Korea has been known as one of East Asia’s newly industrialised countries (NICs). It leaves its national imprint on its steel industry, ship-building, automobiles and other consumer durables. The robust economic activity in the country reflects Korea’s demand for human resources, following the patterns of labour-receiving countries such as Japan and Taiwan.
But the last several years have also found the country stressed over its endurance as a nation. They saw an increasing demand for women marriage migrants.
However porous long-distance relationships or marriages forced by unification churches may be marriage migration in Korea also bears a national seal. Marriage migration has been a necessity for the country’s continuing modernity but one that is often policed by tradition.
As May Cordova, a Filipino marriage migrant shares, “Most Koreans are forcing us, their foreign wives to follow their culture. But the trouble is that they want us to forget our culture as a consequence to marrying them.”
There is indeed a basis for such posture in the very myth that created Korean nation. Yet the same posture is also increasingly challenged by the need to ensure the continuity of this nation in light of the chosen fertility rates of Korean women and Korean women’s emerging preference for Western men as their husbands.
Conversely, this has effected an increasing number of migrant women from less developed countries in Asia such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Some of these women traveled to Korea initially for employment opportunities in industrialised zones. But a substantial number of women have entered the country primarily because of marriage.
“In the process of modern Korean nation-state building, it has operated as an ideology to justify the sacrifice of internal members and the exclusion of others. However it seems that the concept of Koreanness is breaking down and facing serious challenges,” expressed Jiyoung Lee-An, a fellow of the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA Seoul).
To ensure the integration of foreign wives into the Korean society, the government launched the so-called Social Integration Programme (SIP) which requires a maximum of 230 hours of Korean language, as a pre-requisite for Korean nationality. This policy drew massive criticism from marriage migrant groups and social movements that the government was forced to step back and revise the SIP.
At the moment the SIP is no longer compulsory. However, it has been transformed as an incentive measure, as the completion of the SIP can reduce the waiting time for the acquisition of Korean nationality.
The SIP and attempts on acculturation indeed throw light on a marriage migrant’s access to citizenship which is much more than one’s belonging to a community but puts at the centre the recognition and exercise of human rights (as citizens) even in the public sphere.
“Social movements of marriage migrants should also challenge this exclusionary structure of citizenship governance. This means that they also need to question the socially and paternally imposed criteria and role of what constitute a good woman and the hierarchy of the patriarchal imagination of ‘national women’ and ‘foreign women,’” Jiyoung asserted.