Traditionally there were very few divorces in Korea. But the rate tripled from 1980 to 1994 and jumped 250 percent between 1992 and 2002. The divorce rate in South Korea now exceeds Japan and is one of the highest in the world.. One woman was granted a divorce on the grounds that her husband called out the name of another woman in his sleep.

Divorce rate: 2.2 per 1000 per year compared to 3.2 in the United States, 4.8 in Russia and 0.6 in South Africa. [Source: Wikipedia wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce_demography]

Divorce-Marriage ratio: 46.8 percent compared to 46 percent in the United States, 52 percent in Russia and 17 percent in South Africa. [Source: Wikipedia wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce_demography]

The increase in the divorce rate in South Korea is attributed mainly to women — they have initiated most divorces — and their confidence to break out of marriages they don’t like and find jobs and take care of themselves and their children. The divorce increased rapidly after the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis when men lost their jobs and their confidence as breadwinners and women seemed better able to adopt to change.

In the old days women in a bad marriages usually put up with them rather than endure the hardships caused by a divorce. They usually risked losing their children, and were ostracized and had trouble getting a job. Things began to change in the 1970s when people began moving to the cities and women had more options after they got divorced. In the 1990s the rate accelerated as laws were changed to give mothers more rights and women became more educated and wanted more out of life than being a servant for their husbands and mother in laws.

Traditional Views About Divorce and Remarriage in Korea

According to the International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family: “Traditionally, Korean society considered divorce and remarriage deviant and problematic family events. Only the husband had the right to divorce his wife; if he did so, she had to be expelled from her family-in-law according to the traditional marital code that held the husband's authority and absolute power to govern his wife. A husband could legally divorce his wife when she committed the following seven faults (chilchul); being disobedient to one's parents-in-law; not giving birth to a son; committing adultery; expressing jealousy of the concubine; contracting a serious illness; and being garrulous or thievish. [Source: International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

“Three exceptions (sambulgeo), however, prohibited a husband from expelling a wife who committed the above faults: The husband was not allowed to divorce his wife if she spent more than a three-year mourning period for her parents-in-law; if she had no place to return after the divorce; or if she married in poverty and contributed to the wealth and the social position of the family. The woman was forced to serve the husband's family after her husband died. Thus, people blamed remarried women for denigrating the reputation of their kin as well as themselves. Although a husband could not divorce under these circumstances, he could make an alternative arrangement. If, for example, a wife bore no son, it was common for the couple to adopt one or for the husband to keep a concubine.

“It was customary for a man seeking remarriage to select a spinster from a lower-class family, because women who had been married before were socially unacceptable. Also, according to the patriarchal norm, Korean women were socialized to break their relationships with birth families and be thoroughly absorbed into families-in-law, and to assimilate their traditions. This meant that a woman whose first marriage was to a previously married man occupied a very humble position. These women were likely to want their own children to insure marital stability and secure their own position in the family.

“Remarriages constituted 10.9 percent of all marriages in 1997. Traditionally, remarriages of widows were not allowed and remarriages of divorced women were difficult. However, changes are occurring in the remarriage pattern, especially for divorced women. The ratio of a divorced woman marrying a bachelor used to be lower than that of a divorced man marrying a never-married woman. Since 1995, however, this situation has reversed in favor of women, with a 1997 ratio of 2.9 to 2.6 percent. Divorced women with independent economic means, especially successful professionals, no longer face the traditional gender bias against their remarriage and can marry bachelors who are younger and less occupationally advanced. This phenomenon clearly reveals the importance of the economic aspect of marriage. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage Rates in Korea

According to the International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family: “Today, customs governing marriage have changed dramatically. Young women and men mingle freely in parks and on the street, and far fewer parents choose mates for their children (Lee 1997). More and more people are postponing marriage, and the marriage rate is decreasing (see Figure 1). The average age of marriage for women in 1999 was 26.3 years; for men it was 29.1 years, higher than at any previous time. Comparing these figures to those of 1980 shows a very rapid increase; at that time, the ages were 24.1 and 27.3, respectively. These facts reflect the higher educational attainment of women and their increased participation in the job market. [Source: International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

