Archive for February 22nd, 2007

Vietnam, South Korea and the Marriage Industry

More South Korean men are hopping over to Vietnam as a last resort to find wives, according to a New York Times article that ran today. The arrangement seems rather crude – marriage brokers bring a few bachelors to a room under the cover of night (though the practice is apparently legal), where a group of young, single Vietnamese women wait and answer questions. Then the men decide, choosing their life partners within a couple of hours.

These women aren’t totally without agency; in the case followed by NYT reporter Norimitsu Onishi, one woman turned down a South Korean man’s request for marriage. Another asked whether her suitor promised to love her and take care of her – things one would normally consider in deciding whether to marry. But the whole arrangement seems to be based on the idea of a kind of traded service – the men, who for one reason or another are unable to find Korean wives, find a partner, and women in poorer areas of Vietnam with little opportunities are given the chance to live in a more developed nation.

This situation brings out a whole slew of ethical questions – the biggest of which is, “Are women in less developed countries becoming a commodity?” While there’s no way to objectively judge the quality of a relationship between two people, there are other keys that might point to an answer. The Korea Times ran an article back in 2006 about ads used by marriage agencies to “sell” Vietnamese women:

The marriage agency has a banner hanging on the side of its building that reads “Vietnam Ladies for Marriage,’’ and often sprays leaflets on the streets below riddled with words such as “Vietnam Ladies, Satisfaction Guaranteed,’’ “Vietnam Ladies for Remarriage, Farmers and Disabled People’’ and “Vietnam Girls Don’t Run Away,’’ among other lines.

There’s no debating that such language objectifies and dehumanizes these women to a shocking degree, and there have been reactions against those kinds of perceptions. But other aspects of this practice are problematic as well – according to the New York Times article, age gaps between spouses can exceed 20 years or more, and often the previous perceptions that these married-off women have of their new home are based upon television portrayals. One has to wonder if these women are really going to be happy.

But perhaps the biggest question is, why are these men seeking brides outside of their own country at all? Onishi explains that the introduction of pregnancy screening to South Korea has resulted in a disproportianate number of males (implying that female fetuses have been aborted, a problem that has been seen with China’s one-child law). Onishi also explains a more social reason for this phenomenon:

What is more, South Korea’s growing wealth has increased women’s educational and employment opportunities, even as it has led to rising divorce rates and plummeting birthrates.

So what’s happening here? Are educated women becoming picky or disinterested in marriage? Or is the educated South Korean female (perhaps more independent?) falling out of favor with South Korean men? Onishi points out that as the nations where these brides are coming from develop, young women will have less incentive to leave through arranged marriages. Perhaps there needs to be a clearer dialogue about gender in South Korea, or there’s soon going to be a lot of lonely men.

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