Dare to bare

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 June, 2005, 12:00am

Residents of a northeastern province will soon get the chance to decide whether they want the country's first nudist beach to be set up in their backyard. If the proposal meets with approval, Kangwon province will select a secluded, undeveloped site for those who dare to bare.

The plan is perhaps an illustration of how much more relaxed South Koreans, particularly the younger generation, are becoming about displaying their bodies in public.

In common with most Asians, they have traditionally been very puritanical about the idea of revealing large amounts of flesh. This has had a particular impact on our women, who have long been encouraged or forced to exercise extreme modesty in both attire and their demeanour. The national costume, the hanbok, with its long, billowing skirt, could have been deliberately designed to hide female curves.

Under Korea's last dynasty, which ended at the beginning of the 20th century, women were largely confined to the house. Those who ventured out often did so with a long cloak over the head, wrapped around their face, similar to the burkhas forced on Afghan women under the Taleban.

In the era of free love and rock 'n' roll during the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea's military dictator, Park Chung-hee, took a serious view of female modesty. Police were issued with rulers to measure mini-skirts to ensure that they conformed with the regulations - only a few centimetres above the knee.

It is all so different now. With their plunging necklines, paper-thin evening dresses and thigh-skimming skirts, South Korean female celebrities - who exert such a powerful influence on young fans - can now be seen in clothes which are just as provocative and revealing as those worn by their western counterparts.

For ordinary South Korean women, a more-revealing-than-usual outfit might earn the occasional disapproving look from an older Korean, but it is unlikely to stir others to protest, and could, in fact, earn admiring glances.

Still, perhaps even today's South Korean sex sirens are learning that suggestion is more alluring than baring all. This certainly seems to be the case for one of South Korea's most celebrated pop artists, the diminutive 19-year-old BoA, who is preparing to release her fifth album. On the cover picture, she has abandoned her characteristic hot pants and tight tops and is shown in a specially designed, flowing, Korean national dress.

And it seems that the nudist beach is by no means a certainty. Similar proposals in the 1990s were shelved after public opinion was found to be overwhelmingly against the idea. Old traditions obviously die hard.