Three S's quoted out of context
By Kang Hyun-kyung
The discourse of the "Dark Days" of Korean cinema in the 1980s centers around a conspiracy theory, dubbed the Three S's ― screen, sport and sex.
According to the popular view, then President Chun Doo-hwan, who took power through a military coup, tried to divert the public's attention away from the troubling domestic politics to sports or cinema screens featuring bold sex scenes. Chun wanted the public to gather in theaters, not in the squares for anti-government protests, and have some fun without thinking seriously about the political situation, the theory goes.
The military general-turned-president has been accused of having used cinema to save his presidency and thus a flurry of low-quality, erotic movies came out in the 1980s which in turn created the Dark Days.
The term "The Three S's" has since been frequently used to describe the military government's heavy-handed, covert tactic to turn public opinion in their favor.
But it has not been confirmed whether such a policy really existed.
"We've heard a lot about the Three S's, but to my knowledge there have been no official documents to support that it was chosen by the government of the time," said Cho Joon-hyoung, a senior researcher at the Korean Film Archive in Seoul.
However, Cho said he personally thinks that such an interpretation is convincing. "When you look at a set of liberation measures taken by the military government and policy trends back then, you'll see such an interpretation is reasonable. In cinema, for example, it's true that eroticism was tolerated and became evident and bolder in many movies."
The 1982 box office hit "Madam Aema," starring actress Ahn So-young, created a buzz, signaling the start of an era for erotic movies. On Feb. 6 when the film premiered at the now defunct Seoul Theater, it was packed. People waited in a long line for their turn for tickets at the theater. It was screened there for four months and was seen by over 310,000 people. Owing to its phenomenal success, a total of 13 Aema sequels were released afterwards.
The box office hit also sparked a boom for similar erotic movies.
|People queue for tickets for the erotic film "Madam Aema," which premiered on Feb. 6, 1982 at the now defunct Seoul Theater in central Seoul. Korea Times file|
For cinemagoers, seeing a movie like "Madam Aema" would have been unthinkable in the 1970s when the screening of erotic movies was strictly banned. In the 1980s, film censorship was still in place, but the Chun government was much more lenient toward such movies than the previous administration.
The 1980s was also the decade that saw a boom in professional sports. The Korea Baseball Organization League was launched in 1982 with six baseball clubs, helping the sport become one of the most popular in the country. President Chun threw the ceremonial first pitch in the opening games between the MBC Blue Dragons, which later became the LG Twins, and the Samsung Lions at Dongdaemun stadium in southern Seoul. A pro football league was launched the next year, followed by a basketball league and traditional wrestling "ssireum."
In an investigative program, aired on May 22, 2005, MBC pointed to the Japanese military officer-turned-businessman Ryuzo Sejima as the person who inspired Chun to introduce the Three S's policy.
It reported that Chun and his friend and political comrade-in-arms Roh Tae-woo, who was later elected president after Chun's tenure, met Sejima in August 1980, months after Chun rose to power through his coup. Samsung Group founder Lee Byung-chul allegedly arranged the meeting. Sejima reportedly advised the South Korean leader to host the Olympics if he wanted to allay public opinion which had gone from bad to worse following the brutal crackdown on the popular pro-democracy protest in the southern city of Gwangju that May.
|President Chun Doo-hwan throws the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game between MBC Blue Dragons and Samsung Lions on March 27, 1982. The Korea Baseball Organization League was launched that year. Korea Times file|
The Three S's was a censorship-oriented measure devised by the U.S. military government and implemented in Japan during its seven-year occupation in order to encourage the country to forego its militaristic tendencies.
It, however, remains uncertain whether MBC's report about the meeting among Chun, Roh and Sejima or the Japanese businessman's advice on the political tactic is based on facts.
Park Cheol-eon, a former lawmaker close to the two former Presidents Chun and Roh, denied the report.
"I've never heard about the Three S's," he told The Korea Times in a phone interview on Friday. "I don't know whether Presidents Chun and Roh met Sejima in June 1980 or not. But I think President Chun's possible encounter or bond with Mr. Sejima is plausible reasoning because they had a common military background and Seiji was a respected figure in Japan at that time."
A prosecutor-turned-politician, Park, 77, served as minister of political affairs and then sports minister under the Roh Tae-woo government. He was also one of the members of the military government's interim committee in 1980 after the military coup.
Park said he doesn't think Sejima was the inspiration behind President Chun's implementation of a series of "liberation" measures.
He claimed Chun had no political intention to use cinema and sports to boost support for his presidency, noting that easing censorship and the creation of professional sports leagues were measures he took to respond to the changing political environment in the broader world.
"Presidents Chun and Roh were aware of the wave of liberation movements outside the country. Before they took power, they both had the experience of living in the United States, although they were there at different times. And there, they had psychological warfare training," Park said.
"So they were well aware of the Western way of life and what was going on there. They were aware of the liberation movement outside the country and knew it would soon impact Korea. They knew such changes would be unavoidable."
'Sex' means eroticism?
During their post-World War II occupation of Japan from 1945 to the signing of a post-war treaty in 1952, the U.S. military government used the Three S's to prevent a conquered Japan from returning to its past militarist regime, one which had waged war against the world.
Roger Phillips Smith, author of "The Other Face of Public Television: Censoring the American Dream," confirmed the existence of the Three S's policy in post-war Japan.
"After World War II, Douglas MacArthur's occupant government of Japan was sensitive to the power of mass culture to shape attitudes convenient to the occupying power," his book reads. "In the field of mass entertainment, a conscious decision was made to promote 'The Three S's: screen, sex and sports' as devices to defuse Japanese public sentiment. Just as the shoguns had encouraged the aristocracy they replaced to attend kabuki drama, so the U.S. occupiers of Japan encouraged the public diversions of movies and sports as a control device."
The U.S. occupiers' Three S's policy was a tailored measure centering on cinema censorship and it was implemented to disseminate Western ideas, such as democracy, liberty and women's rights, among the Japanese public to repress any militaristic tendencies. The use of swords was banned from the screen and images of Mount Fuji, which had been attributed an almost mythological status as an emblem of Japan during the war, were not allowed either. Meanwhile, women's rights were one of the values that the U.S. occupiers tried to foster in Japan.
Unlike the popular Korean interpretation of "sex" in the Three S's as something associated with eroticism in movies, it actually referred to "gender" or "the status of women" as part of the Western values and ideas that the U.S. occupiers tried to promote in Japan.
Such a gap is evident when one looks at Jasper Sharp's review of "Mr Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Film Under the American Occupation, 1945-1952," written by Japanese cinema expert Kyoko Hirano.
"Female emancipation was one particular area they wished to foster, and one rather unusual by-product of this was the rise of the 'kissing film.' Fearing that the lack of affection displayed by the Japanese in the public sphere was symptomatic of their furtiveness, the U.S. actively encouraged kissing scenes during the late 1940s," Sharp wrote. "As the occupation encouraged production around the three S's ― sex, screens and sport ― there was a rash of 'baseball movies' to re-popularize a sport that had been banned by the government during the wartime period."
In Korea, the Three S's has long been described as the Chun government's political endeavor to divert the public's attention from his controversial rise to power, although no evidence has been found to support such an argument.
The fuss about Three S's in Korea appears to have started from some experts' misinterpretation of the U.S. military government's covert policy during their occupation of Japan.