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The strange case of
Circumcision in
South Korea

 

Policy Statement

For the record, the author of these pages is firmly opposed to all involuntary circumcision, the Korean variety no more or less than any other, and has no issue with any other aspect of Korean culture.

- HY

 

Circumcision in South Korea is interesting for several reasons:

  • It is of recent origin - less than 50 years - making it almost rootless
  • It is performed (for "medical" and sexual reasons) in late childhood
  • It is very much taken for granted, and assumed to be universal
  • Religious circumcision is almost unknown.

Circumcision itself was almost unknown in South Korea before before the US trusteeship, 1945-48, and the heavy US involvement in the Korean War; 1950-53. Older men report not having heard of it (except in a biblical context) before then. It seems an inescapable conclusion that it was adopted because of US cultural influence. It is reported to have greatly increased in the 1960s, with many articles in newspapers promoting it. Since then it has become almost universal. An estimated 14 million South Korean men are now circumcised. While circumcision has declined in the United States over the last two decades, in South Korea it has not. In fact, circumcision of adults currently makes the circumcision rate higher than the birthrate!

The exceptions to this nearly universal circumcision are interesting. In a survey of men in Seoul streets, a majority (69%) of the 92 intact men said they did not need to be circumcised because they were "naturally circumcised". This might be taken to mean they had either a very short foreskin or none (aposthia). But in fact, Professor DaiSik Kim found:

There is no medical term that corresponds precisely with this term; its meaning could differ among different individuals using the term. By 'naturally circumcised', a Korean man can be saying any one or several of the following; (i) he does not have 'phimosis'; (ii) he has a relatively short prepuce [foreskin] but not 'phimosis'; (iii) his prepuce is fully retractable when the penis is erect and therefore looks the same as a circumcised penis; (iv) his penis looks more or less the same as a circumcised penis even when not erect.

(In fact, no-one is naturally circumcised. Even the shortest foreskin contains the same tens of thousands of highly sensitive nerves as the longest, which are always removed by real circumcision.)

Only three of the 92 men surveyed remained intact because of any objection to circumcision.

The main reasons given by the 480 circumcised men for having it done were medical (41%), peer pressure (26%), and claims of sexual benefits (16%), including prevention of premature ejaculation (a reason seldom offered in the US) and a bigger penis. This last is of course fallacious.

One teacher is reported to have said "apparently there is something in the Korean genotype [hereditary makeup] that causes problems with penile phimosis". A moment's thought shows this to be nonsense, since there is no evidence of any such genotype or problems among North Koreans. A 1971 study of men aged 19-31 entering military service found only 5% to be circumcised; fewer than 1% of the intact men had phimosis, a similar figure to the rest of the world. 90% of them, however, were diagnosed with "redundant prepuce" and set down to be circumcised. The view that 90% of men have "too much" foreskin apparently persists today.

Another reason given is "Most Koreans circumcise because they think it makes them better Christians. They also think all great Americans are Christians so it's very important to be a good Christian and circumcise." Circumcision is not a requirement of Christianity.

Apparently this late age for circumcision compared to the rest of the world persists (as does the operation itself) just by force of habit. It has come to be accepted by Korean boys as a rite of passage to manhood.

Circumcision is widely believed by South Koreans to be universal in the world (192 out of 194 men asked thought it was) or even compulsory. This is mistaken. Most of the world's men are intact. (See the map.) Articles about it focus on "when it should be done", not on "whether". Medical claims for it are presented without evidence, often for the good reason that there is none.

What is interesting is the complete takeover of South Korean thought in the last 50 years by the circumcision meme (virus of thought).

What is to be done? It may be news to parents of boys how big the normal foreskin is, how it works, and what it is for. On that basis, they may decide not to have their sons circumcised. Boys may need to band together to refuse the operation in a group.

DaiSik Kim
Prof. DaiSik Kim

Prof. DaiSik Kim says:

By all standards, circumcision should have no place in Korea in terms of culture, history, and geography....

Since the circumcising of South Korea was so sudden, I remain hopeful that, if bare minimal facts about circumcision become known ... Korean circumcision might start to decline as rapidly as it has in the rest of the world that once practiced it without any religious reasons.

If I were to take a more pessimistic point of view, without definite and timely actions, Korea will be circumcising its boys and men long after the American circumcision practice dies out....

Considering how desperately and irrationally USAmericans hold on to infant circumcision, the second course of events could mean that unnecessary and harmful circumcision persists in South Korea for a very long time indeed.

- based on two articles by DaiSik Kim

 

Dr Kim has now put up a website in English and Korean (한글 - 포경수술 114:) focussing on the statistical information, and illustrating much of it graphically.

 

J Urol 2001, 165, 586-7. Park JK, Min JK, Kim HJ. Reimplantation of an amputated penis in prepubertal boys.

This paper reports two cases of accidental amputation during circumcisions in Korea, one in a boy of 7 and one aged 12.

There is no explanation as to the reason for circumcision, nor of the method used, nor of how the accidents happened. There is no discussion of how such accidents could be avoided in the future. There is an account of the techniques used to reimplant the severed penises.

 

A Canadian working in Korea writes:

I am an English Teacher who is in Korea and just discovered their custom of circumcising 95% of boys at about the age of 10-12 years old under LOCAL anesthesia! [General anesthetic is usual for child circumcision in the Western world.] Koreans incorrectly believe that EVERY Korean male NEEDS circumcision and have no information at all about the truth.

I work at two public schools and 3 small private schools. I have seen the aftermath of dozens of these circumcisions in the tears of my students for two weeks after the surgery. Magically though, only a few months later, if asked, they say the surgery did not hurt at all and recommend it to their younger peers (who in Korean society practically worship those boys older than them).

I have checked out the website www.pop119.com and find it helpful but it is still an uphill battle as I can speak only very very basic Korean and the combination of peer pressure and misinformation is overwhelming.

What I'm hoping is that maybe I could find some Koreans living outside of Korea who understand the implications of circumcision so that Koreans here can make an INFORMED CHOICE (most assume EVERY MAN IN THE WORLD gets it done..no kidding!)

Most boys are depressed for the week before the surgery, instinctively knowing that it is not a good idea. I have yet to see one that was not in pain two weeks after, only to be recommending it to younger boys a few months later...the power of cultural peer pressure!!

I am a Canadian who was raised to believe in education and the power of choice. I want to help people here (starting with my students) in any way I can but

I NEED HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

If Koreans wish to get this done at the age of 20 as an informed choice I say GO FOR IT! But whats being done here now feels like an ongoing nightmare to me.

II think the peer pressure here is much stronger than in other parts of the world as Koreans have suffered so many tragedies and are used to grouping together to die or survive as some type of a sociological function that they are unlikely to change.

I found out at a public bathhouse that a colleague was uncut (born in the countryside 35 years ago). He keeps this a closely guarded secret and would never tell anyone the truth..he angered me because I have a student who believes you will get sick and die if you are uncut (and a Korean) and my collegue lied to him and said he was cut to save [himself] embarrassment!

I would be willing to do anything that may help. I have sort of started an "informal" group of young uncut Koreans between my Church and the school at which I teach making sure they know each other's status and that they are not alone...

Intact Koreans are invited to contact this man.

 

A site in Korean: Korean website,  cafe.naver.com/nocircum http://cafe.naver.com/nocircum

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Male circumcision: a South Korean perspective, D. S. Kim and M. G. Pang British Journal of Urology Vol 83, January 1999,

The South Korean Circumcision: Why the Heck do we do it? by D. S. Kim, Associate Professor, Department of Physics, Seoul National University, Seoul 151-742, Korea