“Women in South Korea are on Strike Against Being ‘Baby-Making Machines’” headlines a must-read article by Hawon Jung in last week’s New York Times, a role migrant women are expected to perform most of all. Here are two insidious ways in which they are socialized into doing so.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Image source: YouTube.
My neighborhood of Gwangalli Beach is one of the most popular and internationally famous tourist spots in Korea. It is also one of Busan’s busiest nightlife areas. It is not, in my general experience, positively teeming with middle-aged, male farmers, the main customers of international marriage brokers. So why do they bother posting their ads here?
I realize the placement has got nothing to do with Gwangalli really—the ads get spammed just about everywhere in Korea. It’s just that whenever I see them a few blocks behind its trendy bars and nightclubs, I can’t help but laugh at the incongruity with their surroundings. Then pause as I remember the frequent abuse of those overseas brides by either the brokers and/or their new spouses and families, and feel guilty. The metaphor for the harmless-sounding, but ultimately racist, sexist, and objectifying “gendered nationalism” and “gendered multiculturalism” that lurks just behind the glitz and glamour of the Korean Wave, almost suggests itself.
That’s not quite why I paused when I saw the ad on the left in October 2021 though. It was because it was the first I’d ever seen that mentioned “Domestic” (국내) and “North Korean (refugees)” (북한) options in addition to the usual “Vietnam(ese)” (베트남) ones. Possibly, I’d stumbled on an ad for a rare international marriage broker which had also arranged marriages between ethnic Koreans before the pandemic (note that over 70 percent of North Korean refugees are women). But it’s much more likely it was a recent development, forced by international travel restrictions.
Then I paused again a few days ago when I saw that new version on the right, for three reasons.
First, because of the “Women” (여성) that had been tacked on to the new, but also quite usual “International” (국제). Not because it was a surprise that international marriage brokers only supplied brides from overseas, but because of what the “Women” being omitted from “Domestic” and “North Korean” implied: that the same brokers were now also in the business of finding North Korean grooms. Which again implied desperation, considering how neglected they’d been up to that point: as of mid-2020, there were 20-30 agencies that specialized in supplying North Korean brides, against none that specialized in supplying their male counterparts.
And I do mean “supply.” Because next, I’d actually already noticed an ad exactly like it back in May 2022. (With a different number; sorry that I don’t know how many brokers are behind these ads.) Only this time, I was seeing it again after just learning of a problematic episode of the documentary program Algorithm (알고e즘) that screened earlier in January, which featured a 34 year-old Korean husband’s (and parents’) relationship with his 21 year-old Vietnamese wife:
As Professor Michael Hurt of the Korea National University of Arts described it, it was “stealthily ideological.” Specifically (quoted with permission):
If this ain’t human trafficking, I don’t know what is. All the cutesy piano music and pizzacato plucking can’t shoehorn this episode into anything looking like a heartwarming narrative. The closer you look and the more questions are asked, the more this looks like outright human trafficking. Of course this “daughter-in-law“ who is 21 married to a man obviously [much older] isn’t adjusting well to life in a poor Korean household. And they keep trying to frame things as normal mom and daughter-in-law friction, but the real answer to every single conflict in the show—especially when they make a quite performative trip to Vietnam, with mom in tow—is the obvious fact that she looks like a human trafficking victim. Because that’s what she is.
