I found two facts most surprising in this week’s research about the historical origins of the foreign migrant bride market. First, the demand for foreign migrant brides was actually the unintended consequence of a series of social policy decisions made and encouraged by the federal government in the second half of the twentieth century. Second, “unintended consequences” is an official sociological term, popularized by Columbia sociologist Robert K. Merton around the same time.
There are three types of unintended consequences: unintended benefits, unintended drawbacks, and perverse results. While one could argue that the Korean urbanization had perverse consequences, the emergence of the foreign migrant bride market is closer to an unintended drawback. At the dawn of the 1950s, most of Korea lay in the rubbles, having served as proxy battle grounds during both World War II and the Korean War. This period of devastation was followed by a decade of spectacular urban growth, dubbed the Miracle of the Han. Characterized by an unprecedented erection of both metropolitan economies and infrastructures, the Miracle drew people from the countryside to the city by the millions; from 1945 to 1985, the percentage of Korean people living in cities rose from 14.5% to 65.4%. While this internal migration fed cities with manpower, rural areas were caving in on themselves. In 1970, dictator and president Park Chung Hee inaugurated the New Community Movement (Sae-ma-eul Un-dong) in hopes of addressing this disparity. Admittedly, the program garnered significant successes; nevertheless, it failed to appropriately address the emergence of rural bachelors–men left unable to marry, have sons, and fulfill their neo-Confucian duties in the rural female vacuum created by a rising outflux of women seeking education or jobs in urban centers.
At first, the initiative to find these men suitable brides were taken up by churches and social organizations. But in 1992, as Korean government officials began laying down the foundations for a modern diplomatic relationship with China, they stumbled upon Joseonjok women (an ethnic group comprised of Korean descendants living in China) as a balm to soothe the festering rural bachelor crisis and decreasing birth rates.
In putting out what seemed to be a series of immediate fires, the Korean government sponsored, if not developed, a prototype of the foreign migrant bride market. In this intricately interknit web of cultural demands, economic demands, and economic supply, twirling one end of the thread may result in unintended tangles at another.