Question: Your dissertation was titled, “(A)social history of Korean women’s birth control: 1950s-1970s” (2004). I think the low birthrate issue in Korean society today is an important one with “childbirth” becoming a key concept with broad implications beyond gender, to families, education, housing, social welfare, and all throughout society. Would it be possible for you to explain your thesis in simple terms?
Bae: My doctoral thesis was published in 2004. The original topic that I was interested in was how women in Korean society have come to control over their ability to bear children, that is, birth control. Before I started my research, conventional thought stated that family planning efforts had been being successfully conducted since the 60s. So, the mainstream understanding was that Korean women’s ability to exercise control over their ability to bear children through means of contraception and so on was that it was the result of family planning projects led by the government, or dependent on that leadership. What I first wanted to study during my doctorate--and what I had had an interest in-as modern women’s civil rights. So the broad starting point for this was what kind of status women held during Korean society’s process of modernization, and how a movement for equality could be formed based on the historical status of women at the time. Then, I had the realization that if a woman cannot control her own ability to bear children, she could not become a modern agent capable of planning her own life. That is how I became more interested in the topic.
I was also highly aware of the problems in Korean society. I was not only undertaking a doctoral degree in Korea, but there was a strong drive present in the atmosphere of society itself for producing knowledge that was valid and which represented reality. As a woman living within Korean society, I had the added desire to study the group to which I myself was a member. In my dissertation, I did not include the period of Japanese occupation, before family planning efforts were put in place. Studying a variety of indicators in South Korean society after the Korean War revealed that Korean women did not actually seem to want to have many children originally, and the expectation to have a lot of kids, or many sons, was merely an expectation of agrarian society. The voice of the older generation of mother-in-laws was quite loud and powerful at the time. So, really, family planning efforts were a sort of tool or method through which Korean women could raise their voices and advocate for their own decisions which were pushed aside by the older generation. In addition, family planning efforts at the time were provided within the current of national modernization, and was argued for in terms of developing the national economy. So, it was a good that young women of childbearing age were able to explain their decisions to others. Clearly women were utilizing their agency at the time. The fact that women were not just passive recipients of governmental policies, or naive individuals who were swayed merely by governmental policies was an important discovery of my work.
Another thing worth considering is that since this process took place under development dictatorship and was one of that regimes projects, the individuality and power to make independent decisions and choices possessed by modern women could not materialize at that time. Although a mother’s association for family planning was established, it was organized from the top down and it was still difficult for individual women to make decisions based on a sufficient amount of consideration for things like obstetric health and safety. So, medical procedures that posed high risk of complications were performed on women. Artificial terminations of pregnancy were conducted to stop women from having children, and people acted as though the side effects did not exist if the women simply endured with a strong sense of patriotism. As the law against abortion became less and less enforced, a double standard was created. Simply put, women could receive an abortion if they wanted, but officially it was illegal. So the system developed in a way which meant that women had to receive these procedures in secrecy, in the shadows. Technically speaking, modern birth control was available as such, but that in itself did not lead to the rise of women as a modern agent. That is, individual women were put into a position where their motherhood was instrumentalized, that is, it was used for the purpose of reproducing the family’s class or improving the family’s future. Women’s ability to control birth was not used for women’s individual gain, but women always paid the price. Women had no guarantees for their own decisions. Any risk was fully the woman’s responsibility, with society presenting the false premise that they could do whatever they wanted.
Some people seem to think that the official movement against the anti-abortion law only appeared quite recently, that women in the past were somehow not aware of the issue. However, through my research I discovered an organization called the Korean Mother’s Association which was comprised of female doctors and sociologists and which educated the public on contraception methods and encouraged discussions on these topics before the family planning projects were launched as part of national policies. However, after the military coup, all social groups and organizations were disbanded. And, in that process, this Korean Mother’s Association was also disbanded. As key agents of the movement lost their organization, voluntary social movements also disappeared. After that period, a very powerful public campaign that did not leave any room for such a social movement was launched.
