Marriage in South Korea

Marriage in South Korea mirrors many of the practices and expectations of marriages in familiar to other societies, and as such, is constantly changing.The bride and mother of groom will be the person who choosing the ring.

Eligibility and Prohibitions

Marriage in South Korea is currently restricted to unions between individuals of the opposite sex as same-sex marriages remain unrecognized.[1] Males over 18 and females over 16 years old may marry with their parents' or guardians' consent, Otherwise South Korea's age of consent to marriage is 20.[2] 20 years of age is also the age of consent for sexual activity.[3] These age limits refer to one's lunar calendar based age, which tend to be one or two years greater than one's solar age. South Korea also recognizes what it calls "De Facto Marriages" equivalent to "Common Law Marriages" of couples who have not legally registered their marriage but who have either 1. made it publicly known that their relationship is akin to a marriage, 2. had a public wedding ceremony, or 3. have been cohabiting as though they are married.[4]

Marriage within the same ancestral clan

Prior to 2005 Marriage between two individuals of the same clan violated Korean incest taboos and was illegal while marriage between individuals of the same surname was socially prohibited.[5] As of the mid 90s, 55% of South Korea's population shared one of five surnames: Kim, Park, Lee, Choi and Jung; and 40% of South Koreans claim membership in one of three major clans: the Kimhae Kim clan, Chonju Lee clan, and the Milyang Park clan.[5] This codified prohibition was inspired by similar taboos in Tang China during Korea's late Choson Dynasty, which strove to realize Confucian ideals of governance and social order.[6][7]

Traditional wedding ceremonies

  • Pre-ceremony

Traditional Korean weddings are based around and centered on traditional Confucian values. Every aspect of the wedding, from the arrangement of the marriage to the ceremony and post celebrations, had important and elaborate steps to go along with them. In traditional Korean culture, like many traditional cultures, marriage between a man and a woman were decided by the bride and grooms elders. As in Confucian values family and the customs of a family is placed above all. Marriage is considered the most important passage in one's life. This is not only the union between two individuals but two families. Additionally, a marriage was a way, particularly among elite families, of developing and/or maintaining a social status. For these reasons, a significant amount of time was spent in preparation before finally performing the actual wedding ritual. The first step is called the Eui hon, or ‘matchmaking’, this is when both the bride and grooms families discuss the possibility of marriage. Various factors are taken into consideration such as: social status, personality, appearance, academic and/or agricultural (industrial) achievements, as well as material harmony as predicted by a fortuneteller."In general the Eui hon is determined when the bridegroom-side sends a proposal letter of marriage and the bride-side sends a reply letter which permits this marriage."[8] Once the response from the bride is sent back to the groom, if agreed, the groom then sets up a date for the ceremony. This second step is called Napchae, or ‘date setting’. The grooms year, month, day, and hour (according to the lunar calendar), which is known as Saju, is written on a paper and wrapped in bamboo branches and tied with red and blue thread. Lastly, the package is wrapped with a red and blue cloth and sent to the brides family. The birthdate of the groom is sent to a fortuneteller which sets the date based on the Saju. That date is then sent back to the groom. The last step in pre-ceremonial traditions is called the Napp’ae, or exchanging valuables. Once the date is set the groom then sends a box to the bride which is known as a Ham. In the Ham there is typically three items. The Hanseo, the Ch’aedan, and the Honsu. Of the three the most important is the Hanseo, or marriage papers. This is given to the bride in dedication to wed only one husband. The wife is expected to keep this paper forever; upon death the papers are buried with the wife as well. The Ch’aedan is a set of red and blue cloths which is used to make clothes. The red and blue is a representation of the Yin/Yang philosophy. Lastly the Honsu, is a variety of other gifts given to the brides family. This can include household goods, jewelry and clothes.[9]

  • Ceremony

In ancient times, weddings (Honrye) were held in the bride's yard or house. The groom traveled by horse to the bride's house and after the wedding ceremony took his wife in a palanquin (sedan chair) to his parents' house to live. The bride and groom wore formal court costumes for the wedding ceremony. Ordinary people were permitted to wear the luxurious clothes only on their wedding day. Hand lanterns are used for lighting the way from the groom's home to the bride's home on the night before the wedding. Traditionally, the groom's family would carry a wedding chest filled with gifts for the bride's family. Wedding geese are a symbol for a long and happy marriage. Cranes are a symbol of long life and may be represented on the woman's sash. Pairs of wooden Mandarin duck carvings called wedding ducks are often used in traditional wedding ceremonies because they represent peace, fidelity, and plentiful offspring.

