$300 for your daughter's hand in marriage

A bride shortage in South Korea causes men to seek matches abroad.

Published September 21, 2006 3:16PM (EDT)

In cultures that prize male babies, what happens after 20 years of ultrasounds have allowed many expectant parents to abort female fetuses? Once they're all grown up, who do all those beloved little boys marry? And what will happen to the status of women when they're in short supply? They're finding out right now in South Korea, according to a fascinating story in today's Los Angeles Times. In that country, there are now 113 male babies born for every 100 female, and the first generation of babies screened before birth is now coming of age.

In rural areas, there's a severe shortage of women of marriageable age because of sex selection before birth and migration of young women to cities. So, men are looking abroad, importing brides from Vietnam, China and the Philippines. Men pay as much as $20,000 to take bachelor tours abroad to choose wives, who parade before them pageant style. The poor families of the girls who do get married off receive about $300. The phenomenon has become so widespread that last year 13 percent of marriages in South Korea were to foreigners, with a percentage as high as 30 percent in rural areas. It's a big change for a country that was once one of the most homogenous in the world.

The marriages are so hastily arranged that one woman interviewed by the Times reported not realizing she'd be living in the country, expected to rise at 5 a.m. to work in the fields. She thought she was marrying an office worker who lived in the city. To say that these couples have communication issues is an understatement. They frequently don't speak the same language, communicating with a phrase book. In one poignant moment in the piece, a couple seizes upon the fact that the reporter is traveling with an interpreter, and uses the interpreter to speak to each other.

"When will you let me visit my family in Vietnam?" the wife asks the husband through the interpreter.

"When you give me a baby," he replies.

This story doesn't really address the experience of the native-born South Korean women who are now in short supply. For a follow-up, we'd like to read more about what impact the gender imbalance has on their lives, too. But the piece does suggest that the status of women will not necessarily improve when there are shortages of females in countries that prize male offspring. Instead, marriage will just go global.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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