For some, an old saying that translates to “men from the South are handsome, and women from the North are beautiful,” means that a South Korean man and a North Korean woman make the perfect couple.
Stepping up to fill the growing void created by the steady decrease of international marriages due to tightened government restrictions on imported brides, and spurred by favorable public perceptions of North Korean women dominating the South Korean media, nam nam buk nyeo (Southern man, Northern woman) matchmaking is a growing industry. With women making up more than 70 percent of South Korea’s total defector population, virtually all of these matchmaking services specialize in connecting North Korean wives with South Korean husbands.
“I would say that the trend started to pick up speed when the TV series On My Way to Meet You first aired in March 2012,” said Kim Su-jin, director of NK Marriage Information. “TV programs like that encouraged positive perceptions about North Korean women, so bachelors come to us with positive ideas about North Korean women already in their minds.”
Kim’s comments echo a prevailing sentiment in Korean media at large. “On My Way to Meet You,” a TV talk show featuring a cast of “North Korean beauties,” has been widely credited for overturning unflattering prejudices about North Korean women. Another TV series, named Nam Nam Buk Nyeo, has garnered similar reviews for pairing popular South Korean male celebrities with young North Korean women to act in simulated, onscreen marriages.
And with mainstream channels making the idea palatable to the public, matchmakers report an increasing male interest in their services.
“We get a high volume of phone inquiries, especially after we put out an advertisement. A lot of them are curious callers, who just want to know whether marrying a saeteomin (defector) is really feasible, whether the marriage can really work,” said Lee Seo-yun, a defector who currently runs Uni-Korea Saeteomin Marriage Information in Daegu. “In an average month, we get about 30 to 50 phone calls, and in a better month over 100.”
‘It’s not just the older bachelors anymore, we have men signing up who are in their early 30s or late 20s as well’
Vying to meet the rising demand for North Korean brides, matchmaking businesses are on the upswing all over South Korea, billing North Korean brides as “top wife material.”
Official nationwide statistics on this relatively new trend are currently being compiled and are slated for publication later this year, according to a Hana Foundation spokesperson.
And though nam nam buk nyeo marriages aren’t bona fide international marriages – since North Korean women all receive South Korean citizenship upon arrival to the South – what the two have in common is the demographic to which they are advertised: South Korean bachelors who aren’t tying the knot with a fellow South Korean.
As noted by the Economist earlier this year, part of the reason for this is that South Korean women have become far less accepting of traditional gender roles or patriarchal marriages, causing many old-fashioned Korean bachelors to look for their other half elsewhere.
And given the dropping rates for international marriages, industry representatives plug the benefits of saeteomin marriages.
Lee said saeteomin marriages carry fewer risks for the male client because, “there is little danger of the bride running away” – one of the most common concerns associated with foreign brides.
“We will sometimes refer our clients to international marriage agencies as a last resort, but it’s not something we recommend,” said Lee.
Pervasive stereotypes about South Korean women as excessively materialistic and hard to please are also part of the mix.
“About half of our male clients, on average, are divorcees, and they are generally past their 40s,” said Lee. “Older clients like that, who have already been in a lot of relationships, will often just tell us upfront, things like, ‘I’ve been screwed’ or ‘(South Korean women) care too much about money’ or ‘have absurdly high standards.’”
But it’s no longer just older men branded as ineligible or divorcees with a grudge against South Korean women that are lining up to court a North Korean bride.
“It’s not just the older bachelors anymore, we have men signing up who are in their early 30s or late 20s as well,” said Lee.
According to Lee, the positive images of North Korean women are largely accurate, much to the delight of the South Korean suitors that are matched up with them.
“Maybe it’s because North Korean defectors just aren’t as savvy about life in South Korea or because they are used to fewer luxuries”, said Lee. “But one example is that North Korean women tend to be a lot more appreciative of small gifts or gestures.”
“South Korean women want to be catered to, and want something fancier,” said Jang Seong-wook, a 38-year-old bachelor from Daegu. “But on my dates with North Korean women, they want to make sure you’re taken care of first. Even when I would try to treat them to something a little nicer, they seemed to actually feel uncomfortable about it.”
‘A lot of North Korean women see marriage to a South Korean man as a means to getting adjusted more quickly and more efficiently in South Korea’
It’s understood that, for better or for worse, the nam nam buk nyeo trend hinges on a set of assumptions about North Korean women – that being accustomed to traditional gender roles in North Korean society they make for obedient, good-natured wives and faithful, family-oriented mothers.
“It’s true that North Korean women are very hardy, good-natured and innocent,” said Kim Su-jin of NK Marriage Information. “Coming from a society that is highly patriarchal, they have a tendency to more diligently attend to their husbands compared South Korean women. That is a big part of their appeal to our clients.”
And as matchmaking agencies roundly tout, the lack of a language barrier is the final icing on the cake – another commonly raised issue with international marriages.
On the other side of the coin, South Korean men, too, are treated with favorable prejudice.
“A lot of North Korean women see marriage to a South Korean man as a means to getting adjusted more quickly and more efficiently in South Korea,” said Park Ae-young, a North Korean woman who defected in 2009.
“North Korean men are generally far more patriarchal and authoritarian, so a lot of North Korean women that are aware of this choose to partner with South Korean men, who are perceived as less so,” said Park, who has been married to a South Korean man for three years.
“South Korean men are more emotionally attentive and affectionate, not to mention that for many North Korean women who defect alone, the husband’s extended family provides a strong foundation and moral support as she is starting a family of her own.”
According to matchmakers, this kind of moral support is important for the many North Korean women who arrive in South Korea alone. In those cases, loneliness is a frequently cited factor in their decision to quickly settle down with a partner.
“One of the biggest hardships many North Korean women face in South Korea is the fact that they are alone,” said Kim Su-jin. “So creating a family here is enormously meaningful to women like that. It helps them find stability, emotional comfort and gives them the confidence to be socially active.”
Amid a general atmosphere of apathy and skepticism after decades of separation, many in the industry are cheering on the trend as boosting reunification spirit on the Korean peninsula.
“All our employees are themselves North Korean women, and we have a strong sense that we are contributing to creating ‘reunification families'” said Kim. “In a successful nam nam buk nyeo marriage, the South Korean husband will understand and accommodate a lot of the cultural differences or a painful past that the wife might have brought with her from North Korea.”
“While it’s not a political reunification between two countries, I think the families we’re helping to create are little by little changing public perceptions about reunification for the better,” she said. “On a familial level, it helps close that mental gap.”
Picture: lazyfri13th, Flickr Creative Commons
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