(Multi)culturalizing Inequalities: Citizenship Contradictions of Marriage Transnationalization in South Korea/East Asia
The mass arrival of foreign brides from across Asia since the early 2000s required fundamental sociocultural readjustments not only for their spouses and spousal families but also for South Korean society as a whole. In a great paradox, South Korea’s multiculturalism drive in marriage transnationalization has borne a fundamentally particularistic nature in that it divides in various terms of legal and social citizenship (1) between foreign brides and foreign workers, (2) between foreign brides and their Korean families, and (3) between foreign brides and ordinary native South Koreans.
First, the multiculturalism support policy of the state has been exclusively applied to marriage migrants as foreign subjects with culturally framed reproductive duties; whereas foreign guest-workers have been frustrated not only by the exploitative terms of their production labor but also by their official exclusion from the multiculturalism support policy. However, the known differences between production labor in sweatshop factories and reproduction labor in rural households are not asymmetrically multicultural or even cultural but conditionally functional. The wife/mother/daughter-in-law role of foreign brides simply necessitates a permanent status as a Korean, not a multicultural quality of a foreigner.
Second, while the material and social status of foreign brides is basically determined by that of their Korean family members – most of whom are unfortunately poor and often old – the inability and apparent reluctance of the South Korean government and society to help improve the latter’s material fate significantly have necessitated devising an exclusively designed policy for serving, often superficially, the former as culturally foreign subjects. The cultural differences between foreign brides and their Korean family members and the governmental and social efforts to mitigate the thereby arising difficulties do not nullify their common destitute as Korean rural subjects.
Third, the mass arrival and permanent presence of foreign brides (and the increase of their mixed-blood children) have triggered not only a paternalistic social atmosphere for helping relieve their difficulties in Korean life but also a cultural and political aspiration of South Koreans for reinventing themselves as a multicultural or cosmopolitan subject – multicultural in terms of their coexistence with foreign bodies with permanently frozen and repeatedly staged cultural differences. Under a sort of Baumanian “cloakroom” multiculturalism, South Korean society remains oblivious of, if not indifferent to, the simple fact that what has been mobilized from poor Asian countries is not so much the cultural attributes of foreign brides as the material instrumentalities of their gender as women.
The particularistic quality of South Korea’s showy multiculturalism should not be simply taken as a structural limit to the country’s cosmopolitan status but more as a strategic platform for managed cosmopolitanism or cosmopolit(an)ization. While South Korea’s industrialized neighbors in East Asia seem to plainly share this attribute, they do not necessarily deviate from the world’s broad history of real-world multiculturalism.