The Business of Buying a Bride

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This article appeared on the cover of Groove Korea, November 2013. Illustration by James Kim. View Magazine here.

Kang Soo-mal-ri admitted that when she first arrived in Korea from Cambodia in 2007, she was scared. After a brief introduction by a family member three months earlier, she made the decision to accept the marriage proposal put forward by Cho Won-jeun, a custodian from Seoul, and to begin a new life with him in Bucheon, a city west of the capital.

Cho, 44 at the time, was approached by his cousin, who asked if he would like to meet with his Cambodian wife’s niece. Going on nothing but a photograph of Kang that he describes as “beautiful,” he made the journey to the southern province of Prey Veng, an agricultural region bordered by Vietnam, to meet his future wife and her family.

“I probably didn’t look that promising of a candidate,” Cho recalled. “I have two sons from a previous marriage, I’m divorced and I have my mother. I was very honest and forward and just said, ‘I want to find someone to be happy with. Is that okay with you?’”

Kang, 37 and seven years Cho’s junior, said she found the situation daunting and only had a “vague image” of what life in Korea would be like. “I was pretty scared to be honest. I didn’t know anything about Korea, except from what I saw in their dramas in Cambodia. I didn’t even know where Korea was.”

With this idealized view of a new life and a suitor who admitted that he “wasn’t the best catch,” she discussed his proposal with her family and agreed to the marriage. After her aunt’s approval, Cho bowed in gratitude, left her with money to prepare for her journey and returned to Korea.

In the three months that followed, Cho began making arrangements for his wife’s arrival, buying everything from bras to maxi pads to give her a comfortable start. He was also left with the complicated task of making the marriage official. In order to help with the considerable paperwork required for international marriages, Cho sought assistance from an international marriage broker. Traditionally these brokers, also referred to as international marriage agencies, facilitate men in finding a spouse before dealing with the documentation to legalize it. Although Cho only required support with the certification of the marriage, he ended up paying 20 million won ($18,000) – equivalent to what other agencies charge for their full service.

“The agencies take care of everything in terms of documents, but they just keep asking for money and you have to give it to them, or the marriage won’t be official,” said Cho. He explained that he was under the impression that the “massive fee” the agency requested up front included the money he would give to his wife’s family, a traditional gift in many Southeast Asian countries. However, when it came to passing the gift on to the family, he was told that he would have to deal with it himself.

The financial tug-of-war came to a head when Cho joined forces with others who had similar experiences to have the agency shut down for tax evasion. In Cho’s view, financial manipulation is “standard procedure” with the agencies. “It was just another dirty agency I had to go through. Luckily, I managed to meet the person I wanted to be with, without an agency.”

How the industry works 

The international marriage broker industry has a short but controversial history in Korea. Government recognition stretches back only two decades while regulations overseeing the legality of the practice were introduced less than 10 years ago. This isn’t surprising when looking at how fast the rate of international marriages has grown over the past 13 years. In 2000, marriage between a Korean national and a foreign spouse accounted for 3.5 percent of all marriages in the country. In five years, the figure increased almost fourfold to 13.5 percent, and currently stands at 8.7 percent.

The industry itself has garnered a host of media attention. Stories of inadequate information being provided to potential spouses, women suffering domestic abuse at the hands of their new Korean husbands, a lack of sufficient regulation and support for migrant women in Korea and men being deceived by their new spouse after they receive their visa are all well-documented cases. Despite these accounts raising red flags against international marriage brokers, their popularity remains substantial.

There are currently more than 1,000 brokers registered in Korea. As the popularity of international marriage agencies has increased, the government has worked with them to address various issues. Efforts by NGOs in raising awareness of the dangers associated with these brokers have not gone unnoticed. But with all of this controversial media attention, why do people still use international marriage brokers?

International marriage started out as a female phenomenon with Korean women marrying foreign husbands following the Korean War. In the late ’70s, the Unification Church – a religious movement promoting unity, founded in Korea after the Second World War – encouraged international marriage in a bid to help foster harmony between Korea and Japan. In the church’s early years, the movement’s then-leader Sun Myung Moon matched more than 2,000 Korean nationals with Japanese spouses in a single marriage ceremony. Such mass marriage ceremonies still occur today.

