Changing Attitude Toward Sex Threatens South Korea

In South Korea, conservative mores discourage frank discussion about sex and some people say promiscuity and adultery are less common than in other Asian countries. Many health experts say society's renunciation of promiscuity is a major reason why South Korea's 50 million inhabitants have one of the lowest HIV infection rates in Asia. UNAIDS says there were only 4,000 cases, or .01 percent of the 15-to-49 age bracket, at the end of 2001.

However, some recent surveys show that 17 percent of high school students are sexually active. Men account for nearly 89 percent of Koreans with HIV, official statistics show. Most are in their 30s (35.2 percent) and 20s (27.1 percent). About 94 percent of all South Koreans with HIV contracted it sexually, 67 percent from heterosexual intercourse and 30 percent from homosexual intercourse, according to Korea's National Institute of Health. Very few contracted HIV through dirty needles. In 2002, South Korea recorded 400 new HIV cases, compared to 124 in 1997. And by 1993, the majority of new infections were passed from Korean to Korean.

The sex industry in South Korea is big business, accounting for $20 billion, or 4.1 percent of the nation's gross domestic product in 2002, according to the Korean Institute of Criminology. To control prostitution, government officials are considering legalizing it.

Korea's National Institute of Health plans to install 18,000 condom vending machines at major nightspots throughout the country and at "every possible location we can," said Kwon Jun Wook, an NIH official. The government now also offers a Web site with AIDS information, a 24-hour hotline and free HIV tests. A government campaign encourages middle school and high school teachers to lead candid discussions with their students about the consequences of unprotected sex. Starting in middle school, students are taught about abstinence and safe sex practices.

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