(ATTN: CHANGES date on the dateline to Nov. 19 from Dec. 1)
By Ben Jackson
SEOUL, Nov. 19 (Yonhap) -- Until recently, any introduction to South Korea included the mention of its ethnic homogeneity without fail. Once known as a "Hermit Kingdom," the country was where blood and nationhood were one and the same, and mixing with foreign blood was considered undesirable.
These days, however, South Korea's rapid economic, cultural and demographic changes are unleashing new trends and currents that flow far beyond the country's borders. International marriage, once regarded as an anomaly by many Koreans, has become a significant social phenomenon.
"Recently, opposition to international marriage within Korean families is decreasing, since such marriages have now been occurring for a while and less shame is associated with them," said Jang Mi-yeong, a college professor who has authored a book on multicultural society in Korea.
"And Korean women now enjoy a stronger and more independent position in society, so they are less inclined to fill the traditionally demanded role of a wife in a patriarchal system," said Jang, who teaches English language and literature at Jeonju University.
Mixed-nationality unions in South Korea are often regarded as being confined largely to the countryside, where many young men struggle to attract Korean spouses to a life perceived as less comfortable than the city, but statistics show that the practice is now far from uncommon in Seoul and other metropolitan areas.
According to 2009 research, the rising ratio of men to women of "marriage age" would reach a peak by 2014. This means that in terms of pure numbers, two out of every 10 men will be unable to marry because of a lack of women.
Women also appear to be putting off marriage: While in 1975 only 11.8 percent of women aged 25-29 were unmarried, the figure had risen to 59.1 percent by 2005.
According to the Korea Immigration Service, the number of registered foreign spouses in the country has shot up, rising from 25,000 in 2001 to 138,000 as of August this year.
The actual number of international marriages in South Korea may be higher when foreign spouses that have now adopted Korean nationality are taken into account, it said.
In annual terms, according to Statistics Korea, 33,000 international marriages took place in the country in 2009, of which 76 percent (25,142) involved Korean males and foreign females, while 8,158 Korean females married foreign males.
Though the number of international marriages remains significant, it has in fact dropped slightly each year since 2005.
Korean central and local governments have responded in various ways to the new social requirements of international spouses and "multicultural families."
Seoul Metropolitan Government operates six multicultural childcare centers that provide programs for children from multicultural families to help them develop their senses of cultural identity, as well as six multicultural family support centers and hotlines offering counseling services.
The Ministry of Gender Equality & Family, meanwhile, has made protection of migrant women -- a significant proportion of whom are the wives of Korean men -- one of its main tasks.
Already in 2007, ministry officials said, eight out of every 100 married Korean men had foreign wives, a figure that rose to a huge 40 percent among workers in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries.
The rate of experience of violence among migrant women in international marriages in Korea has risen to reach 47.7 percent, according to one survey conducted in 2008.
They include a few shocking incidents such as the murder in July of a 20-year-old Vietnamese woman by her 47-year-old Korean husband, who had a history of mental illness, just eight days after she arrived in the country.
Such incidents have raised the profile of international marriage and brought its wider implications for Korean society under scrutiny once again.
In response, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has established a 24-hour hotline for migrant women (1577-1366), offering consultation in eight different languages as well as Emergency Support Centers for Migrant Women in Seoul and six other cities.
"Our hotline and emergency centers are run by a combination of married migrant women who speak good Korean and are trained for the job, and Korean workers who can help with Korean family matters, act as a police liaison and so on," said Kang Sung-hea, chief director of the Central Emergency Support Center for Migrant Women in Seoul.
"From January to September this year, our hotline and centers dealt with 38,937 cases of contact from migrant married women on issues ranging from daily life -- hospital visits, school inquiries, cooking questions, interpretation requests and so on -- to legal inquiries, residency and work, family disputes and family violence," she said.
The Korea Immigration Service, meanwhile, recently launched a program of three hour-long lectures for prospective husbands of migrant brides.
"During the first lecture, they are taught about the culture and different systems of the country from which their wife will come," said an official from Korea Immigration Service.
"During the second one they learn about the legal and bureaucratic procedures they and their new wives will have to undergo in Korea. And in the third lecture they are told by an external lecturer about previous cases of mishap in international marriage," he added.
The programs are set to run twice a month at 14 locations throughout Korea. Around 400 men, 120 of them from Seoul, took part in the first program in October.
The Jeonju University professor, Jang, emphasizes the need for Korean husbands to show interest in their foreign wives' languages and cultures if balanced multicultural families and society are to take shape.
"At the moment, due to Korean patriarchal ideas, it is seen as the wife's duty to learn the language and culture of her husband, but only as a non-essential choice for the husband whether to reciprocate," she said.
The professor expects the annual number of international marriages between foreign women and Korean men to remain similar in the near future.
"A lot fewer Joseon-jok (ethnic Koreans living in China) are marrying Korean men, while the number of brides from places like the Philippines and Vietnam is increasing," she said.
"The recent decrease may be because Koreans and foreigners are becoming more aware of the potential difficulties of international marriage, and because many men that were looking for international marriages have now tied the knot."
Jang also points out that in terms of sheer numbers, many more international marriages take place in Seoul, its metropolitan region and other big cities because of the overall concentration of population in these areas.
In terms of percentage, more international marriages still occur in rural regions, she said.
Jang is optimistic about the future of multicultural society in Korea.
"This country adapts very fast," she said. "It was reduced to almost nothing by war just 60 years ago and is now among the world's leading nations. Foreign spouses and migrant workers are a very new phenomenon for Koreans, but I think they will adapt fast to this, too."
What effect the high number of international marriages will have on Korean society as a whole remains to be seen. But what is certain is that as the number of children of multicultural parenthood rises, traditional Korean ideas about blood and nationhood are bound to change somewhat. As the number and age of such Koreans of multicultural parentage increases, so will their political, social and cultural influence.
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