[The Korea Herald] What should schools teach about sex?

By John Power

In a country where sex is not to be spoken about, it is no surprise that sex education in schools is a sensitive issue. Deciding what content is both relevant and appropriate is invariably contentious.

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology currently requires all schools to provide 10 hours of sex education per year. Nevertheless, teachers can be reluctant to broach the subject, with some educators reluctant even to mention sex at all. It is inevitable, then, that the usefulness of such classes has been called into question. A 2007 survey by AHA! Sexuality Education and Counseling Center for Youth in Seoul found that almost 44 percent of teenagers found the sex education they had received at school to be neither practical nor helpful.

“Current sex education focuses on virginity, which is not an interest of students,” said Cha Chi-young, a professor at the division of nursing science at Ewha Womans University. “They want practical information, but the sex educators are not giving the information they want. As a consequence, most students are getting information from the Internet. It is highly likely that the students get unreliable information.”

Sex education in schools begins in fifth grade, with classes including information about reproductive health and gender roles and equality, according to a spokeswoman for the Education Ministry. Later classes from sixth grade through high school address sexual assault prevention, prostitution, AIDS, contraception and how to cope with sexual urges.

Children participate in a sex education activity organized by AHA! Sexuality Education & Counseling Center for Youth. (AHA! Sexuality Education & Counseling Center for Youth)

“The school education is not about sexual activity, but the concept itself. A healthy concept of sex and gender culture is the objective, so it includes both contraception and abstinence,” said the spokeswoman, who added that the ministry had no immediate plans to revise the curriculum.

Statistics show that significant numbers of teenagers are sexually active, despite Korean society’s conservative norms. Close to 9 percent of high school students have experienced sexual intercourse, according to figures for this year from The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, continuing a steady rise in the number of sexually active teens.

Studies also suggest that most sexually active teens do not use contraception ― just under 60 percent according to a Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from 2010. Sexually transmitted infections are far from unheard of: In one study of more than 1,500 people aged 20-59, 5.58 percent had Chlamydia. Births outside of wedlock have also risen in recent years, although Korea’s proportion remains the lowest in the OECD, at about 1.6 percent of total births. In the U.S., by contrast, more than half of births are outside of marriage.

President-elect of the Korean Association for Sexology and Chonnam National University professor Youn Ga-hyun has seen Korean society become increasingly liberal in its attitudes to sex in the last two decades.

“I dealt with the sexual issues as a part of ‘Introductory Psychology’ in the late 1980s (in university), but began to teach ‘Psychology of Human Sexuality’ course from the year 1990. At that time when I began to teach it, most students were very passive in the class. No students tried to ask a question to the instructor, and even they were afraid of being asked any question from me. However, several years later I realized that there had been significant differences in attitudes toward sex between former students and new students. The newer students were, the more liberal attitudes they showed,” Youn said.

The biggest single failing of the current education system, according to Youn, is its failure to tackle entrenched gender inequality.

“The current main drawback to the sexuality education in Korea is that there are still too many teachers who stick to the traditional gender roles, expectations, (who) did not have any opportunity of being trained for sexuality education, and thus don’t understand the notion of gender equality.”

The double standards at the heart of many Koreans’ attitudes to sex can have devastating consequences, said Cha.

“Sexual double standards cause many issues. For example, scholars who have investigated sexual predators reported high sexual double standards. Korean women who are victims of sexual violence do not report the case because they are afraid of being stigmatized as having loose morals. Teenage girls have hard time saying that they want to use a condom because initiating talk about sex is not socially allowed for females,” she said.

While those double standards might be expected to be on the wane, Cha is ambivalent about the nation’s continuing sexual liberalization.

“(It is) a good thing and a bad thing. I am more leaned toward the positive side though. I believe to solve problems we need to be open, and accept that people have sexual needs. (But, on the other hand) teenagers who are too young to make decisions for themselves might be exposed to sex. They might later regret their sexual behavior.”

Morality and religious belief inevitably enter the equation in any debate on sex. The Christian Council of Korea, the country’s largest alliance of Christian churches, recently protested the Korea Food and Drug Administration’s reclassification of the morning after pill as over the counter medicine on the grounds that it can act as an abortifacient. The organization also opposed the students’ rights ordinance introduced by Seoul Metropolitan Office last year because of its clause on respecting all sexual orientations.

A spokesman for CCK, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the organization is opposed to teaching school students about the pill.

“We think life is precious, which is given from God. And then children are also a blessing. We think life is incomparable and also … a result of love,” said the spokesman.

