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Home » East Asia, Gender News, Southeast Asia

Concerns over international bride flow into Korea

Submitted by on March 16, 2012 – 9:54 pm 19 Comments |  
International marriages are on the rise worldwide, and one of the countries that “imports” many brides is South Korea. Part of the reason is the male bias in the sex ratio (see map). According to the 2012 estimates, in the total population the number of men and women is virtually even, but in the 15‑64 year age category, there are 104 males per 100 females. International brides come to Korea mostly from other Asian countries, especially China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Cambodia. Curiously, it does not seem to matter what the gender ratio is the “bride-exporting” country: China, like South Korea, has a male bias, Vietnam and Cambodia have a female bias, and the Philippines has an equal number of men and women.

The numbers of mail-brides coming to Korea is on the rise: in the decade between 2001 and 2010, the number of Korean-issued marriage licenses between Korean men and Filipina women rose nearly four-fold, from 502 to 1,906. This influx of foreign brides arouses concerns as to the fate of these women who search for new opportunities outside of their home countries, both within Korea and in the “bride-exporting” countries. Controversial matchmaking practices, such as arranging marriages between younger women and much older men or between strangers, are common among international marriage brokers. Such practices continue to draw strong criticism from women’s groups and human rights advocates for their similarities to human trafficking. One well-publicized case from 2011 involved a stabbing death of a newly-wed Vietnamese woman by her husband, 14 years older than her. To curtail such practices, Vietnamese authorities have recently enacted strict measures to prohibit young Vietnamese women from marrying Korean men over the age of 50. Another measure will prohibit marriages between Korean-Vietnamese couples who have age gaps of more than 16 years.

On the Korean side, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Philippine government to ensure safer international marriages for both spouses. The two governments will also run a joint education program for spouses before they leave the Philippines, in order to ensure accurate information exchange between grooms- and brides-to-be and to try to stop illegal marriage practices.

Amid rising concerns over such marriage arrangements, Cambodia also introduced tighter regulations, banning marriages between Cambodian women and Korean men over the age of 50 who have a monthly income of less than $2,550.


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  • Peter Rosa

    Adding a bit of irony, Korea (along with other Asian countries) has traditionally been a source of mail-order brides for the United States.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      This is a good point, Peter! But I wonder to what extent this is still common… I thought Korean brides were popular in the 1950s and 1960s… Do you have any links on sources of mail brides into the U.S.? This is a topic I am hoping to return to, especially as we move to Siberia next week, another big sources of mail-brides for the U.S.

      • Peter Rosa

         Mail order brides (MOB’s) are a very popular meme in the blogosphere, especially in the Game/Men’s Rights/HBD corners of the blogosphere, but in reality they are a nearly insignificant phenomenon.  There are no official statistics, and the numbers proclaimed by the various MOB agencies are self-serving and inherently suspect.  Not to mention the fact that some of these agencies are rather questionable outfits. 

        Nevertheless, visa statistics can be used to give some rough estimates.  MOB’s entering the United States would use a special fiancee/foreign spouse visa.  Many people *other* than MOB’s use these visas, for all we know MOB’s could be a small minority of all users.  But if we’re to assume for the sake of argument that all of these visa users are MOB’s, marriages involving MOB’s would account for less than one-half of one percent of all marriages that take place in the United States.  Scarcely the major phenomenon that the blogosphere thinks it is.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          I agree that (depending on the definition of MOBs, e.g. not all international marriages are with MOBs) not all of them enter the country on the fiancee visas and not all such visas are issued to MOBs. However, the phenomenon does seem more common in certain communities/sectors of the population and as such deserves some attention.

          • Peter Rosa

             Exactly what men form the target market for MOB’s remains to be seen.  According to the blogosphere it consists mainly of men who are so hopelessly Beta (e.g. 40-y.o. virgins living in Mom’s basement and playing World of Warcraft 24/7) that they have no hope of getting women through “conventional” means, then it’s also claimed that most MOB buyers are traditionalist sorts who consider American women too uppity for their tastes.  In one TV documentary I saw a  few years ago, profiling several American men traveling to Thailand in search of women (not precisely MOB buyers, but close), the men all seemed to be fat and in late middle age, and all wanted 20-something wives.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            I generally agree with your description of the male side to the U.S. international marriage market. But I also wonder if men from certain immigrant communities are more likely to look for a bride “back in the old country”. Not exactly a MOB situation but an international marriage nonetheless…

          • Randy McDonald

            That’s a major theme in some immigrant communities–South Asians in Britain have a very high rate of endogamy and tend to recruit female spouses in countries of origin, incidentally reinforcing family alliances.