  • Attires for bride and groom

The women's attire includes a jeogori (저고리; short jacket with long sleeves) with two long ribbons which are tied to form the otgoreum (옷고름). A chima (치마), a full-length, high-waisted, wrap-around skirt is worn. Boat-shaped shoes made of silk, are worn with white cotton socks. The bride's attire might include a white sash with significant symbols or flowers. A headpiece or crown may also be worn. The norigae (노리개) is a hanbok (한복) decoration which has been worn by all classes of Korean women for centuries. It is tied to the skirt or the ribbon on the jacket. The knot on the top is called the Maedeup (매듭). A jacket (jeogori, 저고리) and trousers and an overcoat are worn. The jacket has loose sleeves, the trousers are roomy and tied with straps at the ankles. A vest may be worn over the shirt. A black hat could be worn. The wedding costume for men is also known as gwanbok for the groom.[10]

Modern style wedding ceremonies

In larger cities, luxury hotels will have 'wedding halls' or ballrooms used specifically for wedding ceremonies. These rooms are decorated with a wedding motif and are rented to couples. Other wedding halls are independent facilities that can accommodate several different weddings at once. Today, many couples will initially have a more 'Westernized' ceremony with tuxedo attire and white wedding gown, then proceed with a smaller-scale, traditional Korean wedding after the main ceremony.

Practices before wedding ceremony

Various exchanges are crucial to the Korean wedding: gifts of household goods (Honsu); gifts of clothing and jewelry between the bride and groom (Yemul); gifts given to the significant kin of the groom (Yedan); gifts of cash from the groom's kin to the bride (Ggoomimbi), and from the bride's family to the groom's friends (Ham); and exchanges of food and wine between the two families (Ibaji). Not all practices are still common though.

The exchanges that are still common are those of ritual silk (Yedan), given by the bride to the groom's significant kin, and the negotiation of the purchase price of the gift box (Ham) delivered on the night before the wedding to the bride's house by friends of the groom. Commonly, Groom prepares residence, bride prepares household goods.

Wedding halls

Whereas a hotel ballroom or church must retain the flexibility necessary for other functions, independent wedding halls are able to focus strictly on weddings, and even cater to specific themes. Weddings in luxurious hotels had been prohibited by the government in 1980, became partly permitted in 1994, and became completely permitted in 1999.[11]

In busier wedding halls, formality (except for the couple and their families) is typically relaxed compared to Western standards. There may be a buffet hall on one floor in which guests from all of the different weddings come for a meal, either before or after the ceremony, which may take no longer than 20 minutes. The most common gift for a new couple is cash, and in the hall outside the wedding salon, representatives from the couple's families will collect and log donations.

The official ceremony in front of the guests is followed by Pyebaek, which is a ceremony among family members exclusively. The bride formally greets her new parents-in-law after the wedding ceremony. Additionally, the groom often gives a piggy back ride to his mother and then his bride, symbolizing his acceptance of his obligations to both his mother and wife.

Wedding feast and reception

The modern Korean wedding feast or reception, (kyeolhon piroyeon, 결혼피로연, 結婚披露宴) can be a mix of traditional and western cultures. At a traditional wedding feast a guest would expect to find bulgogi (불고기, marinated barbecue beef strips), galbi (갈비, marinated short ribs), a variety of kimchi (pickled cabbage with a variety of spices, with other ingredients such as radishes, seafood). There will be many accompanying bowls of sauces for dipping.

