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Foreign wives in rural South Korea struggle to fit in

Men in areas with falling populations find matches in Southeast Asia

Han Sarang, originally from Cambodia, left, and Min Soo-kyung from Vietnam, came to Haenam on the southern tip of Korea to marry.

SEOUL -- Many South Korean men in rural areas who have been unable to find local wives are marrying women from elsewhere in Asia, who come and settle in the Korean countryside. But this journey across borders and cultures involves many trials and frictions for these foreign wives, their husbands and in-laws.

Han Sarang, 28, came from Cambodia in 2008 to a farming village in scenic Haenam county on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, known as the "far end of the land,"

"Little did I know that Haenam would be such a remote place when I first came," she said.

Han had decided to come to South Korea as far back as high school. Her mind was set as soon as it became clear her economic circumstances would not allow her to go on to higher education.

She went to an international matchmaking agency and was introduced to the man who became her husband. The first meeting lasted several hours, and they were married a week later.

On first arriving in South Korea, she found the airport large and impressive, making her think she had arrived in an "advanced" country.

"But then I was taken further and further away, and cows and motorbikes started coming into view. In the end, it seemed much like my hometown!" she said.

Still, she was worried sick, wondering if she really could make a life there. "What if this was a scam?" she wondered.

Fortunately, such concerns were unfounded. But other things troubled her. Not being able to speak Korean meant she could not understand what her doctor said. Koreans ate rice like Cambodians, but not the kind she was used to -- at least in the beginning.

Yaho Haenam Farming Association supports foreign housewives in rural South Korea to achieve economic independence.

"I had no local friend to visit me, and I was always home alone," she said.

Similar loneliness made another foreign wife, 30-year-old Min Soo-kyung from Vietnam, feel trapped.

"I suffered from depression, but my two children helped me overcome it," said Min, who had come to Haenam 12 years ago to marry.

The loneliness was made worse by her inability to understand Korean. But she managed to learn the language from TV serials which she had loved since she had been in Vietnam.

Both women also received support from Haenam's Multicultural Family Support Center, which helped them connect with locals and other foreign housewives. In Jeollanamdo Province, where Haenam is located, one in 10 married couples is an international match.

Such government-run centers across South Korea teach foreign housewives -- who are often left home alone -- the local language as well as the culture and lifestyle of the region. Perhaps more importantly, they provide places where the women can meet and interact at social events, chatting and sharing dishes from their home countries.

The number of international marriages in South Korea soared in the 2000s to a peak of over 40,000, or 13.5%, of all marriages in 2005. The figure has since declined, but remained at a significant 7.3% in 2016. That year, marriages between a South Korean husband and a foreign wife accounted for 65.7% of marriages, significantly higher than those between a foreign husband and a South Korean wife, at 19.4%. The remainder were those in which one partner was a naturalized citizen.

The biggest factor behind the sharp rise in international marriages was the growing difficulty for rural men in finding a partner, as the overall population of rural areas declined.

Alarmed, the central government initially encouraged marriages between men and ethnic Korean women living in China. That increased the number of marriages with Chinese nationals, and the trend eventually expanded to include women from Southeast Asia.

But such marriages presented many challenges. Some foreign women attempted to enter fake marriages to find jobs in the country. Many wives were victims of violence by their South Korean husbands, a situation sometimes blamed on the country's male-dominated culture.

Many international couples ended up parting after failing to reconcile differences or work out the strains between the wives and the husbands' families. According to a support worker for foreign wives, in one extreme case, a family would not allow the wife to go out unaccompanied, fearing she might attempt to run away. The percentage of such international couples in the total number of divorces in the country peaked at 12.6% in 2011.

Jeon Byeong-o, who leads Yaho Haenam Farming Association, aims to take advantage of what foreign housewives bring to local communities.

The plight of foreign housewives prompted the government to set up the Multicultural Family Support Centers to address the situation. The center staff encourage foreign wives to report any domestic abuse to the center or the police.

The effort appears to have paid off. The percentage of international couples in the overall number of divorces fell to 9.9% in 2016.

A citizens group now aims to help foreign wives play a bigger role in local communities. The Yaho Haenam Farming Association, headed by Jeon Byeong-o, trains wives in farming techniques and knowledge. It supports their economic independence by teaching them Korean cooking and bread making, and helping them sell the food they make.

Jeon also aims to promote the introduction of cash crops from imported seeds to help rice farmers shift to more lucrative crops, and to use knowledge from foreign countries to support community development.

"We want to create a place where all visitors to Haenam will want to visit," Jeon said.

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