Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Vietnam, Korea's 'womb colony?'

In September 2007, the Joongang Ilbo posted a lengthy article looking at the problems foreign wives imported from Southeast Asia face in Korea. It began with this story:
Nlan [, a 24-year old Vietnamese woman,] was living with her parents near Ho Chi Minh City after graduating from high school when she first met her husband through a broker. She was told that he had been divorced once and wanted to start a new family. His past didn’t bother her, so they soon married, and Nlan became pregnant. Shortly after the delivery of her first child, however, her husband suddenly asked her to send their baby to his ex-wife.

“My husband tried to convince me by saying that we could have another baby, but his ex-wife couldn’t,” Nlan said. “He said she lives a lonely life now.” She reluctantly agreed, and moved on with her life.

After giving up her baby to her husband’s ex-wife, Nlan gave birth to her second child in 2005. Soon, however, her husband suggested that they also send their second child to his ex-wife. When Nlan came home from the hospital, she discovered her second child was gone. Shortly after the incident, her husband asked for a divorce.

"I was too young and naive at that time,” Nlan said. “I had no friends or family whom I could ask for help. And I didn't speak Korean at all. When my husband’s attitude turned cold, I could do nothing except sign the divorce contract.”

After divorcing him, she found that her husband had reunited with his ex-wife with Nlan’s children. Nlan then realized that she was used as a surrogate mother for his husband’s marriage because his ex-wife was barren. Now she is pursuing a legal suit against him.
Notice that that article was published about two years after her second child was born. Yesterday, the Korea Times published an update:
A court rejected a Vietnamese woman's request Monday for the custody of her biological children who she had with a Korean husband. The Seoul Family Court cited the "children's lack of awareness'' of her as their mother as its primary reasoning. The 26-year-old married to a divorced Korean man in his 50s in August 2003 and gave birth to two daughters in the following two years.

But, immediately after the birth of the two children, they were sent to the husband's former Korean wife. The Korean woman, now recognized by the children as their mother, has nurtured them since then. [...] Just days after the immigrant wife delivered the second child, the husband abruptly divorced her and began to live with his former Korean wife. The Vietnamese woman filed a suit in a bid to secure custody of the children, which is usually granted to the father for financial reasons.

The reason the man sent the children to live with his former wife has not yet been confirmed, with those involved in the case unavailable for comment. The court also refused to elaborate, saying, "It was not the point of the case.'' [...] The biological mother reportedly claimed during court proceedings that the Korean used her as a "surrogate mother,'' which is strictly banned in South Korea. It remains uncertain whether or not the Korean woman is sterile.

The Vietnamese woman now lives in a rundown house in Seoul, and is said to be barely surviving by working at a sewing factory. Although failing to gain custody, the court granted her visitation rights with the children one day per week in order to guarantee her basic right as biological mother.
Actually, according to this Ohmynews (or this Hankyoreh) article, she gets to visit her children at her ex-husband's house the third Saturday of every month from 2pm to 6pm. A total of 48 hours for the year. Is that Korea's "basic right" for biological mothers?
"During the proceedings, we gave her a chance to meet the babies. But they did not recognize her as their mother at all,'' the court spokesman said. "Given overall conditions, we decided to give custody to their father but enabled her to meet them on a regular basis for humanitarian concerns.''

The former husband has appealed the case to overturn the court's decision to grant her the right to meet the children. The lawyer for the migrant woman was cautious in commenting on the case for fear that media exposure may adversely affect her and further anger her former husband who may withholds the children from her.

"The court allowed the meeting, but it doesn't necessarily mean the meeting will be realized any time soon,'' the lawyer told The Korea Times. "If the former husband refuses, it's impossible for her to meet them.''
So you mean the court can't do anything to enforce the visitation rights given to her? I suppose when her only choice is to go over to her ex-husband's house to see them, it would be too difficult to enforce, especially seeing how court decisions are little respected here anyway (how many chaebol owners and political cronies and sons of his former elementary school classmates will the president pardon this year?).
The lawyer added another suit for alimony is underway, with its conclusion expected by the first half of the year.
I really have to wonder how successful that will be, especially if the court can't really enforce it (though the courts may have gotten more teeth in enforcing child support). The article ends with our immigration factoid for the day:
The Korea Immigration Office estimated the number of Korean-Vietnamese couples here to be 27,092 last year, the third largest international marriage group.
This woman's case really stood out when I first read about it over a year ago, and I remembered it as soon as I read this most recent article. While the first response is to reading it is obviously going to be like these ones - anger and disgust - the question remains as to what legally could be done. She agreed to the divorce, unfortunately, and women in Korea - as in women who are Korean citizens - seem to regularly get the shit end of the stick in divorce cases, so it's hard to be optimistic about what hope there is for a foreigner who also doesn't speak the language (or didn't when this mess began). On top of all of this, as this article notes (note that it is over two years old), there are other problems:
According to the law, selling eggs is illegal, but there are no regulations for surrogate mothers. That is why the industry has no problems luring cash-strapped young women. Surrogate mothers are paid W30-40 million (US$1=W956), while egg donors get W3-4 million.
The article begins by looking at messages left at internet portals written by people looking for surrogate mothers. If the law hasn't changed, then I don't know legally what can be done, other than giving her visitation rights and alimony, as the court has a point - the children don't even really know her. The laws as they exist now may not have taken such a situation into account.

Of course, you had to love the spin that was put on the facts mentioned above in that article:
One result has been that more and more Japanese infertile Japanese women seek Korean surrogates. In 2003, Japan completely banned surrogate pregnancies and industry brokering.[...]

Grand National Party lawmaker Bahk Jae-wan on Monday published Ministry of Health and Welfare materials which say there are 13 Internet groups on major domestic portal sites related to surrogate mothering, 65 related ads, and 2,295 users registered to the groups. “With the lax regulations on surrogate pregnancies in Korea, the number of Japanese finding surrogate mothers here is rising. My concern is that we could be reduced to Japan’s womb colony.”
One hopes that this perverse case, which could set a precedent for turning Vietnam into Korea's 'womb colony' leads to changes in the laws so that should this happen again, the courts will be able to punish it. Let this opportunity not be wasted.

It's ironic that the first Korean film to get really noticed overseas, Im Kwon-taek's 1987 film The Surrogate Women, was also about a young surrogate mother, and highlighted how unfair and how harsh the preference for a son - for continuing the bloodline - could be for Korean women. One difference was, that though the girl in the movie knew what her role was from the beginning (but later thought she could go beyond that role), this woman thought the opposite - that she was going to give birth to and raise her own children. As Tony Rayns writes of the film,
Set towards the end of the Yi Dynasty (the late 19h century in the Western calendar), Surrogate Mother uses a historical setting to pinpoint the roots of problems which remain endemic in Korean culture. Im’s specific target is the principle of male lineage, strong in all Confucian societies but still capable of ruining lives in present-day Korea.
That's very true.

No comments: