Youlim KIM, M.A.

Transformation and Construction of Social Discourse on Unmarried Mothers in South Korea

© RUB, Brasse

There has been a pervasive social discourse of stigmatising unmarried mothers in South Korea (Korea, hereafter). Sexual immorality is a prominent stigma that unmarried mothers are accused of and they have had to put great effort to erase the stigma. However, the personal experience of unmarried mothers in South Korea is not merely their individual stories, but the reflected history of colonial, post-colonial, nationalistic and patriarchal society.

The term Mihonmo (unmarried mother, 未婚母) first appeared in print media in the late 60s and early 70s. Since then, the media has consolidated its way of describing unmarried mothers using repetitive language and symbols. Likewise, Korean novels after the Korean War occasionally depicted unmarried mothers; they were sometimes portrayed as poor war widows, indiscriminately sexually active figures, such as yanggongju (western princess), or mentally unstable, or disabled women. Various legislative measures from the 1950s also contained many discriminative elements against unmarried mothers and served as a means to restrain their bodies, sexuality, and motherhood.

This study examines articulations on unmarried mothers in the media and literary texts, and legal measures that influenced unwed mothers’ legal status from the 60s to understand the development of social discourse on unwed mothers in Korea. Therefore, the interplay of fields of politics, media and literature which forms a dynamic triangular relationship is mainly explored. Moreover, unmarried mothers’ projection for the future is analysed in relationship to their societal experience and pursuit of their agency.

This research project proposes that the field of literature tends to generate more liberating and challenging discourse on gendered norms, compared to the media. Furthermore, by delving into unwed mother’s hopes, desires, and aspirations for the future, this study ensures that the voices of unmarried mothers are not silenced but, instead, can be empowered by the literature.