’Til pensions do us partRetiree Kwon Byung-doo is a typically domineering Korean husband. During meals, he scolds his wife for cooking with too much salt, asking why she’s not concerned about his high blood pressure. While glued to the couch watching TV, he demands she bring him a glass of water. One day, his wife decides to find a life of her own and gets a driver’s license. He sells the family car.
When she confronts him, he tells her he can do whatever he wants with his own property. The wife explodes and tells him to change the legal status of their home to a shared property and demands he hand over the bank books. He refuses to give her anything. A few days later, he receives a letter from a court summoning him to respond to his wife’s petition for a divorce.
This episode on the rising phenomenon of “twilight divorces” is in the film “Fly, Penguin” directed by Lim Soon-rye in 2009 and produced by the National Human Rights Commission. The film portrays a series of social vicissitudes such as over-expensive educations, retirement and an aging population - the challenges facing Korean society following its rapid economic development.
The travails of the retired couple in the movie became commonplace in society a few years later. Last year, a total of 30,234 couples who lived together for 20 years or longer went their own ways, exceeding the number of breakups of newlyweds who lived together for four years or less. The number is a staggering jump from 3,268 couples in the same age bracket two decades ago. Divorces by couples in their twilight years is becoming a norm, not the exception.
Divorce would be simple if the couples can amicably divide their assets. But modern society is a bit too complicated. An old couple has to wrangle over dividing the national pension benefit. That safe haven for the older years would have to be cut in half. Since the splitting of the national pension was allowed in 1999, a total of 8,581 people divided contribution-based pension schemes as of February. The benefits are halved according to how long they were married, and wives collect 170,000 won ($155) a month on average.
According to divorce lawyers, 70 to 80 percent of the married people who file for divorce in older years are wives. They get by until the children have grown up and become independent before deciding to live on their own.
Financial strains are one of the biggest setbacks in late-age divorce. The average monthly income of female senior citizens is around 600,000 won, just half of what older men get. Given the statistics that women generally live seven years longer than men, a monthly pension would be a small-yet-definite comfort to women in old age.
Korea has acted unusually fast to grant a division of pension payments considering its deeply-rooted, male-dominated culture. An official at the National Pension Corporation said the system was adopted with unusual ease and speed in 1999. Japan introduced its national pension scheme 27 years earlier than Korea and yet allowed divisions in pension benefits eight years later than us.
Now that a division of pensions has become commonplace, the time has come to upgrade the system so that it can play a greater role in contributing to social security for single old women. Currently, non-participating women can collect a portion of their former husband’s pension benefits after 61. Some women give up the entitlement because they don’t want to pick at old scars. And they are no longer entitled to the money if their former spouses pass away before the age of 61. The realistic option would be a settlement to divide the pension upon divorce, which is practiced in Canada, Switzerland and Germany.
Other public pensions like the Government Employee Pension, Military Pension and Teachers Pension that were introduced 28 years before the National Pension do not allow shared benefits. One man in Busan wrote a letter to administrators of the Military Pension asking if there was any way his sister, who was living meagerly, could get a portion of the soldier’s pension of her ex-husband. If there is divorce between a civil servant husband and a wife who is a common salary-earner, the husband holds onto his fat civil servant pension while the wife must share her paltry national pension sum with her ex-spouse after retirement.
Consensus is quickly building for changes in other pension schemes to keep abreast of changes in society. A Seoul High Court in March ruled in favor of sharing the government employee pension and a family court in 2011 delivered a similar ruling.
Democratic Party Representative You Seung-hee proposed a bill last November to allow access to pensions of government employees, military personnel and teachers to divorced spouses.
We should follow the examples of other advanced societies like Germany and Canada, which enable women to share their spouses’ retirement, housing and private pension schemes after divorce.
The film “Fly, Penguin” has a happy ending. The man who suspects his wife of having a fling with another man at a dance class of the community center as the reason for filing for divorce suddenly steps into the center and offers a hand to his wife for a dance. Equalization in pension benefit is an unavoidable tide. Instead of constantly demanding, a husband must offer his wife his hand. Otherwise, he should be ready to part with half of his retirement entitlements. That’s only fair.
*The author is a senior writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Shin Sung-sik