International marriages can lead to heartache
Within weeks, Choi was at Incheon International Airport holding his passport and a round-trip ticket to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. His father warned him not to be hasty.
He should have listened. Choi met the woman whose profile he liked. She was 13 years younger than him. A few days later, he showed for a ceremony that was supposed to seal their betrothal.
It turned out to be his wedding. Before he knew it, Choi was a married man.
Choi returned home in late April 2014 to start the legal procedure to bring his wife to Korea. In June, she called to say she had been raped by a taxi driver and was pregnant. She didn’t know who the father was: Choi or the rapist.
In March 2015, Choi’s wife changed her story. She knew who the father of the baby was - and it wasn’t Choi. She had never been raped. She wanted a divorce.
Choi tried to have the marriage annulled but failed. He is now legally divorced, which puts him in a bad place in terms of getting remarried in Korea, where divorce is still stigmatized.
“People tell me to marry a Korean woman next time,” says Choi, “but no Korean family will approve of me. They’ll assume that my ex-wife divorced me because I physically abused her.”
And he feels cheated. The Kyrgyzstani woman was never sincere and Choi paid his matchmakers 23 million won ($20,079), which doesn’t include the money he sent his wife every month for a year. He believes he’s owed the matchmaking fee back. He is awaiting a final appeal in the case.
Every Sunday, Choi spends two to three hours in the nearby city of Incheon with the only people in Korea who know what he’s going through: fellow members of the International Marriage Victims’ Center.
Korea is famously poor in natural resources. It used the one natural resource it had in abundance - its people - to industrialize in the second half of the 20th century. Koreans were put to work making wigs, garments, shoes, VCRs, cars and, finally, smartphones. A poor country bifurcated and devastated by war grew rich enough to join the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, the so-called Rich Nations’ Club, by 1996.
But one of the by-products of industrialization was a shift of populations within Korea. Young women migrated to the cities, particularly Seoul, to do office work. Young men migrated to southern rural areas to work in car factories and shipyards. Many people left farms. By the 1990s, Korea had developed an entirely new resource shortage: wives. A matchmaking industry arose to match Korean men with women overseas. Originally, the matchmakers helped farmers from rural communities with few single women. More recently, urban men who don’t have the time to date have hopped on the bandwagon.
The number of international marriages reached an all-time high in 2005 with 42,400 cases, mostly Korean men marrying foreign women. Last year, around 21,300 international marriages were registered in Korea - a major drop, but still accounting for 7 percent of all marriages in the country. The largest number of foreign wives are from Vietnam and China, followed by Japan, the Philippines and places like Thailand, Cambodia and central Asia.
The mail order bride business, or any kind of commercialization of marriages, cannot help but be sketchy. In the best cases, a couple grows to love one another and lives in relative comfort in prosperous Korea. In the worst, a woman escapes a poor homeland but becomes an unpaid sex worker, baby machine, maid and caregiver for aged parents. An international marriage can come very close to human trafficking.
Some foreign wives find it hard to blend into Korea’s homogenous society, where racial discrimination is still common. Others are abused, overworked or never manage to love their husbands. Their plight has been well documented.
But many of the breakups are the result of fraud: insincerity on the part of the bride and duplicitous matchmakers that provide false information on both sides in order to speed up procedures - to get profits as quickly as possible.
The foreign brides are often misled about how cushy their lives will be in Korea.
The Korean husbands are lied too about love.
As president, Ahn has counseled more than 10,000 people - almost all Korean men - from across the country. He’s picketed 50 times in front of government offices to have the laws on international marriages strengthened. He has reported nearly 1,000 matchmakers for fraud and got them either penalized or shut down.
“Almost all Korean men that seek foreign brides pay tens of millions of won to local brokers,” says Ahn. “But when the marriage turns out to be a scam, there’s nowhere for these men to go for help.”
His influence grew so recognizable that in 2013, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family reached out to Ahn and asked him to run his own matchmaking agency. They even suggested government funding could be found for it.
Ahn flatly rejected the offer because he “didn’t like the sound of using tax money.”
Because Ahn knows from personal experience that matchmaking is a business not for the faint of heart.
Marriage was never a priority for Ahn. He had his trucking job, which took him all over the country. He had the memory of his first love, who broke his heart. He remembered his mother struggling to raise three children in an old one-room shack. He had too few memories of his father, a drinker and gambler.
