The politics of representation: Cross-border marriage brokerage agencies and their representations of marriage migrants in South Korea
Over the last three decades, cross-border marriages between South Korean men and migrant women have dramatically increased in South Korea (hereafter Korea). Beginning as a government-led project – the ‘Rural Bachelor Marriage Project’, designed to help rural bachelors with difficulty finding wives domestically – these marriages have become increasingly commercialised and systemised following the emergence of the profit-oriented marriage brokerage industry. Recently, cross-border marriages have become the alternative route to marriage of choice for Korean men with lower socioeconomic status in urban areas as well as for rural men. Marriage migrants’ origin countries have also diversified, now including China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. For women from developing regions, Korea has become a major destination country – through marriage.
As the number of marriage migrants surged in Korea, so did issues and concerns around marriage migrants’ lives. Many have faced obstacles ranging from cultural and language barriers to difficulties in citizenship acquisition, and even abuses of their human rights. Consequently, the precarious conditions of these women’s lives have risen to the forefront of public debate, with different agendas being set up at various instances of civil society, from the local right up to the national. One major agenda involves the regulation of the international marriage brokerage industry; another one concerns marriage migrants’ integration into Korean society. The government has made efforts to regulate the burgeoning international marriage brokerage industry through legislation, mainly to protect both Korean grooms and foreign brides by regulating illegal activities such as fraud or human trafficking. The government has also established support centres aimed at socially integrating marriage migrants and their families. At the same time, civil society and non-governmental organisations have actively advocated for the rights of foreign spouses, supporting their socio-political and cultural inclusion through a wide range of programmes.
Consequently, cross-border marriage in Korea has become increasingly institutionalised. There are several institutions in Korea closely associated with cross-border marriages such as the government, governmental support centres, cross-border marriage brokerage agencies, and civil society organisations. Different institutions are involved in the maintenance of the cross-border marriage system by interacting (and sometimes challenging) each other. Among different institutions, it is the practices of marriage brokerage agencies that have become most often problematic, specifically with respect to their representation of marriage migrants. These agencies function for the most part as the mediator between the potential spouses; they operate with both parties in cross-border marriage and assist them by providing vital information on necessary legal procedures and immigration policies, as well as by helping both parties understand each other’s cultural and national backgrounds.
Throughout these procedures, racialised and gendered representations of migrant women are commonplace. Nowhere are they more apparent than in their advertisements and marketing strategies. Marriage agencies tended to present foreign women as catalogues with women’s profiles and personal information:
Yet due to concerns about sexual objectification raised by civil society organisations, the government began to strictly ban such types of advertisements. In turn, the representational practices of agencies become more nuanced and subtle. Marriage agencies represent foreign wives with highly gendered images which depict them as ‘submissive, family-oriented, or non-materialist’, emphasising the traditional gender roles imposed on women in Korean society.
Marriage agencies highly racialise foreign wives as well. They commonly provide ‘traits of women from different countries’ for their male clients, inserting women into a series of racial categories based on their skin tone, cultural backgrounds, and the economic situation in their countries of origin. For example, brokers highlight the advantages of Central Asian or Eastern European women by stressing their glamorous (Western) bodies or bright skin tones, or emphasising the physical similarities between Southeast Asian and Korean women.
What is noteworthy is that marriage agencies also depict how much the foreign wives could become Koreanised by highlighting their physical traits as well as their cultural proximity. Even though foreign women from certain countries have certain physical traits or cultural backgrounds, they assure that they can be Koreanised once brought to Korea. Such representational practices lead us to the conclusion that marrying foreign women from certain countries will allow the client’s future child to racially blend into Korean society without exposing signs of foreignness.
Through these representational practices, marriage migrants are homogenised and their individuality erased, cast exclusively in terms of their nationalities and cultural stereotypes. More importantly, these representational practices perpetuate stereotypical discourses around marriage migrants already prevalent in society and further reinforce the hegemonic ideology of ethnic nationalism in Korea.
The idea of ‘Korean’ as a racially homogenous group of people remains intact at the foundation of the notion of Korea. In the socio-historical context of Korea, people of other ethnicities or racial categories are by default excluded from the Korean nation. Hence, it can be said that Korean nationalism equates Korean as an ethnic identity and Korean as modern citizenship to be one and the same. Against this backdrop, marriage brokers create varied racialised and gendered categories deemed beneficial for the status of men as Koreans in different ways. Through these representational practices, ethnic nationalism is continuously reproduced, legitimised, and normalised.
Such representations are more contentious since marriage agencies tend to act in their own interests and from their own perspectives. Institutional interests – not limited to economic interests and compounded by institutions’ positions in Korea’s socio-political system – are inevitably embedded in this process. To increase profit, marriage agencies represent foreign women using the portrayals desired by Korean men. Their representational practices come from the misogynist perspectives of Korean male culture.
Underneath their representational practices further lies the Korean government’s understanding of the nation and their views on marriage migrants. The Korean government has regulated marriage broker agencies’ representation of foreign wives by finding or suspending agencies deemed guilty of fostering racial or gender discrimination towards marriage migrants through their advertising. However, marriage agencies have simultaneously continued to push and negotiate for their own interests simply by changing their representational strategies. Cross-border marriage agencies have adjusted their representations of migrant women according to the regulations set in place by the Korean government. The government emphasises to the brokerage agencies the importance of refraining from racist discourses without clearly defining what racism is, or which advertisements are deemed to be problematic; but advertisements that highlight how foreign wives become Koreanised and could perform traditional gender roles are allowed. Contrary to the government’s general claims to respect the diversity of marriage migrants, the Korean government also takes an instrumental and pragmatic approach in its policies toward marriage migrants, treating them as tools of biological and social reproduction needed to solve the problem of low birth rates and to sustain the Korean nation.
Different institutions are associated with marriage migration in Korea. Yet insufficient attention has been paid to the representational practices of marriage brokers and other various institutions. They tend to represent marriage migrants based on their own interests and from their own socio-political positions. Thus, it is very important to highlight different institutions’ representational processes, to critically discuss how their politics normalise and legitimise institutional interests, and how hegemonic ideologies which maintain the country are continuously reproduced through representational practices.
Minjae Shin is a PhD candidate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. She is currently looking at the marriage migration phenomenon in South Korea by focusing on representational practices of institutions and their reproduction of ethnic nationalism, and the homogenisation of marriage migrants by institutional power. She has accumulated first-hand experiences of working with different institutions that are shaping the cross-border marriage phenomenon in South Korea to introduce new insights to the field of migration studies.