by: Kim, Hyun Mee, Associate Professor, Department of Cultural Anthropology, Yonsei University
“The defendant is not only the one who should be indicted. It is merely one evidence of our society’s overall immaturity. The heartlessness of ‘handling’ foreign women who might have come from countries less wealthy than ours (South Korea) like ‘imported goods,’ the recklessness of thinking that marriage is complete when a man and a woman decide to live together, even though the couple cannot communicate with each other verbally; these inanities of ours inevitably lead to catastrophic results. Here, we should painfully confess the barbarism that hides underneath a seemingly civilized state and prosperous country of the 21st century.”
The passage above is part of judgment made on a case in which a Korean man killed his Vietnamese bride, Huan Mai. In 2007, Huan Mai was beaten to death by her husband, with 18 ribs broken. The 41-year old husband paid 10 million won, which was all he had, to a marriage brokerage and married Huan Mai, who was only 19-years old, because he “was ashamed of living alone at his age” and “thought people would consider him as a moron.” The husband was an ex-convict who had been charged with alcohol-related violence several times, but the bride didn’t know. The husband wasn’t faithful to the marriage even after Huan Mai arrived in Korea in May 2007. Judging that her husband no longer had the will to sustain their marriage, Huan Mai made her mind to return to Vietnam, but was murdered when she was packing by her husband who came back home drunk. This incident is only one of the many suicides, harassments, and murders foreign brides have experienced in Korea.
Here, I want to focus on ‘barbarism that hides underneath a seemingly civilized state,’ which is what the judge painfully confessed to. Multiculturalism discourses that lack serious reflection on our barbarism are thriving in Korea recently. Multiculturalism is the basis of the Korean government’s policies and is also a political standpoint, which embraces multiculturalism and proclaims a political vision of social integration based on equality. Specifically, government policies based on multiculturalism reflect each country’s historical experiences and values. Normally, this aims to eliminate discrimination that exists between groups of different culture and between natives and migrants. Policies that gear to the merging of cultural minorities or migrants into the main-stream are actively carried out. Social integration is sought under the consideration that cultural divergence and the creativity that stems from it, is an important resource to the state’s competitiveness. Hence, the goal of the multicultural policy lies in the state presenting fair conditions for ‘integration’ to migrants.
The situation of Korea and Korean Governments’ using the term ‘multiculturalism’ is quite unique and rather contradictory to the values multiculturalism normally promotes. 1.6 million long-time foreign residents live in Korea as of 2007, but the Korean government has never prepared multicultural policies for migrant workers, who are considered temporary residents. It was only when the number of marriage migrants, who are the first settle-down type immigrants, started to increase rapidly multiculturalism discourse was spurred. Currently, eleven thousand marriage migrants are ‘accepted as Korean citizens’ because they give birth to Korean children and become part of Korean families.
The government introduced multiculturalism discourse rather abruptly in 2006, announcing a ‘transition to a multicultural, multiethnic society.’ Systemized Korean education was provided to marriage immigrants, and welfare for women and their children was introduced. Nevertheless, especially after 2006, marriage immigrants are explicitly referred to as ‘a solution to the low-birth, aging crisis of the Korean society.’ Since the settle-down type marriage immigrants are expected to do reproductive labor, not productive labor, legislations and policies regarding marriage immigrants are limited to ‘family’ and ‘home.’ A variety of legislations related to marriage immigrants are being enacted in this situation. For example, there is the
This presentation aims at critically analyzing the meaning of the Korean policies made for the marriage migrants and their families, and the gender ideology that is contained inside them.
2. Korean Government Policies on Marriage Migrants: Making the ‘Average’ Women Migrant
(1) Act on Regulations of the International Marriage Brokerage
The claimant married a Vietnam local on May 2006 after paying 9 million won to an international marriage brokerage on 02/12/2005. The spouse arrived in Korea on 18/12/2006, but left home on 05/02/2007. The claimant requested a reimbursement from the brokerage but was refused.
