Last month, April 2015, the president of a matchmaking agency in Busan was burned to death in a gasoline attack. It turned out later that the perpetrator of the incident committed the attack because his foreign partner, a Vietnamese woman the agency introduced him to, was not allowed to enter Korea, the Dong-A Daily News reported. The Vietnamese woman was rejected entry due to the fact she did not pass the national run Korean language proficiency test (TOPIK – Test of Proficiency in Korean), the news added. In another case, a 40-year-old Korean man married to a Vietnamese woman is receiving psychiatric treatment for depression, a condition caused by the fact that he has been forced to live separately from his spouse for over a year. She too was denied entry into South Korea for failing to achieve the required TOPIK score.
As mentioned above, some foreign wives married to Korean men were not allowed to enter South Korea simply due to the fact they did not pass the TOPIK. Such a phenomenon emerged after the South Korean government had changed its international marriage law in 2014. In April 2014, the government announced its plan to tighten the F-6 marriage migrant visa. According to the new policy, foreign spouses are required to prove their TOPIK scores so as to apply the F-6 visa. The revision was intended to minimize problems of international marriages such as divorce or problems related to communication barriers, the ministry of justice explained. The government has taken this stance due to several cases of Korean men beating or killing their foreign wives for not speaking Korean adequately. Since the government revised the law, the number of international marriages plummeted by almost 50 per cent from 5,780 in 2013 to 2,967 in 2014, according to statistics by the Korea Center for UN Human Rights Policy.
However, the revised policy creates several new concerns. Firstly, the government’s approach commodifies women. The new Korean proficiency requirement is based on the assumption that a foreign spouse’s poor Korean ability causes marital discord and thus to avoid being assaulted is a woman’s responsibility. Indeed, Han Guk-yeom, a representative of the Women Migrants Human Rights Centre of Korea, said foreign spouses living in Korea have more difficulty with cultural awareness than communication. Thus, demanding that foreign wives achieve a particular Korean language test score is a biased prerequisite for entering and living in South Korea.
Secondly, the revised policies seem to extend too far and impact many innocent international couples that should not be affected. It is understandable that the government impose some type of control and restrictions since the government has a responsibility to make international marriages safer and more reliable for all involved. However the government should not overlook that marriage is highly private and personal matter. Some people purport it does not seem right to let a state deeply interfere in this private and personal sphere. Including the 40-year-old man suffering depression, there are some couples who met each other overseas and had a wedding overseas. Although they become a married couple by a course of marriage including registering their marriage, these couples are unable to live together in South Korea simply due to the foreign spouse’s low Korean ability.
Thirdly, achieving the necessary TOPIK score is not a simple process for someone living outside of the country. This is in part due to a lack of education facilities overseas where foreign spouses can study Korean. According to Lim dong-saei (임동쇠), the president of the Korean International Marriage Association, in most Southeast Asian countries, Korean language institutes such as Sejong language institute are located only in big cities. As a result, many foreign wives are faced with significant expenses just to travel to or live in a large city to be able to take Korean classes. Although the required TOPIK score, level 1, is the lowest ranking on the test, achieving that level takes months of study, if not years, Han Guk-yeom stated. Forcing marriage migrants to achieve a particular test score before entering South Korea is an unreasonable request and allowing the spouses to reside in Korea and take classes here instead would be much more conducive to learning Korean, she added.
In fact, Spain, a country with the second highest rate of cross-border marriages, does not require a certain language standard for applying a spouse visa. Furthermore, the United States and Australia, which are regarded as multicultural countries and have high rates of international marriages, do not require a foreign spouse or fiance to fulfill a specific English language standard before applying a spouse visa. In Australia, a partner visa and a prospective marriage visa application process focuses on the international couple’s relationship whether they have only a genuine relationship and a mutual commitment to a shared life together.
To conclude, in the current circumstance where the government resolutely defends its scheme as a means of preventing problems of failed international marriages, the series of cases caused by the policy raises a question of the policy’s suitability. The scheme is explicitly mistaken because not only it has created several incidents but also its fundamental approach assumes problems surrounding international marriages can be solved by requiring female applicants to go undergo language training, commodifying them in the process. The government must realize the creation of create a stable, loving marriage takes two willing and committed partners, not a language proficiency exam.