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             One of the first, and most obvious, results of the socialization process can be seen in the Korean institution of marriage. The historical role of women in the Chosôn Dynasty which has carried on to, and influenced the socialization process of the present day, has brought with it several traditions. One of those is the concept of a ¡°marriage schedule¡± (a plan for one to marry at a standardized age) which parents instill into their children from an early age as part of the natural parental wish for their children to have financially secure, happy lives. Failure to meet the marriage schedule can lead to an unhappy life of work and loneliness. The other tradition which has influenced the present institution is that of a marriage based on concerns other than love.

             In the west marriage is thought of, at least in theory, as the union of two people who want to spend the rest of their lives together, with little regard for the spouse¡¯s status, parent¡¯s wishes or a time schedule. There is no particular plan or strategy regarding falling in love and getting married. Most seek (but seldom seem to find) eternal happiness with an ideal mate. Marriage in Korea however, entails more than just concerns of love. The in-law family¡¯s status, suitability for continuing the family line and acceptability to the family head are all concerns. Marriage in Korea is business.

             Historically in Korea, an upper-class woman¡¯s only method of economic security was through marriage and the status of the family she could marry into was determined by the social position of her natal family. Today, it is determined by a new set of social and educational indicators. The status a woman is able to achieve in her life is a direct result of her level of education. It will determine her social status for the rest of her life by either insuring or denying her a chance to engage in an economically secure marriage. She is therefore, raised from an early age with the aim of cultivating the skills she will need to have a life of happiness through a good marriage.[1]



             The tradition of early marriage for women in Korea began during the Koryô period and continued into the Chosôn Dynasty. Upper-class families, Yang¡¯ban, generally arranged the marriages of their children at an early age to assure them a comfortable life with good status,[2] and also as a means of protection from the court, who collected young girls just coming of age for use as the princes¡¯ concubines. The middle or lower-classes also had used early marriage to protect their daughters from the draft of commoner girls as a tribute to the Mongolian court.[3]

             From the beginning of the Chosôn Dynasty the codes regulating women¡¯s lives even included laws which required all women past a certain age to marry.[4] This placed more responsibility for the children¡¯s marriage in the hands of the parents. The Korean¡¯s strict form of the nuclear family which stresses direct, lineal descent further required the parents¡¯ involvement and indeed control of the children¡¯s marriage process to guarantee a male heir to the family¡¯s bloodline.[5] For both families there were considerations of class and possible economic improvement for the family through the unions marriages provided.[6] Though the families would often benefit by a well planned marriage the new wives generally suffered. The new couple naturally had no feeling for each other and the husband felt no particular desire to stand against his family to defend a new, and unloved, addition to the home. The wife was left with little in the way of emotional support and was treated by the in-laws, particularly the mother-in-law, much like a slave.

             The woman was in essence used as a bargaining tool for the benefit of the family.[7] She was a drain on a family¡¯s resources and was considered property whose feelings were not important. A woman¡¯s whole life was geared towards her eventual use by another family. A Chosôn adage said that ¡°Men are honored, but women are debased¡±.[8] It was thought that daughters were not even a real part of the family but were raised for others and are considered outsiders, ¡°a foreigner who has left the house¡± (Chul¡¯ga¡¯oi¡¯in),[9] once they have married. Their names were in fact stricken from the family registry after marriage. From an early age on, a daughter was told over and over again that once married she would have to endure hardship. As a girl she would blindly follow the wishes of the family while they prepared her for her eventual role of marriage. As a new wife she was a virtual slave under her new mother-in-law. And as a grandmother she lived with, and was economically dependent on, her eldest son. This is ¡°The way of the three following¡± (Sam¡¯jong¡¯ji¡¯do).

             ¡°The way of the three following¡± controlled her throughout her life and insured that ¡°She must follow her father before marriage; her husband after marriage; and her son after the death of her husband.¡±[10] It also assured her a life without ever tasting freedom or having the ability to control her own destiny. Of course, in her elder years when she was economically dependent on her son she could pretty much do whatever she wanted, within the bounds of acceptable behavior for a Confucian mother, but by the time she had born and raised the next generation, her mate was dead and she was an old grandmother, there weren¡¯t many freedoms left for her to pursue.