Nowhere in the law are found descriptions of the damages done on migrant women by false information or compensation for them. Marriage migrant women are explained as products that can be ‘purchased,’ ‘used,’ ‘returned’ and ‘reimbursed.’ The law has the possibility of infringing on women’s rights. Terms like ‘reimbursement’ and ‘return’ have become important in stating the rights and duties of the consumer and provider surrounding marriage migrant women. Ultimately, the brokerage act positions brokerage within the consumer law, which leads to the ‘commercialization’ of migrant women.
What I felt when I did human rights education for international marriage brokerages was a great ‘disappointment.’ The new brokerage law states that all brokerages are required to have deposits or have guaranty insurance. Because of this, there were application forms from guaranty insurance companies all over the education room, and the brokers were excited that their business can emerge as ‘legal’ business recognized by the Ministry of Welfare and that they can also receive education from the state. The brokerage which has been tainted with its profit-making practices of ‘buying foreign women’ becomes a registered and very legitimate business which more people seek this job as a lucrative business. Where does our reflection of the ‘barbarism that hides underneath a seemingly civilized state and prosperous country of the 21st century’ triggered by the death of Huan Mai, exist? Is the integration of migrants, which is the main value of multiculturalism, lawful?
(2) Multicultural Family Support Law
The < Multicultural Family Support law >, which came into effect in September 2008, aims at providing broad social service to migrant women and their children. Social support for migrant women is conceptualized as ‘life-cycle service.’ Women are thought to go through life-cycle 1: early years of migration, family forming stage, life-cycle 2: pregnancy, birth stage, life-cycle 3: child-raising stage, life-cycle 4: reentering labor market stage. The women are provided service according to each life cycle. But actually, many migrant women are re-married, and there are also many women who haven’t had children because of their husband’s children. Some enter the labor market earlier because of their economic situations. More than often, women experience stages simultaneously, not independently. This act, which is based on the life-scripts of Korean middle class women, is being advertised as systematic state support of migrant women, but it supposes that all marriage migrant women live the kind of life ‘expected from the society.’ Migrant women, regardless of their career goals, educational background, or work experience, are totally integrated into the Korean family early upon their arrival at Korea or are equalized as unsophisticated entities. Such imagination on migrant women even justifies discrimination against those who don’t fit into the norm. Delaying the granting of citizenship in cases of childless migrant women because they ‘have not been thoroughly adjusted yet’ is one common example. Even though many migrant women decide to have children after their family reaches a certain amount of economic stability, they are accused of ‘disguised marriages.’
(3) Social Integration Program Completion Policy
The Social Integration Program Completion policy, which is currently being debated, is also materializing. The Social Integration Program Completion policy exempts migrants who wish to settle in Korea from the citizenship acquisition test when s/he finishes certain Korean education courses or ‘Understand multiculturalism’ authorized by the Minister of Legislation. The Ministry of Legislation says the program is intended to prevent “the increasing maladjustments of marriage migrants and naturalized citizens” and “social costs that might be caused if migrants and their offspring become socially and economically vulnerable when cut off from education and job opportunities.” The main target of the program is marriage migrant women. The social integration program divides Korean language ability to 5 levels, and allows one to skip levels through taking differentiated tests. The Ministry of Legislation also claims that the
There are opinions that the Social Integration Program will actually have a positive effect over marriage migrant women. Namely, making it mandatory for women to learn Korean can help migrant women who can’t receive education due to their family’s oppositions. Especially, for migrant women in the rural areas who do not have access to education either because of work or their husband’s objections, the program can give them the opportunity to speak out for their right to education. Some say that the program encourages migrant women’s sense of ‘self-respect’ and facilitates interviews, which leads to migrant women’s health settlement in Korea (Lee Sung-soon 2008:352-353).
But the cultural discourse that lies underneath social integration is problematic because it fosters the notion of nationality based on linguistic homogeneity by making women learn Korean for two years after their arrival. The receiving country should break from the habitual coupling language ability and citizenship acquisition. The Social Integration Program turned the Korean language into something that should be blindly pursued in order to acquire citizenship. In fact, Korean is merely a means of communication, not something that should be forced to be learned. A good transition to a migration state can be achieved naturally when the various dialects of Korean spoken by migrants are performed in the public space or the media, letting the society experience multicultural change. Also, language is both an instrument for communication and artistic self-expression, thus for migrant women, speaking in their own language is a symbol of self-respect and self-identity. Numerous studies show that migrants construct the most positive self-identity when they consider they are absorbing different culture on the basis of their cultural identity. But Korea’s strong language-nationalism sees the migrants’ maintenance of cultural identity through speaking their own language, as something that should be given up for their quick adjustment. This severely harms migrant women’s sense of cultural identity, which is fundamental to their self-esteem.
