In many Asian countries there is a growing shortage of women. Years of favoring boys and disposing of girls are catching up with them. In South Korea, a market has sprung up in the past few years to find foreign brides for South Korean bachelors (my thanks to regular reader D-rew for this New York Times story). At first the marriage brokers went to ethnic Korean communities in China. Now, though, the brokers are arranging quick marriages further afield. This year's favored source for brides is Vietnam. South Korea is more prosperous than Vietnam, at least temporarily, and the "Korean Wave" of pop culture has made South Korea seem a good place to live.
Until recently this marriage market was unregulated. After a series of scandals involving lies and abuse by brokers and husbands, the Korea government has begun to set some rules, and the etiquette of the market has weeded out some of the bad actors. This market evolves very quickly – Vietnam is getting richer, and may dry up as a source of brides a few years hence. What first struck me about this development is that it is a market solution to a market problem. It was the cumulative effect of many individual actions that created the women shortage in the first place, creating a market that entrepreneurial brokers can fill. To be sure, some rural governments in Korea are sponsoring marriage tours to Vietnam, but they did not make the arrangements in the first place.
I can also see a few unintended positive consequences that might come from this international marriage market. Many Asian nations have exaggerated ideas of their own "racial purity," which they make central to their national identity. South Korea is no exception to this self image. Yet in 2005, 14% of South Korean marriages involved foreigners, up from 4% just five years earlier. Over time, mixing populations that way would undermine the idea that racial purity is essential to national identity – or even that it is ever was very prevalent. A second possible silver lining of Vietnamese women living and prospering in South Korea is that their frequent communications home might spur the Vietnamese people to press for democracy to go along with their increasing capitalist prosperity.
The Asian women shortage is due to the worst kind of sexist discrimination, devaluing of girls, and even deliberate killing. I find it encouraging to think, therefore, that there might be an unexpected silver lining or two to this dark cloud.