             Under the strict Chosôn Dynasty codes ¡°. . . women bore neither a name nor had any say in their choice of mate. Their lives were bound by the mores of seven arbitrary ¡®evils¡¯: Failure to give birth to a son; disobedience to parents-in-law; talkativeness; stealing; jealousy; adultery; and hereditary disease. Violation of any became a sufficient condition for the husband to divorce the wife . . .¡±[11] For a commoner, remarriage in the event of death or divorce was not particularly difficult as a good hard-working woman was always a welcome addition to any household. A woman of the Yang¡¯ban class however, would be shunned by her family in the case of divorce and would end up with nowhere to turn within her accustomed social class. A widow, who would be considered part of the husband¡¯s family if she had children, was required to stay and serve the in-law family while raising the children.[12] Remarriage was not only culturally unacceptable but was indeed forbidden by law[13] until ¡°The Ka¡¯bo kyong¡¯jang [Reform of 1894] . . . overturned some of the strict Confucian laws and permitted the remarriage of widows.¡±[14]


             Though women are no longer used as a form of tribute to the Mongolian Court, the Yang¡¯ban¡¯s goals of assuring their daughters a comfortable life with good status still exists. With some minor adjustments in the marriage age to compensate for a period of public education,[15] the tradition of an early, on schedule marriage carries on today (women are expected to marry by their mid twenties, with the late twenties being the outside limit).[16] Parents still strive to see their daughters married when the proper marriage age is reached and though they do not choose their children¡¯s mate, the practice of parents setting them up on dates with prospective mates is still quite common.[17] They also generally have veto power over the child¡¯s choice of mate.

             The pressures of cultural norms brought down from the past still determine the marital goals of modern women. Class is still a major consideration, college graduates marry almost exclusively with other college graduates. The economic status of the prospective spouse¡¯s family must also closely match that of one¡¯s own, or parental disapproval is certain. As in the past daughters are of less importance than sons and their names are still stricken from the family register (Ho¡¯jôk¡¯bu) upon marriage.[18] Today, women still bear no name. They are referred to as the mother of their child or as the wife of their husband, and their children bear their fathers name exclusively. And it would seem the seven arbitrary evils are still commonly used as a reason for divorce. Women who dare to admit to barrenness in Korean society have little hope of getting (or staying) married and, as in the past, men seldom stand up for their wives in the face of criticism by their families. The harsh treatment of daughters-in-law actually discourages some men from entering into a ¡°love marriage¡± because of the tension between the bride and the in-law family.[19] Women are still, in essence, treated as tools in the society. They often engage in a marriage to guarantee their financial security and in return provide for the propagation of the host family. Once in a marriage, inability to get out deprives them of a chance for personal freedom.

             While the reform of 1894 permitted the remarriage of widows under the law, it is in fact, seldom practiced. The most common reasons women give for not divorcing, even in an arranged marriage that started without, and may still lack love, are: the perceived inability of the woman to care for herself financially, the concerns of bringing up the children without both parents or losing a child (the father generally gets custody if he wants it), and the stigma attached to divorce in Korean society.[20] Upon hearing of another Korean woman who has divorced, the expression ¡°She must be a very capable woman!¡± is a common response. The implication being that only a rich woman or a woman with above average abilities to earn a living are capable of divorcing.


             With the exception of coming from a very wealthy family, J, a 30 year old mother of 1, epitomized the typical beginnings of a Korean marriage. At the age of 24 she wed a man suggested by her parents because of intense family pressure, and shortly thereafter gave birth to a daughter. Although her husband was a kind man and came from a good family, J began to realize there was little love in their relationship and felt, therefore, that an important element was missing from her life. Having had a daughter with a man she felt no particular love for, had the effect of diminishing the love she knew she should feel for her daughter. Any other woman would have been virtually unable to divorce because of financial considerations but J, due to her family¡¯s wealth, divorced. As their only child was a girl the husband refused custody of her when it was offered, even with the promise of full financial support for her education (fathers, or more precisely the father¡¯s family, almost always want custody of a son but seldom a daughter).



