Mail-Order Diversity

In Seoul, banners and billboards line buildings as in any other metropolitan city, yet their message is unique to South Korea. Some read “Vietnamese Ladies for Marriage,” while others announce “Young Ladies from Vietnam, China, and the Philippines for Farmers.”

For a country that prides itself on its historic racial and cultural homogeneity, future demographics may not be as certain as they once were. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, more than 13% of all marriages in 2005—over 43,000—occurred between a Korean and a non-Korean. In the same year, 35.9 % of the male population working in agriculture and fishery married foreign women, most of whom had emigrated from Vietnam, China, and the Philippines as mail-order brides. In five years’ time, more than a quarter of elementary school students in rural areas are expected to be children of “mixed” marriages. According to South Korea’s National Education Board, in some towns in Jeolla Namdo, the southwestern province of the Korean peninsula, over 50% of incoming students are half-Korean, whose mothers are from overseas.

But current Korean sentiment does not bode well for these children of mixed-race. In 2006, the Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding conducted a survey of 500 elementary school students and their parents. More than 30% of the respondents said that they do not consider people with a foreign mother or father Korean. Even more astonishing, more than 95% of the children answered that they would not vote for their half-Korean classmates as class representatives. And fewer than 10% of the parents said that they would let their children marry half-Koreans.

In spite of Koreans’ xenophobic attitudes, many farmers deem these immigrants necessary in a country where finding a bride is increasingly difficult. Korea’s farmers remain economically marginalized, as the rest of the country moves into the industrialized world and the agricultural sector loses its place in Korean society. Many Korean women are not willing to marry farmers because of their low socioeconomic status. Also, many young women formerly living in the countryside have left rural areas for the thriving urban centers. Therefore, immigrants are filling a void by marrying Korean men. Ironically, the same agricultural sector that has been largely excluded from the benefits of globalization is becoming more culturally and ethnically diverse than the industrial population living in the urban centers.

Slowly, Koreans are responding to the changes. “Koreans have a very strong tradition of nationalism,” explained Hyun We Yoon, a graduate student at Konkuk University. “It might have been a positive force to bring people together, but in reverse, it makes people closed-minded towards others outside the community.” Instead, he advised, “I think what we need is to treat [mixed-race Koreans] equally and live together with them while acknowledging the differences between us.”

And in some cases, Korea is doing just that. Jin Sup Shim, a counselor at the Domestic Abuse Council in Masan has initiated a campaign to remove Seoul’s ubiquitous mail-order bride advertisements, which he feels are demeaning to female immigrants. He remarked that, “[these businesses] are treating the women as if they are property, not human beings.” Local governments and communities are also implementing measures to help foreign brides adjust to Korean society. Recently, Gyeongsang Buk-do’s provincial government initiated a program in cooperation with local universities to teach foreign wives the Korean language and culture. In addition, the government plans to provide childcare, as well as employment services.

Yet in the opinion of some Koreans, these programs have not gone far enough to ease cultural tensions. On October 25, 2006, Dong-ah Ilbo, one of the major newspapers in South Korea, published an editorial expressing concern that, while South Korea is becoming a multiethnic society, the general public still frowns upon immigrants and their children. The editorial compares the potential of the present antagonistic environment to the recent Muslim riots in France—a scene that South Korea could one day face. Evidently, the disparity between the physical changes wrought by modernization and the popular mentality continues to create conflict.

Can South Korea become more tolerant and accept the changes that challenge its long tradition of racial and cultural uniformity? Or will it continue to maintain its conservative stance? As the Dong-ah Ilbo editorial hints, Korea might not have long before it must come to terms with these questions.