A North Korean woman, alone in her cheap government housing, asks, “I want to get married. Where is my love?” She daydreams of being only in her underwear, straddling her ideal South Korean man, and calling out to him in affection, “My dear husband.”
That controversial advertisement by a matchmaking firm specialising in bringing North Korean defector women and South Korean men together was abruptly pulled late last month amid a firestorm of criticism at the way it depicted North Korean women as lonesome, sexually charged, and desperate.
But the sad truth is that there are some North Korean women who see themselves that way, willingly debasing themselves for the sake of marriage that will assure salvation from their unfortunate lot as members of an undesirable caste. In South Korea status means everything and being North Korean places you at the rock bottom of social hierarchy. Marrying a social better – a genuine South Korean – is seen as an easy way up.
Whether as the ultimate gateway to adulthood one must pass or as an unwanted imperative enforced by a state that presents it as a civic duty, marriage is a recurrent topic and an obligation that few can avoid in South Korea. That means even the poor and unfortunate have access to the marriage market through firms that provide foreign brides from less developed countries and arrange quick weddings abroad at an affordable price.
But recently ‘North Korean bride agencies’ have sprouted up (here, here, here and here), milking the age-old Korean proverb “Nam-nam Buk-nyeo” (A Southern man, a Northern woman). It suggests that a match between an enigmatic and much revered Northern beauty and a studly Southern prince charming is made in heaven.
That, however, is the idealised vision of inter-Korean marriage. In reality, North Korean women are increasingly being presented as an alternative to foreign brides for second-class South Korean men unable to find South Korean spouses. In a country that is becoming hostile to multiculturalism and the increase in biracial children, North Korean women at least guarantee offspring who are ‘pure’ in blood and pose less danger to ethnic nationalism at the heart of South Korea’s self-conception.
Remarkably, some North Korean women I personally know have not been bothered in the least by a scheme that objectifies, stereotypes, and commodifies them as dutiful, submissive, industrious wives to be sold on the marriage market. (I especially love the bit of fantasy about how North Korean women prefer to walk than take a taxi.) To the contrary, they have embraced that representation without protest, for it assists them in search of a better life in South Korea, if one defines better life as complete assimilation as a ‘South Korean’.
One female friend who is also a North Korean defector recently joined a matchmaking agency, not one that caters only to North Korean women and their suitors but a legitimate firm that transacts in all Koreans. She did so because she thought being attractive and educated would suffice in garnering her a nice lawyer or doctor. She paid to attend several meetings – called “sogaeting” – where she met a string of South Korean men who were eager to get married but no lawyer or doctor that she covets.
It is strange for me to see her lusting after lawyers and doctors because in North Korea these jobs are not valued at all. There are laws in the North but they are almost meaningless since state security departments have their own judicial procedures, and that reality renders lawyers a worthless bunch. A doctor is someone who works in a state-run hospital and is seen as no better than a service worker. The same can be said of teachers and professors.
My friend frankly admitted that she never harboured any desire for doctors and lawyers until she came to South Korea, where she has embraced the project of becoming South Korean so completely that she even dreams the same dream of her South Korean compatriots to use marriage as a leg-up in the course of elevating her social status and attaining material comfort.
I do not judge her and her dream because I, a fellow defector, know the value of fitting in and I, too, once tried very hard to become South Korean, losing my accent, shedding my retro clothes, and treating other defectors with open contempt so that I would not be associated with them.
When I arrived in South Korea for the first time at the age of seventeen, I had no sense of self, no belief strong enough to help me hold my own in this new environment, and it was a turbulent journey, making my way as a North Korean defector in a country where North Korea signifies only terrible things.
I did not want to be North Korean because being North Korean made me feel stupid, angry, and worthless. So I distanced myself from other North Koreans and dissociated myself from my shameful past. I spat on other defectors, calling them helpless, useless, hopeless barbarians who were uneducated and uncultured. If anyone asked me where I was from, I lied that I was from South Korea. I tried to be a model South Korean (as if such a thing existed). I embraced this process of assimilation wholeheartedly.
Who would want to remain North Korean in a country that despises North Koreans even as it accept them as citizens? And how can I blame North Korean women for wanting to become South Korean through marriage? A little debasement means nothing, and no stereotype is intolerable if the ultimate prize is acceptance, and perhaps a modicum of happiness. Becoming part of the mainstream yields benefits both tangible and abstract. To live in South Korea, one might as well become South Korean, even if that means renouncing one’s very own self.
North Korean women who sell themselves through marriage agencies are self-aware. And they have chosen the easiest method in South Korea for gaining social acceptance: self-commodification. During that course, they have succeeded in winning the approval of South Korea’s hard-core conservatives, whose constant hand-wringing about the declining rates of marriage and childbirth would naturally be accompanied by endorsement of every reproductively fruitful union.
If there is anything unfortunate about the trend among North Korean women to endure the humiliation of being stereotyped and fetishised for the purpose of marrying South Korean men, it may be three things: Their assimilation comes at the price of being treated as a product that will yield sex, labour, company, and offspring without individual agency; and the South Korean men they do marry are not likely to be cream of the crop, rendering their assimilation less-than-complete with the overall effect being one of marking the North Korean community in South Korea as forever second-class. (We have already seen this in multicultural marriages where the inferior social status of the South Korean father – who is often too old, too poor, and/or not educated enough to be respectable – is conferred on his biracial children and reinforced by their different physical appearances.)
Finally, it is easier to say you renounce your identity than to actually renounce it. I did my best to deny my origin, but in the end I failed, much to my improved sanity and happiness. Still, in the eyes of North Korean women who go through the process, the rejection of the self may be better than the embrace of the same. The female defector friend who has not stopped her quest to be the wife of a doctor/lawyer is one of them. I once asked her – a young woman who looks not a hair different from any South Korean woman in her twenties you might run into: Would she ever consider marrying a fellow North Korean defector like me?
She did not have to answer, because her facial expression was enough to tell me that the very idea horrified her. To be with another North Korean, to stay North Korean is a prospect most North Koreans in South Korea do not relish.
While well-meaning South Korean citizens condemned the racy ad selling North Korean brides as politically incorrect – much to my gratification – I wonder how many in my own community were genuine in their expressions of opprobrium. For I know quite a few who welcomed all the free exposure for the burgeoning inter-Korean marriage business. As pure-bred capitalists are prone to saying, all publicity is good publicity in this world.