The meal is always accompanied with a vast quantity of white, sticky rice (밥) as well as gimbap (김밥), which is rice, egg, spinach, crab meat, pickled radish, and other ingredients rolled in seaweed and sliced into 1-inch rounds. Mandu (만두), dumplings filled with cabbage, carrot, meat, spinach, garlic, onion, chive, and clear noodle. These dumplings may be deep-fried or steamed. Soup will be offered, very frequently a kimchi type, or a rice cake soup (rice dumplings with chicken broth), or doenjang jigae, a fermented soybean paste soup.

Also popular are a light broth boiled from dried anchovies and vegetable soups rendered from dried spinach, sliced radish or dried seaweed. Steamed rice cakes (tteok) sometimes embellished with aromatic mugwort leaves or dusted with toasted soy, barley, or millet flour are presented as a tasty ritual food. A large variety of fruits, such as Korean pears, and pastries will be offered for dessert. A spoon and chopsticks are used for eating.

Current practice

As of 2009, according to Korea National Statistical Office, the average age of first marriage is 31.6 for men and 28.7 for women.[12] In a large number of marriages, the male is older than the female. This age disparity is usually intentional. In 2013, the average cost of a wedding per person surpassed 50 million won.[13]

Marriages between Koreans and non-Koreans

2017 Transnational marriage in South Korea[14]
Korean women

+ Foreign husbands

Korean men

+ Foreign wives

 China1,52326 Vietnam5,36436
 United States1,39223 China3,88026
 Canada4367 Thailand1,0177
 Japan3115 Japan8436
 Australia2033 Philippines8426
 United States5414

In recent years, the number of mixed marriages in Korea has increased substantially due to a number of factors, among them the high number of Koreans studying abroad or traveling and a percentage of men living in rural areas where men outnumber women by a significant margin. As the world becomes more interconnected with the development of the internet, dating network sites or social network sites provide a medium for couples to interact.[15] International marriages now make up more than 9% of all marriages in Korea. The bulk of 'mixed' marriages are between Korean men and foreign women, but there are also many Korean women marrying men from other countries, particularly from neighboring Asian countries such as China or Japan. Following the tradition of Korea, inter-race marriage was rare but more recently, there is increased number of inter-racial marriages.[16][17] The circumstances of the marriages tend to differ depending on the gender of the Korean spouse as well as their economic capacities. International marriages in Korea have tripled since 2003 with the number of foreign wives numbering about 125 000 in 2012 with an estimated 8% of Korean men. In total, in 2012 there are 144 681 registered spouse of Korean national with 125 031 (74.8%) wives and 19 650 (25.2%) foreign husbands. There were 29 762 inter-racial marriages which makes about 9.0% of total number of marriages in South Korea. The nationality of non-Korean brides differ from Vietnam (34.3%), China (33.9%), Philippines (9.3%).[14] The most common explanation for this phenomenon is that there is a lack of South Korean women who are willing to marry men living in rural areas, though Western women with Korean husbands are increasing as well.

Since there is lack of population of women in rural areas of South Korea, some men rely on marriage brokers and agencies to set up a marriage with a mail-order bride, mostly from southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as China and Nepal.[18][19] Marriages between South Korean men and foreign women are often arranged by marriage brokers or international religious groups. Men pay money to match-up and meet their spouse on the moment of their arrival to South Korea. There is mounting evidence to suggest that there is a statistically higher level of poverty and divorce in the Korean men married to foreign women cohort.[20][21][22] Currently divorces between Koreans and foreign spouses make up 10% of the total Korean divorce rate. Although these marriages can be successful, in some cases immigrant wives are misunderstood and isolated from their Korean husbands, or Korean wives are abused by foreign husbands

As language and cultural differences become an issue many foreign brides do suffer from cultural differences which also affects the social integration of their children. The children of inter-racial marriage families called "Damunwha" meaning multicultural family, face identity crisis and racial abuse as they try to assimilate into Korean society.[23] Since negative social perception of foreign marriage agencies and brides from these agencies exist as well as extreme conformity of one-race Koreans, these children suffer from lack of sense of belongingness and feel abused from isolation.[24]

As a means of reducing future problems, the government is setting up programs for men who are thinking of marrying a foreign woman through a collaboration between the Ministry of Gender Equality and the Ministry of Justice.[25] Also, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs is offering programs to help foreign wives to try to adjust to Korean society through Healthy Family Support Centers nationwide.[26]

Multicultural Family Support Centers in South Korea are operated and funded by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. The aim and purpose of these centers are to provide family education, counseling and cultural services for multicultural families, to support the early settlement of immigrant women in Korean society, and to help multicultural families enjoy stable family lives.[25] By collaborating with local cities and provinces, the Support Centers manage to provide basic but necessary services to local women such as Korean language and cultural education services, translation and interpretation services, childcare support services, child education support services, employment & venture support services.

