Women in Danger: The Dark Side of International Marriage
Women in Danger: The Dark Side of International Marriage
  • Jung Kim Hyeseung
  • 승인 2019.09.01 13:29
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Mrs. A from Vietnam has lived in South Korea for nine years. She wakes up early in the morning and then gets her child up, who was born to a Korean husband. Mrs. A is a naturalized Korean citizen in Korea, but she still feels she is treated as a foreigner. She ignores the feelings and heads out to the grocery store to buy ingredients for the chicken rib dish her mother-in-law loves. Carrying out her errands for the day, she thinks of her mother and family in Vietnam. Her mother’s face disappears from her memory as she has not seen her more than three years. She longs to visit Vietnam to see her mother, but with that not a possibility, she starts to cook and set the table for her mother-in-law.



International marriage - Is it Romantic?

Since international marriage is the marriage of two people from different nations, it follows the laws of both countries. Marriages between Korean nationals and people moved from outside of Korea are referred to as marriage immigration. There are two types of international marriages: love and arranged marriages. The history of international marriage parallels the history of Korea opening up to the outside world. International marriages gradually increased from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, starting with marriages between Koreans and Japanese. After liberation from Japanese colonial rule and after the Korean War, the number of children born from international marriages and the number of multicultural families in Korea has risen significantly. Marriages and multicultural births were most frequent among foreign soldiers and Korean women who lived in base towns where US and UN soldiers lived. Children born in this era lived in a society that despised international marriages and multicultural families. However, nowadays, it is easy to encounter international couples and multicultural families in Korean society. International marriages became more common starting in the 1990s as a result of increased accessibility to foreign countries and international matchmaking companies. International matchmaking companies were successful because South Korea's multicultural family support law stipulates that it aims to "improve the quality of life and contribute to social integration by allowing multicultural family members to lead a stable family life and fulfill their roles and responsibilities as social members". However, in reality, the multicultural families are required to assimilate into the Korean culture. It was seen as a way of coping with the low birth rate in rural areas for women from overseas to marry Korean nationals.
The number of international marriages in South Korea is increasing every year. Because matchmaking businesses are still flourishing and the younger generation in Korea does not want to marry, international marriages in Korean society are inevitable. According to data by Statistics Korea, there were 20,591 international marriages in 2016, 20,835 in 2017, and 22,698 in 2018. The number of international marriages in 2018 is about 8.9% higher than the previous year, a big contrast to the rate of increase for domestic marriages in South Korea. In particular, the number of international marriages in 2018 accounted for about 8.8% of total marriages. That is, out of 100 marriages in Korea, about 8 or 9 of them are international marriages. These statistics show how international marriages have permeated our society a lot. In addition, marriages between Korean male nationals and non-Korean females account for 73.2% of total of international marriages. In other words, the most marriage migrants are women.



Women’s tears

As the number of married international women continues to rise in Korea, voices are growing for their rights as citizens. Married migrant women face difficulties adjusting to Korean life. First, immigrants have a hard time integrating into Korean way of life. According to a survey conducted by the National Statistical Office in January 2019, 14.1% of married migrant women said they did not feel any discomfort with life in Korea. 85.9% of married migrant women felt at least one inconvenience in Korea. Inconveniences included factors such as language communication, loneliness, and economic difficulties. As mentioned earlier, there is a strong perception in Korea that marriage migrant women should assimilate completely into Korean culture. Despite the fact that there should be respect for the person’s home nation and for being married in a different land, Korea only educates married persons for complete assimilation, and even that education is not offered frequently. Thus, married migrant women suffer hardships due to a lack of cultural respect and the restrictions placed on adapting to life in Korea.
The plight of married immigrant women needs to be looked at more closely. International marriages between Korean men and foreign women typically occur through called "marriage brokers". Generally, a Korean male who wishes to marry a foreign woman visits a foreign land to meet a local woman through the broker. After the meeting, the wedding is arranged with about one week’s time. Once this is arranged, the Korean client pays about 9,000-25,000 dollars to the marriage broker and the bride's family as dowry.1) Such practices have raised criticism towards international marriages because they are more like a business than a service and are thought of as "dealing marriages". This mode of marriage business also leads to the sexualization of women. For example, if someone search words such as 'International Marriage' or 'Vietnamese Women' on the Internet, one will easily find a huge number of posts on websites that contain women’s photos, ages, and their appearance. There is an inevitable power structure that will occur between the woman who is being commercialized and her newly married husband. Also, there could be physical and mental abuse by some male clients after marrying the foreign woman, which have been in spotlight lately.
Married immigrant women's nationality problems and their right to travel to their home nations are entirely at the discretion of the husbands and give the husbands the upper hand. This one-sided authoritative power that the marriage brokers promote is also seen as a violation of human rights for migrant women. For example, the SNS "Vietnamese Wife Assault" video showing an assault last July caused a big stir among people who viewed it. On the released video, the drunk husband brandished his fist and a soju bottle at his wife and two-year-old son. This case has been viewed by the public because of the video, but it is not an isolated incident. According to a survey by the National Human Rights Commission, 42.1% of married migrant women said they had experienced some form of domestic violence such as abuse, sexual humiliation, violence, and economic abuse. Kang Hyesook, head of the Daegu Migrant Women's Counseling Center, said, "International marriages are mostly done in a very short period of time, so there is very little time for the couple to build trust and many husbands use their power to obey their wives. It’s a ‘control tool' that ensures married migrant women life passively in Korea."2) As the example and Kang pointed out, married migrant women are often threatened and exposed to violence from their spouses.



