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South Korea is still deeply rooted in its patriarchal tradition
South Korea is still deeply rooted in its patriarchal tradition
Philippe Pons

SEOUL - North Korea recently attacked newly elected South Korean President Park Geun-hye, making a jibe at the “venomous swish of her skirt.”

The swish of South Korea’s long traditional silk skirts has long been used as a macho joke – if not an insult – targeted toward strong women. Aggressive women, women who do a man’s job, women who micromanage their children like “tiger mothers” – in other words, women who are the opposite of the traditional ideal of a shy and submissive housewife.

In modern South Korea, the expression is only used as a sexist insult anymore. Nonetheless, the country is still deeply rooted in its patriarchal tradition, just as is North Korea.

The 1946 law, which was incorporated to the 1948 Constitution, granted North Korean women more rights than in any other country of the region at the time. Liberal in theory, the North Korean regime was conservative in practice. The Korean “new woman” had to be a revolutionary – but she also had to be a good wife and a good mother. And a form of patriarchy endured, in spite of growing parallel economy that was managed in majority by women.

The situation of women worsened – they had more responsibilities on the outside (earning a bit of money), while continuing to take care of their families, says a defector from North Korea now living in Seoul, South Korea. “Men of the north have a very traditional attitude toward women. When we go to live in the south, we keep these values in us. The ‘swish of the skirt’ has a very negative connotation for us, it means a woman that wants to be above men,” she explains.

Despite the fact that young South Korean women have been emancipated for about 30 years now – and maybe because of that – many men in the south hope to find a more traditional wife. This quest explains the success of matchmaking agencies specialized in helping South Korean men find North Korean wives.

One of the first such agencies is Nam Nam Buk Nyo (southern man – northern woman). There is an old proverb that says that the ideal couple is a woman from the north – where women are beautiful – and a man from the south – where men are intelligent and strong.

Hong Seung-woo, who runs the agency, says he had the idea after he divorced a South Korean woman and married a woman from the north, a decision that has given him great happiness, he says. Friends asked him for advice on meeting women from the north, and he decided to make a business out of it.

Matchmaking challenges

“South Korean women are demanding – my ex-wife left me because I wasn’t making enough money and had no career prospects. Many South Korean men aged 30 to 40 and from all walks of life find women of their generation aggressive.” Nam Nam Buk Nyo, one of the five matchmaking agencies specialized in inter-Korean marriages, has matched 400 couples together since its creation in 2006 (including four that have already ended in divorce).

“South Korean men also want to be the ‘king’ of the house but they grew up in a society that is more respectful of gender equality,” says a North Korean defector married to a South Korean man. Many women from the south do not necessary agree… but North Koreans <>might be less demanding because they they are in a position of weakness and have difficulties adapting to live in the south.

The vast majority of the 21,000 defectors from the north who have arrived to South Korea after a long journey through China are women. Usually in their thirties, they are more numerous than men, because they believe they have a better chance of finding a job.

“Because they speak the same language and share the same culture, it is not hard for them to find a husband,” explains Hong. Marriages between foreigners and South Korean men are on the rise – one out of ten weddings.

Young women leave the countryside for the city, while young men often turn to agencies specialized in “dating trips” in South-East Asia or China. From 127,000 in 2007, marriages with foreign women have gone up to more than 250,000 in 2012. Is South Korea about to become a multiethnic society because of women?

Integration problems, which are common to all countries where there is immigration, are twice as difficult in this country, where there is a strong deep-rooted notion of “ethnical homogeneity”, and people believe you are “Korean by blood.”

For many, being Korean means being born to Korean parents and not just obtaining the nationality. Immigration, both legal (bound to increase, because of a fast-aging population and a decreased birth rate) and illegal (half a million Bengalis, Pakistanis or Filipinos work for small wages) remains low compared to some other countries, but it could compel Koreans to redefine their national identity. At least, with North Korean women, there is no problem of “blood purity.”

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