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.

2 Responses to “Vietnam, South Korea and the Marriage Industry”

  1. 1 yewon February 23, 2007 at 2:02 am

    I read this article, too, and it was still shocking to me even though I’ve heard about this before-especially the details about how men get to pick a bride out of dozens of women in less than two hours as it’s some kind of a date auction.
    But I think the author of this article seemed to generalize this phenomenon as a nationwide problem, whereas it is mostly the case in rural areas of Korea. In fact, there are more women than men in cities including Seoul, I believe.
    Out of all the factors, the main reason for lack of women in Korea suburbs is becasue many women in rural areas left their hometowns, headed to cities looking for jobs, opportunities, men and many more. I’m sure they would have similar dreams as the Vietnamese women came to Korea with hope for a better life.
    There have been many incidents in the past and issues raised about foreign brides in Korea were abused by husbands and his family members or at work by employers.
    So this is definitely not just a regional problem in Korea, but international one between Korea and other Southeast Asia countries including Vietnam. It is also an ongoing problem in China and other East Asian countries as well.

  2. 2 enriched February 28, 2007 at 11:48 am

    This problem is not confined to Korea. Singaporean men are doing the same too, choosing Vietnamese brides over the locals. Its not an Asian thing either, otherwise Russian brides won’t be so popular in some western countries.

    I believe it goes back to the basics. Women in lesser developed countries have lower education, have less earning potential and ultimately have lower expectations in their spouses than educated and/or higher income earning women. These groups of men (who prefer foreign brides from lesser developed countries than their own) have less pressure to financially provide and emotionally please their wives and are able to dominate their wives (which would be near impossible if they chose to marry the better educated & wealthier local women).

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