Same-sex marriage

Same-sex marriage is not legally recognised in South Korea. Homosexuality is strongly criticized in mainstream Korean society, and many Koreans consider homosexuality to be a Western phenomenon. Despite the illegality of same-sex marriage in Korea, though, some gay couples are having non-legal private ceremonies. Movie director and producer Kim-Jho Gwang-soo had a private non-legal ceremony with Kim Seung-hwan, the head of the gay film distributor Rainbow Factory in September 2013.[27] Kim Jho held a public, non-legal wedding ceremony with film distributor David Kim Seung-hwan (his same-sex partner since 2004), in Seoul on September 7, 2013, the first of its kind in the country which does not recognize same-sex marriages. [28]

Types of marriage and courtship

Arranged marriage and matchmakers

A brand of arranged marriage is popular in South Korea. Koreans usually refer to this type of marriage as seon (선). Generally, parents arrange a meeting, but it is ultimately up to the couple to decide if they want to marry. However, the parental pre-screening means that the meeting has a much higher chance of success than a typical blind date, should the couple decide to wed. The reason why this type of marriage is prevalent in Korea is that marriage in Korea is not just a matter of a bride and groom but a merging of two families. Because the potential spouses are pre-screened by the family, there is much less of a chance of family opposition to the marriage.

It is rare that a single seon leads to a marriage; many succeed in finding a suitable spouse only after dozens of seon meetings with different individuals. Following the initial meeting, the couple typically date for several months to a year before the actual marriage. The distinction between an arranged marriage and a "love" marriage is therefore often blurred, although in an arranged marriage the families tend to be more closely involved throughout.

Matchmakers are also common in South Korea. Families present their son or daughter to a matchmaker, or a single man or woman arranges a meeting with a matchmaker, to analyze their résumé and family history for the purpose of finding a marriage partner who is compatible in social status and earning potential. Koreans keep precise lineage records, and these are listed on the matchmaking résumé. Today, almost all single people meet their matched partner prior to the marriage and have more say about the match than was previously allowed. Matchmakers earn compensation for their services.

Love marriage

"Love" marriage, as it is often called in South Korea, has become common in the past few decades. The expression refers to the marriage of two people who meet and fall in love without going through matchmakers or family-arranged meetings. Most often, the bride and groom first met on a blind date arranged by friends, on a group date, at their workplace, or while in college or university. South Korean families accept this type of marriage more readily than they used to.

Divorce and remarriage

Remarriage is becoming more common in South Korea. According to South Korean government statistics reported in the Korea Times newspaper, the number of remarriages went up 16.1 percent to 44,355 in 2004.[29] The number of elderly Koreans remarrying has doubled since 1995.[30] The number of divorces reached 114,707 in 2012.[31] The South Korean marriage agency Duo first began advertising its remarriage services in 2006.

Conditions for divorce fall under one or more of six possible conditions[32]: 1. If the other spouse has committed an act of adultery; 2. If one spouse maliciously deserted the other spouse; 3. If one spouse has extremely maltreated the other spouse or his or her lineal ascendants; 4. If one spouse’s lineal ascendant has extremely maltreated the other spouse; 5. If the death or life of the other spouse has been unknown for three years; and 6. If there exists any other serious cause for making it difficult to continue the marriage.

Marriage in Pre-Modern Korea

Marriage During the Koryo Period (918-1392)

Marriages during the Koryo Period were made primarily on the basis of political and economic considerations, at least among the aristocracy.