But in 2005, at the age of 44, he saw a mixed-race baby on television.
“His eyes were so beautiful,” recalls Ahn. “Seeing a Korean man and Uzbek woman happily raising this flawless child, I felt I had a chance, too. I wanted a beautiful child of my own.”
Ahn contacted more than 30 matchmaking agencies that dealt with international marriages before getting serious with one near his home in Incheon in 2007. It showed him photos of marriage candidates. Three had agreed to meet him. Within a week, Ahn was on a plane to Uzbekistan, accompanied by a worker from the agency.
In Tashkent, the capital, Ahn went to the prearranged meeting spot, a cafe. None of the three women showed up.
“I was furious,” says Ahn. “I asked the broker why the women hadn’t kept their word. I was told that one was sick, one had gone abroad and the other got married. I just wanted to go home.”
The agent said he had come too far to return empty-handed. Plenty of Uzbek women would meet him, he said. He pointed out the cafe window.
Ahn looked outside. A “truck-load” of women was waiting. Ahn had no clue where they came from.
“I was really embarrassed. It wasn’t what I had asked for. The more I resisted, the more I felt like the broker was pushing me to quickly pick a bride.”
The scene turned into an Uzbek version of speed-dating. Ahn talked to seven women through an interpreter. Ahn felt confused and ill at ease. The process was emotionally taxing - and seemed somehow unethical.
Just as Ahn was about to give up, an eighth woman showed up - a tall, young blond with a gleaming smile. It was love at first sight.
“She was the one,” recalls Ahn. “I just knew it the moment I laid my eyes upon her.”
Her name was Natasha.
Ahn began describing himself to Natasha: his age, his job as a truck driver, how he spent most of his time on the road. He said he lived with his frail mother, who needed to be taken care of.
The interpreter translated, and then started telling Ahn about Natasha. She was Christian, didn’t smoke or drink, graduated from high school, was raised by intellectual parents and was a virgin. Ahn was told she was 26, 20 years his junior. It seemed just the right age to start having children.
The wedding was held two days later in Tashkent. About 50 people showed up, all Uzbeks of course. Ahn recognized seven of the guests: they were the women he rejected during the speed-dating at the cafe. The agent said they were Natasha’s friends.
Ahn returned to Korea to do the legal work. On Feb. 6, 2008, Natasha arrived in Korea. Ahn had taught himself a little Russian. Natasha had not bothered with Korean.
Ahn soon saw the real Natasha. She wasn’t Christian. She was a heavy smoker. She was obsessed with vodka. She never finished high school. Her parents were drug addicts. She wasn’t a virgin. She’d had an abortion. She had never even met the seven “friends” at the wedding.
The brokers had lied about all those details. They also lied about her age. Natasha was only 19.
When Ahn telephoned the matchmaking agency, he was told to “shut the hell up” and pay his bill: the basic fee of 10 million won and 3 million won more for the 100 guests who had attended his wedding in Tashkent - although Ahn knew there were no more than 50.
He had crossed the Rubicon.
Three days after Natasha arrived in Korea, she began crying day and night, begging to go back to Uzbekistan. When Ahn returned home after work, he would find the house foggy with cigarette smoke. Natasha locked herself in the bathroom and barely came out. Ahn heard her on the phone. Outside the bathroom door, he secretly recorded the conversation and had it interpreted. Ahn realized Natasha was talking with her boyfriend back home.
Less than a month after she arrived in Korea, Natasha drank an entire bottle of vodka and slit her wrist with a kitchen knife. Blood dripped all over the floor.
“She kept begging me to take her back to Uzbekistan,” says Ahn. “She was hysterical.”
As Ahn called for an ambulance, he felt something at the back of his neck. Natasha had stabbed him. Ahn turned around and Natasha raised her arm to take another strike. He and his mother got the knife out of her hand.
When the police arrived, they had to aim a gun at her head in order to calm her. At 2 a.m., she was taken to a nearby hospital. Her arm needed 46 stitches.
As Ahn walked towards her in the hospital, she picked up her cellphone, dialed and then spoke.
“Ya tebya lyublyu! (I love you!) Ya skuchayu po tebe (I miss you).”
Natasha was calling her boyfriend in Uzbekistan.
Ahn felt his heart shatter.
