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Keywords:

  • circumcision;
  • South Korea;
  • history;
  • phimosis

Objective To investigate the high circumcision rate in South Korea and its rapid increase in the short period since its introduction.

Subjects and methods From January to December 2000, 5434 South Korean males (or their parents) aged 0–92 years were interviewed in detail about their circumcision status, their age at circumcision, and the possible effect of circumcision on their sexuality. In addition, 267 practising medical doctors were surveyed about their basic understanding of circumcision and phimosis.

Results Currently the circumcision rate for high-school boys is > 90% and for those > 70 years old is < 10%. The circumcision rate in 1945 was < 0.1%. When averaged over the whole population, the present South Korean circumcision rate is ≈ 60%; the rate has increased dramatically with time and particularly in the past 20 years, when the estimated number of male circumcisions has exceeded the number of male births. Although circumcision in South Korea has been strongly influenced by American culture, it has never been predominantly neonatal. The age at circumcision has continued to decrease and boys are now circumcised at ≈ 12 years old. Of those who were circumcised long after they had been sexually active, > 80% reported no noticeable difference in sexuality, but a man was twice as likely to have experienced diminished sexuality than improved sexuality. Of the doctors who were surveyed, 41% carried out circumcision but, unlike in America, gynaecologists and paediatricians rarely did so. Among the doctors, basic knowledge on circumcision and phimosis was generally lacking, regardless of whether they practised circumcision or not. Amongst the factors contributing to the high circumcision rate was the mistaken notion held by both doctors and the general public that circumcision is directly correlated with industrialization and general progress of living standards. Many doctors believe the out-dated and sometimes controversial benefits of circumcision, i.e. prevention of cervical cancer and sexually transmitted diseases, and improved sexuality. Thus the vast majority of doctors recommend circumcision regardless of the patient's age. Peer pressure was also an important contributing factor.

Conclusion South Korea has an unusual history of circumcision. The mistaken and out-dated notions about circumcision and lack of knowledge of phimosis by physicians seem to be a leading contributory factor to the extraordinarily high circumcision rate.