Foreign wives stir Korean melting pot
By Andrei Lankov
Last summer, I visited Buyo county, which lies in the heart of an agricultural,
less-developed and deeply traditional part of South Korea's southwest. Not far
from the bus terminal, a large poster attracted my attention. It stated:
"Vietnamese girls, those who never run away."
Not far away, there was another poster that made another bold - but, perhaps
not completely unfounded - generalization about the Vietnamese: "Vietnamese
daughters-in-law are really kind!" The presence of these posters was not
unusual - Vietnamese girls constitute a large number of new brides in the area,
and international introduction agencies seems to be present at every major
crossroads in this part of Korea.
Indeed, in recent years South Korean public mood has undergone
a major change where marriage with foreigners is concerned. When in the early
1990s the present author published a book on daily life in Korea, he stated
with a measure of confidence, "as a rule, Koreans do not approve of marriage
This might sound like a generalization, but back then, some 20 years ago,
public opinion polls supported such a statement, stating that South Koreans
were remarkably less willing to marry their children to foreigners than, say,
Hong Kong Chinese or Japanese. When in the 1990s a gender imbalance caused by
sex-selective abortions was much discussed, one of the oft-repeated scares was
that Korean males would have no choice but to marry foreigners.
Had anybody told me some 20 years ago that soon Korea would become one of the
world's leaders when it came to international marriages, I would probably laugh
at such a ridiculous idea. But this is exactly what began to happen around
Only one type of international marriages had been quite common in Korea,
beginning in the late 1940s - marriages between South Korean girls and American
soldiers. No exact statistics are available, but the number of such marriages
over the last half a century may have reached 100,000. In most cases, though,
Korean spouses of the American soldiers came from underprivileged social groups
and were more or less despised (or, perhaps, pitied) by mainstream society.
Syngman Rhee, the first South Korea president, might have had a "foreign wife"
(Korea's first First lady was an Austrian-born American), but in general Korean
males seldom married non-Koreans until very recently.
Though the changes only began two decades ago, as is usually is the case in
Korea, those changes were fast indeed. In 2000, a foreigner was involved in
3.5% of newly registered marriages, and in 2005 the share of such
"international marriages" reached the impressive 13.5%. In the subsequent years
the ratio went down slightly, but was quite steady, so in 2009 some 10.9% of
all marriages (33,300 cases) were concluded with foreigners. It is the Korean
male who usually take a foreign spouse these days - in 2009, 75.5% of all newly
registered mixed marriages had a Korean groom and a foreign bride.
From the first glance at the marriage statistics, the nature of these unions
becomes clear; this is essentially one of the largest mail-order-bride
operations the world has ever seen. The Korean farmers, largely from the less
developed parts of the country, marry young women from Asian countries.
In 2009, about a third of all brides in newly registered mixed marriages
(34.1%, to be exact) came from China. Vietnam was the second largest bride
exporter, with 21.8% of all brides. China and Vietnam were followed by Cambodia
and the Philippines, but also by Japan (even though the nature of 1,140
marriages between Japanese women and Korean men must be different).
This explosive growth was brought about by the demographic changes in the
Korean countryside, such as a flight of marriageable young women to the cities.
From the 1980s local women left their native villages in droves, while men who
were expected to take care of the family farms and had no choice but to stay.
For a while, there were attempts to solve the problems with public awareness
campaigns - I still remember how in the mid-1990s Seoul subway carriages had
billboards encouraging Korean girls to marry farmers.
Korean girls were decisively reluctant to move back to the countryside. So,
foreign brides were "discovered", and nowadays the share of mixed marriages in
the countryside is astonishing. For example, in Southern Cholla province, 43.5%
of all farmers who married in 2009 took a foreign bride.
Not surprisingly, the foreign wives tend to be much younger than their Korean
husbands - a usual situation with mail-order brides worldwide. A 2009,
large-scale research of the mixed families indicated than on the average wife
was 8.3 years younger. However, this research dealt with all existing mixed
marriages, including those with a Korean wife, so for foreign wives from some
countries the difference could be much greater, for Cambodia, the average age
difference reached 17.5 years, and in the case of Korean-Vietnamese marriages
the average age difference is 17 years.
