Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Syphilis probably came to Korea from China between 1506 and 1521, and by the seventeenth century had spread among all classes of people throughout the country. Venereal diseases were known in the Orient long before syphilis spread throughout the world. Korean texts contain descriptions of such diseases, but the venereal diseases described in the older texts were not associated with skin lesions; their main symptoms were increased frequency and urgency of urination. Other symptoms were rather ambiguous. However, references to a disease allegedly occurring only in males, involving the "bad nature of eruptions on the genitals related to consorting with women," found in the Yijo Sillok probably indicate syphilis.

Japan and the continent were the two possible routes for the transmission of syphilis to Korea.

Yet trade between foreign countries and the peninsula during the first half of the sixteenth century was rather limited, especially with Japan. In fact, the only contacts with the Japanese during this period would have been invasions by those marauders who had been attacking the Korean coast since the thirteenth century. Thus, the possibility that syphilis could have been brought from Japan to Korea cannot be absolutely ruled out, but it is more likely that the primary route was from the continent, for trade between Korea and Ming China occurred many times per year through special emissaries, including numerous officials and merchants. Moreover, the first Korean medical texts to discuss the new disease suggest that syphilis came from China.

At the time, it was thought that the immoral and illegal use of medicines made of human flesh and gallbladder were linked to the arrival of syphilis in Korea. Thus, the following was reported in February 1566:

There were many people in Seoul who killed people to take the gallbladder and this was said to be for the use of very promiscuous people. Many beggars disappeared from the street. After several years there were no longer any beggars and the killers turned to child murder. Officials and other people who consorted with prostitutes got the disease. They tried to cure it with human gallbladder and used up all the beggars. (Miki 1962, author's translation)

Whatever the authenticity of this story, it reflects the desperation of the sick and their willingness to resort to murder as well as superstition to procure remedies for their ailments. The exact origin of this aberration is unknown, but throughout the world there are many accounts of the use of human blood and organs against diseases such as leprosy, syphilis, and tuberculosis; Korean and Chinese pharmacopoeias included a wide range of human parts and products under the general category "human medicine" (Cooper and Sivin 1973).

The Hyangyak chipsong pang refers to eight kinds of gonorrhea, and the descriptions are quite detailed. The Tongui pogam also describes various symptoms of the eight different kinds of gonorrhea. Although the relationship between the disease and sexual intercourse was apparently recognized, the contagious nature of disease does not seem to have been understood.

The writings of the Yi Dynasty suggest the existence of chancroid, but it is difficult to separate this ancient venereal disease from gonorrhea and syphilis.

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