SEOUL (Reuters) - On a matchmaking flight to Vietnam, the status of the South Korean male passengers starts to rise — the waiter becomes a restaurant owner, the small-time farmer a prosperous landowner.
The little deceits, encouraged by marriage agencies hoping to boost their fees and wed more clients, often lead to a match, but also increasingly a less happy future.
“Trust between the couples breaks down from the onset because of (these lies). Without that fundamental sense of trust, the situation just worsens,” Kim Yi-seon of the Korean Women’s Development Institute said.
The Health and Welfare Ministry this month promised to crack down on the thriving matchmaking industry for foreign brides, which has forced not always welcome changes in one of the world’s most homogenous countries.
The industry’s rise has accompanied South Korea’s growing economic power and lifestyle changes in the deeply conservative society.
South Korean men now outnumber women, who in turn increasingly delay marriage in pursuit of a career. And men in less prosperous rural areas find more and more that the only women willing to tie the knot with them are from much poorer countries, like China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The number of Korean men taking foreign brides has almost tripled since 2002 — when the government started compiling statistics — to around 30,000 a year. Last year, they accounted for about 8 percent of all marriages in the country.
Most were guided to the altar by marriage brokers whose booming business is now starting to display a seedier side.
A government-sponsored hotline to help migrant brides in distress receives more than 1,000 calls a month, with family disputes the top issue.
According to the hotline’s manager, Kwon Mi-kyung, violence is a growing complaint from the new wives.
Many couples’ arguments are the result of language problems, the often wide age gap and a lack of understanding about each other’s very different cultures, she said.
“They just get married within two or three days based on the woman’s looks... and then they come across the language barrier. It’s a language disability they face,” Kwon said.
One Mongolian bride ended up begging for food because her husband’s family refused to give her any. A number have reported being locked in their homes.
The government has earmarked some $23 million to bring some order to the marriage broking business by making sure laws are followed and creating more support programmes, including language and education centers for the new families.
“This will stop the brokers to some extent from actively telling their clients to lie to their would-be marriage partners,” Kim said.
There are more than 1,000 international marriage agencies in the country, according to the Welfare Ministry, but there are thought to be many more unofficial ones.
The South Korean men, mostly 20 to 30 years older than their foreign wives, pay anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 to the agency to find them a bride.
“The South Korean public is illiterate in cultural diversity, so they have to catch up and learn as soon as they can,” Kwon said.
Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Jonathan Hopfner