TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 1.4. New Multi-society and Cultural Integration in Asia and Europe | Die neue multikulturelle Gesellschaften und die kulturelle Integration in Asien und Europa
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Rhie Hae Za (Kunsan National University, Korea)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Ways of Thinking about Foreign Brides:
Case of South Korean Local Communities

Lee Sunju (Korean Women’s Development Institute, Seoul) [BIO]




The increase of marriage migration is an important social issue in South Korea. The rate of marriages to foreigners was just 3.7 per cent of the total marriages registered in 2000 and increased to 11.9 per cent in 2006. This increase was caused by the influx of foreign brides from Asian countries such as China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines. The sudden influx has slowly changed the image of Korean society as ‘one people and one nation’. In this situation academia and NGOs are concerned with how to integrate new brides into society and how to develop a multicultural society. The rapid increase in Asian brides has led to research interests related to multiculturalism, but most research tends to focus only on cultural experiences. Quantified research on Korean perceptions of Asian brides as well as multiculturalism is limited. This study will investigate the ways in which local Koreans perceive Asian brides through the use of a qualitative research method.


1. Influx of Marriage Migrants

The numbers of foreigners residing in South Korea has steadily increased since 1995, and now represents 2 per cent of the population in mid-2007. The numbers of marriage migrants have increased over the past decade and represent 10.5 per cent of the foreigners residing in S. Korea (cited in Yang et al 2007). The rate of intercultural marriages increased to 11.9 per cent in 2006 (three times higher than in 2000) as shown in <Table 1>. The rates of marriages between S. Korean men and foreign women increased from 59.2 per cent of the total of intercultural marriages to 76.1 per cent during the same time periods of 2000 and 2006.


Tab. 1: Marriages to Foreigners (2000-2006) (Unit: Case)


2000 2002 2004 2006
Total member of Marriages (A) 334,030 306,573 310,944 332,752
Marriages to Foreigners (B) 12,319 15,913 35,447 39,690
% (B/A) 3.7 5.2 11.4 11.9
S. Korean bridegroom  and Foreign bride (C) 7,304 11,017 25,594 30,208
% (C/B) 59.2 69.2 72.2 76.1

Source: Korea National Statistical Office (2007).

The majority of brides originate from China which made up 48.4 per cent of the total in 2006 Table 2. Brides from Vietnam consisted of 33.5 per cent and those from the Philippines were 3.8 per cent of the total in the same period. The changes to these figures over the last 2 years show that the number of brides from China has decreased while the brides from Vietnam have notably increased. The decrease in brides from China is regarded as the result of changes to foreign labour policies.

A large number of ethnic Koreans reside in the northern part of China. Due to the lower economic situation of China many ethnic Koreans wish to come and work in S. Korea to earn better incomes, but the S. Korean government has strictly restricted Chinese immigration through legal barriers. A new ‘visit and work’ policy implemented since March 2007, permits ethnic Koreans of other nationalities, such as those from China, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan to come and work for 3-5 years in S. Korea. The main reason for a decline in the number of brides from China is that Korean-Chinese now make use of the visit and work policy rather than through marriage to move into S. Korea (Korea National Statistics Office 2007:21). These statistics shows that the behaviour of migrants is affected by the policies of the receiving countries.



Tab. 2: Marriages by Nationality of Foreign Brides (2000-2006) (Unit: case in %)

  2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Total 7,304
China 3,586
( 49.1)
( 70.0)
( 63.9)
( 69.6)
( 72.4)
( 66.2)
( 48.4)
Vietnam 95
( 1.3)
(  1.3)
(  4.3)
(  7.3)
(  9.6)
( 18.7)
( 33.5)
Japan 1,131
( 15.5)
(  9.8)
(  8.7)
(  6.5)
(  4.8)
(  4.0)
(  4.9)
Philippines 1,358
( 18.6)
(  5.1)
(  7.7)
(  4.9)
(  3.8)
(  3.2)
(  3.8)
Mongolia 77
(  1.1)
(  1.2)
(  1.8)
(  1.7)
(  2.0)
(  1.8)
(  2.0)
Cambodia * * * 19
(  0.1)
(  0.3)
(  0.5)
(  1.3)
USA 235
(  3.2)
(  2.6)
(  2.4)
(  1.7)
(  1.3)
(  0.9)
(  1.1)
Uzbekistan 43
(  0.6)
(  0.7)
(  1.7)
(  1.7)
(  1.0)
(  1.1)
(  1.0)
Others 779
( 10.7)
(  9.4)
(  9.5)
(  6.6)
(  4.9)
(  3.6)
(  3.9)

* included in others.
Source: Korea National Statistical Office (2007).

