Vietnamese brides use marriage for South Korean citizenship

By Staff reporters   April 4, 2024 | 03:15 pm PT
After South Korea ends policy of deporting foreign brides post-divorce, Tu Trinh marries a South Korean man 27 years her senior with plans to divorce once residency is secured.

Trinh, 20, shared that a matchmaking service provided her with profiles, backgrounds, and details on 20 South Korean men, allowing her to select the most "compatible" partner.

"After 10 days of phone calls and video chats, my husband visited Vietnam to meet me, bringing along an interpreter," she recounted. "He spent four to five days here before returning to South Korea to start the visa paperwork."

According to Trinh, her 47-year-old husband supported her with VND8 million monthly, covering her Korean language course and living expenses, while her immigration paperwork was processed. It took approximately six months for her husband to complete the procedure and arrange for her travel to South Korea.

Achieving South Korean citizenship, which enables her to work and live in the country legally, and then getting divorced is now Trinh’s primary objective.

"Witnessing many from my hometown illegally entering South Korea for work in harsh conditions, I chose to marry a local for citizenship to avoid visa concerns," she explained. "With a South Korean passport, I can also travel freely, ensure a better future for my children, and sponsor my family’s relocation."

A groom and a bride exchanging rings. Illustration photo by Pexels

A groom and a bride exchanging rings. Illustration photo by Pexels

South Korean regulations stipulate that foreign brides can apply for citizenship after two years of marriage to local men, provided they hold a Korean language certificate and possess a basic understanding of the country's culture and society.

The application results for naturalization are communicated to the brides in a timeframe of between three months and one year. Those with children who have resided in South Korea for over five years receive priority in their applications.

Since the cessation of the policy to deport foreign brides post-divorce in 2019, some Vietnamese women aim to marry South Korean nationals and subsequently divorce, mirroring Trinh’s strategy.

Bich Van, 27, from the northern town of Hai Phong, is such a case. She spent VND20 million on a matchmaking service to marry a South Korean man, viewing the marriage as a stepping stone for resettlement.

Van’s husband is now 41, while her own mother is 45, she said.

"I regard marriage as a means to gain citizenship within two to three years, not intending to cohabit permanently," she said. "My objective is to fulfill the residency requirements for the citizenship examination."

Van, whose mother worked for a labor export company, observed that marrying for citizenship is a common strategy. Other methods include studying, working, or visiting relatives in the country as avenues for permanent settlement and citizenship.

Statistics Korea announced last month that 20,000 marriages between South Korean citizens and foreigners occurred last year, up from 17,000 the previous year, according to Yonhap News Agency. Vietnamese women represented the largest portion of foreign wives, accounting for 33.5% last year, followed by Chinese and Thai wives.

However, the increase in marriage rates was accompanied by a rise in divorce rates among multicultural couples, with a 5.1% increase in divorces, totaling 6,000 cases in 2023. Among these, over 300 South Korean men have complained online about being deserted by their Vietnamese wives, as reported by Chosun Daily.

Yonhap News Agency thus raised concerns suggesting that the motivation behind some Vietnamese women marrying South Korean men could be primarily to acquire South Korean citizenship.

Supporting this claim, Statistics Korea provided data indicating a notable rise in unions between Vietnamese men and South Korean national women. Specifically, the number of such marriages increased from 279 in 2013 to 792 in 2022, which includes 556 instances of remarriage in the latter year.

It was noted that among the women with South Korean citizenship who remarried Vietnamese men in 2022, a significant majority of 86.7%, or 482 women, were initially from Vietnam. These women had previously gained South Korean citizenship through their first marriages, followed by a divorce, before entering into second marriages with Vietnamese men.

A matchmaker emphasized that the practice of exploiting marriage for citizenship is real, necessitating a commitment from brides to maintain the marriage for at least one year to prevent misuse of the service. Vietnamese women are expected to be loyal partners and potentially mothers to the children of their South Korean clients, he explained.

"A failure to comply results in a fine for us, which we must then pass on to the groom," the broker cautioned. "So their [Vietnamese bride’s] families bear responsibility if they flee."

At the same time, aiming to use temporary marriages to achieve citizenship prospects, many Vietnamese brides endure hardships, compromising their mental and physical well-being.

"I feel no affection for my husband, leading to daily annoyance and stress," Van said. "This has been adversely affecting my mental health."

Trinh, initially hopeful of forming a genuine connection with her husband, also highlighted the challenge of relying on childbirth to strengthen the bond between Vietnamese women and their South Korean spouses, who are often older and face fertility issues.

"At the clinic, we were informed of the difficulties in conceiving due to my husband’s age of 47," she said. "But he unfairly holds me accountable."

Compounding the difficulty is the significant language barrier she faces. With only six months of Korean lessons, Trinh struggles to communicate, making her social interactions outside of the home limited only to weekly supermarket visits with her husband.

Since her relocation to South Korea, she has spent her days at home preparing meals for her husband and waiting for his return. And the time they do have together is marked by silence.

"On the rare occasions we do communicate, it is through Google Translate," she explained.

This isolation and longing for her homeland have led Trinh to tears each night, a sentiment she conceals from her mother to spare worry. Her current aspiration is to secure citizenship within the next two to three years, which will allow her the option to leave her marriage.

"Departing now would mean forfeiting all the financial investment made so far," Trinh stated. "Securing citizenship is essential for me to eventually sponsor my mother’s move here."

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