Trafficked Victims to Cultural Pioneers: Migrant Wives in South Korea
South Korea has a long association with cross-border marriage.
Until the 1980s, it was a source country in the international market for feminine care, with young Korean women marrying American military servicemen and migrating to the US. However, since the 1990s, it has become a destination country, with Korean men increasingly turning abroad in their search to find a spouse. The number of migrant wives has risen from a few thousand in the early 1990s to more than 287,000 in 2019, with foreign brides comprising up to 20 per cent of marriages in some rural areas. More than 70 per cent of migrant wives have come from China, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia.
Aside from Korea becoming a prosperous country, there are cultural factors that explain why large numbers of Korean men have looked abroad to find a wife. For men in rural areas marriage and fatherhood are a rite of passage and associated with male maturity. For mature bachelors failure to marry leads to a form of disabled manhood, as well as practical problems around caring for elderly parents in a patrilocal society. Patriarchal and Confucian cultural ties are strong in rural areas where sons are duty-bound to care for family farms and parents, with caregiving responsibilities delegated to the daughter-in-law. However, there is a structural shortage of young women in rural areas, because they have increasingly migrated to urban areas for better educational and career opportunities. In the late 1980s a series of suicides by older farmers who had complained about their inability to find a wife brought this issue into the national spotlight, with increasing media attention on the plight of ‘rural bachelors’. The difficulties with finding a wife are not just confined to farmers and fishermen, but rather a broader problem in Korea’s highly competitive marriage market affecting men of low-socioeconomic status, divorcees or with health conditions.
Why foreign marriage became a quick fix
Rather than address the cultural issues that have contributed to Korea’s record low birth and marriage rates, local and national governments have prioritised marriage migration as a quick and easy solution to complex structural problems. Since the 1990s local governments in rural areas have offered financial support to assist male residents with the costs of finding and marrying a foreign bride. National government support for female marriage migration has varied over time. Until the mid-2000s the national government had an ‘open door’ policy to female marriage immigration and no oversight of groups brokering international marriages. Unscrupulous commercial marriage brokers and cult-like religious groups took advantage of this system, which led to both Korean husbands and migrant brides feeling they had been tricked into marriage, resulting in high rates of divorce and domestic violence. Korean society’s sentiment shifted from welcoming migrant wives as ‘saviours of the countryside’ to broader concerns about ‘trafficked victims’ of domestic violence and ‘runaway brides’ taking advantage of naïve bachelors. The problems with marriage migration led to diplomatic tensions as source countries complained to the Korean government about the treatment of their nationals. The Philippines took steps to block Korean commercial marriage brokers while Cambodia and Vietnam even went as far as temporarily banning their citizens from marrying Korean men.
Since the mid-2000s the Korean national government has increasingly regulated female marriage migration and closed loopholes that allowed commercial firms and religious groups to act as matchmakers with little regard for the welfare of migrant wives. While in the past it was straightforward for a migrant bride to receive a visa without being able to speak any Korean and naturalise after two years of residence, today it is a far more complex and lengthy process. Since 2015 a Korean national wishing to sponsor a marriage immigrant visa must meet income, character and other requirements. If a migrant bride is from Cambodia, China, Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan or Vietnam, then prior to entering Korea they must also have a basic level of Korean proficiency and undertake courses that have been described as ‘how to be a perfect wife’ training. The selection of these countries is justified as based on female nationals from these countries having a high divorce rate, but there is limited evidence to justify their selection.
New services ignore rising domestic violence
The Korean government has also rapidly scaled up support services for migrant wives under the banner of multicultural family support. “Multicultural” has a narrow and exclusive definition in Korea, associated with the assimilation of female marriage migrants and mixed-race Korean children, while excluding male marriage migrants, migrant workers and refugees. Government spending on multicultural programs has ballooned from two billion won ($2.2 million) in 2005 to 123 billion won ($134 million) in 2014. This has led to resentment from many in Korean society and complaints of reverse discrimination as multicultural families have been supported better than other vulnerable groups, with 204 support centres for around 300,000 multicultural families, compared with 17 support centres for four million single-parent families.