The phenomenon became male-dominated when China and Korea established international relations in 1992. With farm bachelors in rural parts of the Korean countryside unable to find wives, local government offices began matching them with ethnic Korean women in China referred to as Joseonjok. These local offices, unable to link the couples together, established a middleman to act as a matchmaker. With the realization that profits could be made from linking Korean men with a foreign bride, an industry of international marriage brokers began to surface. Along with this, the range of available wives expanded to other Southeast Asian countries. In 2000, out of the 7,304 international marriages that took place between Korean men and a foreign spouse, the largest number of brides by nationality came from China (3,586) and the Philippines (1,358). In 2009, Chinese brides still made up the majority (34 percent) followed by women from Vietnam (22 percent).

As the industry grows, the demographic of men who seek their services has changed. In the beginning, men who solicited international marriage brokers lived in rural areas where there was a shortage of women, who tended to gravitate toward cities for work. Local governments promoted the use of marriage brokers as a way of repopulating the area. More recently, as Korea’s male birthrate outpaces the female, the scope of men seeking migrant wives has widened to the general male population.

Growing problems 

With no regulations governing this rapidly growing industry, problems began to arise.

“From the first time I visited my husband’s house, I regretted my decision,” recalled Ms. K, who did not want to be named. Ms. K, who came to Korea through an international marriage agency, said she decided to seek a husband to live in a more “comfortable environment.” Her experience with the agency, which was recommended by a friend, resembles many stories that have been told before.

“I could not communicate with the agency directly. I just communicated with (the) broker in my country. I wanted to know more about (the) Korean man, but (the broker) didnít know about that,” she explained. After a swift meeting with a Korean man, she agreed to the marriage and her new husband returned home after three days. When she arrived in Korea seven months later, she told herself instantly that she had made a mistake. “In my husband’s house, I could not find the restroom and dining room and he didn’t give money to me. I had to endure hunger.”

In a bid to become self-sufficient, she tried to find a job, but without any Korean language skills, she was turned down by employers. After two years, she filed for divorce.

Cases of domestic abuse and inaccurate information given to both spouses about each other are the most widely documented issues stemming from the marriage broker industry. The welfare of the foreign wives has recently received a lot of media attention and led to some positive changes. But the process of buying a bride – the cause of these issues – is what needs to be addressed, according to Kim Jae-ryon, former chief of committee at the Korean Bar Association of Multicultural Family Support.

“It’s just like shopping,” she said in describing the business of buying a bride. “First, the Korean agency gathers their clients, Korean men. Then, they call the madam in the foreign country who acts just like an international marriage broker but couldn’t appeal to the market because most countries prohibit international brokers. The madam gathers the women who want to marry foreign men.”

When the marriage agency in Korea has a husband-to-be lined up, they contact the madam in the foreign country who then provides the agency with photographs of possible wives.  After meeting the selected candidates in their home country, the Korean man makes his decision and, if there is no rejection on the woman’s part, they proceed with the marriage process before he returns home. However, Kim stated that sometimes the women are not given an option once the man has made his decision.

“I heard (that in) most of the cases, the women had no right to choose or reject the Korean men. Only the right to choose (was given to the) Korean men,” Kim said.

According to Kim, there are two types of men who seek a wife through a marriage agency: men who have been wed before or left widowed with children to care for, and men who are unable to find a Korean wife because of their low socioeconomic status. The first group, Kim suggested, is looking for more of a “polite nanny” who can be easily controlled. The second group, she continued, views international marriage agencies as an easy way to get married; some even take a bride who is much younger than they are.

While by law, international marriage brokers are obliged to provide information to spouses such as criminal history, health status, job history and income, this, Kim believes, is not the most important thing to know. She stipulated that first these women must be aware of the “bad cases” that seem to disappear from the agencies’ memory. Secondly, she stressed, is understanding the standard of living. For example, a Cambodian woman may view her new husband’s salary as luxurious, but doesn’t necessarily understand that 1 million won cannot afford the same lifestyle in Korea as it would in her home country.

For many women who use these agencies, the idea that Korea leads to a better life evolved in part from the popularity of Korean dramas. With typical dramas portraying Korean men as kind and loyal, Kim contended that the Korean Wave in other Southeast Asian countries has led to a false understanding of what life in Korea is really like. “East Asian women like to watch Korean dramas. They think and they dream that if they go to Korea, most of the Korean men will be so kind, like the actors in the drama,” she said.

The reality, however, is usually far different.

