People tend to think that dress codes are only officially instituted in high schools, but in South Korea, that may no longer be the case. On March 22, a new “overexposure law” was implemented, stating that “anyone who shows their bare skin excessively in a public place or exposes parts of the body that should remain covered and gives feelings of embarrassment or discomfort to other people” will be fined ₩50,000 (about $45).
This new law has ignited tremendous controversy, with people voicing fears about miniskirt and shorts length being regulated; Korean singer Lee Hyori, who is considered to be a kind of sex symbol, tweeted “Is the overexposure fine for real? I’m so dead.” Another artist and media figure Nancy Lang posted a photo of her holding ₩50,000 next to her cleavage in protest.
The new overexposure law is reminiscent of laws implemented in the 1970s during the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, where women were not allowed to wear skirts shorter than a government-approved length and men could not wear their hair long, often being grabbed by policemen in the street who proceeded to shave their heads. Considering the new South Korean leader is his daughter, Park Geun-hye, these fears of excessive regulation are rooted in legitimate concerns of a future dictator.
Although South Korean citizens’ reactions have focused on clothing considered to be too sexy, the government insists that this is not the subject of the law. Police have said the law is meant to curb indecent exposure; Inspector Ko Jun-ho of the National Police Agency said that, “This amendment is for cases like public nudity and public indecency. Any reports that we will be regulating what people are wearing are completely false.”
Even if this is true, there are still several problems with the law: the wording is vague, meaning that the word “excessively” is up for interpretation by individual police officers, which can and may lead to an abuse of power. Another problem is that there is any regulation of clothing at all; what one wears is as much a part of free speech as staging a protest, because it is a personal choice and often tells people about you. Restricting this freedom is wrong not because people will have to regulate what they wear, but because their freedom in general is being restricted. Overexposure laws are legitimate when they address public nudity or exposure of private areas, so as long as South Korean government officials follow only what they say the law specifically addresses, then the criminality of it is eliminated. Otherwise, the government will become oppressive, and distrust for it among its citizens will skyrocket.