             Very few of a woman¡¯s actions in Korean society seem to be the result of personal motivation but instead stem from the pressures of socialization. The desire for marriage too, though held by nearly all, is usually not a conscious choice but a direct result of socialization.

             ¡°Graduate from college, meet a good man, and then quickly going to the in-law¡¯s house is the best way¡± (Dae¡¯hak jol¡¯ôp¡¯ha¡¯go joh¡¯un nam¡¯ja man¡¯na bbal¡¯li si¡¯jip ga¡¯nûn¡¯gye chwae¡¯go¡¯da);[21] is a common expression  that defines the quest for a woman¡¯s happiness in Korea. Some expressions from Korea¡¯s past tell of hardships from times gone by. Even today, ¡°Have you eaten yet?¡± (Sik¡¯sa haess¡¯ô¡¯yo?) is a popular greeting. In the past when food was scarce one could confirm the happiness, and indeed the very survival, of a friend by insuring they had eaten recently. Similarly, a common expression of greeting among women of marriage age who haven¡¯t seen each other for some time is ¡°Have you gone to the in-law¡¯s house yet?¡± (si¡¯jip¡¯e gass¡¯ô¡¯yo?). From this popular use of the language we can see the hope for a women¡¯s happiness, and future economic survival, expressed through the wish for her to engage in a successful marriage. It is further used as a tool for determining the status of the friend;[22] a married woman, and particularly a mother, has a higher status than a single woman, making the role of housewife a desirable position in modern society. As the two friends continue to talk, the next question in order of priority would be ¡°What does your husband do?¡± In the case of two married women this determines their relative status to each other based on their husband¡¯s occupation.[23]

             A society¡¯s language is part of the socialization process and contains the cultural essence of that society. In the Korean language we can easily see hopes and desires expressed through these greetings. Other parts of the language embody ideas not so easily recognized. The Korean language, full of traditional mental baggage, forms images in the mind of the one using it. In Korean, the mere word ¡°woman¡± carries with it a full complement of images such as chastity, patience and sacrifice which frame the idea behind the word. The result is not only an idea of a biologically different animal than a male but a complete framework of woman and how she fits into society.[24] While a westerner may learn the word ¡°woman¡± in Korean and use it successfully, they do not have all the same images that go with the term and so in effect are not using the same word. What to the foreigner may be a descriptive term like, ¡°muscular woman¡± would to the Korean be an oxymoron and would represent incorrect use of the language. Because of the long held concept of ¡°the way of the three following¡± and the attitude that a woman must marry and have children to fulfill her role in life, the term ¡°independent unmarried woman¡± would also be considered incorrect use of the language.


             Included in the idea of moving out of the parents house for a woman has always included the idea of getting married; the two therefore, become inseparable. To attain one, it is thought that one must do the other. Women have been raised with the image of ¡°Wise mother and good wife¡± and although 72% say they dislike this role, they feel they have no alternate role model to follow.[25] The parents can offer no alternative role models as their desire for the daughter¡¯s happiness also revolves around marriage. In a 1985 survey of Ewha Womans University (considered the top women¡¯s university in Korea) student¡¯s parents, 67.2% felt that the ¡°happiness of a woman rests only in a happy marriage.¡±[26]

             The women then, seem to have no choice but to blindly follow the wishes and the roles prescribed to them. Among the many interviews I conducted with unmarried women, quite a few told me of their plan to get married within a year or two. This in itself is not unusual; the disturbing part was that they had neither boyfriend or fiancé but only a sense of schedule telling them it was time to marry. They intended to find a ¡°satisfactory man¡± (Gwaen¡¯chanh¡¯un nam¡¯ja) and get married all in a year¡¯s time.[27]

             It is said that in Korean society a man achieves his goals and status through his hard work, ambition and family ties, while a woman achieves her status through her charms. Her status in life is attained through her ability to find a husband, and is defined by his status. The dream then, to grow up, become an independent woman and achieve status in her life, in the end, comes to mean getting married. The two become such an inseparable part of a woman¡¯s psyche that any other obstacles she may face later in her quest for independence will just serve to guide her down the path of least resistance, the path of tradition.