A life in Korea can present the opportunity to escape economic hardship for some non-Korean women. But this opportunity is not without its problems. Kim stated that cases of family violence – including sexual abuse – are a common occurrence in Korea, but women are still afraid to come forward and seek help from a higher authority out of fear of being sent back to their home country.  “If their reason to choose international marriage is caused by their economic goal,” Kim explained, “we couldn’t blame them because they also have to live with the foreign man (in) a real marriage life.” She maintained, however, that most women cannot afford to send enough money home because they end up having to support their new husband, too. She did recognize that there are some women who just want to earn money and will run away from their Korean husband. Cases like these, she said, must be punished by law.

While financial reasons may lead women to accept the risks involved when using a marriage agency, they must also be willing to live with their new spouse. Should any form of violence occur, help can be sought from the police, migration office or NGOs, some of which specifically help migrant women.  A new law introduced in 2005 improved the rights of foreign brides in the case of divorce. If it is proven that the bride is not at fault, a divorce can be granted and the foreign bride is permitted to stay in the country.

Divorce and domestic violence

Divorce rates among international marriages have seen a huge jump over the past decade. According to Statistics Korea, divorce from a foreign spouse made up 1.3 percent of total divorces in 2001. In 2005, this figure grew to 3.3 percent and continued to rise to 9.3 percent in 2009 before seeing a slight fall. The latest figures show it’s on the rise again with a slight increase to 9.5 percent.

Studies suggest that the rate is linked to the rising prevalence of domestic violence in those households.

According to a 2010 Domestic Violence Actual Conditions Survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, almost 70 percent of migrant wives experienced domestic violence. This is over 10 percent higher than the domestic violence rate in the general population.

In Korea, domestic violence is viewed as a private matter that should not be spoken about outside of the family. Kang Seong-euy, former secretary-general and counseling center manager at the Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea, believes that this is an issue which needs to change. “In Korean and Asian culture, they do not want to discuss family problems outside of the family. But to solve the problems, we need to think logically,” she said.

The center, which works to inform and protect the rights of migrant women in Korea, encourages women who have been subjected to domestic abuse to contact the police so there is an official record, emphasizing that it could be used as a source of evidence should the woman go to court.

“If a woman calls the center for help, at first we try and figure out what the situation is. If there is violence, we ask them what they want to do,” said Kang. If the foreign wife wants to speak with her husband and work it out, the center will contact the husband and explain the situation. If, instead, the wife says she wants a divorce, they ask if she has discussed this option with her spouse before assisting her further.

Many of the problems foreign brides face in Korea stem from the culture difference. Kang explained that foreign women can find it difficult to adapt to their new life and conduct what some would deem as wifely duties -like getting up earlier than their husband to cook breakfast. The “family-to-family”-oriented view that Korean men expect may not translate well to women who are not familiar with Korean culture. “International marriage is very different. When a woman from Vietnam comes to Korea, only one woman goes into the family. So the family expects that she accepts the culture because she is coming to Korea.”

Kang reiterates what many people have said before about the industry: The main problem is a lack of honest information provided to both men and women by the marriage agency. For her, this is the catalyst that other problems stem from.

In 2007, a Vietnamese wife died from domestic abuse in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province, and another killed herself the following year in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang Province. It wasn’t until the disturbing murder of 20-year-old Thach Thi Hoang Ngoc that the government took notice. Ngoc, from Vietnam, was murdered by her 47-year-old husband eight days after she arrived on the peninsula in July 2010. The husband’s schizophrenic disease, which had been treated more than 50 times in the previous five years, was not disclosed to Ngoc when she accepted his proposal. This threw the international marriage broker industry into the spotlight and brought government regulations into question.

Following this incident, the MOJ announced a plan for “mandatory cultural education for Korean men.” These classes aimed to educate men on the ethics of marriage. A press release from the MOJ stated that although marriage is a “personal issue,” the “Korean government will take measures to prevent a marriage that is undesirable or inappropriate according to social custom and tradition in Korea.”

Han Kuk-yom, a representative of the Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea, doesn’t regard these classes as a “sincere effort” by the government and dismisses them as a media-friendly strategy to make the government look like it is doing something. “The Korean government is aware that a lot of human rights issues are arising from the Korean man’s awareness and value system. And because they use many brokers when they get married, they treat these women as products, not as human beings.”

She maintained that the government’s effort to educate Korean men has failed. Initially, she said, a three-day class was proposed with textbooks, but due to low participation and strained economic resources, the course ended up being a single mandatory four-hour session.