“From 1948, when the democratic constitution was adopted, in Korea divorce has been based on fault, or the assessment of blame against one of the spouses. Typically, both partners would be accused of committing adultery, desertion, or physical and mental cruelty; other grounds were cruel and inhuman treatment by in-laws, abandonment for two or more years, or long imprisonment for a felony. Thus, the changing pattern of divorce and remarriage can be seen as a symbol of a changing Confucian tradition.

“After 1911, the earliest year for which statistics are available, Korea witnessed a steadily increasing divorce rate except for the years from 1946 to 1966, a period that included the Korean War and post-World War II industrialization. Since the 1970s, the crude divorce rate has increased significantly every ten years, almost doubling from 0.67 per 1,000 population in 1970, to 1.16 in 1980 and again to 2.6 in 1999 (NSO 2000; see figure 2).

“Divorce patterns in recent years have changed in several ways. First, the average duration of a marriage was 10.1 years in 1998 because of an increase in the number of couples who remained married for more than fifteen years. Second, divorce increased with 1997 financial crisis; in more cases, both parties agreed to part because of financial problems. Third, couples now divorce less often because of conflict with kin and more often for marital incompatibility. This suggests that conjugal ties have become more crucial in maintaining a marriage, while the traditional kin relationships have declined in importance (Chung and Yoo 1999).

“Social changes such as alternatives to traditional marriage, the declining stigma attached to divorce, and the rising standard for happiness in marriage have occurred in Korea. Women's growing independence, the product of feminist ideas and employment outside the home, have significantly contributed to a continued rise in the divorce rate.

“As the divorce rate rose, so did the number of remarriages, a figure that has grown continuously since the 1970s (Figure 1). Remarriage, however, has also changed (Figure 3). The proportion of men who married a woman who had never been married, the dominant remarriage type until the 1980s, has dropped from 48.2 percent in 1970 to 34.4 percent in 1998. During the same period, the proportion of remarriages in which both parties were remarrying for the second time increased from 41.2 percent to 52.2 percent. And the proportion also increased of women who had been married before and married, for their second marriage, men who had not been married before; these grew from 10.6 percent to 25.8 percent during the same period (KNSO 1999). Korean society thus seems more accepting of the egalitarian remarriage norm and less prone to traditional attitudes that discriminated against women. The change is not universal; some of the traditional negative images of remarried families still strongly persist in Korean society (Leem 1996; Yoo et al. 1998).

Prejudices Towards Divorces Women in South Korea

Men automatically get custody of children in a divorce — with the implicit understanding that his family will raise the children — unless the mother files a legal claim. There are now so many divorcees out there that matchmaking service have special services for divorcees.

Prejudices persist. Divorced women are often regarded as either being promiscuous or having a drinking problem. They bend over backward not to admit they are divorced. ''I'm very cautious about the way I behave at social gatherings,'' Yoo Hae Ok, 44, told the New York Times. ''If I make a mistake, people will say that's why I was divorced.'' Talking openly about one's divorce is something Koreans still seldom do, and doing so brought tears to Ms. Yoo's eyes. ''My husband was irresponsible toward the family,'' she said. ''I was hoping that he would change — he is my children's father, after all.'' ''Society has changed a lot,'' she added. ''In the past, if men had affairs or neglected the family, our mothers and grandmothers would have tolerated that. Now women don't want to tolerate that kind of situation.'' [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, September 21, 2003]

