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(Yonhap Feature) Matchmaking firms help N.K. defectors find lifetime spouses in S. Korea

All Headlines 08:23 August 31, 2016

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Aug. 31 (Yonhap) -- Park Myeong-hee, a 35-year-old North Korean defector, still vividly remembers how happy she felt when she walked down the aisle to get married to a man she met in the South.

On occasion she had to fight back tears thinking about her parents that she left behind in the North and herself risking her life when crossing the North Korea-China border years before. But when she stood side by side with her husband-to-be, she started to look forward to the life she dreamed about.

"I was just happy. All I can remember is that I was so happy," Park said, asking for an alias to be used. "As many other brides might do, I just wanted the ceremony to end as quickly as possible and go on the honeymoon trip right away."

Born and raised in Cheongjin located in the northeastern part of the reclusive country, Park escaped her home country in 2012, leaving behind all of her beloved family and friends.

Though it was quite exciting to get used to the totally different market-oriented economy and liberated life that she had never experienced in the North, like many other North Korean defectors she had no one to rely upon.

Marriage might be one of the best ways for people like her to settle down, but it was hard to meet somebody. Also, she didn’t have anyone who could fix her up on a blind date. It was when she happened upon an online site exclusively intended for matchmaking between North Korean women and South Korean men that she made headway.

"I am so grateful that I met him," Park said, adding that she met her husband on her first attempt at this kind of matchmaking.

She is one of the steadily increasing number of North Korean defectors seeking to find their lifelong partners in the South through matchmaking companies, whose business have been growing fast in recent years.

There are no official figures, but industry experts say that the number of these matchmaking companies stood at around 10 in the early 2010s but has risen to around 70 these days.

NK World is one of them and known as a leading matchmaking company fixing up dates between North Korean women and South Korean men. It claims to have about 8,000 members, including 2,000 women from the North.

Kim Soo-jin, CEO of the company, is a North Korean defector herself who left her home country with his husband and a seven-year-old daughter in January 2006.

While running a community site for North Korean women, she realized that there is a "demand" out there from South Korean men who are interested in marrying North Korean women.

"Since I started the business years back, our company has helped over 500 North-South Korean couples get married," she said. "Around 30-40 people -- men and women -- sign up for our service every month these days."

Behind her brisk business were an increasing number of North Korean defectors.

According to official data provided by the country's unification ministry that deals with inter-Korean affairs, North Korean defectors living in South Korea totaled 29,543 as of end-June. Of the total, around 80 percent were female, with many of them unmarried.

The number is showing signs of growing at a faster pace recently as the North faces tough sanctions from the international community for its continued missile provocations, which are obviously making the lives of ordinary people there more miserable than ever.

From this year alone until end-July, 815 people had defected from the communist North into the South, up 15.6 percent from the same period a year earlier.

At first, South Korean men living in rural areas or those with failed international marriages accounted for the largest proportion of NK World's clients, but now the customer base has diversified.

Small business owners, office workers and even public servants are signing up. Kim said that recent TV programs featuring North Korean woman dating South Korean men might be of great help in removing any negative images attached to the women from the communist country with which the South technically remains at war even to this day.

North Korean women are known for their strong commitment to the family. Adding to that, since many have lost everything in the North by opting to defect, they tend to cherish their marriage no matter what.

"It can be very appealing to South Korean men given that you can see many 'South-South' couples go their own ways after failing to set aside what seems to be very trivial differences," she added.

There are still downsides.

Cultural differences between South and North Korea, no shared experiences before their meeting and a bias towards people from a poor country could become major causes for a crisis in marriage.

Sometimes, North Korean women who were not completely honest about their lives back in the North, including whether they married before or had kids there, have led to breakups.

A more serious and probably the most challenging hindrance might be the trauma that North Korean women have about what they went through before coming to the South.

"The North Korean women have trauma that ordinary people cannot experience throughout their life. Most never think about leaving their families behind forever," Kim said.

"That's what they have gone through. Korean men should understand their trauma to make their relations pan out. Being patient and considerate might be the key here," she noted.

The concern is being shared by many experts.

Kim Seok-hyang, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, said the combination between North Korean women and South Korean men is a "double-edged sword" with many "risk factors" that could put the marriage in jeopardy at any time.

Worse yet, they don't have anyone to talk to when things go awry, which makes it more likely for such families to break up.

"For 30,000 North Korean defectors, there are 30,000 different stories. You cannot produce any one-size-fits-all solution to their trauma," she said.

"I hope that problems cropping up with North-South couples now can be of help when the two Koreas are united and many more men and women from the two sides get married. Then it will provide more study cases that can help produce solutions."

Park Myeong-hee, who now has a daughter with her South Korean husband, said that she also recognized her own trauma that could show itself when their relationship gets rocky.

The North Korean defector, however, saw it as a precious part of her memory that needs to be embraced, and she has to live with it no matter what.

"For our honeymoon trip, we went to Thailand where I was thrown behind bars five times in the process of defection," she said. "I went there to remind myself of the moment when the plane finally departed for South Korea and I thought, 'Wow! now it's all over.' I wanted to experience that moment again."

"In the near future, I would like to travel to China where I set foot first after leaving the North. Though it was a country I that stayed briefly in during the process of defection, I still wonder what it will like to be there again."

kokobj@yna.co.kr
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