The half-day International Marriage Guidance Program provides information on “laws and systems and example cases of marriage-related crimes, while collecting identity information on Korean nationals and sending it to overseas missions in order to expedite the process and enhance the accuracy of visa issuance.”

The class can be taken by men who are preparing for international marriage. Those who are set to marry within a year of completing the training will expedite the visa process for their foreign wife. While encouraging people to be aware of how cultural differences can impact married life is arguably necessary, the length of the training session – given the tragic circumstances it resulted from – brings the level of education into question: What can actually be learned in a four-hour training session?

“One man who achieved success in marrying a foreign bride will come in and present how he achieved that success,” explained Han. After this, students are told about the legal process and necessary documentation, and the class wraps up with a short session on human rights awareness. “It’s not a sincere effort of educating these Korean males. On the surface level (the government) is doing all these things. – It’s more like advertising that they are doing something,” she said.

Male victims and runaway brides

Lee Myo-hyun, 67, from Seoul, was recommended an international marriage broker from a fellow church goer and was further encouraged by a priest at her church. After hearing about their 23-year successful history of arranging marriages, Lee, along with her 44-year-old mentally disabled son Han In-oh, decided to start the process of finding him a foreign bride. “It was August of 2011, but then they told us for some bureaucratic reason that once October 2011 passed we couldn’t get married, so we had to hurry the process up,” she said.

Lee took out loans and used her savings to gather the discounted agency fee of almost 27 million won. Han, who was presented with a wife from the Philippines, went to visit his new bride in September 2011 and returned to Korea, without her, after the wedding ceremony. Once he returned, the agency requested that he go back to the Philippines in November where his new wife kept asking for more money. When Lee asked the agency why Han’s wife wouldn’t return to Korea with him, she was told that her son “had gotten violent and angry” during a previous visit – a claim he denies.

Lee said she had no reason to be suspicious, as she was reassured by a trusted friend that everything was okay. “Our priest encouraged us to stick with the agency and continue with the process, saying, ‘Money is just money, but a person and meeting someone is for life,’” said Lee. An acquaintance – who initially introduced Lee to the marriage agency – went to the Philippines with the aim of bringing back Han’s wife at a cost of just over 2 million won ($1,800). When she returned without his bride, Lee was refused her money back.

It wasn’t until July 2012 when his wife from the Philippines arrived in Korea. Fifty-five days later she ran away without a trace. It was only at this point that Lee became skeptical. When she contacted the agency for help they were told that Han’s wife had returned to the Philippines but refused to give the date of her departure. With her trust for the agency diminished, she contacted immigration to get the answers she needed. The immigration office informed her that Han’s wife had not left Korea.

“When I think about it now, even while my son was in the Philippines they continued to ask us for money, saying that they needed living expenses. I even ended up paying for a laptop computer because they said that they needed it for something very important. One time when we asked why she wouldn’t come to Korea, she gave us the reason, ‘Oh, I can’t live in Korea with you because I have this boyfriend in the Philippines,’” Lee said.

After realizing that the agency would not take any responsibility, Lee went to the district office, the federal court and different local government offices for help, but said they didn’t take her seriously. The only place she was able to find help from was the International Marriage Victims Center, a small NGO which offers free legal advice and documentation. Ahn Jae-sung, head of the organization, said he receives about seven calls a day from people who have had a similar experience to that of Lee and Han, with some of the same agency names coming up again and again.

Ahn explained that in many cases the wife would arrive in Korea and run away almost the next day. Because there were so many cases like this, the law started to ask the agencies to take some responsibility. Currently, according to Ahn, a certain amount of time is required after the foreign bride arrives in Korea – 55 days – to make everything official. After that period, if the wife runs away, it’s possible to make it seem like a legitimate divorce and the agency is no longer accountable.

This is the most common problem his center is contacted about. Describing the entire process as “deceptive” from all involved, he said that the decision to wed is made far too quickly before a bond between two strangers can be made.

“People run into the process without thinking. Many people get married almost instantly after meeting. From the man’s side and the woman’s side, it’s just not a very honest process. The law has a responsibility to go after these agencies and make them legally responsible for the damage they inflict, financially and emotionally,” he said.

Ahn’s center is one of the only places of recourse available to men who feel they have become a victim of international marriage brokers. He maintained that traditional routes to justice like the police, the prosecutor’s office, and the national courts are usually reluctant to help the usual victims of international marriage scams, who he describes as “poor and uneducated.” And when help is offered, it often costs “even more money with minimal results,” he said.

