By Jake Reed
High divorce rates, low birth rates, gender inequality in South Korea. Like Bob Dylan said “The times they are a changing.”
If you have walked down the strip in Gangnam or dined in the heart of Itaewon, then you are no stranger to South Korea’s modernity. It also has the highest concentration of Internet broadband users as well as a value-shattering pop culture.
This is a lot to take in given the country’s war torn history and abnormal relationship with its other half. Yet, the proof is evident that South Korea has become a player on the global scale.
Change has been a major theme of the peninsula in terms of demographics and technology. One must wonder, what else is changing?
As of 2005, South Korea was number three in the world in terms of divorces. As the only Asian country in the top three, South Korea has some answering to do. In fact, according to The Asian Population Studies in 2006 (volume 2, issue 2), the crude divorce rate tripled from 1.1 to 3.5 in Korea between 1990 and 2003.
Now, how could so many people be opting out of a sacred union, and how could it be rising? Korea has enjoyed an amazing leap in prosperity in recent decades and with modernization comes social modernization and let’s see just how these values are changing.
Three of the most popular reasons for such an influx divorcing are affairs, having issues with the in-laws and a change of values. Now, it’s not too hard to understand an intrusive mother in-law or a “my way or the highway” testosterone driven alpha male trying to call the shots regarding your own life with your partner.
Yet women aren’t the only ones seeking divorce. Korean men have also made their displeasure with their brides they felt were not up to par. Beatings and psychological abuse were not unheard and more often than not the foreign bride didn’t have a leg to stand on legally or socially. Family can create loads of pressure on decision making, for both marriages and divorces—especially in the case of Korean men marrying foreign brides who must come and join the mans respective family. A clash of cultural values and personalities can often leave the foreign wife in a position in which returning home outweighs the negativity that led them to put their face in a marriage brochure in the first place.
Family strains and affairs are common reasons for divorces in most countries. Also, it’s fairly easy to understand how an extra-marital affair can lead to a permanent separation.
What’s Interesting is the popularity of a “change in values” as a reason to call it quits. So whose values are changing? Who is incapable of handling this change?
Can Confucian values contribute to divorce?
I’ll spare the Korean culture lesson, but traditionally, women weren’t exactly the best off in terms of Korean gender roles.
“Throughout Korean history, Korean women have been treated as second class citizens regardless of their social and familial positions. In the social system, they have been limited to being bystanders in the main cultural systems, behind bureaucratic male dominance. Korean women have been the subjects of discrimination based on their role in marriage, their fertility, and their lack of a right to end their marriage in divorce, as well as their subordinate role in the public domain.”
Here are some Korean proverbs highlighted by Hyung Ki Choi that further highlight the tradition of women being less than equal to their male counterparts.
“If you don’t beat your woman every three days, she becomes a fox.”
“Get slapped at the government office; come home and hit your woman.”
“A bad wife is a grievance for 100 years; bad bean paste is a grievance for one year.”
“The good-for-nothing daughter-in-law gets sick on the day of ancestral sacrifice.”
“A son-in-law is a guest for 100 years; a daughter-in-law is an eating mouth ’til the day she dies.”
In accordance with this, The Asian Population Studies concluded that “Independent of period effects, women’s employment in white-collar occupations and declining fertility increase the risk of divorce, whereas women’s unpaid work in the family business and college education lower the risk of divorce. It also states that “divorce rates are highest in the middle stage of marital duration in Korea.”
It’s 2010, has anything changed? Are South Korean women fated to work meaningless jobs and make meager wages? Bob Dylan has the answer as does this quote from the New York Times:
“Over the past five years, 55 percent of the 151 people who passed the highly competitive test—the main passageway into the country’s diplomatic corps—were women.”
The test the quote refers to is the “foreign service examination. You know, that test people take to get become public servants. Yes, South Korean women are capable of kicking ass in previously exclusively male workplaces. However problems still remain.
“In South Korea, the four largest conglomerates — Samsung, Hyundai, LG and SK — dominate the economy. Women hold less than 2 percent of seats on their boards. There are almost no female executives at South Korean banks.
Despite having the world’s 13th-largest economy, South Korea ranked 115th out of 134 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2009 index of gender equality.”
Apparently merit has yet to become the highest of virtues in the South Korea business world.
Where are the single moms?
“In 2007, 7,774 babies were born out of wedlock in South Korea, 1.6 percent of all births. (In the United States, nearly 40 percent of babies born in 2007 had unmarried mothers, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.) Nearly 96 percent of unwed pregnant women in South Korea choose abortion, according to the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs.”
Abortion is technically illegal in South Korea but readily available. A contradiction? Its viewed as a social necessity to some due to, yep you guessed it: Custom. The shame that an unwed mother would cause her family usually ousts any sentiments towards that little beating heart she hears while getting that first sonogram.
Sadly, a man or woman might not be out of the woods even after taking the plunge and filing for a divorce. Picture an elderly couple living on a pension. Now, this is the bread and butter of any retired couple. Yet, there is no clear law that states a pension must be split evenly or even split at all. The fact that they were married is good enough to stake a claim regardless of who put how much money into the fund. So, elderly couples with viable divorce claims may in fact stay together due to finances. While women’s rights advocates are making their voices heard, clear and concise measures have yet to be crunched out.
As Korea plows further into modernity, women will probably get closer to men in terms of opportunity, rights and freedom. A fair amount of women are already expanding horizons and see more to life then washing clothes, preparing dinner and living in soap opera land. Beyond that, some even smoke—just like the men do. Double standards justified under Confucianism are slowly but surely being weeded out.
The high divorce rate is a reminder that Korean women are changing, and if the men can’t keep up with it then its “goodbye.” Beyond that, marrying foreign wives and expecting them to fit a traditional mold is increasingly yielding undesired results. Recent studies are showing that the recent surge of incompatibility can be attributed to the “serve-my-dinner-now woman” ajjoshi consciousness meeting a female one that seeks an equal playing field in the game of life. Whether you are a feminist, a social conservative, or somewhere in between, you must agree that “the times they are a changing.”
Iwazaru contributed to reporting.
Hobbies: reading, writing, and pushing the limits of tolerable inebriation. His current writing project involves a postmodern novel that draws on themes such as nihilism, isolation and alienation in a world where you are told the good guys won.
Since leaving his native city of San Diego, concepts such as national identity and individual ego have become gradually less important as his relationship with the universal experience grows.