             Many factors are responsible for instilling the dream of a happy marriage in young girls. The history of the institution of marriage in Korea and the ideas inherent in the language used to express it are responsible for shaping the socialization process which, through the parents and society, implants the idea of a marriage schedule in young women¡¯s minds. Further aggravating the often unconscious desire for a timely marriage is the attention bias directed towards the son that many girls experience at home. Boys generally get preferential treatment for education,[28] receive more of the parents¡¯ affections,[29] and are the children of choice in Korea.[30] As the clock runs down on a girl¡¯s marriage schedule the slight negative bias she may have felt in respect to her brother may grow stronger as her parent¡¯s resentment at her failure to marry grows. The combined forces of pressure to marry, noticeably harsher treatment by resentful parents, and the deep feeling that she is truly not a part of her family but was raised to serve others, combine to force her into seeking a basic sense of belonging, worth, and love elsewhere.

             All humans have levels of basic needs that are fulfilled from the most basic, and progressively move up to the more complex. According to Maslow¡¯s Theory of basic human needs,[31] when the primary needs of physical security  (food, warmth and physical stimulation) are fulfilled, the next two levels of needs, loving and security (love, belonging and closeness) and then social belonging (value and respect from others) are sought. Only after these lower needs are satisfied are those higher on the list, self-actualization (maximum use of one¡¯s abilities) and spiritual comfort (knowledge and understanding), pursued. An unmarried woman living in her parents¡¯ house feels a certain longing for love, belonging and closeness her brothers do not seem to be lacking.[32] She is further haunted by the need for respect from others which only her married friends with children seem to enjoy. Her lesser needs for maximizing her abilities through a fulfilling career are left for later in her life.   

             After the marriage, the dreams of an independent married life and a career are short lived. Children in Korea are more than an important part of the marriage equation; they are equated with marriage; the two cannot be separated.[33] To have a Korean marriage without children is unthinkable, the very concept of children is included in the word marriage,[34] so to have one without the other is, again, illogical use of the language. To use the term in such an illogical manner by having a marriage without children would place the person using it in the category of either not-Korean or not-sane.[35] Children, therefore, are part of the ¡°marriage deal¡±. When a man looks for a prospective bride it is with the understanding that she will provide him with a male heir to the family line (this is even more important to the eldest son). There is additional pressure to bear children from primarily, the husband¡¯s family, and secondly, from the wife¡¯s family; lest they feel she is not fulfilling her part of the marriage contract and bringing shame upon the family. On top of the already formidable pressures are the years of socialization training telling a woman that bearing children, and particularly a son, is the natural order of things. Of the over 100 interviews of married women between the age of 35 and 52 I conducted, over 99% have children (one couple wished to have children but were medically unable).[36]

            In a marriage we often think of the power of love, above other reasons of law or convenience, as holding the institution together. In business it is the desire for gain or profit which serves as the cohesive bond. For a business¡¯ structure to remain intact it must have a product, service or some goal. If we look at the, often loveless, Korean marriage as a business we must wonder what is the product or goal. Let¡¯s look at some of the results of a marriage; it provides financial security for the woman, and in turn frees the man to supply that financial security; so it would seem the first product is a financially secure and stable home. This in itself however, does not seem to be the answer, if it were there would be no need for 99% of the families interviewed to raise children. Of the families with children I surveyed, 84% of them have an oldest child that is less than two years younger than the marriage.[37] The child then seems to be the first product after the stability of the home is established. In fact, the speed with which the child is produced in such a high percentage of the marriages leads one to believe that it is more than just a product of the marriage but one of the factors used  for stabilizing the marriage. But is it the final product?  In the same survey, 64% of the families have a male as the last child,[38] a considerably higher number than the law of averages should produce. To be sure, Korea¡¯s long held tradition is no secret, ¡°. . . Korean society . . . has been one of the strongest patrilineal cultures emphasizing ¡®son-absolutism¡¯.¡±[39] But what is revealed is that the production of children serves as the cement which holds together an otherwise untenable marriage. Just like in business, a group of people who have no common goal or product to produce have no particular motivation to stay together.

