A Demographic Switch: The Korean Family Changes

Fr. Sean Conneely
December 28, 2010

Some days I wonder if I am in the same Korea that I came to in 1969. Things have changed so much. Korean society is probably one of the fastest changing societies in the world over such a short period of time. Until the mid-1960s, 85% of Koreans lived in rural towns and areas. Now, the opposite is true with approximately 85% of the population living in cities. Many people live in high rise apartment buildings over 30 stories tall.

In 1970, as I worked in a rural parish in Kwangju Diocese, most of the families farmed for a living. The Catholic families, like all other families in the area, were guided, bonded and bound together by the Confucian system that defined the relationship of respect and duty within the family according to age, status and gender.

The Retrouvaille Program for troubled marriages and other programs are helping couples to keep communication, intimacy and spirituality alive and to grow in their marriage and family life.

The Confucian system has specific names for the place of each person in the immediate family and the extended family and in-laws and the wife’s family. For example, in English aunt is the same word for our father’s and mother’s sisters or sisters-inlaw.

In Korean, there are two words which distinguish the sister as that of the mother or the father. One is e-mo, and the other is ko-mo. Duty, filial piety and order are the strongest values in the Confucian system. Like all systems it has pluses and minuses.

Like most systems in reality it favors the strong and those with status. The older men and heads of families call the shots and emphasize the rules that favor them. No one suffered more under that system than the myonurii, the daughter-in-law, especially the wife of the eldest son, who had to prepare all the meals and food for the extended family several times a year as they celebrated the family’s traditional ritual ceremony for their ancestors.

Nobody could be more powerful, demanding and sometimes cruel than the mother-in-law. And no “dutiful son” could ever challenge his mother or take the side of his wife in a family issue or quarrel. In the past, sons more often received higher education, and the women did most of the backbreaking work of planting, weeding and cooking on the farms.

So, what has changed in Korea? With the industrialization of the nation, more opportunity for jobs, education, freedom of speech, freedom of movement and familial relationships have all changed. The old societal rules have changed as well.

The beginnings of democracy came to Korea in 1987 after many years of struggle, and many new laws and attitudes came with it. What effect did all these changes have on the family and on our role as Church and as missionaries to respond to the changes?

Until the mid-1960s, 85% of Koreans lived in rural towns and areas. Now, the opposite is true with approximately 85% of the population living in cities.

Education and financial independence must be two of the biggest influences and change agents in any society. For Christians, freedom of religion and the basic truths of human dignity—being created in the image of God, God’s love and mercy and the promise of afterlife for all—are agents of change and a vision of hope. The new urban and industrial Korea provided an opportunity to sample these truths and more in many new churches.

Many people were only too willing to escape the shackles of the past as they experienced it. Of course quick change, especially without evaluation, doesn’t always produce good, sustainable change.

The immediate rewards for people were more employment opportunities resulting in more income for the family. The families were then able to enjoy better living conditions. Sons and daughters were able to go to universities and get better educations while the better educated young people, even those from poor families, were able to go abroad to study.

Because of the rising population, the government established a policy of two children per family and then later one child per family. As a result, some families become isolated at home, deprived of aunts, uncles and cousins, and the extended Confucian family structures began to break down. Education became the top priority for most families which means children going to school at 7:30 a.m. and taking extra classes at night with some in classes until 1:00 a.m.

In other homes, live-in university students provide tutoring at all hours. Mothers stay awake in order to keep their children awake to study more.

Husbands working in big companies work late and socialize with their colleagues until late at night. Thus, wives spend more time with the children and their friends than with their husbands. The end result may be better educated children but little family life.

They hardly ever eat meals together; there is very little bonding between father and children. Often the wife/mother is more emotionally involved with the children and her women friends than with her husband. Since the 1990s, with the increased competition to get into top class universities, families with financial freedom began to send their children abroad to English speaking countries as early as primary school to study and get into colleges abroad.

This led to the syndrome known as “the wild geese” families in which the mother goes abroad most of the year to care for the children, and the father has to fend for himself at home, like a wild goose. During holidays the children and mother may or may not come home.

Unfortunately, this creates a greater distance between father and family. It also exposes the children and mother to a Western way of life with different values and relationships. Having tasted the life of a new culture, many women don’t want to return home. If they do return, the women want a new way of life, one with the freedom they experienced abroad either as students or wives/mothers.

The change creates great worry for the “at-home” father and conflict between himself and the returned family. Conflict can lead to violence, and loneliness can lead to unfaithfulness. Money, education and status can lead to individualism, and many young women are not willing to or able to endure the old patriarchal family system any longer. Divorce is no longer a dirty word.

With young women leaving the farms and countryside for the cities, one of the basic needs of rural areas was exposed—the need for women to become wives, to bear children and carry on the family line. To cope with this problem both government and private agencies set up matchmaking systems to connect Korean men with foreign brides from the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia and other countries.

While the arranged marriages meet one need, they create many others. Now, in some rural areas, more than 50% of the wives are from foreign countries, living in areas and raising families where only Korean and Confucian culture existed for 3,000 years. This causes much stress, conflict and problems that call for solutions, new structures and ideology that did not exist thirty years ago.

The declining population in Korea due to the one-child family created another situation as well—the need for foreign workers to fill spots once held by Koreans. These workers have been arriving from as far away as South America and Africa as well as nearby Asian countries. The economic opportunity is a great boost to both Korea and the foreign workers.

However, family separations, cultural misunderstanding, loneliness and injuries plague the foreign workers and often lead to the break up of the family in the worker’s home country. With the huge growth in the Korean economy, many foreign companies have come to Korea.

Often, families from the country of origin of the foreign company come to Korea, which is a big change. While these changes have created a few problems, they also have exposed Korea to new family values with more of an international flavor and Christian values of human rights and dignity that have resulted in fairer and more just laws, policies and attitudes throughout the country. How did the Church respond?

Maryknoll’s Fr. Donald MacClinnis introduced Marriage Encounter to Korea more than thirty years ago. As of 2009, 80,000 couples have participated in the programs, not to mention all the other enrichment and weekly meetings in parishes. In turn, the Korean couples have shared the fruits of their experience with the Korean Diaspora across the world.

Korean couples have been running weekend programs for engaged couples and Marriage Retorno programs to give a more Bible-based spirituality to the couples. I introduced the Retrouvaille Program for troubled marriages in 2005. These and other programs are helping couples to keep communication, intimacy and spirituality alive and to grow in their marriage and family life.

Many religious orders and lay people serving as both professionals and as volunteers are sharing their resources and time to help families who are experiencing problems, especially the migrant workers and interracial couples.

Various national groups have set up their own websites to educate and support each other and keep in touch with their own culture and families at home. The new challenges and problems are a call to care and share, support and learn how to build a better and more caring Korean society for the future. What that will look like no one really knows. One thing is certain, the Korean family of 2010 is far different from the family of 1969.

Fr. Sean Conneely lives and works in Korea.