Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Some reading on Korean attitudes towards AIDS

A news report last week by Peter Schurmann at New America Media titled Talk of HIV/AIDS Still Taboo for Koreans, Here and Abroad looks at HIV infection rates of Korean Americans and the taboo against discussing it in the US (as well as the negative effects of beliefs such as "Asians don’t have HIV") and links it to such attitudes in Korea. It also brings up an editorial about MBC video (mentioned here) and the CERD case.

On a related topic, at the Korea Herald a few weeks ago Daniel Fiedler discussed AIDS testing policy and beliefs about HIV/AIDS in Korea:
Recent surveys by the Korean CDC show that over 50 percent of the population still believes kissing can transmit the virus and almost eighty percent still believe that mosquitoes can transmit the virus. Of greater concern is the erroneous belief that the virus is primarily a “foreign” disease which leads to unsafe sex practices in domestic relations.
He goes on to say that Korea's "initial reasoned response [to AIDS in the 1980s] has mutated into a policy based on racism and misinformation." I'm not sure if I'd describe all of the Korean government's response during Korea's first AIDS scare in February 1987 as 'reasoned' (though parts of it certainly were, and the plans set forth to designate certain hospitals as testing centers, to set up hotlines and test donated blood seemed well thought out, though I don't know how the implementation of these plans turned out). Some planned policies (such as requiring all tourists arriving for the Olympics to be tested) were rather over the top, and were abandoned as soon as the government realized a Korean-language report on its intentions had been translated and reported around the world. A Health Ministry spokesman even went so far as to describe as "groundless" the Joongang Ilbo article which directly quoted Health and Social Affairs Minister Rhee Hai-won saying that, due to 300,000 tourists visiting during the Olympics, "there are concerns that after the Olympics there will be a sudden spread of AIDS domestically," and that he would press the WHO to require Olympic tourists to carry AIDS free certificates at an upcoming meeting in Sydney. Clearly, "groundless" in this case translates as "that was in Korean and meant for Korean eyes only," a defense/denial which came up again recently.

Fiedler goes on to say in closing that
This change has resulted in a growing international perception of South Koreans as ignorant and xenophobic.
In 1987 Korea obviously cared more about what the outside world thought, and immediately changed its planned policy when it 'leaked' out to the rest of the world. I'm not sure that there's such concern now, especially considering the fact that Korea (officially) lifted HIV testing for migrant workers and entertainers, but left it in place for often young, university educated westerners. Mind you, it's easy enough to do that when you've convinced yourself that this group is the latest incarnation of the 'western bandits', "half-barbarians who only thought of doing harm to [t]his country" (as George Foulk put it in 1884) that have plagued Korea's modern history by doing dastardly things like educating women, building hospitals and schools, and supporting orphans 'branding' children's faces with acid or tarring them, violating women, and molesting children. Hence the ability of the Korean media to simply ignore the CERD case. However, in the long run, the involvement of foreign English teachers in Korea-related endeavours is likely to be more similar to the Peace Corps Volunteers of the 1960s and 1970s (think former US Ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens, who taught English as a PCV in the 1970s, and numerous Korea studies academics) than the GIs they're often compared to, and in the future some will turn up in positions that will have the ability to have an impact upon Korea. While the media and politicians gain points domestically by claiming to protect the Korean race from foreign cultural and (on really bad days) racial contamination (think MBC and and its intent to warn "Korean women who are out of their sense and get involved in these kinds of affairs" with western men. "We need to be awakened and try to change this culture."), in the end this trend may come back to bite Korea in the ass at some point. Of course, it would then just become more grist for the 'Korea is victimized by foreigners' mill and likely retroactively justify these policies.

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