After Murder, South Korea Rethinks Marriage Brokers

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Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

South Korean Cha Jae Hyung and his Vietnamese wife, Phan Thi Ngoc Phwong, married in 2002 and have a 1-year-old boy. One of the biggest trends in South Korea is finding a foreign spouse

Within three days, a man can meet and marry the Vietnamese bride of his dreams, one typical marriage agency claims. The Vietnamese woman will be faithful, submissive, between the ages of 18 and 25 and a virgin, the agency promises. Indeed, the potential bride's background is much better vetted than the man's: one popular Singapore-based marriage agency will medically examine the woman to ensure she's a virgin — once by a doctor in Vietnam and a second time in Singapore — just to be sure. Until now, that's been business as usual in an industry that has been facilitating thousands of marriages each year in Asia since the late 1990s, forever transforming the demographics of places like Taiwan and South Korea. But last month's brutal murder of a Vietnamese bride has caused Seoul to rethink its approach to international-marriage brokers.

In July, just eight days after Thach Thi Hoang Ngoc, 20, arrived in South Korea, her new 47-year-old husband beat and stabbed her to death. The man, it turns out, had been treated for schizophrenia at least 57 times in the past five years. He allegedly told police he had listened to a "ghost's voice," which had urged him to kill his wife. While men who go through marriage agencies have the opportunity to ask "an enormous number of questions" about the women they choose, a woman doesn't get to ask questions about the man that selects her, says Andrew Bruce, a regional director at the International Organization for Migration (IOM). As a result, Ngoc was in the dark about the person she had agreed to marry. Her last words to her father were, "I will live happily," according to South Korean President Lee Myung Bak in a radio address to the nation, in which he offered his "deepest sympathy to her family."

Asia's private international-marriage agencies typically take men to meet their prospective brides on a seven- to 10-day trip in the bride's country of origin, according to a report by Danièle Bélanger, a sociology professor at the University of Western Ontario in the Population & Societies journal. Some marriage agencies, however, advertise three-day itineraries that have men finding their wife on the day they arrive. The women are presented to the men, and the process of choosing a wife often takes less than an hour. In many cases, the woman can decline a proposal, but Bruce says it's normal for these women to be held captive until they consent, giving them little real choice but to accept. The whole trip, which includes a full wedding, costs the groom between $5,000 and $10,000, while the local Vietnamese brokers that recruit the brides have started charging women between $1,000 and $3,000 to be matched with a prospective husband.

Marriage-brokerage reforms have an impact beyond the thousands of couples directly involved. Arranging foreign marriages is big business. In South Korea alone, there are some 1,253 registered marriage agencies. In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, marriage migrants make up the second largest group of new immigrants behind temporary workers. In 2008, four out of every five naturalized residents in Taiwan were immigrant wives from Vietnam, and in 2009, 25,142 women went to South Korea as foreign wives. Though the number of marriages each year between a Taiwan man and a foreign spouse has decreased since Taipei cracked down on private marriage brokers in the mid-2000s, the island still had the highest proportion of marriages that involved a foreign spouse — 15% in 2009 — among countries where marriage brokers are popular.

In South Korea, the men using these brokerages tend to be in their 30s and 40s, and are often from rural and working-class background. One survey shows that more than 35% of fishermen and farmers in South Korea took foreign brides, but Bélanger writes that societal pressure on South Korean men "is so strong that it is difficult for them to remain single and childless," and that these marriages are now starting to spread to the urban middle classes as well. And the numbers could rise. Due to sex-selective abortions in the 1980s and '90s, the proportion of male births increased, and as this generation enters the marriage market, more men could opt for a foreign bride.

At the moment, Vietnam hasn't made controlling this industry a priority. Though commercial marriage agencies in Vietnam are technically illegal, more than 70% of marriages between Vietnamese women and South Korean men are arranged through brokers. Kang Sung Hea, the chief director of the Emergency Support Center for Migrant Women in South Korea, says the high costs of procuring a Vietnamese wife lead some South Korean men and their families to feel "they have bought the women." Kang says the primary problem with the brokerage process "is that the decision on marriage is more in the hands of Korean men rather than with the women themselves."

In Seoul, Ngoc's murder has spurred a flurry of reform. To give women more information, starting in November, South Korean marriage brokers will need to provide the prospective brides in their own language the facts about the man's marital status, occupation, health and criminal record. Another proposal would mandate that South Korean men receive some form of pre-education before marrying. Lee Hye Kyung, a professor at Pai Chai University in South Korea, says this would give the government a chance to review the potential groom's information in person, creating "an indirect screening system." The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family says it will also set up a hotline for migrant women that will go live in November 2011, and that experts from the Multicultural Family Support Center will visit households with migrant wives to help the couple deal with any issues they may have.

But the debate in South Korea isn't over. Some within the country's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family want to ban private marriage-brokerage firms altogether, according to Lee, though she fears this would only lead to black-market matchmaking. "If all such activities go underground, they would be more difficult to control," Lee says, potentially opening a greater market for trafficking. Trafficking for the marriage market is already a problem in Asia. In June, South Korean authorities broke up a gang that used foreign marriages to smuggle in an estimated 240 women over the past two years. In March, Cambodia even went as far as temporarily banning marriages between South Korean and Cambodian citizens to protect its women from trafficking.

Some experts, however, caution that there's no evidence these marriages are any more prone to abuse than regular marriages or that human trafficking through fake marriages is widespread. "In terms of domestic violence, we don't know if it's more prevalent in these unions," says Bélanger. Though most of these women dislike the quick pace of the matchmaking process, she says they do want to get married and migrate elsewhere: "It's very easy to say this is the selling of women, but the women are not stupid. They have agency." Moreover, in a country like South Korea with a relatively low birthrate, an aging population and an increasing number of women choosing to stay single, this new immigrant wave represents an important demographic shift, and new marriage laws could change the makeup of the country into the future. Says Bélanger: "There's a lot at stake. These women are literally birthing the next generation."