In 2007, before Ahn Jae-sung flew to Uzbekistan from Seoul to meet his potential future wife, he wrote a lengthy letter.
Among the things he wrote down were his age, monthly-income, job and that he’s a nonsmoker and teetotaler. It was his CV for the international marriage market.
“I even had it translated into Uzbek,” the 55-year-old told The Korea Herald. “I asked my broker to give it to women who were interested. Later I found out that my wife, whom I only ended up living with for three months, never read the letter at all.”
The broker also lied to both Ahn and the wife, who was 28 years his junior, saying that he would buy her a house, and she was from a well-off family. He had no such money, and the wife had run away from a broken home when she was 10.
Their relationship ended badly. His wife asked him to help her return to Uzbekistan if he was not willing to buy her a house in Korea. After she slit her wrist in front of him and his mother in their living room, the couple agreed to live separately and she moved back to her home country. After several months, she claimed to be pregnant with his child, and he has been sending money for child support ever since.
Ahn is one of many South Korean men who claim to be victims of international marriage scams and the nation’s policies on multiculturalism. He currently runs a help-center for victims like himself. He has met and helped more than 10,000 of them since opening the service in 2007.
Ahn argued that the government fails to protect its own citizens from illegal brokers, who he claimed deliberately approached those who are socially marginalized.
“The government should illegalize all private international marriage agencies,” he said.
South Korea in 2010 introduced a new law on international marriage agencies with a strengthened screening process. All brokers are now required to translate their clients’ certified documents of legal marital status, health conditions and criminal records and provide them to their potential spouses.
The number of such couples has dropped since then, from 35,098 in 2010 to 24,387 in 2014 -- the lowest since 2003. The proportion of Korean men who were at least 10 years senior to their foreign wives has also dropped. In 2014 they made up 37.5 percent of the total, down from 44.8 percent in 2012.
Still, Korean men who married foreign brides through brokers took up 25 percent of all international marriages as of 2012, according to the latest Gender Equality Ministry data. Notably, 75.7 percent of those who married Cambodian women, and 65.8 percent of Korean husbands who married Vietnamese wives, and 40 percent of those who married women from Uzbekistan met their wives through matchmaking agencies. Over 85 percent of marriage migrants here are women, as of 2014.
Statistics also show that international marriages ended more in divorce here. Korean couples on average stayed together for 14.3 years in 2014, compared to an average of 6.4 years among international couples. Half of the divorced Korean husbands said their foreign wives ran away from home, thereby ending the marriage, according to a 2012 government report.
Jang Hee-jun (not his real name), a 38-year-old school janitor, in 2014 pursued an international marriage through a now-defunct agency. It cost him 22 million won ($18,000). On the first day he arrived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on April 19, 2014, he met about 20 women who said they were interested.
He finally married one of them at a local court the next day. It was just Jang and his wife and the judge. He was told that the bride’s family members were unable to attend.
“I actually thought it was better that way,” he said. “I thought it was better because I heard some weddings get called off in the middle of the ceremony by the guests or relatives.”
He returned to Korea alone first and registered the marriage certificate for him and his 24-year-old wife. His wife would take required Korean language classes in Kyrgyzstan and join him later. In June, his wife called from Bishkek. She said she’d been raped by a cab driver and became pregnant. From June until March 2015, Jang had wired her 5.37 million won for her Korean language classes, gifts for her mother’s birthday and living allowance.
Throughout her pregnancy, his wife told many different things; at one point she said she’d leave the baby with her mother and live in Korea with Jang alone. A few days later, she said she’d given up the baby for adoption. At one point she claimed the baby was in fact Jang’s. And finally in March, she said she was sorry. She said the baby wasn’t his and she’s moving to Russia. Jang filed a request to the court to invalidate his marriage.
Several studies show that most Korean husbands who pursue international marriages belong to the lower socioeconomic strata in the cities, or poorer rural areas.
“Now I know how naive it is to believe you can build a successful marriage by marrying someone just a day after you meet her, and marrying someone who doesn’t even speak your language,” Ahn Jae-sung said.
“But many don’t understand why some people, including myself, get tricked into this so easily.”
Ahn said Korea’s marginalized men -- those who are poor, disabled, socially isolated and basically unattractive marriage material -- are being used by brokers who also trick financially struggling foreign women interested in escaping poverty in their home countries or obtaining South Korea citizenship.
Korean men from broken arranged marriages claim that the Korean government is also responsible for unhappy international marriages. They argue that the government is putting both Korean men and foreign women at risk by not illegalizing private brokers.
According to American attorney Douglas MacLean’s 2014 research, the Korean government has offered subsidies for families looking for a bride for their adult sons, or even supported “marriage tours” overseas -- where Korean men visit their potential brides in a meeting arranged by brokers.
“The (South Korean) government is well aware of both its rural population and overall fertility rate,” MacLean wrote in the paper. “In addition to macro-level policy and laws aimed at increasing the birth rate, the government has promoted support for ‘multicultural families’ … in a way not seen in countries facing similar demographic problems, such as Japan and Taiwan.”
The abnormally high ratio of Korean men marrying foreigners through brokers has also been cited as one of the main reasons for human rights and domestic abuse against immigrant women here.
In 2014, a 36-year-old Korean man strangled his 21-year-old Vietnamese wife to death before killing himself. In 2010, a 20-year-old Vietnamese woman was killed by her 47-year-old Korean husband, who had a mental health condition.
The United States Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report on South Korea also addressed the problem last year.
“Some women from China, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and Cambodia who are recruited for marriage to South Korean men through international marriage brokers are subjected to forced prostitution or forced labor after their arrival,” it said.
The Korean Justice Ministry has been moving to tackle the issue, enacting a measure in 2014 to obligate all applicants applying for a resident-by-marriage visa to pass a Korean language proficiency test. It also requires couples who apply for such a visa to prove income of at least 14.8 million won a year.
Yun Kang-mo, the director of Support for Multicultural Families division of the Gender Ministry, said the government was aware of the existing problems and has been making efforts to prevent marriage fraud.
“We strongly encourage those who are seeking international marriages to only visit agencies that have been officially registered and approved by municipal governments,” Yun said.
“Wanting to get married is a universal desire. And it’s questionable whether or not it is right for the government to ban one of the options for people to get married.”
For Park Geun-su (not his real name), whose Uzbek wife also never came to Korea after their wedding in 2014, it was his disability that drove him to seek an international marriage. The 36-year-old suffered a car accident in 1998 that disabled his left arm and has been living with his parents ever since.
“I didn’t think a Korean woman would want to marry someone who has a disability. And most (Korean) women nowadays don’t want to live with their parents-in-law.”
In spite of being scammed, Jang still wants to get married -- before he turns 60. “I’ve always wanted to have my own children,” he said. “I guess I just don’t want to grow old alone. Life is just too lonely like that.”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org