International Marriage in Korea
International marriage in Korea refers to a marriage between a Korean and a foreigner*. However, Korean society tends to narrow down the concept of international marriage to a marriage specifically between a Korean man and a foreign woman, of which the latter is “bought” by the Korean groom. This concept became prevalent during the 1990s when the Korean government introduced the “Marriage for Single Farmers” project to solve the decreasing marriage rates among Korean men in rural areas. Local governments in Incheon, Jeolla-do, and Gyeongsang-do provided subsidies ranging from \5 million to \10 million to incentivize local men to get married to foreign brides**. The government tasked international marriage brokers with “importing” foreign brides to the country. Consequently, as the demand for international marriage increased in the 1990s, the number of foreign brides and the industry of international marriage brokers and the number expanded as well***. According to Statistics Korea, by 2010, 16,152 Korean men got married to foreign women and 41.4% of Korean men in rural areas were engaged in an international marriage.
The buying and selling of brides
Starting in 2010, problems began to arise with international marriage: what was once considered a harmless alternative to marriage for single farmers started being perceived as means of profit. Businesses in international marriage began to implement standardized procedures in bride-buying, such as marriage trips and bride auctioning that Amnesty Korea criticized as a procedure that “treated foreign brides as commodities**.”
According to Daily News, international marriage brokers receive around \10 million from prospective grooms for every marriage trip they go on. Each trip lasts from 5 to 6 days where the Korean groom leaves to one of the Southeast Asian countries to find their bride. On the second day of the trip, the soon-to-be groom meets 20 possible candidates for his bride over four hours. The groom makes his final decision on the third day, and both the chosen bride and the groom get a variety of medical tests to ensure their health. The couple gets married on the fourth day and enjoy their honeymoon till day five. On the sixth day, the Korean husband comes back to Korea by himself, and gets ready to welcome his wife who will arrive a couple of weeks later.
International marriage brokers received heavy criticism from the public as their quick and pricey “marriage trips” commoditize the whole notion of marriage. Instead of matching a man and a woman for their joyous future together, these brokers regard the foreign brides as products that Korean men can pick and own. The Daily News illustrated that these supposed “matchmakers” essentially serve the brides on a platter to their Korean customers, disregarding the women’s rights to choose their own life-long partners.
The local governments’ subsidy policies for international marriage have also been severely attacked for fostering a bride-buying culture. On January 2019, over 30,000 people signed a national petition on the Blue House website that requested for the ban on providing funds to Korean men married to foreign brides. The petitioners claimed that the government should not use taxpayers’ money to support a “system that views women merely as a means to increase the low birth rate.” The petitioners deemed that it is wrong to commercialize foreign brides, as they are human beings who should be treated with decency, and that if the current system continues, “the concept of international marriage will become a disguise for sales of women.”
Prejudice and domestic violence
Maeil Business Newspaper pointed out an alarming consequence of the bride-buying culture becoming an indispensable concept in international marriage: a lot of Korean grooms do not view their wives as their loving partners, but as goods they have purchased for a cost of \10 million. Heo Oh-yeong-suk, the representative of Korean Women Migrants Human Rights Center, explained in The Hannkyoreh article that “this mindset drives the husbands to be oppressive to their wives as the husbands believe that the wives need to work and prove themselves to be worthy of the money the husbands had paid to get married.”
Statistics support Heo’s argument: as the trend for commoditizing foreign brides intensified, the number of domestic violence also increased in South Korea. Korea Statistics Agency showed that in 2014, there were 259 cases of foreign women reporting on domestic violence; however, this number significantly increased in 2017 when a total of 962 cases were reported. Shocking news of foreign brides’ accounts of death and injuries from their husbands’ beatings flood the news nowadays.
“A lot of foreign brides agree to international marriages without really knowing their husbands,” said an anonymous bride from the Philippines in an interview with The Yonsei Annals. The short time span of 3 days is not enough for two strangers to get to know one another and form a family. Essentially, foreign brides are shipped to Korea without any connections or family; all they have is their almost-stranger husbands in the foreign land of South Korea.
The bride explained to the Annals that a lot of foreign brides, including herself, become victims of domestic violence. “The husbands usually start by reminding us over and over again how we are worth all this money they paid to the marriage brokers,” she said. Then come the blackmails: “if we show any signs of escape, our husbands threaten to hurt us; they say that they can do anything to us because we are their ‘property’ that they rightfully bought.” She went on to explain that in her case, her ex-husband made her feel as if she was just a toy. Soon, her ex-husband’s threats became reality, and it seemed like he believed that “he could do anything to [her] because he ‘owned’ [her].”
She claimed that foreign brides come to Korea already knowing that their marriages are not going to be the fairytale marriages depicted in the media. “But none of us expected to be treated like child-bearing machines nor did we expect to be beaten up by our own husbands,” she said. The Filipino bride asserted that she was very lucky to have gotten out of her previous marriage. “I lucked out by getting a divorce from my ex-husband. But what about the hundreds of other women who are still scared in their own houses? How are they going to be saved?” she asked. “I really think that there is one way of improving the situation. Korean husbands need to stop viewing us, foreign brides, as goods and services—their mindsets must change.”
Future outlooks on international marriage
A wide array of solutions has been suggested to put an end to the bride-buying culture in international marriage. As diverse as these ideas are, all of these solutions share one common ground: foreign brides should not be seen as commodities. Since many perceive the international marriage brokers and the government to be responsible for commercializing international marriage, most of the solutions are targeted at them.
Since these brokers directly “sell” women to Korean grooms, the public demands the whole international marriage broker industry to be outlawed. The public has also asked the local governments to stop the subsidy program for international marriage. Many governments have agreed and have taken action, but there are still provinces in Jeollanam-do and Gyeongsangnam-do where Korean grooms receive subsidy for simply marrying a foreign bride****. Other solutions such as mandating a psychological examination for every Korean groom planning on international marriage have been implemented to rule out possible domestic assaults in the future.
The bride-buying culture will not be solved in a day: it has already been engrained into the modern day Korean society. However, with collaborative efforts from the government, the marriage brokers, and the Korean grooms to respect foreign brides and not commercialize the institution of marriage, the tainted concept of international marriage along with domestic violence involved will be redeemed. Only then will the foreign brides be able to feel at home in their new country, South Korea.
*Korean Marriage Law Article 2 Clause 1
****Dong A Ilbo