  • Phil_Daniels

    I wonder how much of the gender imbalance is a result of international adoption, which has a 2:1 bias towards females.  About 90% of the international adoptees are under the age of 4. 

    There a was a significant rise in the number of Korean children adopted by North Americana, Western Europeans and Australasians in the 1980-90′s, peaking around 1985. My memory is that it was something of a criminal racket. Those adoptees would now be approaching or already in their teens and 20′s.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for the fascinating link on international adoptions, Phil. And you raise an interesting question, though I don’t know the answer to it. But my hunch is that the number of girls adopted from South Korea was still relatively small, to make a huge impact on sex ratios. However, these sex ratios are a tricky thing and a self-exciting process: once a bias one way or another is established, it can be nearly impossible to swing it the other way. I am going to blog more on this in the next couple of weeks, I hope.

      • Phil_Daniels

        Asya, my initial hunch was the same as yours but now I’m not so sure

        Using this graph from the adoption institute. my rough calculation is that in the 20 years between 1973 & 1992 about 72,000 Korean children were adopted out of the country. Using the gender bias of 2:1 in favour of girls – that’s a net loss of 24000 girls.

        The South Korea gender imbalance is not too different to Germany.  But Germany has a migrant population, and it’s in a neighourhood where its much easier to develop cross border relationships.

        As you say its a tricky subject. It would be good if someone extended the Adoption Institutes work for the decade since 2001 – I wonder what impact the 2007/8 Financial Crash had on foreign adoption and marriages.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thank you for the additional comments, as well as the data. This is very interesting indeed. Perhaps international marriages and adoptions play a much more significant role in disbalancing sex ratios than most people would assume, especially since even a small nudge in one direction may impact demographics for several generations.

  • Randy McDonald

    “Curiously, it does not seem to matter what the gender ratio is the “bride-exporting” country.”

    I don’t think that the gender ratio of the bride-exporting country would be very important at all.

    The migration of women to South Korea from its neighbouring countries is driven by pull and push factors, by the wealth of South Korea relative to the sending countries as much as by the deficit in women in certain age groups in South Korea. Even if all of South Korea’s ~50M inhabitants were men of marrying age without any women at all, and all ~50M men each married an immigrant wife in China, less than 5% of the Chinese female population would emigrate. The South Korean sex ratio is significantly less severe than that, fortunately. Marriage migration apparently does have a significant effect in some local communities, in parts of southern Vietnam for instance, but the overall impact on sex ratios in Vietnam never mind the much larger China is trivial.

    I blogged about this back in 2010, FWIW.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks for the link to your blog, Randy! I am not saying that a trickle of MOBs from China would be able to change the sex ratio in that country, but one would think that if there is a male bias, competition among men to find marriage partners would be more stiff and therefore women would have better chances of finding a better partner. Whereas in a country with a strong female bias (such as Russia), men are so scarce that they are pretty much guaranteed a good partner no matter what.

      • Randy McDonald

        I guess it depends on the existence, or not, of a national marriage market. In the case of Vietnamese women marrying South Koreans, the women seem to come from specific agricultural areas in rural southern Vietnam.

        Press reports seem to suggest that men in those specific locales are unhappy with the emigration of so many women of marriageable age, but their concerns don’t seem to be shared widely across Vietnam because the specific experience of women emigrating to marry abroad is such a local experience. Too, the Vietnamese government has a policy of encouraging emigration. Barring more horror stories of breakdowns in cross-country relationships, I’m not sure what if anything would be done.

        The concentration of the search for marriage partners in certain areas seems to be echoed in other countries which take part in this migration. In China, for instance, most of the emigrants come from the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in eastern Jilin on the North Korean frontier. Migration of women from Yanbian to South Korea might well be a local issue in Yanbian, but even province-wide?

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thank you for your informative and insightful comments, Randy! The point about the very local nature of some of these “bride exporting” phenomena is very interesting and something I didn’t know much about.

  • Steven

    Seems like Kyrgyzstan has also become a MOB destination for South Korea. Beats being kidnapped, I guess…

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for sharing this information, Steven! And for connecting this to an earlier GeoCurrents post!

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    In answer to Randy McDonald: Very interesting point about endogamy among South Asians in Britain. There is a number of immigrant communities in the states, which I think rely quite heavily on brides “from the old country” too, including to some extent the Russians.

  • jennypretty

    I am Vietnamese and I feel sad for these girls. I think these
    Vietnamese girls are poor so they married Korean husbands with hope to
    change their future and help their family. As a result, most of them
    ended up miserably. I suggest these Vietnamese women find Vietnamese
    husbands who live in the West. is a service
    that can help them find men in the West.