Fundamentally, I think the biggest problem concerning the criminality of abortion was that there was this ambivalence towards it. It has been generally acceptable to get an abortion, but if someone challenged the idea, then people could point out that it is punishable by law and if anything goes wrong with the abortion, it is the woman’s responsibility. In this way, the government did not establish any kind of structural instrument to protect individuals’ choice regarding childbirth. They even created the anti-abortion law. There has been a history of negligence. This is why women have not been able to make more open calls for greater freedom in the procedures used to terminate pregnancy, for safer contraception methods, and better sex education to use such methods more effectively.
Question: Could you explain the difference between your dissertation(2004) and the book(2012) based on your dissertation?
Bae: The book was published sometime after my dissertation. Basically, the dissertation included a chapter on international population control measures, the resources and opportunities given to the Korean government, domestic mechanisms in the United States and their religious background, and so on in order to break the perception that family planning projects were solely a state invention. When I was editing my book, on the other hand, I omitted details about what happened before the Cold War period. I only briefly introduced the context of international politics after World War II in 1945. I wrote how that international context influenced Korea and led the elite classes in the country to promote family planning projects. The most fundamental change would be that one chapter was added at the end of the book. My dissertation only dealt with matters until the 1970s, and that was because what happened in the 80s and onward was mostly just a repetition of what was established in the 70s. At the time I was writing my dissertation, the low birth rate was first being raised as a societal problem. Actually, the trend of low birth rates started in the 1980s when it reached the population replacement level, but talks regarding the need for policy intervention started to appear in 2003. Most public discussions blamed young women for the phenomenon stating that young women in those days were so selfish that they do not want to bear and raise children. There is a paper that I wrote on the matter at the time titled, “Are women really at fault for low birth rates?” I edited that paper a little bit and included the content in the book. The content relates to the low birth rate which was observed in the 2010s and still is visible today and how that is not a result of Korean women changing their minds or attitudes, it is merely a result of a pre-existing demographic shifts. The focus needs to be more on socio-economic change and the structure whereby women cannot receive gender-based benefits between their life as a housewife and a mother, the growing importance of career development, and the aggravating youth unemployment rate that sadly prevents young adults from having children. I also argue that policies that can fix those social issues should be considered over policy campaigns simply designed to highlight the importance of having a family.
Question: So, in order to resolve the low birth rate issue, we should change the foundations of society instead of making policies like you just mentioned.
Bae: The idea that a third party can intervene in the activity of childbirth to solve the low birth rate issue is itself problematic. We need to build social systems to adapt to the trends of a low birth rate and aging population. People will have children if we can create a world where they want to raise children. In the labor market, women suffer penalties if they become mothers. Such penalties are practical losses to women. Individuals will decide naturally on their own to have children as we eliminate these obstacles, and improve the social environment. It would be difficult [to solve this problem] if we seeks to tackle the issue of childbirth directly. Despite all these things, raising a child is not a personal project that belongs to mothers alone. It wouldn’t be right for the country to urge women to have children, and then leave everything up to the women.
Question: Could you share your recent research topics with us?
Bae: Since the mid- 2010s, young women in Korean society started to call themselves feminists and have made increasingly visible efforts to tackle the gender-related issues they experience in their daily lives. Recently, a survey was conducted which found that 90% of female participants in their 20s identified themselves as feminists. In the mid-2010s, before the resurgence of feminism on this scale, I conducted discourse analysis of young adults and discovered a phenomenon in which the younger generation was being discussed as a symbol of social unrest and crisis. In particular, I wrote a thesis that criticizes the objectification of men. Recently, I have developed an interest in the image of the younger generation as perceived by outsiders, such as its forms of masculinity and how women within this young generation plan their lives and recognize their independence. Recently, a considerable form of mass political agency has been manifested through the candlelight demonstrations in 2008 and 2016. A lot of women participated in these demonstrations. I believe women now have reached the level of consciousness through which they too are governing the politics in the country, they are raising their own voices, and the state and politics must guarantee their civil rights in this country. I think these things are being reflected in gender issues in the form of collective actions that occur at a large scale. They are interesting phenomena to witness and I am keeping my eye on it.