Until the 1990s, South Korea was almost completely ethnically homogenous. This is no longer the case. As of 2015, there were more than 1.7 million foreign born immigrants residing in South Korea, accounting for 3.4% of the population. Only 9.1% of them were South Korean citizens. This number has increased three-fold since 2006 (0.54 million).
While many people come to South Korea for work or education, others are so-called "marriage-immigrants" who gained residence through marriage to South Koreans. As of 2015, 304,516 marriage immigrants in 278,036 "multicultural families" were residing in South Korea, constituting around 20% of foreigners living in South Korea. While international marriages accounted for only 1.2 percent of all the marriages celebrated in Korea in 1990 and 3.5 percent in 2000, the percentage reached 11.2 percent in 2004 and has stayed around 10 percent. Interestingly, 81.5% of marriage immigrants are women.
How do they meet each other? 20% of the marriage immigrants said they met their spouses through international marriage brokers. Although more couples are meeting each other through friends and families in the recent years (consider the fact that almost 50% of international marriages in 2005 were through the brokers), international marriage brokers aren’t going anywhere.
As of 2015, 79.9% of the marriage immigrants were in their 20s to 40s, whereas 70% of their spouses were over 40. According to a 2008 study that researched 177 international marriages celebrated in Seoul for four months, there was 20-year age gap between South Korean husbands and foreigner wives.
As of 2012, almost 60% of the female marriage immigrants were employed, much higher than that of South Korean women (49.9%). Nevertheless, 73.3% of the multicultural families had less than the median household income (KRW 36,000,000). More than 33% of the marriage immigrants picked economic predicament as the major difficulty living in South Korea.
More than 40% of them reported experiences of social discrimination, and more than 60% of them reported difficulties at workplace. 20 to 30% of them said they didn’t have anybody to talk about their difficulties, and almost 40% of them said they did not have anybody to enjoy recreational acts or hobbies.
In 2009 almost a fifth of children from multicultural households who should have been in school were not. The children had less conversation with their parents, watched more TV, studied less, and made it to college less frequently, than average Korean kids. In a 2012 survey, 13.8% of the children answered that they experienced some sort of discrimination outside the family. 9% of the children answered that they experienced violence at school. 22.5% of the children over 15 years old neither went to school nor worked.
Communication difficulties and cultural differences often cause conflicts. Verbal and physical abuse by husbands and in-laws is not unusual. Extreme violence and even murder by husbands appear in the media every few years and are soon forgotten. 10 percent of the entire divorces in South Korea and 20% of the divorce cases in courts are international marriage. In the Seoul Family Court, more than 40% of the divorce cases are international marriages.
Sometimes "collective weddings" are officiated by local governments because many multicultural families don't have a chance for a real wedding.
Kang Yong-Suk, a lawyer and politician, argued in a major T.V. program that lower-class men wouldn’t have had to bring brides from South East Asia if South Korea didn’t criminalize prostitution so strictly (opposing the current anti-prostitution law). He further added that the kids from such marriages "cannot speak Korean fluently because their moms don’t" and "it’s a huge issue how to administer increasing such kids." He is a HLS alum, LL.M. '02.
Jasmine Lee, the first migrant woman to serve as a member of the National Assembly from 2012 to 2016, heavily criticized Kang for calling "international marriages and multicultural families problematic" and for holding a "discriminatory view against members of multicultural families." Born in the Philippines and married to a South Korean husband (now deceased), she lived more years in South Korea than in the Philippines. Despite this, she had to endure a multitude of vicious, fake rumors and discriminatory criticism which usually started online and was later reproduced by the media.
There are two conflicting views of the marriages of marriage-immigrants in general. One extreme is to romanticize these marriages as altruistic and idealistic ones, between two crude yet innocent people. The other extreme is to view these marriages as almost human trafficking, forcing poor women to become victims of marital rape and domestic violence.
I do not argue that elements of human trafficking exist in the practice of international marriage brokers, as I briefly mentioned on the home page. This should be dealt with! However, I believe that condemning all of these marriages as human trafficking neither correctly reflects reality nor is helpful for finding a better policy intervention. The brokers’ practices, as well as their users, are changing and diversifying. Marriage immigrants who aren’t using the brokers are also increasing.
The reality lies somewhere in between. It is true that murder cases of migrant women by their husbands appear every year. See this article for the sad story of Do Thi My Tien, a Vietnamese woman murdered by her South Korean husband who was 20 years her senior. It is true that many women felt direct or indirect pressure from their family to enter into these situations.
But it is also true that many women have actively chosen to move to South Korea for better opportunities. Some multicultural families are successfully finding ways to meet the family members’ needs, grow their dreams, and nurture love.
2005 comedy film "Wedding Campaign" depicts the rural men who travel to Uzbekistan to find brides as naïve and warm-hearted.
I do recognize the criticism of the term "mail-order bride." In fact, in Korea the term gyulhon iju yeoseong (female marriage immigrants) is used. The reason I intentionally use the term "mail-order bride" is, as Marcia A. Zug wrote, "rather than shying away from the association with female commodification," to directly "confront it." See her book "Buying a Bride" if you’re interested in the history and feminist-critique of mail-order marriages in the U.S. context.