             There is also a disproportionately high number (29%) of families with a string of 2 or more daughters with the last child being a son.[40] Certainly then, the final desired product is a son, but the production of any child forms an essential bond that holds the often loveless marriage together.


             Once the birth of a child has consummated the marriage, the work begins. It is said that ¡°In general women work much harder than men.¡±[41] And in the early child rearing years of the marriage that may be true. While the husband works to insure a steady income, the new wife has full responsibility for all aspects of family management; from arranging housing, overseeing the very competitive education of the children and maintaining ties with the in-law family,[42] to investing the husband¡¯s income in a fashion that will promise an adequate return. All these duties fall heavily on the wife due to the absence of sufficient programs by the state.[43] The state in fact, expects, and has come to rely on the unpaid labor of the Korean wife.[44] The family must depend on its own resources to insure an adequate retirement as the state retirement system is hopelessly insufficient. The traditional retirement system of having sons, is perceived as the only adequate guarantee of future financial support (girls are not considered acceptable substitutes due to their low earning power).

             Though the woman has full responsibility for all aspects of family and household management, she has only the executing authority while the male head of household has the decision making authority.[45] The burden of the wife¡¯s new responsibilities serve to shatter any career dreams she may have had as the ¡°instant child¡± virtually forces her to quit her job. If day care were readily available, and it¡¯s not, familial pressure would assure she not use it but instead take care of the kids by herself. A mother who failed to personally take care of her children would be considered a poor mother. During the first part of her marriage, the daughter-in-law phase,  the woman has not yet earned her position as housewife and has to put all her duties ahead of her own desires and even her health. Again, these responsibilities are inherent in the word mother and failure to perform them would be unthinkable. Only after the children have started school and the wife has been contributing to the financial well being of the family for several years can she start to relax. After about the age of 10, the fourth year of elementary school, the children spend so much time at school, and after school institutes the mother has free time to again pursue her own desires. Her chance for a career now past, she fills her time with shopping and meeting friends or sometimes joins one of the many volunteer programs designed by the government to, again, utilize the unpaid labor of the housewife. Some do go back to work in middle age but, for reasons I will discuss in chapter 5, most don¡¯t. Those that do, generally do not pursue careers but engage in  some form of menial part time work.


             The institution of marriage in Korea has historically been based on considerations of family status, and potential gain. For the man¡¯s family there were considerations of the woman¡¯s ability to bear a son and carry on the family¡¯s bloodline. The woman, who was less important than a son in Korean society was considered a drain on a family¡¯s resources and was useful only in the sense that she may provide ties to another family unit through her marriage. Many of the traditions from the past have influenced the institutions of today. The ¡°marriage schedule¡± is a dominant feature of modern society. A single person over the age of thirty is considered ¡°unusual¡±. Bearing children, and particularly a son, is almost universal. Women¡¯s names are still stricken from the family register when they marry and women are generally not referred to by their names but by their relationships to others. In effect, women are still debased. All these institutions are reinforced by the socialization process and together shape the unconscious attitudes and marriage goals of women.

             Girls who dream of lives filled with bright careers and loving husbands soon discover the dream and the reality are not the same. The family pressures to conform force her into the accepted role and deprive her of her free choice. Many women who have blindly followed the marriage, children and housewife timetable experience a haunting, mid-life sense of regret or of unfulfilled wishes; a condition Koreans call Han.[46] Women with everything deemed desirable in Korean society; husband with a good job, family, sons and plenty of money break down and cry asking what they have in their lives, and indeed, what they are living for.[47]

Next Chapter - Chapter 4 Education


                  [1] ¡°Happiness of a woman [in Korea] rests only in a happy marriage.¡± Chung, Socialization and Women in Korea, 178.

