Notes from the Field

To Prevent Human Trafficking, Cambodia Bans International Marriages to Koreans

March 31, 2010

In early March, the Cambodian government imposed a provisional ban on international marriages to Korean nationals. The purpose – as reported in a formal document to the Korean Embassy – was “to prevent the trafficking of Cambodian women.”

The business of Korean international marriage brokers boomed in the last decade. In 2005, marriages to foreigners accounted for 14 percent of all marriages in South Korea. Marrying women from developing countries, such as Cambodia, became increasingly popular in Korea as more Korean women from rural areas moved to cities to pursue work opportunities, making it more difficult for the remaining rural male population to find marriageable Korean women. In March 2008, the Cambodian government, citing fears of human trafficking due to falsely brokered marriages, banned marriage-brokering all together, allowing only “love matches.”

Now, although the percentage has decreased slightly since 2005, roughly one out of 10 marriages in Korea is still an international marriage, and a significant number of them are unions between Korean men with women from the Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Since 2007, when the Vietnamese government strengthened regulatory enforcement against illegal and falsely brokered marriages, marriages between Cambodian and Korean men increased drastically. Now, 60 percent of all international marriages in Cambodia are with Korean men – almost double the number from 551 in 2008 to 1,352 in 2009. To date, approximately 2,500 Cambodian brides have married Korean men, according to local news sources.

The Cambodian government says that the recent ban will help eradicate “irregular practices” by Korean international marriage brokers, which violate the local marriage law. Phnom Penh officials point to the inhumane matchmaking process by international brokers, who often arrange meetings of up to 300 Cambodian women for a single Korean client during their so-called “marriage-tours” to the country. Prior to the recent ban, a Cambodian broker was caught and arrested for arranging a meeting of 25 prospective brides for a Korean client. The broker was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

One of the rising dilemmas in international dialogues regarding trafficking has been the great disparity between sending countries and receiving countries in assessing the phenomenon of brokered international marriage and its relation to trafficking in persons.

During a two-day conference last July on countering human trafficking, supported by The Asia Foundation’s Cambodia office, brokered international marriage was one issue that arose. The event brought together high-level government and non-government experts from five countries, Cambodia, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The Foundation’s Korea office organized a delegation from Korea, headed by parliamentary member Kim Choon-jin. Other participants included government officials from relevant ministries and prominent NGO representatives such as Dr. Shin Hei-soo, a lifelong women’s rights activist and representative for the National Movement for Eradication of Sex Trafficking.

Differing perspectives on the issue of international marriages were evident in many conference discussions. When Dr. Shin discussed the issue of Korean men married to migrant women through international brokers, she said she was perplexed to learn that some Cambodian authorities identified almost all migrant brides in Korea as “trafficked victims.” In a local newspaper column, Dr. Shin recalled the conversation with a Cambodian official: “They viewed marriages to Korean men as human trafficking. So I said, ‘a marriage through a broker doesn’t mean trafficking;’ and a Cambodian official noted that domestic violence is common in many of these marriages. But I replied that ‘domestic violence and trafficking aren’t the same thing. There is also domestic violence in Korean families.’”

Despite the differing views, many Korean authorities are increasingly realistic of the potential dangers of human trafficking that exist in many brokered marriages. Soon after his return from the conference, parliamentary member Kim Choon-jin submitted a resolution to the Korean National Assembly urging the Korean government to ratify the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons and to enact anti-human trafficking legislation. He also translated and published the anti-trafficking legislation from the countries that participated in the Cambodia conference and samples from other advanced countries including Australia, Germany, and the U.S. Earlier this year, MP Kim’s office also formed an expert group to begin drafting anti-human trafficking legislation, aiming to submit the draft to the Gender Equality and Family Committee of the National Assembly in the first half of 2010.

It will take some time for broad national consensus on the issue of human trafficking as it relates to brokered marriages to be reached in Korea. But, given South Korea’s rising global reputation as a more assertive contributor to the international community, its new status as a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), and its position as a Tier 1 country since 2002 in the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report, the country will likely continue as an active participant in counter-trafficking efforts in the region. Korea’s initiatives since the conference in Cambodia to recognize and combat human trafficking through brokered marriages is a promising sign that it will only increase these efforts in the future.

Lee Kyung-sook is The Asia Foundation’s Senior Program Officer in Korea. She can be reached at kslee@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Lee Kyung-sook

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