Korea’s Web community roiled by shocking video of Western men tormenting a local woman

July 15, 2013

A video, uploaded to video sharing sites, shows a disturbing nightclub confrontation between two Western men and Korean woman. (View it here.) (YouTube)

Update, July 25: This video appears to have been staged by willing participants as part of an experimental project made to look as real as possible. Read the full follow-up here.

The video is only 78 seconds long, barely enough to establish the nationalities of the two young club-goers in the frame and the third holding the camera. But what it shows is so disturbing, so charged with deeply sensitive issues of gender and race, that in the week since it was posted to Facebook it has generated a growing debate on the Korean Web and even coverage in the South Korean press.

From the very first seconds, it's clear that the young Korean woman in the frame is in trouble. She's sitting somewhat limply on a nightclub sofa, where two Western men have clearly set upon her. They don't seem to know her, but the first man sits and wraps his arm around her while the second stands and films. They begin by describing her body, talking as if she weren't there. One of the men pulls back her hair to show her chest to the camera. By 14 seconds in, it's already clear she's afraid, and she tries to wave them off as the first man puts his hand on her chin to push her face up.

Then, as if bored with merely harassing her, they grow more sadistic. The first man sticks his finger up her nose. She pulls back to resist but he leans in and shouts, "I see a booger." His friend eggs him on -- "Dude, make her eat it," he says -- and the two burst into laughter when he shoves his finger, now smeared with snot, into the back of her throat. They tell her she's disgusting. When one of them discovers some discoloration on her teeth, pulling her lips back to show to the camera, he starts shoving her, punishing her for displeasing him. He shouts at her to get plastic surgery, "like every other little Korean [girl]." At first, when she tries to resist, he won't let her go. But, after several thrashes, she's able to pull herself away, clearly rattled, and walk off. They shout angrily after her, hurling insults, and the video ends.

Maybe even more disturbing than how cruelly the two men treat this Korean woman is the alarming speed with which their words shift, almost without warning, from objectifying her to insulting, and their touch devolves from manhandling to something much more hostile. She is, to them, an object of amusement, a subject of ridicule, a thing to be scorned and humiliated and, finally, a threat to be angrily subdued.

I have not embedded the video here because it is too disturbing and profane, but you can watch it here.

The video first surfaced, subtitled in Korean, on June 8, when it was posted to YouTube and embedded on the Korean Web portal, Jagei.com. It made several rounds on the Korean-language Web but was quickly removed from YouTube, which cited a policy "prohibiting content designed to harass, bully or threaten." Though it had attracted over 24,000 views in its short life on YouTube, once the video was gone, discussion around it largely ended. One month later, on July 8, it was posted again, this time to Facebook. It is still up, having generated more than 800 comments, mostly in Korean, and it's been shared 251 times. Outrage against the two Western men (it's not quite clear where they're from) has grown so fierce on the Korean Web that it's been covered in several Korean outlets.

The significance of this video extends, for many Koreans, way beyond just these two Western men harassing one Korean woman. Western expats have been in Seoul for years. As in other Asian cities, these expat communities can have their bad apples, typically young men who misbehave, either because it's in their nature, because they think they can get away with things in Asia that would never be tolerated at home, or both. I sent the video to several Westerners who have spent time in Korea among other expats; they all said that while this is an extreme and highly unusual case, it's not so uncommon in Seoul to see young Western men drinking heavily and shouting after local women.

In Tokyo in the 1990s, a subset of young male Western expats became so notorious for treating Japan as their personal playground that one American expat, Larry Rodney, lampooned them with a comic strip called "Charisma Man." The strip follows an average-looking, unsuccessful young American who flees to Japan, where his language and nationality grant him special privileges and a sense of being entitled to the attention of Japanese women. The buffoonish comic is a cult hit among Western expats in Asia, but it represents what for many in Asia, particularly in South Korea, is a much graver issue.

The stories about hard-partying disrespectful young Westerners surely don't represent all expats in South Korea, but they do represent the fears of a foreign invasion. Keep in mind that the United States stations tens of thousands of troops on Korean soil and that the country has a history of being pushed around by larger powers. The sense of national victimhood is real, even if the threat posed by 20-something English teachers from California or Australia is exaggerated. In 2012, the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, a South Korean state broadcaster somewhat akin to PBS or the BBC, released an expose-style report documenting the "shocking reality about relationships with foreigners." Embedded below, it portrays Korean women as the victims of Western men who exploit their good-natured innocence, sleeping with them, disrespecting their culture, stealing from them and, in two cases the video makes much of, leaving them pregnant or with HIV. The subtext is loud and clear: Western men are a threat to our women.

The MBC report is silly, but it gets at how some Koreans perceive the Western expat men walking around Seoul. More subtly, and not intentionally, it also shows the degree to which those Koreans see their country's women in much the same way as do the misbehaving Western expats. Notice that they don't have any agency in the report's telling. At best, they're too innocent to make responsible choices; at worst, too irresponsible to understand that they should avoid Western men.

Much of the Korean Web commentary around the video has moved on from outrage against the two Western men to debating the young woman herself. According to T.K. Park, a D.C.-based Korean American who knows both countries well and runs the blog Ask a Korean, many of the Web commenters seem to blame her for what happened. Some argue she deserved it for hanging around Western men. "She went crazy over white guys, lived at a club, and ran into trouble," one Jagei.com commenter surmised. Another wrote, "After that, I think she's going to go clubbing to meet white guys again." After being abused in person by two Western men, she's now enduring online abuse by a number of her fellow countrymen.

South Korea has the widest gender gap in the developed world, according to an annual study by the World Economic Forum, which found that women have less equality in South Korea than they do in India, Burkina Faso or the United Arab Emirates. One Korea-based American to whom I sent the video explained why it can be especially tragic when Korean women are mistreated by Western men. Some Korean women, frustrated by their country's restrictive gender culture, can see Western men as a gateway to a world where they're treated more equally.

It's not clear that the woman in this video was seeking out Western men -- if anything, it looks like she was minding her own business when they set upon her -- but it's difficult to imagine what it must be like for other Korean women who see the video online. First they watch the young woman being harassed by two Western men, pushing her around like a disobedient animal, then they see her scolded on Korean social media and Web discussion boards, told by Korean men that she deserved what she got. The moment when she stands up and brushes off her assailants -- with no help from anyone in the bar, it's difficult to miss -- is the closest this story gets to having a hero.

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Max Fisher | July 14, 2013