.

And not unrelated is how different average Koreans’ and average Westerners’ life-cycles are then, although 30-somethings like myself should be wary of projecting their own experiences onto today’s 20-somethings. Nor do I want to make light of the hardships conscripts have to endure either.

( Source: anja_johnson )

But then I’m not:  in that commercial at least, thinking about those hardships is not why they’re crying. Moreover, to describe the crying as a simple cultural difference underplays the extent to which this practice is unique even within Korean culture itself, as beyond obvious cases such as funerals, my (Korean) wife for one could think of no other situations in which it is so socially acceptable for a man of that age to cry publicly. That they can and do then, is partially because a) the vast majority of Koreans don’t actually think of any male as a “man” until he has fulfilled his military service, and b) this uniquely strong bond between mothers and conscript-sons. Indeed, there is:

…a widely held popular belief that a father should encourage his son to go into the army, and to fulfill his national defense duty to achieve real citizenship. In this gendered construction, mothers represent emotional attachment such as compassion and pity toward their conscripted sons. In other words…the emotional part of the work of conscription….

…At the most emotional step of the conscription process, the father disappears. For instance, in two recent guidebooks published for pre-conscripts, the authors, both male, make almost no mention of fathers. The only ‘object’ for whom male soldiers are expected to feel concern about in the family is the mother. (p. 44)

And as you might expect, this is well-represented in popular culture, and in addition to commercials like the above I have frequently seen conscripts brought on to the stage after a girl-group has performed on an army base to wax lyrical about their performance and their attractiveness…only then to break down in tears and leave a very emotional message to their mothers watching back home (indeed, often they’re literally choking on their words so much that Om-ma “mother” is the only word you’re able to discern).

Unfortunately for readers however, this is yet another case of something interesting to outside observers that is unremarkable to Koreans themselves, and so I’ve spent over an hour unsuccessfully looking for examples to post here (videos of girl-group performances typically finish just before the soldiers are brought on stage). If any readers find any I would appreciate it if you could pass them on, but in the meantime let me finish by passing on what Kwon says about the program Ujeongdui Mudae (우정의 무대), or Stage for Friendship, the only program about conscripted soldiers in the 1990s, and which had:

…one famous section, ‘Yearning for Mother’. An unidentified  mother talked about her son from back stage. Following her talk, a lot of soldiers ran on the stage shouting “Mother” and insisted she was their mother. Finally, the mother appeared on stage and hugged her son. Finally, the mother appeared on stage and hugged her son. Accompanied with deeply moving music, both mother and son cried, as did other soldiers and everybody watching the TV show. (p. 44).

For your interest though, I did find this commercial with Moon Geun-young (문근영) featuring a mother visiting her son during his military service (and impressed with how much of a man he has become):

And for the record, Dongkook Pharmaceutical did produce more “normal” commercials for HeraminQ with middle-age women, here, here, and here, as well as another one in the “life-cycle” series featuring mothers’ high-school children taking their life-determining university-entrance exams:


(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here; for more on the effect of conscription on Korean society, see here and here)

(Posted at The Grand Narrative)

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