Despite the government’s massive investment in multicultural family support and local government’s reliance on migrant wives to sustain their populations, mistreatment of migrant wives has remained a persistent problem. The statistics on domestic violence are alarming with high rates of migrant wives having suffered domestic violence and seeking refuge at shelters for victims. Even with tight regulations over who can marry a foreign bride, there are still cases of migrant wives being murdered by their spouse not long after marriage. Unsurprisingly the divorce rate among families with a marriage immigrant is higher than the general population, even though many migrant wives will persist with an unhappy marriage. This is because of difficulties navigating the legal process, maintaining residency and obtaining custody of children after separation with Korean courts favouring husbands in cases of child custody due to their Korean language skills.
The government’s response to high rates of domestic violence has been to focus on moulding migrant wives into devoted wives and carers. Multicultural support programs targeted at migrant wives prioritise maintaining the traditional Korean patrilocal and patriarchal family structure over women’s individual empowerment. Through immigration, education and welfare policies the Korean state attempts to define the identity and role of migrant wives as maternal caregivers devoted to their children, husbands and in-laws. Upon arrival, marriage migrant women are encouraged to attend Multicultural Family Support Centres (MFSCs) catering exclusively to migrant wives and their children, where education programs can last several years, and participation is linked to residency and naturalisation. By comparison, Korean husbands are only required to attend a four-hour class that has been criticised as racist and rationalises the mistreatment of migrant women.
One size doesn’t fit all
Rather than blaming victims and approaching the problem of mistreatment of migrant wives as a protection issue, what is needed is a paradigm shift in the way Korean governments and society approach migrant wives and multiculturalism. Instead of treating migrant wives and their husbands as a homogenous group with one-size-fits-all solutions, customised support should be provided to couples recognising the diversity of backgrounds and experiences. As an example, Filipino migrant wives are on average more educated than their Korean husbands, come from a culture where it is common for women to head households and have a desire to find work to fund remittances to family in the Philippines. They are unlikely to readily accept Korean forms of patriarchy and abandon ambitions of working. Instead, customised support that helped Filipino wives achieve their ambitions while helping husbands to understand Filipino cultural perspectives could be a more effective form of support than current programs solely targeted at migrant wives. One simple form of support could be bilingual mediation and couples counselling, reflecting that there is often a language barrier inhibiting communication between migrant wives and their Korean husbands and in-laws, which can accentuate cultural differences.
Greater support is needed for men who marry a foreigner. Extensive cross-cultural education prior to marriage should be mandatory for husbands so that they attain a good knowledge of their wives’ culture. After marriage husbands should be provided ongoing support in navigating their relationship and negotiating marital problems. Immigration and legal systems require reform as they overwhelmingly favour the husbands in cases of marital breakdown, leaving migrant wives fearful they could lose custody of children if they attempt to separate or divorce. This means some wives in abusive relationships are left with the stark choice of either enduring violence or fleeing to their origin country.
While it is well known that there are large segments of Korean society opposed to multiculturalism, it should also be acknowledged that migrant wives and their children are also uncomfortable with being labelled and stigmatised. The word multicultural (damunhwa) in Korea has connotations of poverty and racial hierarchy, with an emphasis placed solely on the assimilation of minority groups. Racial minorities in Korea also would like to see an overhaul of multiculturalism. What is urgently needed is changing society’s mindset that multiculturalism is a one-way street where minorities should adapt and greater acknowledgement of the harm done by generations of ethno-national education that have fostered the notion that race, nationality and culture are indivisible.
One of the country’s most pressing challenges is its ageing population and cultural norms that often mean the elderly are isolated, with an alarmingly high elderly poverty rate of 43 per cent. Cultural factors mean that there can be stigma and awkwardness attached to the elderly asking for help and for those who are not related providing care. Migrant wives are not inhibited by these cultural problems and could be mobilised to check-in and provide paid care for elderly Koreans at risk of social isolation and poverty, who may feel less inhibited in accepting assistance or being checked on by migrants.
Migrant wives and their children are at the forefront of changing the notion of what it means to be Korean in the 21st century. There are several examples of individuals who have broken through social barriers to be trailblazers in politics, entertainment and other fields. If government policy worked to shift rather than reinforce ethno-nationalist attitudes, greater space could be created for migrant wives and their children to recognise their full potential.
Stella Jang was a 2021 Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sydney.