The proportion of brides from Vietnam has dramatically increased in 2006 when compared to the previous year. Intercultural marriages are actively supported by some local governments that have the problem of depopulation and sought after by farmers facing difficulties with getting married. In the situation where such a demand for foreign brides exists the intercultural marriage industry has swiftly grown and extended to areas that are easy to find brides in. Match-making agencies have promoted marriages with Vietnamese females by describing the brides as young, pure and obedient. Vietnamese brides married to farmers increased by 56.0 per cent in 2006, compared to 2005 (Korea National Statistics Office 2007:24). It is important to notice, as shown in <Table 2> that for the brides the countries of origin have become diverse. For S. Koreans this implies that they have more opportunities to meet different ethic groups as well as cultures and languages. These changes require stronger understandings of the differences for the integration of the brides into society.


2. Research Method

In-depth interviews with 45 people were conducted between May and July 2007 to study what local Koreans think about Asian brides in relation to multiculturalism. The ages of the informants ranged from 20 to 73 and all had frequent interactions with those involved in intercultural marriages in the local communities. Out of the total 21 informants derived from the city of Ansan; an urban node where diverse ethnic groups and cultures mix. The rest derived from Yeongam Gun located in the southern part of S. Korea. Yeongam is a rural town where the numbers of marriages with the Asian brides has rapidly increased.


3. Accommodation of Asian Brides

When migrants move to a country they bring a different culture that includes values, languages, food, and customs. This infusion of new culture may bring out social changes in host countries. In S. Korea the belief of a homogeneous nation is still widely held and the influx of different ethic groups confuses local Koreans with new ideas of a multicultural society.

A majority of the interviewees in the sample said that they were not willing to accept an influx of Asian brides but that there was no choice as the brides were needed. They gave two main reasons for reluctantly accommodating them as stated in the problems of depopulation and the difficulty of marriage opportunities for men. The reasons stated for these views were stronger by the interviewers from Yeongam than from Ansan because they felt that the region had greater problems.

With respect to the problem of depopulation, the central government and local governments have unsuccessfully tried to introduce new measures to raise fertility rates(1). In this situation interviewee 7 implied the Asian brides can contribute to having children, especially in rural areas where populations are aging.

 … it is not preventable because the society is opening. I hope to see Koreans being married to each other, but the population is becoming less and less and young. Koreans do not want children. So we are accommodating the foreign brides. Well, they are coming in because there are not enough sufficient women for marrying (Interviewee 7 from Yeongam). 

Men having difficulties in marrying S. Korean women due to economic and social positions find ways of meeting Asian brides from less-developed countries. As both the interviewees mentioned below, intercultural marriages are opportunities for single men to get married and to raise a family.

…Actually there are plenty of single men in rural areas, so we have brought the brides in to meet the needs of the society. …Anyway, the Asian brides help them settle down. To be honest, what kind of a Korean woman could marry a man of 43 years old in this society? … After the one I know got married to a Korean-Chinese woman he looks happy and comforted. Seeing this, I think intercultural marriages would be helpful for the society (Interviewee 1 from Yeongam).   

I do not think the influx of the brides into my community is a good thing. But it is far better than seeing a man living alone without a spouse. The man I knew got married to a foreign bride (from Mongolia), now he looks comforted after. But there is a huge age gap between them, the man is about 40, and I heard that the bride was twenty something (Interviewee 6 from Yeongam).

As both the interviewees implied, the age gaps between the bridegrooms and brides are noticeable in comparison to those of Koreans. In 2006 the age difference for mixed marriages was on average 11.5 years while the gap between Koreans was 2.4 years <table 3>. In contrast to the fact that the age gaps between Koreans has slightly narrowed over the years, the gap between S. Korean bridegrooms and foreign brides has gradually widened. This is because the proportion of remarriages to foreign brides has also increased in the same period. The average age of remarried men is 47.0 years old in 2006, whereas that of men who married for the first time is 37.1 year old. The average age of the brides is 34.8 years old and 26.0 years old, respectively (Korea National Statistical Office, 2007:25). The statistical figures show that foreign brides are much younger than the bridegrooms. 

Tab. 3: Average age differences between S. Korean bridegrooms and foreign brides (2000-2006)
Unit: ages

  2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
S. Korean bridegrooms and Foreign brides 6.7 7.4 7.8 8.2 8.3 9.1 11.5
S. Korean bridegrooms and Korean brides 2.7 2.6 2.6 2.6 2.6 2.5 2.4

Source: Korea National Statistical Office (2007).