“There are so many places for women to go to but not for men. Nobody thinks they are victims, too.”

Spousal abuse is an issue that the International Marriage Victims Center is very familiar with, but the center’s role does not focus on protecting the wives.

Ahn acknowledged that one of its members was imprisoned for beating his foreign wife with an iron pipe. When Groove Korea inquired about the accusation, he pointed to the wife’s alleged infidelity and disrespect, adding, “I’m being frank here when I say that if I were him (the wife beater), I don’t know if I could have controlled myself. She was totally out of line.”

Further, he admitted that his group frequently attends meetings of the Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea and interrupts them by shouting and throwing things. “We make our voice heard as often as possible,” he said. “Every once in a while, someone will throw a can or something to get their attention, but it’s never been violent, and we’ve never hurt anyone.”

Regulation and marketing

In many Southeast Asian countries, international marriage brokers are banned. In Korea, however, they are legal. While laws exist to regulate the industry here, the same cannot be said for the “exporting” countries. Some brokers in Korea use an acquaintance in the foreign country to gather the women. While participation is voluntary, money is exchanged and businesses profit. Because of this, the industry has drawn parallels to human trafficking.

“Vietnamese  – They Don’t Away! – International Marriage Specialist.” This is a phrase used on a Korean roadside advertisement by a marriage broker, as reported in the 2007 U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report. The report highlighted how marriage brokers market women from less-developed Southeast Asian countries as commodities. Other banners seen along the countryside with similar phrases were picked up by the mainstream media, leading to a crackdown on marriage brokers advertising their services, as reported in The Korea Times. The newspaper reported that the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs joined with the National Police Agency in an effort to remove such discriminate advertisements from July 27 of the same year.

However, this failed to curtail the lack of marketing standards used by marriage brokers. Four years later, the same newspaper reported that a 45-year-old man filed a petition in July 2010 with the National Human Rights Commission in response to 30 advertisements for marriage brokers. The banners, which were all found in the Anseong area of Gyeonggi Province, discriminated against foreign women on the grounds of gender and race, with one banner reportedly reading: “Blow-out sale for 9.8 million won for men wanting to marry Vietnamese women on the commemoration of Korea’s advancement into the second round of the World Cup.”

The NHRC condemned the advertisements, saying they contained “money-for-marriage”expressions and implied that foreign brides could be bought and sold as merchandise. Following the controversy, the banners were taken down.

Although international marriage brokers have been operating since the ’90s, it took almost two decades for any government regulation to be introduced. The Marriage Brokerage Business Management Act was implemented in 2007 “to contribute to building a healthy marriage culture by guiding and fostering the marriage brokerage business on a wholesome basis as well as by protecting clients.” It states that any person intending to register the international marriage broker business under Article 4 of the Act should hold at least 100 million won in capital (referring to the assessed value of assets, if the person is not a corporation), receive an education stipulated by the Ministry of Gender, Equality and Family in order to prevent damage to clients, and have no criminal record. Each business must register with its local city, county or district, which reserve the right to inspect the business.

The Act also requires each brokerage to provide the potential spouse with personal information on marital history, health conditions, occupation, and relevant criminal records and statutes from the country of the other party’s citizenship. Penalties are in place to deal with any violation of the Act, including negligence to report changes in the business or providing a spouse with insufficient information.

Prior to the 2007 law, marriage brokers did not have to register with the local government. In a bid to improve the circumstances surrounding the regulation of the industry and the welfare of the people involved, the government introduced new requirements and standards that must be met before a marriage visa can be obtained.

According to The Korea Times, the Ministry of Justice earlier this year announced plans to “strengthen the screening criteria to issue marriage visas.” The new measures aimed to better position the government to deal preventively with problems such as domestic violence and social alienation.  If the new plans are approved, foreign spouses would be required to take a Korean proficiency test and meet the basic level of the language to obtain a visa. If the couple can prove that they can successfully communicate in a different language, a marriage visa would be granted without the need for a Korean proficiency test.

The Korean husband would be subject to a stricter financial standing evaluation in order to prove that he is capable of supporting his new wife. And, to dismiss any notion that marrying a foreign spouse through an international marriage agency is an easy option, the new rules would not permit marriage between a Korean partner and a foreign spouse if the Korean partner has been divorced from another foreign spouse within the last five years.

