When she agreed to marry a foreign man 20 years her senior introduced to her through a local marriage broker, Do Thi My Tien was optimistic she could create a comfortable life for herself abroad.
Tien married Lee Geun-sik, a South Korean, and traveled a world away from her small village in Tay Ninh, a province 100 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City. In 2005, the newlyweds settled down in South Jeolla Province in the southwestern corner of the country.
But what began 10 years ago with so much hope and promise, ended last year on July 24 in a sordid murder. Police pulled Tien’s body from a deep gorge. She was 27 years of age.
A Vietnamese neighbor told police the couple was fighting days before Tien disappeared, according to local reporting. Lee admitted to killing Tien, and to tossing her body and scooter over the side of a mountain road in a half-baked attempt to conceal his crime. Lee apparently believed he could make it appear like a traffic accident, but the police immediately suspected foul play.
Tien’s death is an extreme and tragic example of the domestic violence that afflicts many families. In South Korea, a total of 123 women were killed by their husbands or partners in 2013, according to the Korea Women’s Hotline, a nationwide women’s group that works to stop domestic violence.
Foreigners account for just 2.5 percent of the population in South Korea, but with a comparatively high number of deaths involving foreign women since 2012, experts from government and nongovernment organizations agree that migrant women here are particularly at risk to domestic violence.
They disagree on much else. According to a senior official at the Gender Equality and Family Ministry, language and cultural barriers are largely to blame for the domestic violence that caused the slew of disturbing killings.
“Think about it. Several decades ago, Korean women emigrated to Japan or America. They were poor. They didn’t even know who their husbands were. They didn’t speak English, so they couldn’t really often get out of the house. Their husbands started to ignore them. The wives didn’t work, they couldn’t cook American food,” said Choi Sung-ji, director of multicultural family policy at the Ministry of Gender Equality & Family, in explaining the domestic violence faced by migrant women in South Korea.
“The situation is similar in Korea now. Women from Southeast Asian countries come here for a better living without really knowing who they are getting married to. They didn’t get married out of love.”
“Rather, they met them but through marriage brokers,” she said, adding “If they don’t speak the Korean language and do not understand Korean culture, then they are at a disadvantage. There cannot be an equal relationship. “
Love and Marriage
The number of international marriages in South Korea have skyrocketed. Between 1990 and 2005, for instance, just 250,000 international marriages were registered in South Korea. But nearly as many – some 238,000 – were registered in just six years, from 2006-2012.
The increase in international marriages started from 1990 for a specific reason: The Cold War ended. South Korea established diplomatic relations with Cold War foes China and Vietnam in 1992, opening up travel and communications for ordinary Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese.
Although international marriage accounted for only 1.2 percent of marriages in 1990, they represented 13.6 percent in 2006, a ten-fold increase.
As of September 2013 the single largest group of marriage migrants was Vietnamese women, nearly 40,000. Non-Korean Chinese and ethnic-Korean Chinese women formed the second and third largest groups, with women from Japan, the Philippines and Cambodia following them.
In 2007, South Korea’s Multicultural Families Support Act came into force and ushered the opening of multicultural centers around the country. The centers aim to provide various classes and services for migrant women and their families.
Though the act has seen a number of revisions over the years, a reliable constant is the steadily growing number of these government-run multicultural centers. The country has seen 50 such centers set up on an annual basis since 2007. In the past eight years, 217 centers have opened under the Gender Equality Ministry and the budget for multicultural families ballooned to $120 million, a 20-fold increase.
The proper role of these multicultural centers is a point of contention between the Gender Ministry and women and migrant rights groups.
While the centers provide practical classes, such as Korean language instruction, they do so only marginally. For example, only 400 hours a year of language education is guaranteed at any particular center, about an hour a day.
The centers appear more focused on delivering esoteric sounding services for migrant women, such as the so-called “multicultural perception improvement project;” the “family integrated education service,” which is described as providing “culture understanding education;” and the “bi-lingual environment promotion project.”
Choi, a director responsible for overseeing policy on multicultural families, said the programs are designed to foster respect for the mother’s culture in the home and in society.
Critics of that effort and the centers say the government is too focused on “cultural assimilation” and believe the government should instead emphasize legal protections for migrant women, preventing domestic violence and raising the awareness of the human rights of immigrants.
“Why are we having these classes? It’s a culture show of these women. These  multicultural centers are spending their money putting on culture shows. These classes should be fundamentally about raising awareness and teaching migrant women what their rights are,” said Heo Young-sook, secretary general of Women Migrant Human Rights Center of Korea. “Even though we are spending a lot of money on these centers, discrimination against migrant women is getting worse.”
Heo led a street demonstration in Seoul on Dec. 30 that eulogized the seven migrant women killed last year, during which she decried the failure by the government to protect migrant women from domestic violence. She outlined a number of needed changes, including a crackdown on exploitative marriage brokers and a better social system for preventing domestic violence in the country.
“One thing that has to change is the rules preventing new brides from obtaining South Korean citizenship,” she added.
If an F6 marriage visa is extended to a migrant newlywed, then he or she can stay in the country for two years. The biannual renewal of his or her visa status depends on the sponsorship of the South Korean spouse, as well as eligibility for permanent residency and naturalization.
The visa system makes marriage migrants vulnerable to domestic violence, insists Heo.
The system makes many marriage migrants dependent on their husbands for their visa status, which can lead abuse both physically and also emotionally, through isolation and seclusion.
To illustrate her point, Heo cited one of the seven women killed last year, a 22-year-old Vietnamese woman identified by the surname Nguyen. The migrant rights activist said she was undocumented because she was estranged from her husband. Nguyen was murdered by a 37-year-old male friend in a motel in Jeju City on Nov. 30.
The Gender Ministry’s Choi acknowledged that multicultural centers need to do a better job educating migrant women about their legal rights. She said a new class focusing on migrant rights will be introduced at centers starting from this year.
The Ministry of Justice also responded to high number of women killed and other reports of domestic violence by tightening requirements for obtaining marriage visas.
Those tougher requirements were welcomed by both inside and outside the government. Both Heo and Choi agreed with the stricter immigration measures.
Since April 2014, Korean spouses have had to meet income and other wealth minimums – an annual income of 14.8 million won ($14,000) – and stiffer language requirements for marriage migrants.
The new rules could have an effect on curbing the increasing rate of new international marriages. A study on marriage migration in South Korea found that over half of 945 multicultural families surveyed in 2006 earned less than the minimum wage (about $8,000 per year).
Whether making international marriages more difficult will decrease domestic violence and, indeed, decrease the number of migrant women killed through 2015 remains to be seen.