The South Korean government is your parents and it just wants you to get married and have babies. Literally. To date, 35 municipal governments in the country are hoping that their newly implemented bylaws that grant single men subsidies to marry foreign brides will solve the dwindling population of South Korea's countryside.
The requirement? The Korean bachelors should be between ages 35-55, have never been married before and must have lived in the countryside for at least three years. The subsidy they will receive is between 3 million to 10 million won ($2,600 to $8,800 USD) that covers wedding expenses, airfares, accommodation, and other fees.
The amount a man can receive varies, depending on where they live. The Yangpyeong County in Gyeonggi Province, for instance, provides a 10 million won subsidy for each man. Foreign brides are often from developing Asian countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines.
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In Korea, most foreign brides—or 73 percent—are from Vietnam. According to a 2017 study conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, procuring a wife from Vietnam costs around 14.2 million won ($12,600 USD), while a wife from China costs around 10.7 million won ($9,500 USD). Uzbekistan brides are the most expensive, costing an average of 18.3 million won ($16,200 USD) a bride.
This subsidy program is the country's latest effort to bring its fertility rate up. Nationwide, the average number of babies born per woman has been decreasing since the 1960s. Last year, South Korea's fertility rate hit an all-time low of 0.96. But this problem is even more pressing in rural areas because of the upward trend of people migrating into cities. In rural South Korea, traditions require men to stay where they're from, tend the farm, and keep the family business. The result? A lot of lonely men.
"Most Korean women refuse being set up with Korean men (in rural areas), who ultimately settle with marriage migrant women. So we want to help them find a spouse," an anonymous official at a county in Gyeonggi Province told the Strait Times.
Setting people up is one thing, making them stay together is another. According to a 2012 report by South Korean media, Hankoryeh, almost 40 percent of marriages between a foreigner and a Korean end up in divorce—mainly due to language barriers and cultural differences. To anticipate that, starting in 2013, the South Korean government requires a higher level of Korean-language proficiency from these brides and a certain level of income from the grooms before it issues a marriage visa.
But sometimes a marriage just doesn't work, and under this subsidy program, local governments can demand a couple to pay them back if they get divorced or if they relocate out of the rural areas within a year into the marriage.
Although the government is positive that their subsidies would provide the much-needed boost to populate rural areas in South Korea, some people are worried that this would put foreign brides in danger of exploitation.
"Such an approach to shopping-like marriage leads to linguistic barriers and human rights problems," Jang Han-up, director of the Ewha Multicultural Research Institute told the Strait Times. "They (foreign brides) are vulnerable to human rights abuses, treated as property and expected to take the role of a housekeeper and a sexual object."
China, where the demand for foreign brides is also very high, is a cautionary tale. With the large gender imbalance in the country, there have been many cases where women were lured by traffickers into fake jobs only to be sold off as brides or domestic workers and later suffered from abuse. Between 2011 and 2017, there were about 6,000 Vietnamese women trafficked into China to become brides, according to Vietnam's Department of General Police. So it’s not surprising if some people have their doubts about South Korea's subsidy program.
I guess only time will tell if this marriage subsidy program will work—and at what cost.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.