A great deal of attention was focused on the suffering of divorced women in South Korea after the divorced actress Choi Jin Sil killed herself in October 2008. Jennifer Veale wrote in Time: “For nearly 20 years, Choi Jin Sil was the country's cinematic sweetheart and as close to being a "national" actress as possible. But since her body was found on Oct. 2, an apparent suicide, she has become a symbol of the difficulties women face in this deeply conservative yet technologically savvy society. Incessant online gossip appears to have been largely to blame for her death. But it's also clear that public life as a single, working, divorced mom — still a pariah status in South Korea — was one role she had a lot of trouble with. [Source: Jennifer Veale, Time, October 6, 2008]

Dubbed the "nation's actress," Choi starred in some 16 movies and more than a dozen TV soap operas throughout the 1990s. But her career took a hit in 2002, when the public learned of her troubled marriage and subsequent divorce from Cho Sung Min, who plays baseball for the big leagues across the sea in Japan. After her divorce in 2004, the mother of two became anathema to producers and broadcasters who, according to industry observers, were and still are reluctant to put single mothers in starring or prominent roles. After four years of struggling, Choi's career had begun to pick up when her body was found in her bathroom in southern Seoul. She apparently hanged herself with a rope made of medical bandages.

Divorces and Media Attention on Them in South Korea Surges in the Early 2000s

In 2002, there were 3 divorce cases for every 1,000 people, government statistics show, up from 2 in 1997. Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: “The divorce rate In 2001, the rate was 2.8, which was above the European Union's average of 1.8 and Japan's 2.3, though below the United States' rate of 4. Also, the marriage rate — lower than the United States' and higher than Europe's and Japan's — has been declining. People are marrying later and having fewer children. Last year, the birth rate was 1.17 children per woman, even lower than Japan's 1.32. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, September 21, 2003]

“South Korean popular culture, perhaps like America's in the 1970's, is overflowing with taboo-shattering shows. Another hit television show, ''The Woman Next Door'' — which has been called the Korean ''Sex and the City'' — focuses on the marriages and extramarital affairs of three women in their 30's. The show describes a radical departure, social critics have pointed out, from the days when men engaged in affairs and wives endured in silence.

“The longest-running of these shows, ''Love and War,'' was the first to deal with divorce when it appeared four years ago and has consistently ranked in the top 10. It recreates stories of troubled marriages based on real cases, after which viewers vote on whether the couple should divorce. (The vote is for divorce in 80 percent of the episodes.)

Jang Seong Hwan, 46, the show's executive producer, said he created it after the spike in divorce in the wake of the 1997 economic crisis. ''We wanted to bring on television issues that were never discussed in public, in part to stop the divorce rate from rising,'' Mr. Jang said. But some viewers have accused the show of encouraging divorce by giving the issue such prominence, he added. Still, the program also shows the boundaries of social change. While it calls itself a reality-based show, only actors appear. ''It's impossible to ask real couples to come,'' Mr. Jang said. ''They would not want to reveal their faces and names.''

Reasons for Increased Divorce Rate in South Korea

Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: “Rapidly changing attitudes toward divorce — as well as such other issues as marriage, childbearing and cohabitation — show a South Korea in the throes of a social transformation. Still anchored in Confucian values of family and patriarchy, South Korea is fast becoming an open, Westernized society — with the world's highest concentration of Internet broadband users, a pop culture that has recently been breaking taboos left and right, and living patterns increasingly focusing on individual satisfaction. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, September 21,2003]

“Social changes that took decades in the West or Japan, sociologists here like to point out, are occurring here in a matter of years. In the last decade, South Korea's divorce rate swelled 250 percent, in keeping with women's rising social status. But it shot up even more after the economic crisis of 1997, which caused widespread unemployment and shook men's basic standing in the society and family, said Hwang Hee Bong, a deputy director at the Korea National Statistical Office. ''I personally feel a big change compared with five years ago,''said Lee Yoon Jung, 33, who initiated divorce proceedings in 1998 after concluding that she and her husband could not resolve their personality conflicts. ''People would say, 'How could you divorce? You absolutely cannot divorce.' Now, people say, 'If you aren't a good match, you don't necessarily have to stay together.' '' ''I have a job and money,'' added Ms. Lee, who works for a shipping company. ''If there is a good person, I'd like to get remarried. But I don't want to get restricted in a bad situation.''

