In the 1970s, the industrialization of South Korea’s economy resulted in rural young women moving to cities like Seoul and a stream of foreign brides coming in to replace them. As more and more young marriageable women left the countryside, the so-called bachelor villages were formed, resulting in a need on both the local and national scale to encourage new wives for these men as fertility rates plummeted. In 2014, I carried out research with Filipina and Vietnamese marriage migrants, who filled this void, to examine how they reproduce and raise Korean children, integrate their children into Korean society, while at the same time, using their position in society to maintain and introduce the traditions and customs of their home country. Minjeong Kim in 2013 discusses this process as “maternal citizenship,” where marriage migrants, as biological and cultural reproducers of “Koreans,” are both culturally assimilated and marked by ethnic othering.
The more I learned about ethnic nationalism in South Korea and its impact on marriage migrants, the more I realized that there was another group, North Korean women who constitute almost 80% of the North Korean refugees coming in, that deal with similar circumstances while at the same time facing their own uniquely complex situation. For example, Nam Nam Buk Nyeon is a well-know phrase that means men from the South are handsome and women from the North are beautiful making them the perfect marriage match. Ideas like this have led to an increase in matchmaking between South Korean men and North Korean women even as distinct problems come into play due to cultural differences. However, the shaping of each North Korean woman refugee’s identity moves well past marriage to a South Korean. A critical factor in this study, for instance, is the Korean Christian missionary notion of North Korean refugees having a blessed mission by God to spread Christianity to the North and aid in bridging the North and South cultural and physical divides. Such Christian convictions have nationalistic overtones as well as ones that transcend national boundaries, and they impact group identification within Korean society. This presentation tackles these influences on the formation of identity for marriage migrants and female North Korean refugees as well as the intriguing similarities they share based on the interviews and participant observation I started last year and continue doing today.