Thursday, April 03, 2008

Korean Drama Queen

Thanks to reader Shirley, here is a smattering of questions about what goes on in Korean dramas.

Lest there should be any misunderstanding, the Korean FUCKING DETESTS KOREAN DRAMAS. The Korean hates the inanely twisted plot lines; identical faces enabled by plastic surgery; sub-par acting; and so many other reasons. The Korean will never understand people’s obsession with them. Never. Not ever.

But the Korean promised to answer any question, and he is a man of his word. So here it goes.

Dear Korean,

I have several questions regarding Korean family rules, legal matters and behaviors . . .

Regarding marriage:

Regarding the Korean TV Show, Daughters-In-Law why is the Yi family up in arms over Yi Boknam's relationship with Inu who is Boknam's brother-in-law by marriage? Is dating taboo between in-laws in Korea: i.e., especially when Boknam's brother, Yi Boksu married Inu's sister, Minji?

I just do not understand what the fuss is about between two Korean people not related by blood, but only related by marriage. Why do Korean families get heart attacks over this type of relationship and why is this considered unacceptable marriage?

To be sure, dating in-law is certainly not against Korean law, nor is it necessarily against Korean custom. There is in fact a historical precedent, when King Taejong of Shilla Dynasty was married to a sister of Gim Yushin, his lord chamberlain. In turn, Gim Yushin married Taejong’s sister, i.e. his sister-in-law. However, for most older (=very conservative) Koreans, relation by marriage is relation nonetheless. The in-laws have a certain obligation of respect toward each other, and a romantic relationship definitely flies in the face of that obligation.

But the drama (like all Korean dramas) probably overstated the conflict. A quick Internet search on the topic reveals that in this day and age, Korean people do not really care whether someone dates his or her in-law.

Why is it so vulgar or uncouth to show affection to your spouse such as kissing your spouse good-bye at the front door outside the bedroom as in the TV Show, Likeable Or Not?

Traditionally for male Koreans under 50, any show of affection is vulgar. It compromises the male authority to put himself in a position to be dictated by the actions of a subordinate, namely women and children. Korean culture apologists would say love is implied, without the physical gesture. The Korean’s opinion is that there was in fact little love in a traditional Korean marriage.

Although such is no longer the case in modern Korea, kissing is still considered a bit too racy to be done in public. However, this is changing very rapidly, and you can very easily see younger married couple exchanging pecks at the front door.

Why do Kings in the TV Show, Six Martyred Ministers get to choose their own spouses through a courtesan line-up when a typical Korean family tradition rules the parents must choose the spouse for their sons and daughters? Is a King above the Korean traditional custom alleviating the need for the Mother Queen to choose the King's spouse?

Are you kidding? He is the king! He is the living dragon! The king gets to do anything he damn well pleases, and that includes defying his parents. Also, the rule that parents choose their children’s spouses is not strictly enforced, not even in the most traditional times in Korea. It is more of a trend than a rule.

(By the way, Six Martyred Ministers was the first TV series in which TV studios from North Korea and South Korea collaborated.)

Is it against Korean Law to date or see a married individual on a constant basis despite the fact the other individual had no prior knowledge the person whom they were dating is married?

No. However, it would be against the law for the married person to have a sexual relationship with a person other than the spouse. Korean laws of adultery are arcane and complex. Therefore, it is the favorite weapon of cuckold husbands and jilted wives, who do not hesitate to exaggerate and lie about the reach of the law. The adultery law itself is a subject of a heated debate; there are currently three pending cases in the Constitutional Court of Korea asking to declare the law unconstitutional.

Regarding family registry documentation:

In the TV Show, Ajumma the divorced husband goes to the marriage clerk's office with both his officiating stamp and his ex-wife's stamp to enter into remarrying his ex-wife. Why isn't it necessary for both parties to be physically present in Korea when officiating marriage documentation before the marriage clerk?

Also, while the ex-husband is at the marriage clerk's office, why at the last second is the ex-wife notified by phone about the re-marriage certificate when the ex-wife should have been present initially? Why is a verbal phone call accepted by the marriage clerk accepting or declining the remarriage certificate as legally acceptable documentation?

The key is the “officiating stamp”. Instead of a signature, Koreans use an officiating stamp to show the legal effect of a document. The stamp is usually a person’s name in calligraphic Chinese characters. Each Korean adult MUST have an officiating stamp, and the shape of each stamp is filed in the government records.

For many legal instruments in Korea, the presence of the person is not required, because each person is assumed to have an exclusive control over his or her officiating stamp. In other words, your officiating stamp is a portable power-of-attorney; you are supposed to guard it with extreme care. In the Korean Parents’ case, the stamp is securely placed in the Bag-To-Be-Taken-Out-First-In-Case-Of-A-Fire.

Of course, it is entirely possible for someone to steal the stamp and misuse it. Legal actions are required to rectify the damage in such a case. It’s not much different from being on the hook for a loan because someone forged your signature.

Whereas in Happy Woman why isn't both mother and father present during family registry documentation registration at the clerk's office when adding or removing a child from a family registry?

That part is just incorrect. Adding or removing a child from family registry requires litigation before the court; it cannot be done at the clerk’s office.

