The Troubled Category of Rural Bachelors in Contemporary South Korea
This dissertation takes the rural bachelor as a social category through whom to analyze the dialectic relationship between the rural community and state-led industrialization policies in reconfiguring the landscape of contemporary Korean society. This project is the first to examine this figure from an academic perspective and historicizes the surge of cross-border marriages between Korean men and non-Korean women in recent decades. Previous scholarship on contemporary Korea generally focuses on urbanites, industrial laborers, and issues of femininity and women’s experiences. While this scholarship tends to overlook the role of the countryside in the nation’s rapid post-1960 socio-economic transformation, this dissertation redresses this issue by focusing on the masculine subjectivity of rural bachelors as an avenue for analyzing how uneven economic development hit particularly hard in rural Korea. Through discursive analysis of post-1960s films, television programs, and newspaper articles about the countryside, this project demonstrates how public anxiety over rural bachelors and their marriage woes refracts distress over how to preserve the national “heartland” in the global turn to neoliberalism.
This study argues that the rural bachelor embodies public concerns over the deterioration of rural communities, and by extension, the well-being of the Korean nation. This research traces how anxiety emerges in the articulation of a crisis of rural masculinity that I term “disabled masculinity” in two parts. First, I argue that while concern over the plight of the rural bachelor demonstrates a struggle over maintaining normative gender roles and a conflict between “traditional” and “modern,” the contemporary issue of rural bachelorhood is also a product of South Korea’s tenuous position in the world economy. More specifically, I highlight the role of systematic rural underdevelopment in promoting the nation’s socioeconomic growth by focusing on the nationwide proliferation of the NACF (National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, Nonghyŏp). Second, I demonstrate how concerns over the inability of rural society to continue to both feed and reproduce the traditions of the Korean nation is rooted a sense of rural nostalgia that erupts in national concern over the rural bachelor’s unmarriageability. Thus, the rural heartland of the nation is depicted as “left behind” and emasculated in representations of the countryside like The Countryside Diaries (Chŏnwŏn ilgi, 1980-2002) and My Wedding Campaign (Na ŭi kyŏrhon wŏnjŏnggi, 2008).