                  [2] Research Center for Asian Women, Women of the Yi Dynasty, 152.

                  [3] Yu and Phillips, Korean Women in Transition, 17.

                  [4] Research Center for Asian Women, Women of the Yi Dynasty, 112.

                  [5] Ibid., 143.

                  [6] Ibid., 152.

                  [7] Ibid.

                  [8] Kendall and Peterson, View From the Inner Room, 33.

                  [9] Ibid.

                  [10] Kwang Kyu Lee, Han¡¯guk ga¡¯jok¡¯ûi gu¡¯jo bun¡¯sôk. [Analysis of Korean Family Structure] (Seoul: Iljisa, 1975), 401-402.

                  [11] Yu and Phillips, Korean Women in Transition, 15.

                  [12] Research Center for Asian Women, Women of the Yi Dynasty, 133.

                  [13] Ibid., 116.

                  [14] Yu and Phillips, Korean Women in Transition, 19.

                  [15] Korean Women¡¯s Development Institute, Korean Women Now, 12.

                  [16] In 1991 the average age women married was 24.9 years. Ibid.

                  [17] Yu and Phillips, Korean Women in Transition, 25.

                  [18] Kendall and Peterson, View From the Inner Room, 35.

                  [19] Lee, [Analysis of Korean Family Structure], 407.

                  [20] Interviews, 100 married women.

                  [21] Ibid.

                  [22] Korean Women¡¯s Institute Series, Challenges for Women: Women¡¯s Studies in Korea (Seoul: Ewha Woman¡¯s University Press, 1986), 134.

                  [23] Ibid.

                  [24] Ibid.

                  [25] Data is based on a 1985 survey of 820 students conducted by Ewha Womans University. Chung, Socialization and Women in Korea, 176.

                  [26] Data is from a 1972 survey of Ewha Womans University student¡¯s parents. Ibid., 178.

                  [27] Based on personal interviews with approximately 35 single women between the ages of 20 and 41 (the majority were from 20 to 30), which covered subjects ranging from career goals and education, to motivations behind their own marital goals.

                  [28] Yu and Phillips, Korean Women in Transition, 24.

                  [29] Interviews, 35 single women.

                  [30] Yu and Phillips, Korean Women in Transition, 24.

                  [31] Maslow¡¯s Theory of basic human needs consists of five major categories: 1) Physical Security: Survival Needs (food, air, water, etc.). 2) Loving and Security: love, belonging and closeness. 3) Social Belonging: Esteem needs (value and respect from others). 4) Self-Actualization: Making maximum use of one¡¯s abilities. 5) Spiritual Comfort: Cognitive needs (knowledge and understanding). Joan luckmann and Karen Creason Sorensen, Medical-Surgical Nursing: A Psychophysiologic Approach (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1980), 8.

                  [32] Interviews, 35 single women.

                  [33] Eun-Shil Kim, Political Discourse of Modernity and Gender, 14.

                  [34] Ibid., 17.

                  [35] Korean Women¡¯s Institute Series, Challenges for Women. 134.

                  [36] Interviews, 100 married women.

                  [37] Based on a survey I conducted of 42 families in which the wife was between the ages of 30 and 60. The survey data consisted of the number, sex, and ages of the children and the number of years the couple had been married.

                  [38] Ibid.

                  [39] Eun-Shil Kim, Political Discourse of Modernity and Gender, 16.

                  [40] Survey, 42 families.

                  [41] Lee, [Analysis of Korean Family Structure], 409.

                  [42] Okpyo Moon, ¡°Urban Middle Class Wives in Contemporary Korea: Their Roles, Responsibilities and Dilemma,¡± Korea Journal 30 (November 1990): 38.

                  [43] Ibid., 36.

                  [44] Ibid., 37.

                  [45] Lee, [Analysis of Korean Family Structure], 412.

                  [46] Kendall and Peterson, View From the Inner Room, 168.

                  [47] This phenomenon was confirmed during my interviews of 100 married women. Ibid.