Brokered marriages hurt husbands, too

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Brokered marriages hurt husbands, too

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Ahn Jae-sung, right, the head of the International Marriage Victims’ Center, looks at photos of his ex-wife among many other photos of missing foreign wives sent to him by the husbands they have left behind at his home office in Bugye-dong, Incheon. Jeon Sang-su, left, who is soon to be divorced, volunteers at the center to advise others facing divorce. By Park Sang-moon


Korea’s drive to open its doors and convert itself into a multicultural country has produced a new generation of multiethnic couples, primarily Korean men married to foreign women. But beneath this promise of a “multicultural future” lies a darker side of broken marriages involving unexpected victims: men.

Though cases of abuse of foreign women by their Korean husbands are well documented, cases in which the husband is the victim are less well known but rising.

One such case involves construction worker Jeon Sang-su. Though he is currently unemployed, Jeon found himself with an unusual job last year: tracking down his wife. The 50-year-old has refused to take jobs since the summer, when his wife, who is from Uzbekistan, left him after a year of marriage, taking all of the valuables in the house, including his credit cards and bankbook.

Sometime after she left, Jeon got a text message saying that his credit card had been used at a bakery in Namyangju, Gyeonggi. Then, he checked his bank account and discovered that about 900,000 won ($800) had been withdrawn. He went right to the bakery to confirm that his wife had indeed been there and then he went to the bank and asked to see the CCTV footage, which showed that she was the one who had withdrawn the money from the account. He spent the next few days hiding in a train station nearby to see if he could catch her in the area, but he never did.

“How could that have been possible?” Jeon lamented in a restless but angry voice. “All I wanted was to have a family of my own, but now I’m alone.”

He said he trusted his wife when he first met her through a friend in 2010 because her two sisters were already married to Korean men. But when she betrayed him, he said he was finally forced to confront the fact that many international marriages have broken up, including his.

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“Many men stay married because they don’t know where to start if they want to file for divorce or nullify their marriage,” said Ahn Jae-sung, who was previously in an international marriage but is now divorced.

Ahn is currently the head of the nonprofit International Marriage Victims’ Center, which he established to help people like himself. He saw his marriage to an Uzbekistani woman fall apart when she began asking for money and then threatened him with a small knife before running out.

Ahn consoled Jeon and helped him file for a divorce, which Jeon said will be finalized within the week.


Harsh consequences

The number of marriage migrants in Korea has risen at a rapid pace in recent years. It was more than 211,000 in January 2011, a 16.4 percent increase from the 181,000 recorded in the previous year, according to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

The number of international marriages has increased as well, from 15,000 cases in 2001 to over 34,000 cases in 2010, which is 10.5 percent of all marriages in Korea. And of the 34,000 cases, marriages between Korean men and foreign women numbered more than 26,000.

With the rise in international marriages has come a corresponding rise in the number of troubled couples, Ahn said.

His center has seen the number of reports about marriage-related problems rise from 62 in 2009 to 124 in 2010. It surpassed the 300 mark in 2011, according to data provided by the IMVC.

“The number of victims will only increase from now on, unless we let as many people know about the problems these multicultural couples face and help them,” Ahn said. “But there is no group or government-run center that focuses on helping the husbands.

“Existing multicultural centers say they give guidance to husbands as well wives, but we think that they are more experienced in helping women in trouble than men.”

The center, located in Bugye-dong, Incheon, is run by around 10 victims of failed international marriages - all of whom are men. The men offer advice on divorce or marriage-related issues. Although they are not experts, they can help prepare the necessary documents.

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Ahn Jae-sung, head of the International Marriage Victims’ Center, drives a van with a statement warning men against entering international marriages too quickly. By Park Sang-moon

Ahn says the center has counseled up to 6,000 people thus far. Last month, he received five calls from the center in six hours from people seeking his advice while he was observing a divorce proceeding in court.

Not only is the number of marriage migrants on the rise, the number of countries from which they immigrate has also grown more diverse.

The number of Chinese women and Vietnamese women married to Korean men represents 36.6 percent of all international marriages in Korea, followed by marriages between Filipina women and Korean men (7.3 percent) and marriages between Uzbekistani women and Korean men (1.2 percent), according to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

These numbers reflect the cases of abuse reported to the IMVC, which is one of the only centers in the country dealing with cases of spousal abuse where the husband is the victim. The center handled 326 cases in 2011, of which 101 involved Chinese marriage migrants and 146 involved Vietnamese spouses, followed by cases involving Filipinos (33), Cambodians (12) and Uzbekistanis (11).

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Many of the women were reported to have asked for money to wire to their families back home or for a house and car of their own in Korea, which Ahn says the husbands can’t afford after having paid for the wedding. When the women’s requests went unfulfilled, Ahn said that, in some cases, the wives ran away from home for a couple of months to make money on their own and then went back to their husbands asking for forgiveness with the hope that their husbands would provide them with a visa extension. In a few cases, the women even ran away and married again under a different name, Ahn said. Both Ahn and the victims said the bulk of the responsibility for the break down of international marriages lies with marriage brokers, who push couples to get married quickly without much information

“When my family was in trouble, I started hating the overall concept of multiculturalism,” Ahn said. “But after I met many people with similar problems, I realized that matchmaking agencies were responsible for tricking both Korean husbands and foreign wives. And my frustration went to these agencies and the government, which seems to only support the idea of multiculturalism without any device for screening the people who will actually become part of Korean society.”


Matchmaking agencies

Along with the increase in international marriages, the number of matchmaking agencies has been on the rise. There were 922 agencies nationwide in 2008, but the number increased to 1,696 as of December last year, according to statistics by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

But what Ahn and the IMVC have found is that many agencies are more interested in profit and often engage in deception to hook clients.