Is it legal in Korean Law for a grandparent to abscond a grandchild living with the mother without legal documentation and force the child to live with the grandparents?

Yes. If there is no documentation, technically the birth mother has no legal relation to the child. Then the child belongs to the next of kin, which may be his or her grandparents. Of course, under the current system of family registration, the mother would always have documentation; if she does not, creating documentation is a simple matter.

However, in the bad old days when women could not be a “head of household” for family registration purposes, the following scenario would force the woman into a legal non-relation with her child:

Father has an illegitimate Child with Mother. Child is registered under Father’s registry; however, Mother raises Child, having little contact with Father. Father dies. (Paternal) Grandfather assumes Father’s registry, thereby assuming the relation with Child. In this case, Mother has no legal relation with Child, and Grandfather is Child’s next-of-kin. Therefore, Grandfather would be the only legal guardian for Child.

But please note that this no longer happens. Mother is now allowed to have her own registry; she would simply put Child under her registry, and no more complications.

Asking for forgiveness:

Is it mandatory to fervently rub your hands together asking for forgiveness? What happens if you do not make this physically dramatic gesture when begging for forgiveness? Why is it not necessary to rub your hands together when you say you are sorry? What is the difference between sorry and asking for forgiveness? Should being sorry be the same as asking for forgiveness?

No, it is not mandatory. It is an old gesture that is not really done anymore. But far be it from Korean dramas to conform to reality. Also, saying sorry and asking for forgiveness are two different things in Korean language – the difference is a matter of degree. You say sorry when you stepped on someone’s foot; you beg for forgiveness if you damaged someone’s valuable heirloom or worse. In the latter instance, you literally beg by rubbing your hands. But again, such gesture is rarely done in modern Korea, except in drastic and dramatic situations.

Grandmother as Matriarch in Family:

Daughters-In-Law depicts the Yi's Grandmother as the true head of the Yi household. Why is the Grandmother the matriarch of the family rather than the Grandmother's son, Yi Suggil, not the Patriarch of the Yi family? Why does the Grandmother have the last say in the Yi family and why is the entire Yi family fearful of Grandmother?

Shirley, it’s a goddamn drama. People always make the mistake of attributing culture to an exotic population’s every behavior, when in fact they act mostly according to the same principles that govern our own behavior. Family power structure entirely depends on the particular family. The cultural norms of favoring males and old people are valid forms of power within a Korean family, but so is money and social status.

For example, the Korean Father’s family consists of father (before he passed last year at the age of 92), mother, three sons and two daughters, with the Korean Father being the middle son. If custom is followed strictly, father would have the most say, then the first-born son, second son, third son, followed by mother, then daughters.

However, because father (=the Korean Grandfather) was a wastrel who pissed his life away, he had almost no say in the family matters. The Korean Father, the youngest son, and the youngest daughter had the most power in the family because they turned out to be the wealthiest. In fact, this situation would have made a fine Korean drama, because there was a constant struggle between father and the oldest son (who had to support his parents according to his duty) on one side and younger sons and daughter on the other side.


Why is there an excessive amount of yelling and hitting in the families I see on Korean TV Shows? Is hitting and yelling considered normal in a Korean family's behavior?

No and yes. One big reason why the Korean hates Korean dramas is because there is excessive yelling that hurts the Korean’s ears. The amount of yelling and hitting shown in Korean dramas is usually reserved for a truly dysfunctional family – but there is no shortage of yelling and hitting within any dysfunctional family in the world.

In addition, this is what the Korean previously wrote about yelling in Korean dramas:

“Characters in Korean dramas yell for the same reason characters in Bollywood movies sing - it's a cheap way to convey emotional content without relying on sophisticated dialogues or acting. Not that all Korean producers and actors are incapable of using such things: many Korean movies excel in conveying emotion through the subtlest subtleties. But Korean dramas appeal to, shall we say, a less sophisticated audience. The Korean has a feeling that this may change at some point: there has got to be a market in Korea for artfully made television series, like Six Feet Under or Friday Night Lights in the U.S. But as long as there will be ajummas who sit on their asses doing nothing but watching dramas in Korea, there will be yelling in Korean dramas.”

However, there is definitely more yelling and hitting in an average Korean family compared to an average American family, although the amount of yelling and hitting hardly reaches the level displayed in Korean dramas.

Why more yelling? Contrary to popular images of calm, stoic Asians, Koreans are very liberal with their emotion, especially when it comes to excitement and anger. Both emotions are conducive to a lot of yelling. Also, physical discipline is commonplace in Korea, from very young age. So it is very normal see physical discipline extend to older age. In fact, the Korean thinks Americans are made soft because they shy away from physical discipline.

Are we done now? Thank God. Stupid dramas.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I can completely understand The Korean's distaste for Korean dramas. It would be just as bad if a Korean judged Americans by shows like "The Hills" and "The O.C."!

  2. Funnily enough, Nigerians also rub hands together when begging or pleading for something, usually lightheartedly though. Cool stuff.
    You do have to cut us some non-Koreans some slack, the only exposure we have is the films, dramas (which is great escapist fare) and misc. entertainment. Yes it is as bad as thinking that America is all about what you see in the movies but for most k-drama is all the exposure that we get.

  3. Don't forget the Japanese porn.
    What do you mean I can't take my candle collection abroad?


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