The most important thing in the integration into a multicultural society, is that culture including language is also a form of right. Even if migrants have achieved a so-called ‘citizenship,’ s/he cannot exercise the political rights, labor rights, and social rights with discrimination and lack of social recognition. Cultural rights as a part of citizenship provides the material and emotional resources that enables one’s integration into the mainstream and grants one the right to speak for one’s cultural differences (Kim, Hyun Mee 2008). For this reason, migrants have the right to refuse mainstream culture against unwanted and forced cultural integration (Castles and Davidson, 2000).
In fact, the strong association of the same ancestry-mother tongue-citizenship is based on the most exclusive nation-state. Transition into a multi-ethnic, multicultural nation as the Korean government claims, requires the heteroglossian imagination of the civil society. Kim Young-ok (2008) emphasizes that since integration gives migrants the feeling of ‘belonging,’ and an important factor of ‘belonging’ is participation, genuine integration can be achieved only through guaranteeing equity of participation. She writes that the empowerment of migrant women through various education programs using non-language media like plays or films, should be actively developed.
Also, this program does not take consideration of migrant women in the rural areas who are burdened of heavy reproductive and productive labor. The heavy burden might result in migrant women dropping out of the social integration program, which would in turn lead to social denouncement of their irresponsibility and incompetence. Ultimately, the migrant women who refuse to be integrated will receive disadvantage in the form of citizenship and qualifications for stay, bothering migrant women from seeking stabile settlement.
3. The Integration Policy as Patriarchal Family-Oriented Welfare Model
The characteristics of the Korean government’s policies for migrant women can be defined as the ‘patriarchal family-oriented welfare model.’ The gender ideology within this model imagines women as labor power that replaces reproductive labor, and subjects them under the frame of forming, maintaining, and reproducing the ‘family,’ despite their various roles and practices. Social services are provided for women to fit into this ideology. In fact, the patriarchal family defines women’s roles specifically and incorporates them in a very amicable and reciprocal way. If migrant women tacitly meet the demands of the Korean society, they provide welfare service and equalize women as passive, helpless recipients of welfare service. Since Korea’s social integration model is that of a patriarchal institution which prioritizes men’s interests, social service provided for women is actually a support program for families who have migrant women.
The policy includes class discrimination as well as sexism. In fact, according to a 2005 survey on marriage migrants conducted by the Ministry of Welfare, approximately 52.9% women lived under the social minimum income level. In a 2006 survey conducted by the Ministry of Women, many replied that they were ‘low class,’ when asked about their economic status in Korea, and 43.6% said that the women’s status in Korea is even lower than that of their native countries. It reflects that the Korean society is currently transferring the low-birth crisis and lack of care-work to the so-called multicultural families who are mostly lower class, generating a stratified labor division system within the society. This is related to the situation in which ‘education’ for migrant women and also their spouses and families, is guided by the government. Telling men the importance of being responsible for their marriage, warding off women who came to Korea through ‘disguised marriage’ and do productive labor instead of reproductive labor, can also interpreted in the same context.
