Photos of foreign women posted online by an international marriage broker
After the recent assault of a woman from Vietnam by her South Korean husband in Yeongam, South Jeolla Province, put the spotlight on the human rights of women who move to South Korea to marry Korean men, human rights groups are asserting that international marriage brokers are one of the fundamental causes of the problem.
The South Korean government began to encourage international marriage with a program to find wives for single men in the countryside in the early 1990s, who were finding it increasingly difficult to find a spouse. International marriage brokers set up shop to bring women over from other countries, while some local governments created subsidies to help old bachelors get married, sometimes providing them with millions of won if they found a match. This government-led model for international marriage was modeled on the example of Japan, which had faced a similar issue in the 1980s. Japan tried to arrange marriages for the children of farmers by bringing in women from the Philippines.
But critics say that marriage brokers, who are inevitably most interested in their own bottom line, often cut corners in arranging marriages and sometimes falsified information about prospective beaus’ marriage history, occupational status, and health condition. Another criticism is that this constitutes “bride buying,” based on mutual need and money. According to a fact-finding survey of international marriage brokerage carried out by South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2017 (covering 1,010 South Korean users and 514 marriage migrants), the average length of time between the prospective partners’ first meeting and their actual marriage was just 4.4 days. 29.2% of respondents held their marriage the day after they met, while 20.9% waited until the next day. 2.5% of couples got married the very day they met.
This manner of match-making is behind the unequal relationships seen in South Korea. Some men engage in physical and emotional abuse, critics say, out of frustration that the woman they’d “spent all that money to buy” wouldn’t bend to their will.
“The mercenary nature of international marriages arranged by brokers makes it difficult for Korean men to regard their foreign spouses as being their equals, which contributes to emotional and physical abuse,” said Song Ran-hui, secretary-general for Korea Women’s Hot Line.
International marriage brokers are subject to the Act on Regulation of Marriage Brokerage Agencies, which took effect in 2007, just like South Korean companies that arrange marriages. This law requires brokers to comply with laws about arranging marriage in local jurisdictions and forbids advertisements that are suggestive of human trafficking or human rights violations. But the law inevitably is a far cry from regulations that are focused on protecting the human rights of female marriage rights.
How Taiwan has tackled issue of bride buying
Taiwan, along with South Korea, has been regarded as one of the major destinations of marriage migrants. In an effort to tackle the side effects of bride buying, Taiwan has cracked down on the commercial side of international marriage brokers. In December 2007, it revised its immigration legislation to ban for-profit brokerage of international marriages and only allow non-profit foundations to arrange international marriages, a policy that took effect in 2009.
“Since non-profits also have to keep an eye on their bottom line in order to cover payroll and overhead, international marriage brokerage hasn’t completely been abolished in Taiwan,” said Seol Dong-hun, a sociology professor at Chonbuk National University.
The total number of international marriage brokers in South Korea is on the decline. The number fell from 449 in 2014 to 403 in 2015, when the standards for issuing marriage visas were tightened, and then down to 362 in 2016. There was a slight uptick, to 366, in 2017.
“While the number of international marriages through brokers has been decreasing since 2014, we’re seeing more introductions through the network of marriage migrants who’ve come to South Korea over the past two decades. Agencies that handle paperwork for visa issuance are creating a new market for international marriage. The reason that South Korean society hasn’t regulated international marriage brokers reflects the tendency to regard women as a breeding tool in an era of low birthrates,” said Heo-Oh Yeong-suk, co-president of the Korea Women Migrants Human Rights Center.
By Seon Dam-eun, staff reporter
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