Despite these new proposed plans, the government still views marriage as a “private matter,” which limits how much they can get involved, according to Kim Dong-cheol, deputy director of the Multicultural Family Support Division at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. “From a governmental stance, it’s best to interfere with marriage as little as possible, as they are mostly private affairs. However, it is impossible to completely avoid interference,” he said.

While Kim’s position on international marriage agencies lies firmly in the belief that they are a business out to make a profit with little regard for consequence, he maintained that the ethical issues they cause make any legal procedures problematic due to the red tape involved. “Since the issues surrounding international marriage agencies are mostly moral ones, itís difficult to approach them from a legal perspective without restricting essential freedoms of free enterprise.”

Kim stated that the government is working toward holding agencies responsible for marriages that fail due to the exchange of false information. This involves working to enforce the violation of laws in relation to the operating of a business, including shutting an agency down and removing it from the registry of licensed practitioners. However, he admits that making someone accountable isn’t an easy task because so many of them hold “such a small operation” it makes placing the blame even more difficult.

Along with these initiatives, the government has begun a campaign targeting men in an effort to raise awareness about male victims. He hopes these new measures will prevent people from using illegitimate agencies and help regulate the industry.

“Marriage agencies focus only on the fees accumulated from the services without paying any attention to the consequences of the marriages themselves, resulting in many foreign women in the marriages becoming victims. As a governmental organization, we’re obliged to help these victims,” he said. However, he added, correcting these agencies’ wrongdoings shifts the burden onto the taxpayer. “We need to toughen measures taken by local governments to control the illegal activities of marriage agencies.”

While the steps taken by the government have been welcomed by some others have criticized its involvement, saying it has led “to the domination of illegal brokers.” Han Yu-jin, president of the Korean Foreigner Matching Association, maintained that some government regulations have put a strain on the industry rather than building a “healthy foundation” based on the needs of the market.

The KFMA, which aims to foster a culture of healthy marriages for multicultural families, cited some of the key issues with government involvement as:

– An excessive demand for documents to be submitted;

– Establishment of marriage brokerage law with illogical or excessive components;

– Government regulations and ordinances that work against market flexibility, economic reality, and access for individuals of all income levels

These regulations, among others, have “distorted” the marriage broker industry, according to Han. “While direct governmental regulatory activity has distorted the market system and contributed to the domination of illegal brokers, it has also brought about the development of higher business standards and operations. The problems, which are caused by the government, should be fixed in an institutional way,” he said.

It’s clear that the government has acknowledged the issues surrounding and arising from the use of international marriage brokers, but whether or not government regulations are equipped to deal with them has caused some debate.  Jasmine Lee, a proportional representative of the ruling Saenuri Party in the National Assembly and a Filipino-born naturalized Korean, was quoted earlier this year in The Korea Times as saying that the nation will be able to see “positive effects” from the new regulations.

However, not everyone agrees that government intervention always leads to the change in policy that is really needed.

Han, from the Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea, is among the prominent voices who have been advocating for better regulation of the industry. She said that although the government has introduced new requirements for setting up a brokerage, regulating the industry is still problematic.

She explained that there are two types of brokers: registered companies and illegal individual brokers. The illegal brokers are usually owned by a couple – a Korean husband and a foreign wife. Using the network that the foreign wife has in her home country, the broker is able to match Korean men with a new spouse. These illegal companies, according to Han, make up about 30 percent of the industry. The problem with these brokers, she stressed, is that they are not registered and therefore cannot be regulated properly. This, coupled with a lack of consideration for human rights, has resulted in some agencies offering a “bride guarantee” as a way to solve the issue of “runaway brides” – with some agencies even requiring the foreign bride to sign a contract stating that she will not suddenly leave, Han said.

“There are some brokerage agencies which promise that these foreign brides will not run away. They say that they are going to be responsible, but the way they are being responsible is by offering another woman to the Korean man (which) requires more money. Itís not like getting the runaway bride to come back. It’s recruiting other foreign brides and bringing them to Korea instead,” she explained.

While Han recognized that some Korean men become victims to runaway brides, there is also an issue with Korean men not following through with their matrimonial promises. After marrying their bride in her home country and returning to Korea, Han said that some Korean men can have a “change of mind,” and the invitation for the foreign bride to come to Korea never arrives. For Han, this is especially worrying as it is common for the new husband and wife to consummate their marriage on the wedding night before the husband returns to Korea. “Korean males promise to their brides in China and other countries that they are going to invite (them) to Korea. But when they come back to Korea they don’t invite the women and they can’t come to Korea without a visa,” she said.