He said that the CCK did not have an official position on sex education but that it supported married life and an “appropriate sex culture in Korea.”

With many different stakeholders with differing views involved in the discussion on what to teach young people about sex, reaching a consensus can be challenging.

Youn said it is important to involve community organizations and parents in devising sex education, rather than preserving it as the domain of the ministry alone.

“A community, such as parent-teacher-organizations, should be involved in sexuality education. School should reflect the opinion of school parents, and at the same times school should try to make the parents understand what the school does for their children.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)

[The Korea Herald] Should the law be tougher on alcohol?

By John Power

Korea’s regulation of alcohol is decidedly laissez-faire by international standards. Unlike in much of North America and Europe, alcohol is sold at convenience stores 24/7, bars and nightclubs close at their digression and drinking is permitted in public places.

The population is free to drink more or less whenever and wherever it pleases, and drink it does: In 2005, the last year for which the World Health Organization provides figures, South Koreans’ alcohol consumption was more than twice the global average. That year, the population consumed the equivalent of 14.8 liters of pure alcohol for every man and woman in the country over 15. Recent moves by government authorities, however, suggest a tighter regulatory regime is on its way.

On July 5, Seoul Metropolitan Government announced it would ban the consumption of alcohol in public parks from next year in an effort to curb drink-related crime. Explaining the decision, Park Sung-ho, a member of Seoul Metropolitan Council, told media that 42 percent of misdemeanors last year involved alcohol. The Seoul authorities’ move is in line with a broader national trend: Last month, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced it was pushing to prohibit drinking in school areas, youth centers and hospitals and ban alcohol advertising on buses.

Cost to society

The huge social, health and economic costs that alcohol imposes on society necessitate greater controls, said Lee Hae-kook, a director at the government-affiliated National Alcohol Project Supporting Committee and professor at the department of psychiatry at Catholic University of Korea.

“The socio-economic burden of alcohol (in 2005) reached 20 trillion ($17.4 billion), which is 2.5 percent of gross domestic product. Further, the cost for treating alcohol-related disease reached 6 trillion won (in 2009), double that of 2005,” said Lee.

Moreover, in some areas, alcohol-related harm is on the rise, said Lee.

“The incidence of DUI-related accidents has increased fourfold in the past 20 years. And the rate of high-risk drinking increased from 14.9 percent (in 2005) to 17.6 percent (in 2010), which is the highest among OECD countries. Further, alcohol-related deaths increased from 40 per 100,000 people (in 1997) to 49.6 per 100,000 (in 2000), which is higher than other OECD countries.”

The overall trend of alcohol abuse in recent years has been mixed. While the prevalence of high-risk drinking has risen, from 14.9 percent of the population in 2005 to 17.2 in 2010, the rate of alcohol use disorder has declined, from 6.8 percent in 2001 to 4.3 in 2011.

Lee said that a particular characteristic of the Korean situation was the high prevalence of AUD among middle-aged men.

“Usually, the rate of AUD decreases with age. However, this age gradient is not observed in the Korean male. That is, the rate of alcohol disorder among those in their 40s and 50s is almost the same as those in their 20s. This phenomenon is due to the permissive culture toward the drinking problem and drinking party culture in the workplace.

“That is, the middle-aged man who has experienced a serious drinking problem can maintain his work and social relationships. In addiction, traditionally, the rate of AUD among women was very low in Korea. But, the rate of AUD among females is rapidly increasing while that of males remains stable.”

The Health Ministry told The Korea Herald it agreed with the need to “increase legal restrictions to prevent alcohol-related harm,” but that details needed “further discussion.”

Industry’s responsibility

More specifically, it said greater regulation of alcohol advertising was needed to prevent exposure to adolescents. Regarding 24/7 selling, the ministry said only that more restrictive licensing hours needed “further consideration from multilateral perspectives.”

As part of its ongoing measures, the ministry said it holds temperance campaigns, has restricted advertising and has designated hospitals for treating alcohol-related conditions.

But in a relatively unregulated environment, just what is the responsibility of the drinks industry?

The Korea Alcohol & Liquor Industry Association declined to comment on legal measures or its responsibility for alcohol-related harm. Oriental Brewery also refused to comment. The corporate relations head at a major drinks company in Korea, however, insisted the industry was making real efforts to tackle alcohol abuse, including spending some 5 billion won each year on the promotion of responsible drinking.