Going further, I’d argue that framing is also about putting migrant wives in their place—as docile, obedient ‘baby-making machines’ for the Korean state. Please hear me out. Combating Korea’s world-low birthrate, most acute in rural areas, is precisely why the international marriage agency was encouraged to develop in the first place. Next, recall that Korean women are already well aware that’s how the Korean state regards them themselves; with migrant brides from much poorer countries, there’s even less pussyfooting about their designated role. Indeed, this mentality even pervades government programs designed to help their integration. Consider as evidence the following abstracts to two academic articles on the topic, and their eerie similarity to what was occurring in the documentary (Right: “Women of Childbearing Age Map” briefly released on Korean government website in December 2016, before being withdrawn due to controversy):
This paper focuses on the role of Multicultural Family Support Centers (MFSCs) to explain the gender, race and cultural hierarchies inherent in South Korea’s system of multiculturalism. Since the 1990s the South Korean state has played an active role in facilitating marriage migration and influencing the reproductive and caregiving decisions of female marriage immigrants. This is reflected in immigration and welfare policies that incentivize migrant wives to have children and provide disproportionate power to Korean husbands. Over the past decade the Korean government has invested heavily in MFSCs. These centers cater exclusively to migrant wives with courses focused on the acquisition of the Korean language and culture. The teachers are generally older Korean women while students are migrant wives from developing countries. The version of Korean culture taught to migrant wives emphasizes traditional Confucian family roles and that a wives’ role is to focus on managing the home and supporting her husband and children. I present two case studies of cultural and cooking classes provided by a MFSC where I volunteered. The classes illustrate that multiculturalism in South Korea is focused on assimilation with limited expectation that Korean husbands and in-law families should adapt to migrant wives. Instead, migrant wives are expected to acquire a strong understanding of how to behave and understand their place in a traditional Korean family structure. I provide migrant wives’ perspectives on these classes and explain why they have limited opportunity to influence or respond to the expectations of the Korean state and in-law families.
“Multiculturalism in South Korea: putting migrant wives in their place” by Stella Jang in Social Identities, September 2022 (my emphases).
Next (for a summary article, see the Gender & Society blog):
In this article, I investigate how gendered nationalism is articulated through everyday practices in relation to immigrant integration policy and the intersectional production of inequality in South Korea. By using ethnographic data collected at community centers created to implement national “multicultural” policy, I examine the individual perspectives and experiences of Korean staff and targeted recipients (marriage migrants). To defend their own “native” privileges, the Korean staff stressed the gendered caretaking roles of marriage migrants and their contribution to the nation as justification for state support. The migrants, while critical of the familial responsibilities imposed on them in Korea, underscored their gendered value to the nation (as mothers to “Korean” children) to offset their subjugated position. The diverging perspectives of the two groups are informed by “everyday” nationalism, generated through constantly gendered terms and effects. Bringing together the literature on nationalism and migration through a focus on reproductive labor, I expose how national boundaries are drawn through quotidian practices of gendered nationalism, with significant implications for gender and ethnic hierarchies.
“Gendered Nationalism in Practice: An Intersectional Analysis of Migrant Integration Policy in South Korea” by Sojin Yu in Gender & Society, November 2020 (my emphasis).
Finally, while admittedly only indirectly related to socialization, an interesting third reason I paid attention to the ad was because the Algorithm documentary reminded me of an episode of Marriage Hell (결혼 지옥) on MBC the month before. In that, the show’s producers and hosts were widely criticized for including scenes of domestic abuse as well as the sexual harassment of a minor, and for failing to intervene in either. Their inaction also revealed a gap in legislation regarding the use of minors in the entertainment industry, as whereas child actors are covered by long-standing legislation regarding their mental and physical well-being, those same protections do not extend to non-(child) actors in their brief appearances on reality programs.
Frankly, as MBC is notoriously racist and trashy, at first I thought that just like Marriage Hell, Algorithm was also produced by that channel. Actually, it was produced by educational channel EBS, that turns out to not at all be as tied to the government as I first thought: according to Wikipedia, “though nominally a public broadcasting entity, it gets most of its yearly budget from advertisements and sales revenue”—which may explain the tone of that program. Either way, I wonder if a better quality documentary on migrant women’s experiences might have been produced by an actual public/national broadcaster like KBS? One in the which the documentary makers didn’t just sit back and deliberately highlight 21 year-old Jjeonti Huin’s (쩐티후인느) complete isolation, but actively helped her to overcome it?
What do you think?
- Why Women Pay More to Join Korean Marriage Agencies
- Why is Korea’s Largest Marriage Agency Only Targeting Women?
- [Feature] Marriage migrants often at mercy of Korean husbands (The Korea Herald)
- A look into S. Korea’s international marriage brokers and “bride buying” (Hankyoreh)
- South Korea shocked by abuse of ‘marriage migrants’ (BBC)
- Mungyeong City under fire for trying to use Vietnamese women to fight population decline (The Korea Times)
- Everyday Gendered Nationalism, The inclusion and exclusion of migrants in South Korea (Gender and Society)
- Marriage reality TV turns out to be not so family friendly (Korea JoongAng Daily)
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)