The evaluation of migrant women’s reproductive labor is not proper in this model. The more serious problem is that the marriage migrant women’s reproductive labor is seen as a natural process of adjustment, which isn’t ‘too difficult.’ Seen through the lens of orientalism, Asian women are considered as docile, easy-to-control women who have the ‘inherent’ desire to care. Also, since marriage migrant women practice typical gender roles in Korea, their settlement is thought as ‘natural.’ Since the women do reproductive labor and care work, which don’t require education and skill, they are considered to carrying out the type of work they have done back in their country. But the Korean society’s expectations on marriage migrant women to play the typical gender roles are very different from those of the women, who have had various cultural experiences. Although there are differences based on age and native country, many Chinese, Vietnamese, Mongolian, and Cambodian women have internalized the socialist notion of gender-equal labor. Philippine women, having been influenced by their country’s tradition of matriliny, hold strong belief in the economic role of women. Their life style is in stark contrast to that of the Confucian idea of women, which demands ‘sacrifice without compensation’ and nullifies women’s economic contributions. Upon their arrival and settlement in Korea, marriage migrant women are surprised to discover the conservative, outdated concept of gender and expectations their husbands and families, who live in such a ‘modern’ and ‘prosperous’ country, have (Freeman 2005). Marriage migrant women are familiar to nuclear families and expect intimacy between husband and wife. But being called ‘foreign wives’ and ‘foreign daughter-in-laws’ in Korea, they are shocked to learn how patriarchal the roles given to them are. The women drop their cultural identity in order to adjust themselves to expected gender roles and they go through many conflicts and negotiations.
But the legal, social, and common discourses of marriage migrant women all see the women as those who can tacitly practice reproductive labor and ‘filial piety’ as well. Women have to sketch their reality and future on the basis of these social expectations. Asian migrant women, regardless of their will, education, or class, become the ‘typical Asian migrant women’ who undertakes reproductive work. But integration should take into consideration the labor rights, gender rights, and cultural rights that meet the expectations of women who have ‘chosen’ to migrate to Korea ‘for a better life’ (Kim Hyun Mee, Kim Min-jung, Kim Jung-sun 2008).
Marriage migrations should be understood as ‘the reorganization process of gendered labor’ generated by the neo-liberalist global economy, not a matter of ‘migrant women settling down in the Korean society through marriage.’ The femininity, caring ability, and devotion demanded from migrant women as reproduction laborers are specific abilities required in a specific context, and they are by no means inherent or natural.
This problem leads to the question ‘how can Korean women and migrant women unite.’ Migrant women are imagined as a ‘substitutive labor force’ that can resolve the Korean society’s low-birth crisis and lack of care-work. They are therefore expected to take up social roles that couldn’t be easily forced on native Korean women. Korean women have participated in historical movements that refused and fought against typical gender roles. But they often lack the belief that their desire for ‘equality’ and ‘modernity’ should also be extended to the lives of marriage migrant women. Therefore, the hierarchy formed between ‘native women’ and ‘migrant women’ needs reflection. Ways for native and Korean women to collectively dismantle the patriarchal imagination of Korean society as ‘equal’ participants should by thought out. The most important thing needed for the recognition of migrant women as ‘new citizens’ is the reinforcement of laws that guarantee women’s ‘safe migration,’ and the dismantling of ‘discrimination’ that lies in laws and institutions centralized on ‘native citizens,’ so that the women can enjoy basic rights, such as rights that guarantee stable settlements. Discriminative laws, language, and images of foreigners that are fixed in the Korean society, should disappear. Breaking from the old habit of thinking marriage migrant women only within patriarchal imagination is also important.
Kim, Hyun Mee (2008), “Migrants and Multiculturalism,” Journal of Contemporary Society and Culture, 26. Institute for Social Development Studies, Yonsei University.
Kim, Hyun Mee, Kim, Min-Jeong, Kim, Jung Sun (2008), “Safe Marriage Migration? Migration Process and Experiences of Mongolian Migrants in South Korea,” Journal of Korean Women’s Studies, 24(1): 121-155.
Kim, Young-Ok (2008), “Cultural Education for Women Marriage Migrant from a Perspective of the Social Integration,” A paper presented at the
Lee, Sung-Soon (2008), “Introducing Immigration Integration Courses in Korea,” The Journal of Migration & Society, 1(1): 347-357.
Freeman, Caren (2005), “Marrying Up and Marrying Down: The Paradoxes of Marital Mobility for Chosunjok Brides in South Korea,’ In Cross-Border Marriages: Gender and Mobility in Transnational Asia, edited by Nocole Constable, 80-100. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
Castles, Stephan and Davidson, Alastair , 2000, Citizenship and Migration: Globalization and the Politics of Belonging. New York: Routledge.