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SEOUL (Reuters) - Twilight divorces after 20 years of marriage are at a record in South Korea as the stigma of divorce wears off in a conservative society and court rulings make it financially viable for older women to go it alone.
For 54-year-old Kim Nan-young, who felt trapped in a loveless marriage for two decades, divorce was better late than never.
"I'd put up with my husband's patriarchal and overbearing behavior for so many years, because I was reluctant to divorce when my children were small," said Kim, a mother of two sons who split up two years ago from her husband of 25 years.
"Now I only have myself to take care of, which makes it easier to find work. There are a lot of things women can do for a living," said Kim, who has since started her own small laundry business.
Kim's sons had given her the financial and emotional support she needed to make the break, but it also helped that courts have been ruling increasingly in favor of splitting up matrimonial assets more evenly on divorce.
As many as 33,140 couples split up last year following more than 20 years of marriage, the national statistics bureau said this month, accounting for more than a quarter of all divorces, and a surge of 31 percent over the last decade.
More women are choosing to walk away from unhappy marriages when their children are grown, as the social stigma attached to divorce dissipates.
The spurt in later-life divorce is in sharp contrast to the drop in overall divorce cases, which stood at 115,510 last year, after having peaked at 166,617 in 2003.
Financial security for divorced women has also improved, as courts seem increasingly willing to award settlements of as much as half the joint property to full-time homemakers.
A woman who walked away from 50 years of marriage to an abusive gambler said she was able to start again because the court granted her nearly half the couple's assets, although she had always been a homemaker.
"I'm in my 70s," said the woman, who asked not to be identified. "Divorcing after such a long period of time means you are really desperate. Now my son and daughter tell me I should find my own life."
Last year, the country's Supreme Court ruled that divorced women were entitled to part of their former spouses' future pension and severance pay.
Divorced wives of public school teachers, government workers and soldiers will receive half the future pension of their former husbands, after a revised law takes effect next year.
More women seek divorce as the courts increasingly recognize household labor as work entitled to compensation, said Kim Sung-woo, a lawyer involved in several "silver divorces".
"Household assets are evenly divided, even when a husband was a corporate employee and his wife was a full-time homemaker and raised kids at home," he said.
Women seeking divorces later in life are also reassured by a more favorable job climate.
Female employment in Asia's fourth-largest economy hit a record of 49.5 percent last year, with the proportion of those older than 50 continuing to improve to a record of 43.2 percent, up from 39.7 percent in 2010.
The increase in divorces of the elderly has spurred more second marriages, although the financial independence of potential partners tends to weigh heavily in the decision, besides common interests and pastimes.
"In the past, old people considered remarriage as shameful," said Kim Mi-yeon, an official with the country's biggest matchmaker, DUO Marriage Information Co Ltd.
"Now they want to find a new life partner whom they can share hobbies with."
Editing by Meeyoung Cho and Clarence Fernandez