South Korea’s problem with how foreign brides are treated

The government tries to tackle the thorny issue of migrant brides and domestic violence.

A foreign bride dressed in a traditional Korean wedding outfit.

[This story was written originally for The Diplomat in January 2015.]

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.

The above pie chart illustrates the number offoreign residents in South Korea as of the end of 2014. Note the majority of foreigners living in Korea at 53.7 percent include both ethnic Korean-Chinese and non-Korean Chinese Nationals.

“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 internaitonal marriages in South Korea has 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 by married couples of human rights.

“Why are we having these classes? It’s a culture show of these women. These [217] 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.

Marriage Visas

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.


U.S. soldier dies after street fight in Seoul nightlife district

Carl Lissone, a member of 304th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, seeen here in this photo taken from a facebook profile registered in his name.
Carl Lissone, a member of 304th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, seeen here in this photo taken from a facebook profile registered in his name.

This story first appeared in The Korea Herald on May 8, 2014.

A United States serviceman died after a brawl on the street outside a popular dance club in Seoul’s Hongdae district on Sunday over the extended Children’s Day weekend.

Carl Lissone and three others, who had spent the evening drinking and dancing at Club Naked, got into a quarrel shortly after exiting the establishment in the early hours of May 4.

Outside the club, which is popular among men and women serving in the U.S. military stationed here, the 20-year-old Lissone was knocked unconscious during a fight with another U.S. serviceman, according to a government source familiar with the situation.

Although Lissone was bleeding from his nose and ears, two of the three men brought him not to a nearby hospital but to a motel in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, near Camp Humphreys, where they are stationed.

Lissone was then taken to Good Morning Hospital in Pyeongtaek, where he was pronounced dead.

The men did not report his death to military authorities until 1 p.m. that day. Criminal charges against any of the three men have not yet been made, a United States Forces Korea spokesperson said.

“There was one soldier who essentially became unresponsive and he did die. The facts of what actually happened are a part of the KNP (Korean National Police)’s investigation,” said Col. Shawn Stroud, chief of public affairs for the 8th Army. “There is obviously deep sorrow within the 8th Army and within his unit, as well as back in the States where his family lives.”

The soldiers were in violation of multiple USFK rules placed on its personnel, including the underage consumption of alcohol, violating curfew and fighting.

Military authorities are now considering placing Club Naked on the list of locations off-limits to U.S. military personnel as a result of the incident, according to the government source.

Stroud said it is too soon to speculate whether the soldier’s death could push the USFK to prohibit all servicemen from visiting Hongdae, saying, “That is something the senior leadership will look at.”

According to a Facebook page registered in his name, Lissone was a graduate of Lithonia High School in Lithonia, Georgia, in the greater Atlanta area.

Lissone was a part of the 304th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, which was the first element to relocate to Camp Humphreys in December 2012 as part of the 2004 Land Partnership Program agreement between the U.S. and South Korea to move American soldiers south of the Hangang River.

Lithonia High School alumni have created the hashtag #RIPCarlLissone on Twitter for those wishing to send prayers and condolences for Lissone and his family.

The Ahyon-dong Murder

This story originally appear in the Korea Observer in January 2015.

Police are calling it, “The Ahyon-dong murder.” A Korean man stabbed to death a Chinese woman identified by the surname Lee on the night of Jan. 12 on a narrow street in a residential part of Ahyon-dong, nearby the prestigious Ewha Woman’s University.

The 42-year old married woman was found bleeding profusely from multiple stab wounds by neighbors, who called the police at 11:51p.m. “Come quick! A woman is bleeding really bad!” a neighbor reportedly told a 119 emergency operator (South Korea’s emergency number is 119).

Lee was rushed to a nearby hospital, but could not be revived. She was pronounced dead at 12:33a.m.

Seoul Mapo Police apprehended a 31-year old Korean man identified by the surname Choi at his apartment on Jan. 16 at 5:00p.m., and brought him in for questioning. He was charged with the murder of Lee the next day, Jan. 17.

According to police, Lee and Choi went to a Noribang and continued the evening drinking together at Choi’s apartment in Ahyon-dong on the night in question.

Police are looking into the possibility that Lee was killed as she attempted to break up her love affair with the Korean male 11 years her junior. She was stabbed to death outside on the street about 30 meters from Choi’s apartment perhaps as she attempted flee.

Part of the murder was caught on CCTV located in a stairwell of a building near the murder scene.

Lee was a married woman, according to police. Lee married a Korean man identified by the surname Kim, 42. It was her second marriage. She met Kim 10 years ago in China. They lived together in Manwon-dong.

“There was no reason for (Lee) to be in Ahyondong that night. I always had the impression that my son (Kim) and (Lee) had a happy marriage. They had no special marital problems,” Lee’s mother-in-law told a reporter from Newsis.

Lee’s purse, cell phone and other belongings were found on her body at the scene, which led police to believe she was killed by an acquaintance. Police followed the trail to Choi by using Lee’s cell phone to contact her friends who informed them she had planned to meet Choi on the night in question.

When they caught up with Choi at his apartment on the Jan. 16, they found him with the bloodstained murder weapon and still wearing the clothes from that night. He was described by police as “resigned.” He went with police without incident.