“(The) industry is making every effort to promote responsible drinking in Korea which doesn’t get exposed as much as it should in our view,” said the industry member who requested anonymity for himself and his company.

“In 2013, May, there is a world health assembly held by the WHO, where they will announce, in our view, the global alcohol strategy. We don’t know what that’s going to be, but right now what they are doing is, through their regional committees, Asia-Pacific, Europe, they are collecting industry effort or activities and doing an evaluation until then. And then they’ll come out with a basic strategy as to whether they need to strengthen (measures), or they need to deliver as it is, or they need to weaken (measures), they’ll decide.”

He rejected the argument that the industry had a vested interest in ensuring excessive alcohol consumption, adding that it supported measures such as the proposed ban on drinking in parks.

“If people adopt sensible drinking, I think our job is done. Think about it: excessive drinking is really harmful to human beings; if they really enjoy the drinking (responsibly), they’ll enjoy the drinking for a longer time. I am not sure if that is an advantage for the company or not, in our view.”

But even if the industry claims to be onboard with more laws regulating drinking, not everyone appreciates the curtailment of freedom in the name of public health and safety.

Kim Chung-ho, a professor at the Graduate School of Economics at Yonsei University, sees the latest raft of laws as another example of government encroachment on personal freedom.

“Violence in the street after drinking, violence in the police dispatch area, those kinds of behaviors should be prohibited. It has been prohibited by the law but it was not enforced. So the law should be enforced. But that’s it. (Banning) drinking in the park? I don’t think it is necessary. Drinking in the park and having barbecues, it is one of the greatest pleasures of Korea, doing the outdoor activities,” said Kim, adding that he believed the new law would be widely ignored.

Education

Kim, who is a former head of the Center for Free Enterprise, poured further skepticism on the idea of restricting the country’s 24-hour nightlife culture, arguing instead that education, rather than more punitive laws, is the real solution to excessive drinking.

“Permission to drink 24 hours makes Korea more lively. The law used to prohibit drinking at 12, but that law failed. Koreans already have failed experience related to banning alcohol after dark,” said Kim.

“It is very hard to change the behavior but it is very easy to make laws so the politicians choose the easier way … Almost all the intellectuals have such need to regulate and monitor the behavior of ordinary citizens. I think it is not good.”

On the contrary, according to Lee of the National Alcohol Project Supporting Committee, the government is not only entitled to protect the public from the negatives effects of alcohol ― it is obligated to do so.

“Alcohol is both a good which can be consumed legally and a hazardous substance which has been designated a carcinogen by WHO. Therefore, the government has an obligation to protect citizens from alcohol-related harm. Further, the people have right to enjoy drinking, but no one who drinks has any right to threaten the safety of the public through drinking-related violence.”

[The Korea Herald] Is green growth working?

By John Power

“Green growth” has been an oft-used phrase in political, environmental and scientific circles in recent years. President Lee Myung-bak first announced his vision for environmentally sustainable, low-carbon economic growth in an address to the nation in August 2008. In July 2009, the government unveiled the Five Year Plan for Green Growth, which allocated some $84 billion for investment in growth drivers and infrastructure deemed environmentally sustainable.

Green growth, as defined by the Presidential Committee on Green Growth, aims to achieve “economic development and job creation, as well as efficient use of resources and environmental protection.”

With the country importing about 97 percent of its energy sources, Korea’s drive could be seen as a necessity. The country is also considered especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change: Average surface temperatures in Korea rose by 1.74 degrees Celsius between 1912 and 2008, according to the United Nation’s Environment Program, higher than the world average.

Aspirations and reality

But despite this and rhetoric about going green, Korea remains the world’s ninth biggest emitter of CO2. In a further mismatch between aspirations and reality, the June 20-22 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro ended without a concrete plan for global action against climate change and environmental degradation. Korean Environment Minister Yoo Young-sook spoke after the summit of her disappointment that some countries had failed to embrace the idea of a “green economy.”

Despite pessimism surrounding the summit’s outcome, Park Hyun-jung a member of the Green Growth Planning Bureau at Presidential Committee on Green Growth, denies that little was achieved.

“There are critics saying that the outcome of Rio+20 Summit fell short of the highest expectations including the lack of a concrete action plan,” Park told the Korea Herald.

“However, the fact that U.N. member countries with various interests have reached for the first time an agreement on ‘green economy’ as a major tool to achieve sustainable development holds significance.”

If Korea’s success in encouraging other countries to follow its path is an open question, so too is the likelihood of it meeting its own targets.