Globalisation accompanied by international migration reshapes societal hierarchies and plays a critical role in positioning migrant women within hierarchies (Arya and Roy 2006:23). This addresses the issues of how relations of class, ethnicity and nation construct the integration of women into the receiving countries (Pessar 2003). The ideas of the interviewees about Asian brides were linked to the economic situations in their home countries. Poverty in their home countries had a significant influence in placing them in an inferior position. This situation made them dependent and subordinate to husbands that later shaped the power relations within the family.

Even though a majority of the interviewees regarded intercultural marriage as unproblematic (so long as there were social demands for it) and only a few said that the Asian brides were bought. In saying this, they added that a significant number of marriages to Asian brides occurred based on money. In the cases where money becomes an issue a match-making agency is often involved.

I know someone who has a daughter-in-law (from other Asian country). You know, the men have some difficulties with marrying. … So they look likely to buy women to get married (interviewee 9 from Ansan).

There are too many unmarried men here, so they spend money to get women from other countries. … There is no way for them to get married except by having Asian brides. You know, they need to marry too (Interviewee 6 from Yeongam).

In spite of knowing that money was involved in many of the intercultural marriages, the interviewees had pity for the single men and reluctantly approved that intercultural marriages were a way to resolve the problem. It is important to notice that a significant number of men married to Asian brides are in low economic and social positions with an increased risk of future financial difficulties. According to a study on households with migrants brides (Seol et al 2005), 57.5 per cent of the households with at least one child under 18 years old in the sample were in absolute poverty. This implies that these households could form a future underprivileged group in society that would represent another social problem.


4. Intensification of Traditional Gender Roles

Kofman et al (2000) points out, patriarchal structures are reflected in economic, social, and political institutions and “takes many different forms throughout the world” (p. 25). Asian brides enter the private sphere through the institution of marriage and affect the composition of family members and family relations. Marriage as a social institution reflects the dominant values of society. Each country has a unique culture in the way of making and keeping family relationships. In S. Korea patriarchal family relationships have slowly become less conservative through the changes to family law and the participation of females in the labour market. Even though the efforts to eliminate discrimination against women are important public issues, the patriarchal ways of thinking and attitudes still widely exist among ordinary people. These views (in particular those of the elderly) contribute to making women inferior to men in private and public spheres. In S. Korea family relationships are centred on the original family of the husband to the extent that the family of the bride is not relevant. Such patriarchal relations work as an instrument in maintaining traditional family values, gender norms, and roles inside and outside the private sphere. It is not easy for the brides from different cultures to understand and adapt to the patriarchal family relations in the situation where they are not able to speak Korean. This often results in conflicts between the husband and wife or between the wife and in-laws.

…but I feel that those from the Philippines have difficulties to adapt to our family relations, which becomes a problem within the family. … You see, for them it is not easy to understand our patriarchal relations. You know, Korean men, they hardly do housework; they are unwilling to do that at home (Interviewee 6 from Yeongam).

You know, in China I heard that women hardly did housework, instead men cooked while women were sitting around at home. Women are superior to men. … One day I was talking to her (the bride from China). It was dinner time. So I asked her whether she had to go home to make dinner. She said that her visiting grandmother-in-law would do that. I was surprised, and asked how old she was. She said, she was 76 years old. In Korean culture when (we as daughters-in-law) have in-laws at home we make dinner for them and do dishes, and take care of them. But I heard that they rarely did that (Interviewee 20 from Ansan).

As Interview 6 from Yeongam mentioned above from the work of men and women are clearly distinguished in S. Korea. Men seldom do domestic labour nor look after young children at home although women are actively engaged in employment. In S. Korea women are generally expected to take the prime responsibility for managing households and keeping good relations with members of the family-in-laws. So when relationships with them go wrong, the blame tends to fall on the women.

As seen above in Interview 20 from Ansan ordinary Korean people tend to think that members of the original family of the husband must be respected and taken care of, because that is viewed as an important way of approving male authority within the family. For the woman, it is regarded that she does her duties as a daughter-in-law. Many of the interviewees in the sample believed that potential conflicts caused by brides from different cultures would be better managed if they were taught traditional family values.

Globalisation has pressured the altering of the traditional functions of family, community and nation-state (Dijkstra et al 2001:58). Intercultural marriages have brought about changes in the composition of members of the family, and have produced a new generation of hybrids which was invisible before in S. Korea. Nonetheless, considering the results of the research intercultural marriages are likely to be a means of reinforcing unequal gender relations which weakens society.


5. What kind of Multicultural Society?

It is not easy to define “multiculturalism” as the term is quite different and contested. Inglis (1996) argues that multiculturalism can be distinguished into three forms; the demographic-descriptive, the ideological-normative and the programmatic-political. Usage of the first one occurs when it refers to “the existence of ethnically or racially diverse segments in the population of a society or state” (p. 16). The programmatic-political refers to “specific types of programs and policy initiatives designed to respond to and manage ethnic diversity” (ibid). The ideological-normative usage emphasizes that “acknowledging the existence of ethic diversity and ensuring the rights of individuals to retain a culture should go hand in hand with enjoying full access to, participation in and adherence to constitutional principles and commonly shared values prevailing in the society” (p. 16-17).

