Korea – Pinoy mixed marriages and tensions in the multicultural family

by Maragtas S.V. Amante
Hanyang University Erica Campus, Ansan City

Posted at Nov 22 2009 04:14 PM | Updated as of Nov 23 2009 12:31 AM

South Korea’s fertility rate is now among the world’s lowest according to the World Health Organization (WHO).    Korea’s population, and workforce is shrinking fast,  and this threat has yet to be fully appreciated and recognized.   A South Korean woman gives birth to 1.2 babies on average.   

In contrast, the Philippine fertility rate is much higher --  a Philippine woman gives birth to 3.3 babies on the average.   In addition, marriage is becoming a free choice, not a rite of passage, among South Koreans, with more young men insecure about their jobs, and more women favoring work outside the home over child-rearing,  a phenomenon called “Gold Miss”.     Korean women cite lack of support at work and at home why they are not having  children.  Changing norms on sexuality and socio-cultural behavior may also be significant factors.

South Korea spends the least amount of money on boosting birthrates among the world's most industrialized nations,  according to the OECD.  Stingy investment in programs to help in child care may also be a major reason why Koreans are refusing to have children.

These facts contribute to the demand for global ‘mixed marriages”,   increasing every year.    Korean officials recognize the low birth rate as more than a crisis.   With fewer people getting married ,  an official even declared that “the government should encourage the matchmaking industry. Perhaps Korea  should start its own matchmaking service."  

Koreans   on their own spend an average of 13 million won ($10,600) in costs for interracial marriages according to the Korea Consumer Agency (KCA).   There are 1,044 matchmaking companies in Korea.   The most popular country as source of “brides” was Vietnam followed by China.  It takes an average of 88 days, or about three months, to complete an interracial marriage through agencies ? from the Korean applicant's departure to interview with his or her prospective spouse and their entry to  Korea.  Global mixed marriages have a gender and social equity dimension:   the male is from a rich country,   and the female is from a poor country.    

History however says that in ancient Korea young people were brought together by matchmakers, usually by respected elders in their villages.   Korean historical movies depict princes or princesses being matched early, seeing their bride or groom only for the second, or even first time on their wedding day.

Matchmaking agencies  contract marriages between Koreans and foreign nationals,  including the Philippines.    In  April 2009,  approximately 6,000 Filipinos  married to South Koreans reside in the peninsula.   Philippine Ambassador  to  Korea Luis Cruz says however that the Embassy have been regularly warning Filipinos against illegal marriage brokers.    A Philippine law,  the Anti-Mail-Order Bride Law (RA6955), makes it illegal for a "person, natural or juridical, association, club or any other entity" to "establish or carry on a business which has for its purpose the matching of Filipino women for marriage to foreign nationals either on a mail-order basis or through personal introduction."    While international marriage broker agencies are  legal in South Korea, they cannot legally operate in the Philippines because it violates RA 6955.

The Philippine Embassy in Korea has received many complaints  by Filipina wives of abuses committed by their Korean husbands,  both as consequence or cause of abandonment of the home, separation and divorce. These complainants entered into the marriage through the services  of  illegal marriage brokers operating in the Philippines. Many are quick to accept the whirlwind marriage in order to seek employment abroad and have  a  better life. However, they receive false information on the partner’s family background and  face  human rights violations in an unfamiliar home abroad,  isolated from the community and society,  and no preparation in culture and language.

Filipino spouses and partners of foreign nationals are required to undergo guidance and counseling prior to an application for a Philippine passport.

According to Philippine Embassy Consul General Sylvia Marasigan, “many Filipina women think that marrying a Korean is easy, to gain entry for a job in Korea.  After marriage,  they think that it is easy to divorce the Korean husband.”   Consul  Marasigan points out that the divorce must be initiated by the foreign spouse,  and only then can the divorce decree go through Philippine courts for recognition.  This is a lengthy process.   The foreign language documents must be translated and authenticated.  Many foreign spouses are not aware that changes in a civil registry record for marriages require a court order.   A Philippine spouse who wants to end a marriage to a foreign spouse, such as a Korean, requires a petition filed with assistance of a lawyer to have the marriage recognized in the Philippines.   

Philippine laws do not allow divorce.  Divorce secured anywhere by a Filipino is not recognized in  the Philippines except  in the case of  a marriage between a Filipino citizen and a foreigner  and a  divorce is thereafter validly obtained abroad by the alien spouse.  Consequently, the Filipino spouse can remarry under Philippine law.  However, before a subsequent marriage can be performed,  the foreign divorce must first be enforced in the Philippines, through a court order.   The documents must be proven as authentic in court.   The court decision is then registered with the Philippine civil registrar.   

In 2008,  Korea enacted a law to support multicultural families,  who consist of Korean nationals,  their immigrant spouses, and children.   Korea’s  law requires the state and municipal governments to  actively support such families in order for them to improve their quality of life in Korea. 

With multicultural families rapidly increasing,  there is a need for Korea to foster a culture of tolerance and acceptance of  diversity.   as Korea becomes a more multicultural society.   In  2008, the number of marriage immigrants was 144, 385, an increase of 13.7 percent compared to 2007. 

Since 2000, there has been a steady increase in the number of  Filipino  women marrying  South Korea men.  There were  3,790 marriages between  Filipinos and Koreans between 2000 to 2007.    Korean – Filipino marriages rapidly increased,  with 6,500 registered in 2009,  with 3,600 Filipinos granted Korean nationality.   