“Targets are just indicators of where the government wants to lead the economy,” said Lee Ji-soon, an economics professor at Seoul National University. “And they are based on lots of assumptions. When situations turn out differently, targets will not be met.”

As part of its long-term strategy toward 2030, the government aims to reduce the nation’s energy intensity level by 46 percent, from the current 0.341 ton of oil equivalent per $1,000 to 0.185 TOE/$1,000, and reduce fossil fuel use from the current 83 percent of energy consumption to 61 percent. Energy intensity is a measure of energy efficiency, referring to the amount of energy, measured in units equivalent to that provided by a ton of oil, required to produce $1,000 of GDP.

Park, however, insists that these are achievable targets, pointing to measures implemented this year such as the emissions trading scheme and Green Building Act, and the fact that the rate of increase in energy consumption dropped from 2005-2010.

“The target energy intensity of 0.185 TOE/$1,000 in 2030 when Korea is expected to reach its GDP per capita of $30,000, is an average between 0.27 of the United States in 1994 and 0.11 of Japan in 1988 when their GDP per capita reached $30,000. The target will be met when Korea’s annual economic growth stands at 3.7 percent and the annual average rate of energy demand increase is limited to 1.2 percent (from 2.7 percent in 2010),” said Park.

“If Korea continues its efforts to rationalize the energy pricing system and transform into an industrial structure, those targets will be achieved.”

But selling the general public and businesses on some green growth solutions has proved difficult. While the government aims to have Korea producing 1.2 million electric, hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles by 2015 ― 900,000 of them for export ― consumers here and abroad have yet to warm to the models produced so far.

Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors’ sales of hybrids have been a fraction of their gasoline equivalents, with Hyundai’s Avante, as one example, selling just 118 units domestically in May. In the U.S., General Motors suspended the production of its Volt electric car earlier this year due to poor sales, hitting LG Chem, the producer of the car’s lithium-ion batteries.

Private sector

Developing alternative-energy vehicles has cost the taxpayer, too. The Hyundai BlueOn, the country’s first full-speed electric car due to go on sale later this year, was developed with 9.4 billion won ($8.2 million) in government investment. The case of the BlueOn and other green growth projects also goes to the heart of philosophical questions about the role of government.

The concept of the government picking so-called winners and losers has been controversial in the U.S., as highlighted in the bankruptcy last year of Solyndra, a solar energy company that had received over $500 million in federal loans.

“There always exist dangers with any kind of industrial policy,” said Lee. “However, in the past Koreans engaged in many kinds of industrial policies, and several of them bore ample fruit. Perhaps policy makers think they can repeat the success stories.”

Even with the risk of unproductive investment, government support is necessary because of private sector reluctance to invest in new environmental projects and technologies, according to Lee.

“Due to failures arising from public goods aspects, severe externalities, short sightedness of market participants, coordination failures, and large risks involved, environmental and resource projects need public support, at least in the initial stage. These are new areas where private firms are very hesitant to move in.”

As far as Park is concerned, green growth investment is already seeing tangible results.

“(Between 2007 and 2010) new and renewable area employment increased by 3.7-fold, sales by 6.5-fold, exports by 7.3-fold,” said Park, who also cited the construction of the world’s largest tidal power plant at Shihwa Lake as an example of investment in action.

But for many in the environmental movement the current administration’s commitment to green growth is little more than window-dressing. Groups such as Green Korea United take issue with the government’s pursuit of nuclear energy and controversial infrastructure works such as the Four Major Rivers Project, and say its emission reduction targets do not go far enough.

“We are the No. 9 energy consuming country in the world and keep making CO2 emissions, so it means we need a more intensive demand control policy in our energy sector,” said Lee Yu-jin, a member of Green Party Korea and former member of Green Korea United.

“We need some localized energy system, an energy tax, and also the price of electricity compared with other countries is low in Korea, and especially in industry compared with ordinary people.”

Public services

For Lee and many other environmentalists, the government’s concept of green growth avoids the central issue: Korea uses too much energy and has come to expect too much economic growth.

“We need to consider: keep growing the economy, is it possible or not? … Now, I think we need to talk about less growth,” said Lee.

But to make this message palatable to the general public, the government must be willing to provide more public services, she said.

“If some services are provided by the government, and if we earn less money, then we can get similar services. Until now, government (has) invested money for construction, nuclear power plants, the four river dam project … If we change our policy from hardware to software ― meaning, investing money in the community and the people and social infrastructure ― then we can support … people’s lives.”