King T'aejo, the founder of the Koryo Dynasty, had 29 queens with which he built alliances with other aristocratic families. However, he married all but two of his daughters to their half brothers, rather than using them to further build and affirm alliances. A strategy continued by his successors.[33] The practice of marrying royal daughters to half brothers ended under the insistence of the Mongol Empire, which demanded princesses as part of Korea's tribute.[33] At the same time, the kings of Goryeo married the imperial princesses of the Yuan dynasty (Mongol Empire), beginning with the marriage of King Chungnyeol to a daughter of Kublai Khan. Cousin marriage was common in the early Koryo Period, and non-royal aristocrats married daughters to half brothers of different mothers also. However, such consanguineous marriages were gradually prohibited by banning such individuals' children from attaining positions in the state bureaucracy and later came to labeled as adulterous but often persisted despite these sanctions.[33]

In contrast with the prevailing custom of patrilocal residence for married couples during the Choson Period and modern era, Koreans of the Koryo Period it was not uncommon for a husband to matrilocally reside with his wife and her parents after marriage.[33] Wedding ceremonies were held at the home of the bride's family and the average age of marriage was late teens with aristocrats marrying earlier than commoners.[33] Weddings included gift exchange and a banquet, which were meant to display the bride's family's wealth.[33] There was no exchange of bride wealth or dowry.[33] Marriages were often arranged by matchmakers.[33] Koryo society was highly stratified and kinship and status were determined bilaterally, including the status and relatives of both mothers and fathers.[33] Thus, unlike during the Choson Period, brides and husbands remained members of both their natal kin group and their affinal family after marriage. Marriage ideally did not lead to the division of the household into smaller units and families preferred to retain their daughters after marriage, with or without their husbands. The prospect of an inheritance from in-laws may have been a significant motivation for husbands to take up residence with their wives' Kin.[33] Inheritance was not determined by primogeniture and both sons and daughters received equal shares of inheritance from their parents.[33]

Although plural marriages were practiced, wives and their offspring were not ranked and each had equal claim as heirs. marriages could easily be broken by husbands or wives.[33] A woman who remarried too frequently could gain a negative reputation as promiscuous, but Koreans of the Koryo dynasty were not seen as prudish, at least by Chinese standards of the time.[33] There were no prohibitions against widows remarrying apart from having to observe a period of mourning.[33] Offspring of a widower were retained by their mother and her family.[33]

Marriage During the Choson Period (1392-1910)

Distinctions were introduced at the beginning of the Choson dynasty, in imitation of feudal imperial China, which distinguished primary and secondary wives, thereby clarifying the line of succession.[34] Essential criteria for a primary wife was that she entered her husband’s family as a virgin, and that she could not be descended from low-class ancestry in the case of marriages to noblemen, who, at the introduction of this rule, were forced to choose which of their already multiple wives to designate as primary. In imitation of the Ming criminal code, primary wives could not be divorced for another, and wives’ rankings could not be re-ordered.[34] The purpose of the reform ranking wives was to increase the clarity of distinctions of social status across society.[34] From then on elites generally chose their first wives from fellow Yangban families, while choosing secondary wives from the lower classes, increasing the distinction between the Yangban aristocracy and commoners.[34]

During this period patrilocal residence after marriage became the norm through royally dictated changes to laws governing mourning obligations and inheritance rights.[34] This shift was accomplished in part through increasingly strict restrictions on consanguineous marriages, first outlawing marriage to matrilinial first cousins, then extending to second cousins and ultimately expanding to prohibit marriage between individuals of the same surname by 1669.[34] In 1427 another Chinese law was adopted that fixed the marriageable age of first marriage at 15-years of age for men and 14-years for women, although if a parent was chronically ill or elderly (over 50) the marriage age limit could be lowered to 12.[34] The rational for preventing early marriage was the belief that children married too young would not be sufficiently socialized to understand the duties of spouses and also thus incapable of properly socializing their own children.[34] However, this law was frequently violated.[34] Aristocratic Yangban men tended to marry younger than commoners.[34] Concern among legislators over the perceived lack of marriageable women led to the passage of laws that made families subject to punishment for failing to marry her off at an appropriate time.[34]


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Further reading

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