For 5,000 years Korea has been known as a “unitary race.” Korean women and children left to form multicultural families abroad, yet the homeland remained largely unchanged. In the 1990s this pattern shifted as older and socio-economically disadvantaged men began seeking foreign brides. By the year 2000 roughly 3.5% of all marriages in Korea included a foreign spouse. The social infrastructure was unprepared for the impacts caused by these new “multicultural families.” This was only the beginning.
Over 10% of all domestic marriages in Korea now include a foreign spouse. Most of these marriages involve rural, older, previously-married, physically- or emotionally disabled, or lower-income Korean men as young Korean women increasing shun such partners and choose to remain unmarried. Chinese and Vietnamese women from rural areas are the most common immigrant brides, followed by women from other under-developed Southeast Asian lands. Marriage brokers arrange quick “marriage tours” to the bride’s home countries, these, along with mail-order brides, are the usual sources for foreign brides. While the men see these “exotic” brides as a substitute for the traditional spouse, the women often expect to send money from “rich Korea” to support impoverished siblings in their home country. The age gap between spouses is often 15-20 years. Children of previous marriages add to the risk of marital breakdown, as well as the difficulty for the immigrant spouses to adapt to new circumstances due to limited language skills and education. As a result, nearly 40% of all divorces in Korea include a foreign spouse.
In a new land where education is highly valued, the immigrant spouses lack Korean language skills, and many are significantly under-educated. They are often unable to contribute financially to their financially-challenged households through employment. These women lack the ability to help children in school studies, which can lead to second-generation issues in education as well.
Korea’s pride in a “pure-blood” heritage has led to frequent discrimination against immigrant spouses and their children. Although national and local governments have made statements and initiated program supporting a new multicultural Korea, the situation on the ground has seen little improvement. Much of the focus has been on assimilation rather than acceptance of diversity. Domestic violence is a significant issue in multicultural households. Children end their education prematurely due to persecution by other children in schools, or teachers’ disdain.
Increasing immigration to Korea, along with growing numbers of international marriages, indicate that homogeneous Korea is a thing of the past. The low birth rate overall in Korea, combined with the relatively higher birth-rate in multicultural families, suggest ongoing social change. It has been projected that by the year 2020 one of five children in Korea will come from multicultural families. Expecting immigrant women and children to overcome millennia of bias without a support system is unrealistic. The ethnic violence of so-called monocultural France in 2005 was proof that failure to address the question early could lead to major consequences.