This past July, a video of a South Korean man verbally and physically abusing his Vietnamese wife went viral and caused national outrage. Similar incidents continue to happen to Vietnamese women everyday, but are the South Korean government’s latest efforts enough?
South Korea has an extremely high amount of foreign wives –– women who immigrate to other countries for the purpose of marriage. A majority of foreign wives in South Korea immigrated from Vietnam, with around 6,000 Vietnamese women marrying South Korean men each year.
Often poverty-stricken or eager for better living conditions, Vietnamese women chase the “Korean Dream” promoted by Seoul pop culture and the rise of K-Pop. Additionally, South Korea, as a deeply-rooted patriarchal society, considers traditional gender roles an important part of marriage. For this reason, international matchmaker services brand Vietnamese women as the obedient, submissive partners that South Korean men seek.
In a survey of 920 foreign wives conducted by the National Human Rights Commission last year, 42% of women reported domestic violence in their marriages, and another 68% reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances. Within the last five years, less than one percent of reported domestic abuse cases have led to a prison sentence.
Although domestic violence rates are high, women are often hesitant to report incidents to police. This has a lot to do with the values and beliefs of South Koreans, who believe domestic abuse and other family issues should be kept private and under wraps. Women may also be hesitant to contact police because of their immigrant status.
“In the worst-case scenario, South Korean husbands and their families deliberately refrain from helping their migrant wives obtain citizenship or visa status,” says Kang Hye-sook, a director of the Woman Migrants Human Rights center in Daegu, South Korea.
In response to the severe domestic violence, the South Korean government has introduced legislation that will prohibit men with a history of domestic violence from marrying migrant women. The law will also apply to anyone charged with a sexual crime against a child or anyone who served jail time within the last ten years. The law will take effect next October.
The amendment, while positive in many ways, still fails to protect South Korean women. Domestic violence continues to be a prominent issue in the country, across all fronts. However, the nation appears to be moving in the right direction. With the rise of the Korean #MeToo Movement, reports of domestic abuse have similarly increased. Because of the changing attitudes and heightened awareness, South Korean citizens are beginning to consider domestic abuse a serious issue.