Tuesday, 14 June 2016

(Multi)culturalizing Inequalities: Citizenship Contradictions of Marriage Transnationalization in South Korea/East Asia

Chang Kyung-Sup, PhD, Professor of Sociology at Seoul National University writes for us ahead of his keynote presentation today at our 5th International Conference: Unequal Families & Relationships.

As in other societies, globalization has had many faces in South Korea. Since the early 2000s, for instance, South Korean men’s marriage with foreign women, mostly from less affluent Asian countries, has suddenly increased. This trend became significant initially between Korean Chinese women (Chaoxianzu) and poor urban men, and Han Chinese women were soon introduced to similar South Korean men. From around 2005, many local governments and rural communities began to approach Southeast Asian women – in particular, Vietnamese women – as brides for rapidly increasing “forced” bachelors in rural areas. The semi-public campaign of “sending rural bachelors to in-law’s home” (nongchonchonggak janggabonaegi, meaning making rural bachelors marry) spread quickly throughout the country, so South Korean villages suddenly became the very forefront of a sort of sociocultural cosmopolitanization. This has become perhaps the first societal initiative for openly promoting “multiculturalism” in Korean history as the South Korean government, at the urge of civilian experts and activists, formally adopted “the multicultural family support” policy and began various public programs for assisting foreign brides and their Korean families. All of a sudden, multiculturalism became a keyword not only in social policy but also in cultural and political policy. However, this policy has not only failed to address the structural problems that were responsible for the necessity of transnational marriages but also engendered other structural problems. My study analyzes such structural problems by examining the historical and institutional nature of South Korea’s formally promoted multiculturalism.

The “multicultural family support” policy seems to have culturally particularized the complex social and economic problems surrounding foreign brides, their Korean families, foreign laborers, and South Korean society as a whole. First, this policy has been exclusively applied to marriage migrants while openly excluding foreign guest-workers (despite their lengthier and more sizable presence) for no (multi)cultural reasons. Second, while the material and social status of foreign brides is basically determined by that of their Korean family members – most of whom are unfortunately poor and often old – the (multi)cultural policy alone has had no significant effect in improving the latter’s material fate. Third, despite a paternalistic social atmosphere for helping relieve foreign brides’ difficulties in Korean life, the multiculturalism drive has often neglected the asymmetrical gender dimension of social globalization.

Rapid marriage transnationalization and the accompanying multiculturalism drive are certainly a new component of globalized life in South Korea, but the country’s persistent structural inequalities involving laborers (now including foreign workers in increasing numbers), rural families, and women have had quite interesting manifestations in this process. These material problems have been (multi)culturally reframed in both the specific terms of the multicultural family support policy and the broad outlines of civilian multiculturalism. The main conclusion I wish to offer to this international conference is that multiculturalizing South Korea has failed to meaningfully address or redress various structural inequalities that foreign brides as laboring, rural, and women citizens share with foreign guest workers, foreign brides’ Korean families, and native women.


Professor Chang Kyung-Sup is a keynote speaker at our 5th International Conference: Unequal Families & Relationships. You can read a brief introduction to his presentation here.

You can follow live tweets from the conference using the hashtag #CRFR2016 on Twitter.

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