External pressure

International marriage brokers are illegal in some Southeast Asian countries, such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

On Sept. 1, 2009, Philippine Ambassador to Korea Luis T. Cruz issued a warning to Filipinos asking them to refrain from using illegal matchmaking agencies in entering into marriage with a Korean national. The warning came after the embassy in Seoul reported it had received many complaints from Filipino wives of abuse by their Korean husbands.

Following this, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family issued a memorandum of understanding with the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (an organization directly collaborating with the president of the Philippines) in March 2012. This was the second such MOU to be established (after one with Vietnam in 2010) and was aimed to create a prior education program in the Philippines for Filipino women and improve the rights and interests of marriage immigrants through protective programs and training. The early adaptation programs, which are more commonly known as “wife classes,” are promoted in Vietnam and Mongolia as well as the Philippines.

The program is a basic crash course on Korean culture for women who intend to emigrate to the peninsula for marriage. For Han, these classes serve a purpose, but there are still drawbacks to the impact that they have. In order to participate in one of these classes, the foreign bride must already be married to her Korean husband.

“It’s better if we have that center, but it’s still restricted because those foreign brides already decided to come to Korea as a foreign bride, so the education effects are limited to a certain population,” she said.

Are marriage brokers the biggest problem?

Han estimated that about 80 percent of all the problems foreign brides face stem from international marriage brokers, with the biggest issue being their priority placed more on profit than on the well-being of their clients. While she recognizes that some government changes to policies and laws are a positive step, she feels change isnít being implemented in the right areas. “There are many policies – but it’s focusing more on social integration. That’s what the government is interested in – integrating all the foreigners and the foreign brides and their children into Korean society, not necessarily making the environment and society value their human rights.”

From Han’s experience, many of the government initiatives that were established to protect the human rights of foreign brides in Korea – such as a 2005 divorce law and the establishment of a call center support service – are made because of human rights groups and other NGOs lobbying the government, not necessarily through the government’s own initiative.

Korea’s traditional patriarchal family system, coupled with its declining birthrate, has caused policy to focus on the multicultural aspect resulting from marriage through an international brokerage, according to Han. She believes that this is a “huge issue” for the government because of the impact it could have on Korean lineage.

Korea’s acceptance of the marriage broker industry is well documented throughout the media = both national and international. However, it takes a tragic example to publicly expose the deeply rooted problems embedded in the industry’s main motive: to make money. The idea that a lifetime of happiness can be bought, and in some cases guaranteed, is a concept that preys on the naivety, desperation and hopes of vulnerable people – regardless of nationality.

Next year will see the government implementing new regulations which Han, from the Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea, says will help to control marriage broker businesses in Korea. She stressed that while there is still a long way to go before the industry reaches sufficient human rights standards, laws are being introduced in the right areas.

“The laws that will be established next year – the strengthening of the visa issue – will regulate a lot of broker companies, but at the same time there are remaining questions about protecting the human rights of foreign brides,” she said.

“It’s a difficult task to take an honest look at the industry when honesty is the one thing it is said to lack. While agencies claim that they have successfully matched many couples, it’s not an easy promise to buy into. Kim, chief of committee at the Korean Bar Association of Multicultural Family Support, paints a grim picture of the success rate that some agencies advertise: “Most of the cases will fail,” she said.

However, she believes that government regulation does have the ability to change the industry for the better – but new laws can only be successful if all of the countries involved cooperate together. In order to achieve this, she says, Korea as the accepting country has a responsibility to set the standard of good practice.

“I think the key role depends on Korea because our country is the accepting country. In reality the (sending) governments allowed many women to go to Korea through marriage because it is no harm to that government. They just reduce the human victims (in their own country). In that case, I think it’s better to make it legal and the government has to control it with the agencies,” she said.

“We have to become a role model in international marriage.”


More info:

Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea (한국이주여성인권센터)

Phone: (02) 3672-8988

Address: Seoul, Jongno-gu, Sungin-dong 178-68, 4th floor

Website: (Korean only)

Migrant women’s hotline: 1577-1366 (English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Mongolian and Russian consultants available)

Women’s emergency hotline: 1366 (Korean only)

International Marriage Victims Center (국제결혼 피해센타)

Phone: (010) 3713-7744









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