Contrary to the popular belief that Korea is a male chauvinist society, many Korean men today seem either henpecked or are suffering through the tyranny of their aggressive, overbearing wives.
Ostensibly, Korean men still seem to be the commanders with absolute power at home. However, appearances are deceptive. Beneath the thin veneer of the patriarchal social order in Korean society runs a torrent of strong matriarchal power that dominates Korean households and families. Perhaps this is the reason why many Korean men secretly fear their wives, no matter how sweet and tender they appear to be.
In most Korean homes, it is the wife who controls the flow of money and manages the bank account to which the husband's salary is deposited. Strangely enough, Korean men do not seem to be aware of or care about the everlasting truth: "No money, no power".
It is also the cunning wife, not the gullible husband, who invests in real estate property to make a profit; everyone knows that the so-called "bokbuin", or real estate wives, are primarily responsible for the skyrocketing prices of condos and apartments in Seoul and its vicinities.
Another strange phenomenon in Korean society is that it is always the mother, not the father, who has power over the children. While the father is out to work all day and sometimes night, the mother forms a strong bond with her children who would, in turn, take sides with her against the father during quarrels. Indeed, what kind of a child could resist the Korean mother's overflowing warm affection and sheer dedication to her offspring? The problem is that the poor father soon realizes that he is hopelessly alone without any allies at home.
For those who lost their jobs during the IMF crisis or have been recently laid off due to the economic recession, the situation is even worse. They all worked so hard to be the breadwinners of their families until the unfortunate day they got fired. Yet their wives forgot still treated them as if they were nothing but useless, incompetent and despicable idlers incapable of any profitable labor. These unemployed men, who are forced to have all three meals at home, are known by the derogatory nickname "samsiggi", or three-meal guy, by their wives, who regard them as parasites.
Hopelessly reduced, these poor men, like Rip van Winkle's henpecked dog Wolf, have to sneak around, constantly casting sidelong glances at their horrendous wives.
Their crests fall and their tails droop between their legs. They are ready to jump to the door at the slightest sign of domestic violence; after all, it is their wives who have the broomsticks, ladles and even kitchen knives! But the most fearful weapon is their wives' sharp tongues. Once they were proud, courageous men, but "what courage can withstand the ever-during and all-besetting terrors of a woman's tongue?" As Washington Irving aptly points out, "A sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use".
With their lethal weapon and feminine shrewdness, Korean women have long influenced not only their homes but also their children's schools and even political arenas with their powerful "chima baram", literally translated as "strong winds of skirts".
Historically, Korean women seem to have clandestinely meddled in many important things by controlling their puppet-like husbands and children from backstage. For example, consider the popular television drama, "Jumong
". In this historical drama set in the ancient kingdom of Buyeo, men, including the king and the three princes, are manipulated and controlled by women. Even the shamans, who are capable of exerting influence on all domestic and foreign policies, are women in this drama. In each episode, the story revolves around the conspiracies and rivalries among the women within the palace, which eventually alter the history of Buyeo at every critical moment.
Of course, there are many adorable, angelic wives in Korean society today. Yet there is an ongoing joke in Korea: "What is the most striking similarity between an organized crime mobster and your wife?" The answer is: "Both are very good at using knives".
Be sure to treat your wife well and respect her. You are dealing with a woman in possession of a kitchen knife!
Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and visiting scholar at Harvard University. - Ed.
By Kim Seong-kon