S. Koreans Search Far and Wide for a Wife

Times Staff Writer

It was the constellation of acne across her cheeks that made No. 242 stand out from the other young women who were paraded before him in a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

Jeong Ha-gi, 46, flew to Vietnam on a tour organized for South Korean bachelors. He was looking for a wife who would be tough enough to withstand the rigors of life on a rice farm. Trying to distinguish among all the women with the numbers pinned to their shirts, he decided the one with a bad complexion might be made of sturdy stuff. They were married three days later.

Today, they live together in sullen silence, a chasm of cultural differences between them. She speaks no Korean, he no Vietnamese. They communicate -- barely -- with a well-thumbed phrase book. Nguyen Thu Dong, who turned out to be only 20, doesn't like getting up at 5 a.m. to do the farm chores. She turns up her nose at kimchi.

"We have a lot of issues between us," said the burly Jeong, who in his undershirt resembles a Korean version of the young Marlon Brando. "Our age difference, our culture, our food. But I wanted a wife and she is who I got."

Despite the obvious pitfalls, South Korean men increasingly are going abroad to find wives. They have little choice in the matter unless they want to remain bachelors for life.

The marriage market in Asia is becoming rapidly globalized, and just in time for tens of thousands of single-but-looking South Korean men, most of them in the countryside where marriageable women are in scant supply. With little hope of finding wives of their own nationality and producing children to take over the farm, the men are pooling their family's resources to raise up to $20,000 to find a spouse abroad.

The phenomenon has become so widespread that last year 13% of South Korean marriages were to foreigners. More than a third of the rural men who married last year have foreign wives, most of them Vietnamese, Chinese and Philippine. That's a huge change in a country once among the most homogenous in the world.

To some extent, the globalized marriage market is having a trickle-down effect, exacerbating the shortage of marriage-age women elsewhere, particularly China.

"There is a long-standing son preference throughout Asia, but now it is happening in the context of this 21st century marriage market," said Valerie M. Hudson, a political scientist and author of "Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population."

The preference for sons has translated in South Korea into 113 male births for every 100 females. Ultrasound became widely available here in the 1980s, and the first generation screened for gender before birth is now coming of marriageable age.

But perhaps an even larger factor in the disappearance of young women from the countryside is their tendency to move to the cities in search of careers or urban husbands or both.

"South Korean women don't want to live in the countryside. They don't want to do hard labor, getting their skin brown in the sun. The cities are less traditional, less patriarchal," said Yang Soon-mi, a social worker with the Ministry of Agriculture.

The wife shortage is most severe here in the southwestern region of Jeolla, the traditional heartland of Korea. This is one of the few swaths of South Korea where the rice paddies have not yet been cemented over for gray slabs of high-rise apartments. On a hot August day, the air is thick with the chirping of the cicadas, and red peppers are drying in the sun on the pavement.

On roads cutting through the fields, marriage brokers advertise their services on billboards.

"Vietnamese marriage," reads a billboard in shocking pink on an otherwise quiet country lane.

The wife shortage is having a devastating effect on the agricultural communities, already threatened by urbanization and free trade. Without wives, young men won't want to stay on the farm. Without wives, there are no babies to replenish the stock of farmers.

South Korea and Taiwan are tied for the lowest birthrates in the world, 1.1 per woman, according to a study released last month by the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau. Unlike China, South Korea does not limit births, and is in fact offering tax incentives to encourage more children.

Many of the villages around Jeolla are virtual ghost towns, with a sparse population of elderly residents and hardly a child in sight.

"There are only old people around here," said Le Pho, a 22-year-old Vietnamese woman who married a South Korean a year ago and is now pregnant. Her child will be the first born in the village, Seogok-ri, in more than 20 years. Despite a regulation, widely ignored, prohibiting doctors from divulging the sex of the fetus, Le knows already that she is having a boy.

"My husband and mother-in-law are very happy. They've treated me very well since they found out the baby is a boy," Le said. "The neighbors too. When they see my belly, they are amazed."

In fact, the foreign wives are key to rescuing some of these farm villages from extinction.

In a nearby village, Oaktae-ri, there are five young children, four of them born to foreign women. Park Jeong-su, 46, whose Chinese-born wife recently gave birth to a daughter, said that all the Korean women in his village moved to Seoul and other cities because they didn't like the farming life.

"When I was a young man, I could find women to date, women who would sleep with me. But nobody who would go to the countryside," said Park, a powerfully built and handsome man with a roguish sense of humor. "Whenever I met a woman I liked, the first question she would ask was, 'Where is your apartment?' "

After more than a decade of looking for a Korean wife, Park went to the Philippines. He didn't meet anyone he liked. He then tried the Unification Church, which has often matched up international couples for group weddings. That didn't work either. He then accepted a friend's invitation to go to Harbin in northeastern China, where he was introduced by a friend's cousin to Yi Ok-ran.

Yi is ethnic Korean and already spoke the language.

"All the women in my village wanted to go to South Korea. We heard that life is good, that people are wealthy," said Yi, cuddling her infant daughter. As a result, she said, in her village in Tonghe County there are also only old people and few children. "There are so many old bachelors."

*

Many of the brides in South Korea come from the Mekong Delta region south of Ho Chi Minh City. The region is poor, and provincial authorities have been fairly liberal about licensing marriages between Vietnamese women and foreigners.

Newlywed Nguyen Thu Dong said she agreed to marry Jeong Ha-gi only to escape a life of certain poverty.

"A lot of the girls I know are getting married to foreigners. Men from Hong Kong, men from South Korea. Even if they have a Vietnamese boyfriend they like, they want to marry a foreigner to get away," said Nguyen, who is from Can Tho, a town about 80 miles southwest of Ho Chi Minh City.

Nguyen said that her parents told her on her 19th birthday they had been approached by the village matchmaker about setting her up with a foreigner.

"At first I said no," she said. "I was working at the time as a housemaid. But then I came back to my parents' home. I saw how badly they were doing financially, so I agreed."

She said she had no idea how much her family received. Another Vietnamese bride married to a South Korean said that the standard amount was $300.

The men, on the other hand, pay about $15,000 for a complete package that is supposed to include everything from the interpreter to the wedding gown.

Jeong, who had been married once before briefly, said he was talked into going to Vietnam in March by a younger brother. He joined a group of 12 men, from their mid-30s to their 50s.

The women were all younger than 25. They were paraded in small groups in front of the men, who were told to jot down the numbers of those they liked.

"It was like a Miss Korea pageant," Jeong recalled with faint distaste.

Nguyen said she was appalled to be wearing a number and almost ran away before it was her turn to appear in front of the men.

Both have the same complaint -- that the interpretation was inadequate.

Jeong said that when they met, he told his prospective wife immediately that he was a farmer and that she replied that she grew up on a farm and liked rural living.

Nguyen said she was told that her suitor was an office worker in the city.

"He is very kind to me and I am grateful for that. But if I knew we were to live in the countryside, I wouldn't have come," Nguyen confided later.

Unable to communicate on their own, the couple quickly seized upon the opportunity to exchange a few thoughts through an interpreter who was accompanying a reporter.

"When will you let me visit my family in Vietnam?" she asked plaintively.

The reply came back: "When you give me a baby."

*

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
74°