A majority of the interviewees in the sample thought that the Korean society was moving to a multicultural one.

Well, we can’t help it. So we can’t resist it (the social change). I am very positive to see them (foreign brides) coming into the society. Some people think influx of them may take our positions and work away…but I think such kind of thinking should be withdrawn (Interviewee 1 from Ansan).

I don’t have anything to say specially (about that). Korea is viewed as one people and one nation. But in reality, it can’t happen. … Anyway I don’t have anything negative about that (moving to a multicultural society). It seems to be a trend these days. But if (foreign brides) increase, the government will have to take an action (multiculturalism) (Interviewee 6 from Yeongam). 

A multicultural society means that diverse cultures coexist. Keeping just one culture is not a multicultural society….. I don’t think society has reached a multicultural one. Local people don’t understand it properly. Then are we mixed well? I don’t think so. It isn’t multicultural yet. But I think it is coming in near future (Interview 12 from Ansan).

The majority of the interviewees tended to see that Korean society would become multicultural and it could not be avoided since it was a global trend. In addition to that, Interview 1 from Ansan showed more of an open mind by saying that the foreigners were not a threat. All the interviewees have relatively more opportunities for interacting with them due to location and type of work. Yet that is not only the particular way of thinking and attitudes. According to a 2007 survey 63.6% from a sample of 1,000 people viewed Korea as a nation constituted from one people, but 72.6% of them said that there was no reason to maintain it (Ministry of Gender Equality and Family 2007).

In spite of the positive thinking about the social change to the multicultural, few of them regarded it as negative with some worries.

Well, too many… hybrids, it is not good. Many foreigners are coming to… I don’t think it is good to have too many foreigners because this country is poor too. They are coming to earn money. It is OK if this country is rich, but they come and earn money, and then, just go back to their own countries (Interviewees 12 from Yeongam).

Recently a lot of foreigners are coming in, so cultural clashes happen and there are a lot of problems without harmony. As Korea is developing South Asians are coming. I think we need time to get to know each other, but these days they are bought and suddenly flowing. The government should regulate it (the influx of foreigners) (Interviewees 4 from Ansan).

Interviewee 12 from Yeongam and interviewees 4 from Ansan showed clear attitudes against such a social change. The main reasons they were negative were that ‘hybrids’ are increasing, ‘cultural clashes’ occur, they could cause ‘reverse discrimination’, and they come to work and then just go back. Considering such remarks it could be found that there were mixed feelings and attitudes towards Asian brides among the interviewees in the sample.

Although a majority of the interviewees in the sample saw society becoming multicultural, the understandings of what multiculturalism meant were different from each other. As the nationalities of Asian brides vary, they have opportunities to get to know them and experience new cultures. But some interviewees tended to strongly say that the brides should give up on foreign cultures in order to adapt to Korean culture.

From the beginning they don’t have to claim their rights, as you go to Rome you should obey its law, but they must adapt to the Korean culture (Interviewee 3 from Yeongam).

As I said, men are still superior in our society even though it is said that women should be respected. They should be educated that men have responsibility for the whole households. For instance one of the family members make a mistake, the man should take the responsibility for that. Well, if they are educated in this way, there would be fewer conflicts between them. This kind of a thing should be done by the government and not by the individual (Interviewee 2 from Yeongam).

Interviewee 3 from Yeongam said the brides should not claim personal rights from the beginning but they should be subjected to Korean culture. Such attitudes are in fact, a reflection of patriarchal family values examined above. This kind of thinking actually premises the assimilation into the Korean culture rather than accepting a diversity of cultures.


6. Conclusion

In conclusion the ideas of the interviewees on multicultural society were quite interesting. Although they thought S. Korean society was becoming multicultural and diverse, the ideas of a multicultural society were set up on the premise that Asian brides assimilate into Korean culture. Understanding of cultural diversity and differences, which is one of the goals a multicultural society achieves only vaguely appeared in the attitudes of Koreans about Asian brides. It is difficult to generalise the finings of this qualitative research but it can be concluded that Korean society is becoming a poly–ethnic society rather than a multicultural one.





Total fertility rate (TFR) is 1.08 in 2005.

1.4. New Multi-society and Cultural Integration in Asia and Europe | Die neue multikulturelle Gesellschaften und die kulturelle Integration in Asien und Europa

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For quotation purposes:
Lee Sunju: Ways of Thinking about Foreign Brides: Case of South Korean Local Communities - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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