Korean Circumcision Rising, in Emulation of West

News  Reuters Health. Monday, 21 January 2002.

Merritt McKinney

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The mistaken belief that circumcision is the norm in most industrialized nations and other misconceptions about the procedure may help explain why South Korea has a much higher circumcision rate than neighboring countries, researchers report.

South Korea, like other countries with strong Buddhist and Confucian traditions, does not have a history of regular circumcision, according to Drs. DaiSik Kim and M. G. Pang of  External link Seoul National University. But unlike its Asian neighbors, South Korea has had a steadily increasing circumcision rate since the end of World War II, Kim and Pang report in the January issue of the British Journal of Urology International.

In 2000, Kim and Pang interviewed more than 5,000 South Korean males or their parents about circumcision. They also talked with 267 physicians.

Based on the survey, the researchers calculate that in 1945 the circumcision rate was less than 0.1% in what is now South Korea. The 2000 rate, according to the researchers, is roughly 60%.

As the Asian nation's circumcision rate has risen, the average age at circumcision has dropped, according to the researchers. For middle-aged men in the survey, the average age at circumcision was about 27. But most South Korean boys are circumcised when they are about 12 years old, according to Kim and Pang.

Circumcision has become a rite of passage into manhood for South Korean boys, Kim told Reuters Health.

In the last 20 years, the estimated number of circumcisions per year far exceeded the number of male births, Kim said. He explained that it is not unusual for older, uncircumcised male relatives to undergo circumcision when a boy gets circumcised.

Although the circumcision rate rose dramatically during a period when the US had a major influence on South Korea, no American doctors publicly recommended it, according to Kim.

What Kim and Pang found in their survey, though, is that many South Korean physicians have mistaken beliefs about the procedure.

In South Korea, circumcision has been equated with development and industrialization, Kim said. After coming in contact with the US Army, South Koreans, including doctors, wrongly assumed that all white males are circumcised, he said.

More than half of the doctors polled believed that Scandinavia has a circumcision rate of more than 50%. In fact, according to the researchers, the actual rate is 1% to 2%. In another sign that circumcision may be connected with modernization in the minds of South Koreans, the majority of doctors also believed, mistakenly, that circumcision is routine in Japan.

In contrast, none of the doctors believed that less developed North Korea has a mass circumcision program.

It is clear that most South Korean doctors believe in the strong correlation between economic prosperity, medical advance and circumcision, Kim and Pang state in their report.

Many doctors also believed that circumcision can reduce the risk of cervical cancer in a man's sexual partner, which is an outdated notion, according to the researchers.

SOURCE: British Journal of Urology International 2002;89:48-54.

CIRP logo Note:

See Male circumcision: a South Korean perspective for an earlier report on male circumcision in South Korea.
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