“In addition, more young couples are defying a longtime taboo against living together, though they largely keep the fact hidden from their parents and co-workers. Moving in together has become such a phenomenon that a recent television series, ''A Cat in the Rooftop Room,'' became a hit by tackling the issue.

“Divorce, once almost nonexistent, first appeared in significant numbers in the 1970's, as Koreans moved from rural areas into cities, said Kwak Bae Hee, an expert on divorce and the president of the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations, a partly government-financed organization that counsels couples. Apartment-dwelling couples no longer living with their relatives felt less pressure to stay together.

“Over the years, divorce laws that discriminated against women were also changed, Ms. Kwak said. But the surge in divorce in the 1990's, she said, came as women became better educated and more of them held jobs. Now women are more likely to feel that they are entitled to seek personal happiness, she said. The majority of divorces are initiated by women, and personality conflict is the reason cited most often. ''Men found the political and economic changes difficult to adapt to, but they thought that the family would at least stay the same,'' Ms. Kwak said. ''But the fact is that of all the institutions in Korean society, the family may be the one that has undergone the biggest change.''

Matchmaking Services for Divorcees in South Korea

Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: “ Only a decade ago, Sunoo, one of South Korea's largest matchmaking services, had no divorced clients. Few Koreans divorced anyway, and deep social prejudice forced those who did to resign themselves to a life of solitude. Today, with a surging divorce rate that now ranks among the world's highest, divorced clients account for 15 percent of Sunoo's membership. But as with other agencies that match people looking to marry, Sunoo keeps its divorced members in a largely separate category. ''South Korea is in a transition,'' said Lee Woong Jin, 38, the agency's chief executive. ''It's a reality that divorce is rising and will probably continue to rise. At the same time, we are adhering to traditional values.'' [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, September 21, 2003]

“With a growing pool of divorced people, the chances of remarrying have increased, even though lingering prejudices confine the choices largely to other divorced people. For the foreseeable future, matchmaking services, said Sunoo's Mr. Lee, will continue to introduce divorced people largely to one another. (Though in this youth-obsessed culture, women ages 32 and over are now confined to Sunoo's registry of the divorced.)

“Lee Ji Yong, 38, a civil engineer who earned his master's degree in the United States, married about a decade ago. His wife, a flight attendant with Northwest Airlines, chose to keep working after marrying. They have two daughters. ''There was a conflict from the start,'' Mr. Lee said. ''After work, I wanted her in the house, with her apron, preparing a hot meal for me. But she wanted her career.'' His wife asked for a divorce, said Mr. Lee, and after consulting with his parents, he agreed. After their divorce last year, Mr. Lee joined Sunoo's remarriage section and became engaged to a divorced woman.

Yoo Hae Ok, 44, said she never expected to remarry after divorcing her husband 10 years ago, especially as a single mother of two boys. But with her children now in college, Ms. Yoo, who has been working as a remarriage adviser for a matchmaking service called Piery for the last five years, married a divorced man last year and is happy.”

'Twilight Divorces' Hit a New High in South Korea in Mid-2010s

The rate of divorce among older couples increased in the 1980s. The number of divorces by couples that had been married more than 20 years increased from 4.5 percent in 1986 and 9.1 percent in 1991. About 80 percent of these divorces were initiated by women. One legal expert told the Korean Times, "Many women who have long endured maltreatment from their spouses now take legal steps to leave those husbands once the children are grown and married.

