OHMY NEWS INTERNATIONAL, South Korea, Friday, February 9, 2007.

The Whale Hunt

Circumcision later in childhood common Korean practice

Now that the winter vacation is over, elementary schools are once again filled with the excited chatter and laughter of children. Many of the children talk about ski trips and vacations with their parents, but not all of them are chattering about the joys of youth.

Many of the boy students have returned to school as veterans of the "whale hunt," and in somewhat excited voices relate their experience to their fellow male classmates and juniors. Most of them are probably unaware of the controversy that has existed over the "whale hunt." It has been argued by some that the "whale hunt" is not needed, nor is it a rite of passage, but is a somewhat risky custom that has been introduced into Korea by the West in the last half century.

What is the "whale hunt"? The word "whale hunt" in Korean is the same word for foreskin, and it has become a clever way for young Korean males to express circumcision.

Circumcision is relatively new to Korea; its introduction is attributed to the American military during the late 1940s and following the Korean War. And while it may have been extremely rare prior to the 1940s, we do know that in 1885, Dr. Horace Allen, the first Western doctor in Korea, treated seven cases of phimosis, probably by circumcision.[1]

According to several studies, the vast majority of Korean men are circumcised. "Today, at least 95 percent of South Korean boys entering middle school have had been circumcised. For the other five percent, the question is not whether they should give up their foreskin, but when they should be circumcised."[2]

"More than 90% of South Korean high school boys are now circumcised..."[3]

Perhaps a better and more accurate reflection of the numbers is given in the study done by Dr. Ku Ja-hyeon of the Korean Military Manpower Administration. In 2001 he examined 1674 young males (20-years-old) and found that 78 percent of them were circumcised and an additional 11 percent who weren't desired to do so soon.[4]

I did my own survey amongst my Korean friends, and I must admit some embarrassment on my part, and shock and disbelief on my friends' part, when I asked them their circumcision status. In hindsight I should have taken the advice of one of the editors and gone to the local public bath and did my own surreptitious "study."

Of the people I asked, I found all but one was circumcised, and the one that wasn't was extremely embarrassed that he was uncircumcised. Most had been circumcised while in middle school or just prior to entering the military.

In the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe, circumcision is/was routinely done at birth, but in Korea, circumcision is generally done between the ages of 9-14. Why do Koreans do it so late, and why in the winter? According to a report done by Robert T. Francoeur and Yi Hu-so:

"In the 1960s, Korean doctors and advice columnists launched a campaign in newspapers and magazines urging parents to have their adolescent sons circumcised during the long winter break before a boy enters middle school. Infections, the Korean doctors say, are much less likely if circumcision is done in the winter rather than in the summer." [5]

Many African cultures perform circumcision as a rite of manhood, and while it may not be, per se, a rite of manhood in Korea, 40.6 percent of respondents in Dr. Ku's study felt that it was. From personal observations and eavesdropping, I have noted that many of these young boys who have taken part in the "whale hunt" do think of themselves as more manly than their peers who have not undergone the knife.

However, there may be another reason. In Ku's study he found that more than 80 percent of the men believed that it was important for boys to be able to make their own choice in the matter, instead of routinely being circumcised at birth.

Korea is an extremely socially oriented country -- everyone must fit in. Those who are different or do not fit society's norms are often made into pariahs, and thus it is not unreasonable to understand the group mentality in being circumcised (young boys often go with their friends as a small group to be circumcised) and the embarrassment of those who are uncircumcised.

A couple of Westerners who are married to Korean women that I spoke with also expressed some uncertainty on whether or not to have their sons circumcised. Some wished to leave their sons uncircumcised but worried about the additional stigma that their bi-racial sons might suffer from their peers at school.

Many Koreans feel that circumcision is more hygienic, "advanced and modern," and cite only the positive effects of circumcision. Ironically, many Westerners no longer feel that circumcision is needed for proper hygienic care.

Even in Korea, where most reports on circumcision are positive, there has been at least one study that has pointed out a perceived negative aspect of circumcision.

A recent study done by Seoul National University professor Kim Dae-sik and JoongAng University professor Bang Myeong-geol found that 20 percent of circumcised males "felt less sensation during orgasm .... than when they had been uncircumcised."[6]

Of course this report was overshadowed by the recent U.S. National Institutes of Health study that found circumcision may reduce a man's risk of contracting HIV through heterosexual sex by half.[7]

It will be interesting to see which study captures the attention of Korean men more -- the possible loss of sexual satisfaction or the possible increase of sexual security.

[1] China, Imperial Maritime Customs II.- Special Series: No. 2. Medical Reports for the half-year ended 30th September 1885, 30th Issue 1886, Report on the Health of Seoul (Corea), pp. 17-30 by Horace Allen


[3] Wikipedia



[6] BJU International, March 2007 - Vol. 99 Issue 3, pp. 619-622

[7] Donald G. McNeil Jr., "H.I.V. Risk Halved by Circumcision, U.S. Agency Finds," The New York Times, Dec. 14, 2006

(File created 23 April 2007)