When they returned home, Ahn took down the framed wedding photo in the living room and ripped it in half, declaring the marriage was over. Natasha knelt and begged him not to split. Ahn was baffled.
“She didn’t want to end the marriage because her mother said she would kill her if she did,” says Ahn. “It was the first time she ever told me she loved me.
“And the words shook me.”
After a mere 27 days in Korea, Natasha flew home on March 3, 2008. Ahn didn’t file for divorce. He still had hope things might improve. In 2009, Ahn flew to Uzbekistan and returned four months later with Natasha. On her second stay, she fared slightly better. She didn’t smoke. She could speak a bit of Korean. She helped around the house. Ahn showed her around the country, hoping she wouldn’t want to go back to Uzbekistan.
Several weeks later, Ahn realized Natasha was three months pregnant.
“I wasn’t 100 percent sure the baby was mine,” says Ahn.
Natasha left Korea again, saying she wanted to give birth in her home country. Ahn visited Uzbekistan three times afterward to see the child, Maxim, but never was able to convince Natasha to raise a family in Korea. The couple is still legally married. Ahn says he’s waiting for Natasha to come to Korea on her own will.
“I still love her,” says Ahn, “She’s been through a lot from a young age, living out on the streets since the age of 10. I want to save her from the den of vice. I feel like it’s my obligation.”
In 2012, the government started cracking down on con-artist marriage brokers and imposed stricter screening procedures on foreign spouses.
There are 374 matchmaking services across the nation focused on international marriages, down nearly 78 percent from the 1,697 peak in 2011, according to government statistics.
But the matchmaking industry is swarming with “crooks and outlaws,” Ahn says. Many swindled husbands choose not to fight back. Others fight but lose their court cases.
Most don’t know how. Hiring a lawyer is expensive. There are many loopholes in the legal system that the agencies exploit.
Ahn’s own matchmaking agency went out of business in 2010. As president of the International Marriage Victims’ Center, Ahn works full time helping other deceived men get their revenge.
Ahn starts his day at noon and spends afternoons answering phone calls, meeting his “clients” at home, which he uses as an office, and visiting courtrooms to defend them during trials.
On average, he gets 30 calls a day and meets two to three people. After midnight, Ahn stays up writing legal documents for them and rummaging through old cases to check precedents.
His clients usually share two goals: getting their brokerage charges partially reimbursed, and, in cases where the bride flees Korea, annulling their marriage. Succeeding in a trial usually comes down to evidence of fraud, says Ahn, and he can give expert advice on that.
On a recent Sunday, members of the International Marriage Victims’ Center gathered on a bench in front of the Incheon District Court for their weekly meeting. They were 30 middle-aged men: some planning to marry a foreign bride, some with failed relationships preparing for trials, and others who won their cases and came to offer advice to fellow victims.
Kim Seok-joon, 37, a chef at a Chinese restaurant in Cheonan, South Chungcheong, married a 23-year-old Vietnamese woman in May 2015 and began living with her seven months later. She disappeared one day when Kim was at work.
They lived together for 70 days.
Kim traced his bride to a karaoke bar in Chungju, North Chungcheong, 45 miles south. She was working as a hostess. Kim visited the establishment three times to collect evidence, and later submitted photos and videos of her to the court.
The worst part of the process, he confides, was seeing her in the arms of other men.
“I was really upset,” says Kim. “It would’ve been better if I saw her working in a restaurant or factory. Seeing her in a karaoke bar just made me feel I was used. She had come to Korea to earn money.”
On Oct. 6, Kim’s first trial to annul the marriage ended in victory. But two weeks later, his wife’s legal representative, the owner of the karaoke bar, appealed. Kim thinks he wants her to stay married so she can remain legally in Korea.
Based on what he has learned from his friends at the victims' center, Kim is confident he’ll win the appeals.
Ahn, the former trucker, now has a full-time job turning around heartache and disappointment. The matchmaking agencies he takes on can get rough. Many make threats. Ahn now keeps a knife in every room of his house. He says he practices throwing them so he could “get a good aim” if taken by surprise.
When men come into a counseling session in despair and leave with a smile, he says, it’s a “priceless scene that never gets old.” His work is so satisfying, it’s allowed him a sense of closure about his failed marriage. What message would he like to send Natasha in Uzbekistan?
“Nichego,” he replies, which is Russian for “It’s okay.”
“I forgive you.”
BY LEE SUNG-EUN [email@example.com]