Photo: Lee, left, a Filipina whose Korean husband died in a farming accident, talks about life as a “marriage migrant” in South Korea with her daughter in Paju, Gyeonggi Province. / Korea Times


By Kim Young-jin

PAJU, Gyeonggi Province — Nguyen Thi Thang, a Vietnamese woman married to a Korean man, quietly wants a divorce. But she rarely entertains the thought — returning to her hometown farm would deprive her five-year-old son of growing up in a developed country.

The marriage was brokered four years ago by a family acquaintance, with the groom more than likely paying under the table for the matchmaking.

But it is not because of him that she wants out — it’s her in-laws.

“I get abuse from them every day,” said Nguyen, 34, who works in a ginseng factory in this city nestled into the greenery of northern Gyeonggi Province. “But I have to think about my child.”

Things are brighter for her co-worker, Dinh Thi Khuyen.

The 26-year-old who arrived five years ago says she’s living happily despite the age gap of over 20 years with her office worker husband, especially since she learned Korean.

“It’s less frustrating these days. My husband treats me pretty well,” Dinh said.

They are among the some 1,300 “migrant wives” living in Paju after marrying Korean men through formal or informal brokers.

A walk around this city heavily concentrated with migrant workers and spouses shows their experience runs the gamut from domestic happiness to physical and verbal abuse to sudden nightmares. Their wellbeing remains tenuous and things can spin quickly out of control.

Korea’s hard look in the mirror

Paju is facing the same problem as many rural areas in Asia: young, educated women are flocking to big cities, leaving the men without potential mates.

Increasingly, these bachelors look overseas, mostly to China and Southeast Asia, for spouses, using matchmaking services that arrange tours to meet and marry women, usually seeking a better life in a richer country.

Of the some 190,000 such women who now reside in Korea, many say they were duped by brokers into a false vision of what life would be like, ending up with much older men, often with physical or mental disabilities.

In May, the second Vietnamese bride in a year was murdered in Cheongdo in the southeastern part of the country, sending ripples of fear among married migrants.

A similar murder a year earlier of a woman who had arrived in the country just days earlier prompted the government to crack down on illegal brokers and educate husbands on how to treat the new brides.

“I see these brides, so young and pretty,” said Cho Yun-hi, head of the Paju Multicultural Family Support Center that provides them with a wide range of educative services as well as family counseling. “They want to live a better life but the husbands are so old and often die soon. It makes me angry.”

The demand for such services, as well as the ugly incidents involving them, are forcing Koreans, who have long prided themselves on homogeneity to take a hard look at who comprises their society — and how to treat them — amid a dwindling birthrate.

Through the cracks

Migration experts say establishing thorough government oversight of the phenomenon will take time, and urge pan-societal efforts, from the government to NGOs, to help create a “soft nest” for the brides when they arrive.

In the meantime, plenty are falling through the safety net.

Lee (an alias), a 31-year-old Filipina, is one such case.

After marrying a Korean man in 2005, Lee moved from a small island in the Philippines to a tiny farming village tucked deep into the mountains of northeast Paju.

Shy to begin with, she faced a host of hurdles including an older husband who once scolded her for eating too much fruit without offering him some first. But after working side-by-side on their pig farm, the two warmed to each other, despite her never learning the language.

Two years ago, a water tank on the farm became overfilled and broke from its support, crushing and immediately killing her husband.

Lee sold the pigs and moved into a tiny apartment, far from support services, where she now lives with their six-year-old daughter, her savings dwindling.

She has slipped into lethargy and isolation, her social workers say.

Though she has considered going back to her homeland, she doesn’t have a support system there either, not to mention her stepson refuses to sell the family land — mostly hers — to finance the trip.

She seems stuck between wanting more engagement and staying put in the safety of the tiny, ground-level apartment.

“It would be nice to be closer to Filipinas and study Korean,” she said. “But I like it here. And I want to get along better with my stepson.”

Worst of all, she cannot communicate with her daughter, who understands only Korean, not Lee’s Tagalog.

“I’m worried how I’m going to support her. I only want her to have a bright future here. That’s my dream,” she said.

One look into the girl’s eyes, however, as she lays on the blanket the two share for a bed, diligently etching Korean characters into a workbook, reveals the heavy burden she too is feeling.

“Unfortunately, there are cases like this,” Cho said.

Brighter future?

Perhaps it was when the television went crashing through the window, in one of her husband’s drunken rages that Maria (an alias) began to plot her own future.

The Filipina, now 38, can’t pinpoint the exact moment her dreams were revived, but knows when things began turning around and where she’s going.

She too was living in isolation after arriving in 2002 to find her husband to be chronically unemployed with a drinking problem. He would pick huge-late night quarrels with his parents, who wanted him to shape up and find work.

“I didn’t know Korean, so I couldn’t communicate with him,” she said. “I didn’t want to provoke him.”

Amid the strife, she gave birth to the first of her three children. She also received a call from the center, which found her name on an official register and offered her free Korean lessons at her apartment.

“Now, I can say whatever it is I am feeling and he can understand,” she said.

With her husband wrestling his demons, Maria, like so many others, often mulls divorce but says she plans to stay and is determined not to let him weigh her down.

Maria is now participating in an initiative by the city of Ilsan through which she teaches multiculturalism in public schools. She says she wants to study education and teach English at a private institute or public school.

As for her marriage, which she stays in for “moral reasons,” she has learned to see beyond it to pursue a greater goal.

“I don’t think about him much,” she said. “I go it on my own. If I study some more, I hope to teach. And I want to share my life story with others who are suffering so they won’t feel so isolated like I did.”