To stop the crying

Although the number of international marriages and married migrants has increased, problems continue to arise. With the “Vietnamese Wife Assault" video, discussions are beginning to solve these problems. Adapting to Korea is essential for all married migrant women who have moved away from their homelands, leaving behind all their relatives. Local governments have started to help. For instance, the Korea Institute for Health and Family Promotion's "Multicultural Family Support Center" offers services such as counseling to ensure a more stable settlement of multicultural families and a healthy living. It also provides services for conflict management and communication, from translation services to language education. The government also supports education service policies for customized adaptation for multicultural families and migrant women and Korean language to help migrant women learn the language and culture. Even though welfare services are being offered for migrant women by various local governments in various areas such as Jinju, Iksan, and Daejeon, it is difficult to provide enough services for all migrant women due to the issue of supply and demand. There is a need to provide more support for female migrants to ease difficulties with living in Korea.
There is also call for reformation of the system to prevent more such problems from happening such as increases in international marriage brokers, violations against women's rights, domestic violence, sexualization, and the trafficking of migrant women. In 1998, the abolition of the existing law at the time led to free matchmaking. Since then, the number of domestic and international marriage brokers has steadily increased, and side effects have begun to appear over time. To address the side effects and prevent damage, the need for sanctions by the law is being discussed. Currently, the law mandates marriage brokers be educated experts and provide damage prevention education to the couple, but the law is very vague in terms of standards, raising concern regarding its effectiveness. In addition, training to become a broker is only four hours in total, which is not enough to claim professional expertise. "We need better and more standardized training for brokers, and we need a testing system to determine qualification as an international marriage broker, a test that focuses on business practices", said Professor Yeon Kiyoung of Dongguk University.3)With international marriages an increasing trend, the system needs an overhaule to improve the current situation.
To solve this problem, there is a need to improve the system, but there is also the need to get the involvement of private organizations. For instance, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and various private organizations have partnered to establish "healthy international marriage projects" to help married migrant women and reduce problems. Civilian organizations that join work with projects engage in educational activities that encourage healthy international marriages to prospective bridegrooms and their families preparing for international marriages. There are also groups working actively for migrant women. The Korea Center for Women's Human Rights is a private organization that supports migrant women as a single theme for migrant women. Jeon Kwanghee, a professor at Chungnam National University, said, "Nonprofit organizations should take the lead in solving problems from international marriages."4)​​​​​​​ The vigorous activities of private organizations are helping migrant women, along with government efforts, to improve the current situation.




How far we’ll go

The problems faced by people in international marriages in Korea have been increasing over time. Although many married migrants have already been victimized, Korean society is trying constantly to discuss ways to solve problems and help humanely. The Republic of Korea is a free democracy that guarantees the freedom, rights, and safety of all citizens. Married migrant women are now members of Korean society and as such must be guaranteed the same rights. Korean society continues to move forward in the regulation of protection for migrant women's freedom and human rights.


1)​​​​​​​ Seon Chorong, “Shadows of the Korean Dream”, Newspost, July 26, 2019

2) Seon Dameun, “”We Sell Foreign Brides” Why Can’t We Get Stop International Marriage Brokerages?”, The Hankyoreh, July 11, 2019

3) Yeon Kiyoung, “Consumer Damage to Intermarriage, Need to Be Readjusted”, Womennews, July 15, 2019

4) Jeon Kwanghee, “International Marriage Is a Problem, Not a Solution”, The Segye Times, October 3, 2012

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