Arts, Culture & Media

Protecting foreign brides in South Korea

A group of Women sits around a table in a domestic violence shelter. They all came to South Korea on marriage visas, but wound up being abused by their new husbands. These women all met their husbands through marriage agencies that operate in many Southeast Asian countries.

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One Vietnamese woman who asked to be called Hong says a marriage broker went to every house in her neighborhood looking for women to marry Korean men. Hong says her family wasn't poor by Vietnamese standards, but they still thought a life in South Korea would be better.

She describes how she met her husband � to � be, �The first time I saw him, I was with four other women that he had to choose from. I liked him, but he chose another girl so I had to go back home. But on my way the matchmaker called me and said he changed his mind about the other woman and chose me. The next day we had our wedding in Vietnam, It was then that I saw him drinking a lot of alcohol.�

Hong says, in hindsight, that should have been a warning. She says she knew life in Korea wouldn't be easy but it was much worse than she imagined.

�My husband would drink all day and night. Every night he would pressure me for sex. His sister would tell me that I ruined his life, so I was getting no support from his family. But I didn't go back to Vietnam because I didn't want to burden my family with these problems�

After Hong complained to a counselor at her marriage agency, her husband got violent. During one fight, she says, he pulled a knife on her. The police were called and Hong was taken to the shelter. Hong claims the marriage agency that introduced her to her husband covered up his drinking and lied about his income and housing situation.

That's not at all unusual, says the Catholic nun who runs the shelter. She didn't want to give her name. She says these marriage agencies are only interested in profit � they charge men at least ten thousand dollars for the matchmaking fee. And with a steady supply of women wanting to come to Korea for what they think will be a better life, she says the brokers are basically running a human trafficking network.

�When problems arise, these match makers and the marriage agency say the marriage is broken. So the agency will just look for another woman to give him�

A number of marriage brokers in Seoul declined requests for interviews for this story. Brokers in general have come under fire in southeast Asia.

Earlier this year, Cambodia banned Korean agencies from operating there. And after all the bad press and complaints from human rights groups, the government here is cracking down as well. Song Ji Eun is an official at South Korea's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. She says these agencies hurt the nation's image abroad.

Song says to prevent abuse of these brides, especially after the murder of a Vietnamese woman this year, the government is now requiring all marriage agencies to disclose private information about their male clients.

That includes providing prospective foreign brides with full financial, medical and criminal background checks. If the agencies don't, they'll lose their license in South Korea. But brokers still won't be penalized if a husband later beats or kills his wife.

Hong, the young Vietnamese woman who found out too late that her husband was an abusive alcoholic, says she doesn't want to see her matchmaker or her estranged spouse punished for what happened. She has bigger concerns now � She's seven months pregnant. �I just want my husband to help me support our child. I don't want to go back to Vietnam. I just want to have a normal life here in Korea.�

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