New rules regulate marriage-by-mail brokers, participants in South Korea
South Korea cracks down on matches between 'ineligible people', such as grooms who don't earn enough and brides who fail language test
South Korea has put new restrictions on mixed-ethnicity marriages, but critics say it would be better to focus on supporting foreign spouses who struggle to assimilate in one of Asia's most ethnically homogenous societies.
An influx of foreign brides - overwhelmingly from other Asian countries - began in earnest in 2000 and peaked in 2005, when more than 30,000 were given resident-through-marriage visas.
The trend was triggered by the large numbers of young, rural women leaving to find work and a new life in Seoul and other South Korean cities, leaving behind male-dominated communities with not enough potential wives to go around.
Since 2000, 236,000 foreign women have settled in South Korea through marriage, giving birth to about 190,000 children.
About 80 per cent came from China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand and Mongolia - essentially "mail-ordered" through matchmaking brokers.
At first, South Korea did nothing to rein in marriage brokers, believing they were fulfilling a useful service helping to improve a radically declining birth rate and labour force in the countryside.
By 2010, however, there were increasing reports of young foreign wives being beaten and in some cases murdered.
The same year, a law was introduced providing two-year jail terms for any broker shown to have provided false information about potential spouses, or introduced more than two women to one man at the same time.
The number of broking agents plunged from 1,697 to 512 at the end of 2013.
The latest regulations require those applying for a resident-through-marriage visa to pass a language proficiency test, and for Korean partners to show they earn at least US$14,000 a year.
"Strong state intervention is inevitable to stop ineligible people from buying foreign brides," a Justice Ministry official said. "This is a diplomatic issue related to our national image."
But marriage brokers say the new rules will only raise the costs of finding a foreign bride by reducing the pool of potential matches.
It now costs about US$10,000 and the brokers say that could rise by as much as 50 per cent.
"The new law doesn't reflect reality," said Cho Sou-yong, a broker in Uijeongbu north of Seoul.
Most Asian brides come from poor rural families and Cho said the language requirement would require them to move to a city to take classes for several months - at their new husband's expense.
"The new regulations also require an additional load of notarised documentation, which will also cost the Korean partner," he added.
A couple must already be married for the woman to apply for a resident visa.
Cho insisted that the instances of abuse highlighted in the media were largely a thing of the past, and that professional brokers were now much more "sincere" in finding genuine matches for a "trouble-free marital life".