SEOUL – South Korea imposed new restrictions on mixed marriages this month, but critics say the authorities would do better to focus on supporting foreign spouses who struggle to assimilate in one of Asia’s most ethnically homogenous societies.
An influx of foreign brides — overwhelmingly from other Asian countries — began in earnest in 2000 and peaked in 2005 when more than 30,000 were given resident-through-marriage visas.
The trend was triggered by the large numbers of young, rural women leaving to find work and a new life in Seoul and other South Korean cities, leaving behind male-dominated communities with not enough potential wives to go around.
Since 2000, 236,000 foreign women have settled in South Korea through marriage, giving birth to about 190,000 children, according to data compiled by state-run Statistics Korea.
More than 80 percent came from China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand and Mongolia — essentially “mail-ordered” through matchmaking brokers, albeit with a few days of mandatory “dating” in the woman’s country.
At first, South Korea did nothing to restrict the role of the marriage brokers, believing they were fulfilling a useful service in helping to improve a radically declining birth rate and labour force in the countryside.
By 2010, however, there were increasing reports of young foreign wives being beaten and in some cases even murdered, including a 20-year-old Vietnamese stabbed to death by her mentally disturbed husband a week after she arrived.
The same year, a law was introduced providing two-year jail terms for any broker shown to have provided false information about potential spouses, or introduced more than two women to one man at the same time.
The legislation had an immediate impact, with the number of broking agents plunging from 1,697 in 2011 to 512 at the end of 2013.
The latest regulations, effective as of April 1, require those applying for a resident-through-marriage visa to pass a language proficiency test, and for Korean partners to show an annual income in excess of 14.8 million won ($14,000).
Officials say this tackles the two main causes of marital strife among mixed-marriage couples — inability to communicate and low income.
“Strong state intervention is inevitable to stop ineligible people from buying foreign brides,” a Justice Ministry official said. “This is a diplomatic issue related to our national image.”
But marriage brokers argue that the new rules will only serve to raise the costs of finding a foreign bride by reducing the pool of potential matches.
The current cost, including broking commission, admin fees, hotel, travel and other expenses, averages around 10 million won ($10,000) and the brokers say that could increase by as much as 50 percent.
“The new law doesn’t reflect reality,” said Cho Sou-Yong, a broker in Uijeongbu north of Seoul.
Most Asian brides come from poor rural families and Cho said the language requirement would require them to move to a city to take classes for several months — at their new husband’s expense.
“The new regulations also require an additional load of notarized documentation, which will also cost the Korean partner,” he added.
A couple must already be married for the woman to apply for a resident visa.
Cho insisted that the instances of abuse highlighted in the media were largely a thing of the past, and that professional brokers were much more “sincere” in finding genuine matches for a “trouble-free marital life.”
The challenges facing a foreign bride in South Korea go beyond practical issues of language and income and include a lingering societal antipathy to mixed-race marriages.
A recent survey by the private Asan Institute for Policy Studies found that 32 percent of Koreans saw mixed-race families as a threat to social cohesion.
The government has made efforts to help foreign brides integrate, and the state budget for supporting “multi-cultural families” — with job training and language courses — currently stands at around 123.2 billion won.
But researchers and social workers say that more support is needed, rather than bureaucratic regulation that can increase the stress on couples already struggling with a variety of pressures.
“Excessive state intervention is an infringement of privacy and causes other problems,” said Cho Young-Hee at the Seoul-based research centre of the International Organisation for Migration.
Han Kuk-Yom, head of the Women Migrants Human Rights Centre, said priority should be given to protecting foreign wives from the still pervasive threat of domestic violence.
“Nearly half of foreign wives have experienced violent treatment by their husbands,” Han said.
Social workers say many cases go unreported because the wives feel intimidated about approaching the police in a new country where they have little or no support network.
And Han noted that others were deterred by regulations stating that foreign wives who get divorced before acquiring citizenship — which takes two years — become illegal residents and must return home, leaving any children behind.
The private Korea Women’s Development Institute found in a 2012 survey that four out of 10 mixed-race marriages break down within the first five years.
Some 48 percent blamed irreconcilable differences, while 21 percent cited low income levels.