About the Author
View more articles by Sarah A. Son
Sarah A. Son
Sarah Son is an NK NEWS columnist and a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where she specialises in inter-Korean affairs.
The reactions I’ve had over the years to the fact that I’m married to a South Korean man have included, “Whoa… how do you cope with your mother-in-law?” “You must cook Korean food then,” “You are a brave woman,” and on one occasion, “How can I get one?” We foreign women married to South Korean men are a distinct minority and we are often seen by Koreans as slightly crazy for having taken on a life-long challenge, or met with nervous resistance from skeptical in-laws.
Given the power that ethnic and cultural homogeneity still has in South Korean society, it is easy to understand how intercultural marriage continues to be an unsettling thought for parents, friends and colleagues of the happy couple. Like the marriage of any two people of different origins, the cultural difference does add some complications to the situation. Yet with one in five South Korean boys facing the prospect of never marrying because there are too many of them, and one in four ending up divorced, it is possible that South Korean men are going to have to be more creative in their choice of wives.
One unique dating agency has stepped in to provide a solution which has the added benefit of minimizing the clash of cultures. Nam Nam Buk Nyo connects South Korean men with North Korean women and claims to have matched more than 400 couples, with only four of those ending in splits. The agency was started by North Korean defector Kim Eun-seo and her South Korean husband, Hong Seung-woo. After struggling with the new-found freedom of everyday life in Seoul, where even ordering coffee was a challenge, Kim married “a lovely South Korean man” which she says, “was the best way to join this society.”
In many ways, pairing a South Korean man with a North Korean wife can be seen as a win-win situation. On the one hand, many South Korean men complain that Southern women have standards which are too high. They say many South Korean women want a comprehensive package of financial security, good family and good looks which not all South Korean men can provide. It is well known that growing numbers of rural bachelors in particular have turned to matchmaking agencies in the Philippines and Vietnam to find a wife, but the results for both parties have been mixed. Foreign wives have been subjected to discrimination from family and society, and their children have been ostracized at school. A North Korean wife though, apparently has less difficulty adapting to the language and culture of the South. Hong said, “We come from a common ancestry, the same blood, and that makes these marriages successful.”
On the other hand, for the North Korean wife, having a South Korean husband can be the key to breaking through the many barriers to successful integration into South Korea. Successful settlement of North Koreans in South Korea, as guided by government policy, is heavily dependent on individual self-determination to become self-sufficient and shedding the “undesirable” aspects of identity which may cause social tension. Marrying a South Korean man with a steady job immediately takes care of the crucial aspect of becoming self-sufficient. Around 70-80 per cent of North Korean defectors coming to the South are now women, but the employment prospects for a North Korean woman with limited professional skills in any industry beyond basic manual or part time work are fairly grim. This makes the prospect of financing an apartment, living costs and possibly accompanying children something that can be very difficult. Finding a local husband, however, changes the game dramatically.
Marrying a South Korean can also help greatly with learning how to be suitably South Korean, as is expected as part of the assimilation processes. No number of government-sponsored life-skills classes can beat a live-in helper to provide valuable instruction on the complexities of life in a capitalist society where so much is completely new. North Korean women have also noted that South Korean men are more liberal, less likely to want to be treated like the “king of the house” and more aware of gender equality than their North Korean male counterparts.
As in any marriage, though the picture may not always be as rosy behind closed doors, it is possible that North-South marriages represent a small but important step forward in breaking down the psychological border between the people of the two Koreas. Researchers on social integration often emphasize the importance of natural, socio-cultural exchange as the key to social harmony. News of happy North-South couples putting aside politics and prejudice for love provides a refreshing change from the much more common news of problems posed by the “micro-unification” of North and South Koreans in South Korea.
To top it all off, an old Korean adage says that North Korean women are more beautiful and South Korean men are more handsome than their counterparts on the other side of the border. Broad generalizations aside, it sounds like it could be the perfect match.