Bae, 40, said he was deceived when he registered with a matchmaking agency three years ago. Bae said he began to feel despondent about his chances of finding a Korean woman who would be interested in marrying a welding engineer like himself, so he turned to the agencies for help.

“Unless you know someone overseas, it’s hard to know what to do, so many men hire matchmaking agencies,” Bae told the Korea JoongAng Daily in a recent phone interview.

Bae said he was promised that the agency would find an appropriate partner for him if he could travel overseas to meet some candidates. So he agreed to pay the 15 million won fee, which included the agency’s fee, roundtrip airfare overseas for him, one-way airfare for his future wife, a wedding ceremony and legal fees.

“When I heard the amount, it occurred to me that the agency would get a profit of more than 50 percent,” Bae said. “But I didn’t know of any other way to meet foreign women without the agencies. So I didn’t think I could be too concerned about how much they made because I was thankful for their work.”

But when he arrived in Vietnam last May, he said he was put into a room with four other Korean men and told to choose from the 50 women who were brought into the room.

“Five woman would sit at the table and talk with us,” Bae said. “But there was only one translator for all of us, so it was impossible to get to know any of the women there.”

Although the men were provided with profiles of the women they met, it was a scant offering that included only their age and place of residence, Bae said.

Yet he eventually made a choice, a 17-year-old girl, and made arrangements to bring her to Korea. In the process, however, he discovered that the agency had lied about her age. Bae said he was told she was 19, but her papers said she was born in 1993, which made her 17 at the time. Because Korea does not allow anyone under 18 to marry, he would have to return to Korea without her or find someone else.

“I can’t say that the agency forced me to marry her, but they were very persistent in persuading me to marry this woman,” Bae said. “I just assumed that they said it because they would make less if I hadn’t chosen anyone and wanted to go back again later.”

But his marriage was never finalized. After he went back to Vietnam a second time in August to see his prospective bride, he was surprised to discover he had contracted a sexually transmitted disease after having had sex with her during the visit.

“It was apparent that the agency didn’t know anything about this woman at all,” Bae said. “They just told me to get her treatment and live with her or pay a little extra to plan another trip to Vietnam to find a new bride.”

Stories about the deception of matchmaking agencies are not new, but women are usually the victims. One Vietnamese woman recalled the first time she met a marriage broker in Vietnam.

“I was told that I would have a luxurious life,” An, 26, said. “The broker said Korean men are very rich and could take good care of my family in Vietnam and also provide a good life in Korea for me.”

Though things worked out with An and her husband, to whom she has been married for seven years, many women in similar situations are not as fortunate, said Ahn, head of the International Marriage Victims’ Center.

Many women leave their husbands as soon as they discover they’ve been duped and look for ways to make a living, Ahn said.

“Some just run away to get a job and become illegal immigrants in Korea, and some disappear with anything that seems valuable,” Ahn said. “I was told a few months after my wedding that my wife was cajoled by marriage brokers saying that I had money to buy her a house and car. So she said that she was breaking up the marriage because she never got what she was promised.”

Possible solutions

After listening to similar stories from hundreds of victims, Ahn says many victims doubt that there is any prior arrangement between the overseas women and the local brokers who find the women for the Korean agencies. But he says there hasn’t been any tangible evidence found to support the theory.

“Neither we nor the agencies can stop some of the miscommunication,” Ahn said. “But we can sort out the agencies that have reported the least number of mistakes or that have made an effort to compensate the husbands when there are errors.”

Ahn says that Korea needs to implement policies to regulate matchmaking agencies since the number of international marriages is expected to increase despite the problems. And with concern about the country’s low marriage and birth rates, it would be wise to foster healthy international marriages to strengthen the country, he said.

Kim Seoung-cheoul, manager of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s Multicultural Family Division, agrees.

“Considering that the matchmaking industry has risen on the back of increasing demand, the government will need to monitor how the businesses are settling into Korea,” Kim said. But although Taiwan has required that matchmaking agencies register as NGOs since 2009 to prevent them from being profit-driven, it’s too soon for Korea to adopt such a model Kim said.

“It could be an option in the future, but first we want to see if we can make the current system work while we modify the relevant regulations,” Kim said.

The most recent revision of the law on matchmaking agencies was passed in the National Assembly in December. It includes clauses banning agencies from dealing with people under 18 and bars group introductions. The current revision is the fourth since the law was enacted in 2008.

Because it has been less than five years since the original version of the law was enacted, Kim believes that it’s better to wait and see if the problems with the agencies can be fixed under the current revision, which also requires that all documents used in an international marriage arrangement be preserved, thus enabling marriage candidates to more easily find information that was hidden by agencies.

Choi Gwang-yong of Nice International Marriage Agency in Guro District, southwestern Seoul, says that it is also important for Korean men to understand why foreign women continue asking for money for their families back home.

Choi founded his agency six months ago after he was deceived by a matchmaking agency that promised to find him a bride. After his marriage, he discovered that his wife was pregnant with another man’s child at the time of their wedding. Though he was frustrated after learning the truth, his attitude changed when he realized why his wife would have lied about the pregnancy.

“Before complaining about why wives always ask for money, men should ask why a woman would marry a man that’s sometimes 20 years older than they are,” Choi said.

He says it is extremely important for an agency to find as much information about both bride and groom in order to facilitate the introduction and marriage. But the man is still responsible for choosing the agency.

“Just as with a Korean matchmaking agency, it is necessary to check the family history, education level, work experience and most importantly the testimony from friends,” Choi said. “Unless you know these details about the person you are going to marry, no marriage can be successful.”


By Lee Sun-min [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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