Mail-order wedding brokers little more than traffickers

By Hong Phuc   July 22, 2019 | 10:00 pm PT
Brokers marry off Vietnamese women to Korean men for money, apathetic to the fact they are putting them in harm’s way.
Hong Phuc

Hong Phuc

I have been delving for the past few days into the definitions of 'human trafficking.' They may vary but all boil down to one thing: an act aimed at transporting people from one place to another for monetary gain.

Human trafficking is the least known of transnational crimes, but is highly pervasive and hugely profitable.

Many fumed about a Vietnamese bride being assaulted by her Korean spouse in South Jeolla Province, South Korea. Formal apologies and promises to "strictly handle" the case afterward seemed to be among the media tactics to assuage the public outrage.

The harsh realities of domestic violence in Vietnamese - South Korean marriages are not reflected solely by the acts of a violent husband caught, unfortunately for him, red-handed.

The solution to domestic violence does not lie in using the might of the law after a man physically assaults his wife. Assault and battery is common in marriages arranged through bargaining rather than love, where human sentiments and feelings are commercialized and considerable inequalities exist in the first place.

This commercialization is fueled by both supply and demand. The South Korean government has adopted numerous policies to improve its shrinking population as a consequence of many South Korean men failing to find a spouse at home. Many South Korean localities are willing to cover its roving men’s airfare, accommodation and matchmaking fees as they go abroad in search of life partners.

South Gyeongsang Province provides each single male citizen with a subsidy of 10 million won ($8,500) for the purpose of advancing the province’s agriculture should they manage to marry a foreign bride.

In Vietnam, marriage brokering is illegal, yet there has been a continuous flow of Vietnamese brides overseas for years. The authorities do not know how many of these marriages have been arranged through brokers.

During a trip to the Mekong Delta two years ago, I learned about around 10 women married to Korean men. They were either visiting their hometown or running away from their husbands. One of them, Tran Thanh Lan, returned in the form of ashes after just 26 days in South Korea. Her mother showed me her diary in which she had listed her sufferings from the physical assaults and panic attacks in a foreign land, culminating in her throwing herself off her husband’s family’s 17th-floor apartment.

I also met with hundreds of women attending intensive Korean language courses in Can Tho City to later join this migration. Most of them were pushed into the marriage by acquaintances.

These acquaintances may vary. Some are actually marriage brokers, while some are known to befriend the brides’ relatives living in urban areas or get in touch with the brides’ neighbors, etc.

They come to see the potential brides in person, check their appearance, age, and family situation and to talk them into coming to see middle-aged Korean men who might later turn out to be their husband.

The bright prospects touted by these "acquaintances" to the young girls and their parents are strikingly similar.

"The matchmakers told us that Korean husbands enjoy high monthly salaries of 50 to 100 million dong, all of which will be given to their wives. Their families are well-off, parents-in-law treasure their daughters-in-law, offer their in-laws everything they like, and the daughter-in-laws can return to their motherland whenever they want to visit their parents," Bich, who's married to a South Korean through a broker, recounted.

She had barely managed to escape from her husband, Lee, a worker at a kimchi production facility one snowy night. She cannot even remember the name of that rural neighborhood. She had been suffering from chronic depression after being strangled unconscious and sexually assaulted by her husband.

Dozens of girls face the same harsh reality of being unable to reach their matchmakers by phone after their marriage.

"We were so young when we first set foot in Saigon, knowing nothing. The fate of Vietnamese women like us is grim, and our marriage is like pot luck."

For months the thought was reverberating in my head that these acquaintances and marriage brokers who blend into rural neighborhoods to scour for girls aged under 20, and lure them into marriages with Korean men, are nothing but human traffickers.

Bich told me that advertisements by matchmaking agencies are very common in South Korea, and say things like the fee for a successful arranged marriage is only 10 million won and mostly covered by the local government, "absolute guaranty of a perfect Asian wife," "virgin and not runaway brides."

Relatives take photographs of a newlywed couple before a mass wedding ceremony in Gapyeong, South Korea, September 7, 2017. Photo by Reuters/File.

Relatives take photographs of a newlywed couple before a mass wedding ceremony in Gapyeong, South Korea, September 7, 2017. Photo by Reuters/File.

According to the country’s media, there are around 1,250 matchmaking agencies who arrange thousands of marriages between South Korean men and foreign brides every year. Vietnamese brides account for 73 per cent of all mixed marriages in South Korea. South Korean grooms are, on average, 18 years older than their wives, and it takes these men less than four days to get to know a woman and get married.

While one side provides money for men looking for foreign spouses, an obvious act of buying, the other has failed to prevent marriage brokers scouring for commodities in rural areas to put on sale.

I met Nguyen Mai H, 19, of Kien Giang Province, who proudly told me that she had just got a husband named Kim Jung Si, a 42 year-old Korean man, through an "acquaintance."

She was attending an intensive one-month Korean language course.

"I am going to live with my husband in Nanching Province."

"Do you know where it is?"

"No. I only know my husband works as a goods checker for a company about which I do not know either."

The pretty girl, hair dyed blonde Korean-style, flipped through her phone screen with sparkling stone-studded nails to show off her wedding photo. Her spouse had small eyelids and wrinkles visible around his eyes, and was wearing a pinkish short-sleeved shirt with the young bride beside him in a pink gown. There was no physical contact in the photo. The bride was holding an artificial bouquet while the groom had his hands in his pockets. Her husband had come to Vietnam twice, including once for their wedding.

H said with a grin: "Men in that province do prefer Vietnamese girls. My acquaintance told me she had married her South Korean husband quite suddenly, but it later turned out she had a good life. So she wanted me to be like her."

To make Vietnamese - South Korean weddings a healthy affair, first and foremost women should not be treated as chattel for marriage brokers to earn money. While waiting for the South Korean government to amend its policies on foreign brides, we need to protect our citizens by halting mail-order marriages.

I hope there will be no longer be mothers like Mrs. Kim Anh, mother of Lan, who kept saying: "My girl is dead, there is no way to reverse this. If only she had not left for South Korea, we would have had each other and we could have endured whatever hardships together."

*Hong Phuc is a Vietnamese journalist. The opinions expressed are her own.

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