Some exceptions exist, to be sure, but in most cases such marriage is a
business deal, pure and simple, which both sides hold as advantageous. A Korean
farmer finally gets a wife (presumably, youthful, hard-working and obedient),
while a girl from the less developed parts of poorer nations gets a material
life far better than she can realistically hope for in her home village. For
young women from many countries even a poor Korean farm house is a paradise: it
has running water, electricity, a TV set and fridge - all still luxuries in
many parts of rural China and Vietnam.
In most cases, the marriages are arranged by brokers or agencies - a large and
booming business nowadays. The brokers describe South Korea as an earthly
paradise. The popularity of Korean soaps reinforces this image, so girls tend
to have a rosy picture of the country where they will go. TV dramas usually
depict the life of the rather privileged middle class families, not the farmers
whom they are most likely to marry.
The brokers arrange for the wife-hunting farmers to come to Vietnam or China,
where they are introduced to a number of potential marriage candidates. Then
the choice is made and paperwork begins, so in few months, a new bride emerges
from a plane.
Thanh Ha Minh, a post-graduate at the Seoul National University, conducted a
large study of the Vietnamese wives in Korea. In the survey, the four most
frequently cited major reasons for taking the decision to marry were, "economic
reasons", "parental pressure", "dreams about Korea", "impact of the 'Korean
wave' in pop culture".
For the foreigner-marrying Korean men, whom Thanh Ha Minh surveyed, the reasons
cited were different: "the disdain Korean women feel towards husbands who are
not economically successful", "dislike of Korean women", "the similarities
between Vietnamese and Koreans in appearance" (obviously, an assumption that
neither woman nor their children would stand out in a crowd).
Taking into consideration such a background, one cannot be surprised that these
marriages are often criticized in Korean media. Nonetheless, a more balanced
view on these unions should be, perhaps, more sanguine.
Most of those marriages are driven by pragmatic considerations, but we should
not forget that the same is applicable to a majority of marriages throughout
the world. The idea of love as the sole legitimate reason for getting married
is very recent (maybe, a century or so old), and so far it has prevailed only
in the more affluent parts of the globe. A modern consciousness feels
uncomfortable about the idea of a young woman going to an unknown place to live
with a man whom she has never seen before, on the assumption that this would
secure her livelihood, but this is a pretty correct description of, say, 90% of
marriages concluded before 1900.
It would be naive to think that the life of our ancestors was devoid of
domestic bliss - evidence shows that often the opposite was true. If people are
good, and caring, and decent human beings, they might and usually do become a
perfect couple, whichever were the initial reasons behind their marriages.
The Korean press often runs horror stories of gross domestic abuse suffered by
the foreign wives. Indeed, the girls - poorly educated and with limited command
of Korean - are easy victims. Abuse does happen, to be sure and one should
welcome the position of the Korean media, which is quite sympathetic to their
However, one should remember that the bad news usually gets to newspapers more
readily. A look at the statistics reveals a much more optimistic picture. In
2009, during a nationwide study of mixed marriages, over half of all foreign
wives (57%) said life in Korea was "satisfactory" or "very satisfactory" - and
36.3% described it as "normal". Only 6.7% saw their lives in Korea as
"unsatisfactory" or "very unsatisfactory", and this is clear a sign of
international marriages being more successful than many people assume.
Another sign of success - perhaps, more powerful than all poll results - is the
constant inflow of the new marriage migrants, usually coming from the same
areas, same towns and villages as earlier "foreign brides". They and their
parents have enough experience by now they get plentiful information from those
who moved to Korea earlier, so these girls and their families - or, at lease, a
majority of them - know what they are doing.
But one thing is clear: Korea is not a mono-ethnic country any more - or rather
it is losing this peculiarity at an amazing speed. In a few decades many
thousands of people of various ethnic backgrounds will be seen on Seoul's
streets. The ethnic "purity", long a topic of self-congratulatory speeches of
the Korean nationalists, is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul,
and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacifica and Asian
Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea.
He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.