According to a report of the Philippine Embassy in Seoul,  majority of these Filipina women, who are  20-to 30 years old,  live in the rural areas or remote areas  in Korea with their Korean husband and in laws. Most of them  are isolated because they  do farm work and house chores. Because of  the language barrier and cultural differences, the Filipina wife encounter problems in communication,  marital obligations and participation in family activities.   There are a variety of reasons why they married Koreans, such as employment,  provide support for family in the Philippines,  or just a sense  of adventure.  For the Korean men from the rural areas who are usually past 40 years of age, the wife is someone who will take care of his personal needs, bear children and  do house work.  Because of  the difference in perception of  marriage, the couples often argue and conflicts build up. Consequently, marriage immigrants  frequently experience discrimination and infringement of human rights from their Korean spouses and other Korean family members.

The Philippine Embassy has documented many cases of Philippine wives in conflict with their Korean husbands,  due to the following reasons:

  1. Domestic violence,  due to excessive alcoholism by the husband;
  2. Maltreatment from domestic in laws,  due to reasons such as “inefficiency by the wife in doing house chores”;
  3. Infidelity by the husband,  resulting in frequent fighting,  shouting matches and misunderstanding;
  4. Husband does not acknowledge the child born after marriage;
  5. Husband refuses to provide financial support to the mother and the child. 

Complaints  by Filipina wives of domestic violence and harassment from their Korean husbands lead to home abandonment, separation and divorce.  Many of these marriages are products of services  from  illegal marriage brokers operating in the Philippines.   Some of the abandoned wives said that some of the illegal marriage brokers are their own relatives married to Korean nationals in the Philippines. They agreed freely to the scheme of the marriage broker, and received money in exchange for the marriage.   Many were quick to accept the whirlwind marriage in order to seek employment abroad and have  a  better life.   These promises were false.  Upon arrival in Korea,  they were brought to a remote rural area to do farm work.   Clearly, these cases qualify as “human trafficking”.

When requested to provide further evidence for legal proceedings against the operators, the victims were reluctant since the case will jeopardize their family or relatives in the Philippines,  as possible accomplices in  illegal matchmaking activities,  and human trafficking.

Children of multicultural families experience problems of language and education. Since Korean society is homogeneous, the presence of  multi-cultural children  and their appearance bring  about anxiety and  misunderstanding among the children in school. There is a lack of educational support for children whose economic  and social bases are vulnerable.  Korean schools don’t provide systematic curricula where multicultural mindsets from childhood are nurtured.  In a forum on multicultural families,  Professor Chun Kyung Soo of  Seoul National University observed that  “consequently, the children of multicultural families are ridiculed and suffer identity crisis due to social prejudice. Usually the Korean family members want these multicultural children to speak the Korean language to avoid discrimination and prefer  that the native language of the mother be studied  in the future.”

Korea’s Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Relations have taken steps to address the issue of multicultural families.   The Ministry requires international marriage brokers to provide ethics education,  according to the  “Act on Management of Marriage Brokerage Business of 2008”. On the other hand,  the registration of  marriage brokerage business is being handled by the local government units.  The Ministry also provides information and counseling about life in Korea to multinational couples prior to their marriage.   Seminars are also being undertaken through a network of “Transnational Marriage and Family Support Centers”.    Korean language education is also available, and counseling is provided to transnational couples in remote areas.

The Ministry plans to establish a nationwide network of translators to assist foreign spouses facing serious tension or crisis in family relations,  or in the event that they need to visit government offices, hospitals and courts for procedures.   Counseling on domestic violence and victim protection will be provided through an emergency call center, shelters.    Foreign spouses who file divorce proceedings or report domestic violence will need assistance, including extension of visa status.  

As multiracial marriages and multicultural families increase in Korea,  there will also be a greater  demand for additional investments and resources, including pro active and preventive measures.   Korea’s national and local government units need to coordinate a working framework,  in cooperation with the foreign embassies and non government organizations,  to improve current responses,  and  bridge the gaps in legal frameworks and procedures.    The Christian churches will also have important roles, but limitations due to separation of church and state are significant constraints in secular Korea, where many people are Buddhists.

Foreign embassies need to coordinate with Korea’s national agencies involved in family welfare,  passport and visa controls,  immigration,  police as well as local governments to address the tensions arising from multiracial marriages and multicultural families.    Welfare  and counseling programs need to fully integrate, and provide for gender sensitivity in all aspects,  from source countries to destination.   There is need to provide for  proper information dissemination  to level off expectations about a “happy marriage and live happily ever after”.    The concept of  a “multicultural family”  must consider cases outside marriage between a Korean and a foreigner.  There are also marriages among immigrant workers where husband and wife are foreign nationals;   as well as  children born between Korean nationals and a foreign spouse outside the marriage.    There are also cases of “stateless children”, due to undocumented parents.

Cooperation in information sharing,  joint research,  policy coordination and regular dialogues are needed on the issue of multiracial marriages and multicultural families.  This web of cooperation requires foreign embassies,  Korea’s Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Relations;  the Ministry of Labor;  Korea Immigration Service;  local governments which are the main destination of foreign brides;  the International Police (Interpol)  and representatives of immigration and welfare agencies of key supply countries for foreign spouses.   Dialogue is needed with non government organizations promoting human rights, and the welfare of migrant workers, including churches.   Investment in these resources will be needed as Korea attempts to mobilize resources to address the threat of a declining birth rate,  through multiracial marriages and multicultural families.   The framework of cooperation must fully integrate global norms including human rights, gender sensitivity,  and combat human trafficking.


Korea – Pinoy mixed marriages and tensions in the multicultural family 1About the author

Dr.  Maragtas S.V. Amante is professor at the College of Economics and Business Administration,  Hanyang University (Ansan campus), Korea. Previously, he was a professor at the University of the Philippines, Diliman on labor and industrial relations.   Email:  amantech@ymail.com