The trend continued. Rebecca Jang and Jee Heun Kahng of Reuters wrote: “Twilight divorces after 20 years of marriage are at a record in South Korea as the stigma of divorce wears off in a conservative society and court rulings make it financially viable for older women to go it alone. For 54-year-old Kim Nan-young, who felt trapped in a loveless marriage for two decades, divorce was better late than never. [Source: Rebecca Jang and Jee Heun Kahng, Reuters, November 12, 2015]

“Kim's sons had given her the financial and emotional support she needed to make the break, but it also helped that courts have been ruling increasingly in favor of splitting up matrimonial assets more evenly on divorce. "I'd put up with my husband's patriarchal and overbearing behavior for so many years, because I was reluctant to divorce when my children were small," said Kim, a mother of two sons who split up two years ago from her husband of 25 years. "Now I only have myself to take care of, which makes it easier to find work. There are a lot of things women can do for a living," said Kim, who has since started her own small laundry business.

“As many as 33,140 couples split up last year following more than 20 years of marriage, the national statistics bureau said this month, accounting for more than a quarter of all divorces, and a surge of 31 percent over the last decade. More women are choosing to walk away from unhappy marriages when their children are grown, as the social stigma attached to divorce dissipates. The spurt in later-life divorce is in sharp contrast to the drop in overall divorce cases, which stood at 115,510 last year, after having peaked at 166,617 in 2003.

“Financial security for divorced women has also improved, as courts seem increasingly willing to award settlements of as much as half the joint property to full-time homemakers. A woman who walked away from 50 years of marriage to an abusive gambler said she was able to start again because the court granted her nearly half the couple's assets, although she had always been a homemaker. "I'm in my 70s," said the woman, who asked not to be identified. "Divorcing after such a long period of time means you are really desperate. Now my son and daughter tell me I should find my own life."

New Laws and Jobs Help Twilight Divorcees'in South Korea

Rebecca Jang and Jee Heun Kahng of Reuters wrote: “the country's Supreme Court ruled that divorced women were entitled to part of their former spouses' future pension and severance pay. Divorced wives of public school teachers, government workers and soldiers will receive half the future pension of their former husbands, after a revised law takes effect next year. More women seek divorce as the courts increasingly recognize household labor as work entitled to compensation, said Kim Sung-woo, a lawyer involved in several "silver divorces". "Household assets are evenly divided, even when a husband was a corporate employee and his wife was a full-time homemaker and raised kids at home," he said. [Source: Rebecca Jang and Jee Heun Kahng, Reuters, November 12, 2015]

“Women seeking divorces later in life are also reassured by a more favorable job climate. Female employment in Asia's fourth-largest economy hit a record of 49.5 percent last year, with the proportion of those older than 50 continuing to improve to a record of 43.2 percent, up from 39.7 percent in 2010.

The increase in divorces of the elderly has spurred more second marriages, although the financial independence of potential partners tends to weigh heavily in the decision, besides common interests and pastimes."In the past, old people considered remarriage as shameful," said Kim Mi-yeon, an official with the country's biggest matchmaker, DUO Marriage Information Co Ltd. "Now they want to find a new life partner whom they can share hobbies with."

Divorce Rate Declines in Late 2010s

The divorce rate continued to decline last year since peaking in 2003. Total divorces last year numbered 107,300, down by 1,800 (-1.7 percent) from 2015. But a clear rise in divorce among senior citizens was also observed - an apparent reflection of the recent trend of “twilight divorces” and “marriage graduation” (couples who remain legally married but live separately). Among males, divorces were down from 2015 for most age groups below 55, but increased by 300 and 600, respectively, for the populations aged 55-60 and over 60. Among females, the only rises in divorce were seen among those aged 55-60, over 60, and 45-49. [Source: Noh Hyun-woong, and Kim Yang-joong, Hankyoreh, March 2017]

Continued rises were seen in the marriage duration for divorced couples and average age at the time of divorce. The average divorcing age last year was 47.2 for men and 43.6 for women - nearly 10 years higher than the respective averages of 38.6 and 34.8 recorded 20 years earlier in 1996. Marriage duration at the time of divorce averaged 14.7 years, up 2.6 years from the 12.1 recorded in 2006.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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