With the rise of the pandemic, the number of breakups and divorces has been predicted to increase throughout the world. The crisis has brought forth a surge of divorces in the United States, China, Britain, and Sweden, as divorce lawyers face the challenge of filing for divorces by making digital copies of hundred-page documents and doing trials virtually (Rubin Web). However, one of the exceptions to this inclining divorce trend is South Korea. While other countries had blamed spouses being stuck indoors together for making them realize just how obnoxious one is to the other, it seems to have the opposite effect on South Korean families as it removed a significant stressor in their lives.
South Korean Cultural Traditions
To understand the reason behind this phenomenon, we would have to understand the cultural traditions embedded in South Korean culture. It has always been a male-dominated society where the first male born in the household was to become the "man of the house," and wives were viewed as an "accessory" that came with the husband. The man carried the significant financial burden of supporting the family, whereas the wife was to take on the household chores and bear children. If the wife were unable to give birth to a son, she would be secretly or even openly disliked by the husband’s family. Not only does Korean daily life come with such a male-centric line of thinking, but there are also years of tradition that emulate this mentality.
As passed down for many centuries, it is common for the wife to go to the husband’s hometown and serve the husband’s family during holidays. Holidays call for family gatherings such as Korean Thanksgiving, Chuseok, Lunar New Year’s Day, or Seollalm, and days where they honor deceased ancestors. At the minimum, these are celebrated three times a year, but usually much more often in a traditional household. Once a Korean woman marries into a family, she is viewed as a part of her husband's family and thus is expected to take charge of the preparations for the holidays.
Since there is much to be done, wives usually have to travel during the crack of dawn and arrive at the extended family's house in the early morning before other family members wake up. Usually, the first son's wife takes charge, whereas the other women in the family help out. Still, the wife of the first son generally has the greatest burden and responsibility to get things done. As women start preparing the food, they must remember that since this involves entire families, including distant relatives, they must make a grand amount of food to the liking of both great elders and adults. They also have to prepare a separate meal to "offer to the deceased." It is placed on a separate table and left for those great ancestors that have passed away. Wives make intricate dishes of marinated meats, countless side dishes of vegetables and noodles, rice, polished and cut fruit, and traditional Korean desserts and drinks. They are also to do the cleaning while preparing for the food. Meanwhile, men are not expected to help out in the kitchen and usually watch television while waiting on the food. Then, when the food is complete, it is time for the men to bow to give respect to the deceased elders. Women are not given the same opportunity to bow to the elders as they stand in the back. While specific practices may vary between different households, the more traditional families follow the one mentioned above.
A Picture Depicting the Food Preparation for Deceased Elders (제사Web).
A Picture Showing The Male Family Members Bowing While Female Members and Distant Relatives Watch from Behind (중앙일보 Web).
Korean women have held on to this tradition reluctantly, and recently, younger Koreans have been making commentary on this unfairness. It is now a time when women are expected to be both career-oriented and also to take on the role of homemakers. More and more people question the fairness of such labor distribution, and it can be seen in the media. For instance, a controversial novel and movie "Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982" highlighted the struggles of the intergenerational trauma hardship on women. In one particular scene, the daughter-in-law is preparing food during a family holiday with rugged clothes and a grim face. She is bossed around by her husband's family, and the daughter-in-law can only sadly think about how she cannot be with her mother during this holiday. She quietly yearns for her mother by calling for her continuously. Towards the end of the movie, the audience sees her get wearied out and stressed to the point of near insanity. She starts hallucinating and constantly talking about how hard it must have been for her mother in a heart retching scene. Surprisingly enough, it has been said that if you were to watch this movie or read the original book, you were considered a "feminist," which carries a more negative undertone in South Korea rather than in the West. It was even rumored that if you mentioned that you watched this movie on a blind date, there would be no second date.
A Scene from "Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982" Representing a Common Struggle faced by the Korean Housewife (기자 김진수 Web).
Not surprisingly, that certainly has a significant negative impact on marriages. Families are more likely to divorce as a result of these generational traditions.
COVID’S Impact on Marriages
Unlike in the other countries, COVID-19 significantly reduced the divorce rates in South Korea. The traditions call for the entire family to gather, and COVID has made that less possible. There have been temporary laws in South Korea prohibiting gatherings of more than five people and greatly discouraging traveling for holidays. Since families who uphold traditional practices are usually way over five people, and South Koreans tend to strictly abide by the COVID restrictions, this means significantly fewer gatherings can take place. Further, since Korean elders and children are always present during these events, there was a strong tendency not to meet to prevent the spread of the disease to the most vulnerable and susceptible.
Oddly, COVID-19 has made a lot of women's lives easier, eliminating the stressful annual events. In South Korea, from January 2019 to November 2019, 97,331 couples divorced, whereas from January 2020 to November 2020, the rate dropped to 93,000, by 4,331, or 4.3 percent (Ji-u Web). While this may not appear significant looking purely at percentages, this was the greatest drop since 2015. The difference between the divorce rates in South Korea and other countries can be clearly seen when comparing these numbers to those in the UK. One of the British law firms stated that divorce rates rose 122 percent from July 2020 to October 2020 compared to the previous years, and this shows the striking contrast (Ji-u Web).
However, the decrease in divorce rates may not just be because those couples are happier together. Perhaps the transition of many processes into virtual ones and slower court processing are simply delaying the divorce process. However, the fact that this is occurring predominately in South Korea causes spectators to question if is the cultural traditions that are destroying families and the pandemic preventing then from doing so actually, in a way, save people's marriages.
- Ji-u, Kim. “Unlike Most Other Countries, Korea's Divorce Rate Drops amid Covid-19.” KBR, 17 Feb. 2021, www.koreabiomed.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=10465.
- Rubin, C. (2021, Jan 31). Thinking of divorce? expect even more complications: [house & Home/Style desk]. New York Times Retrieved from https://ezproxy.lib.uconn.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.uconn.edu/newspapers/thinking-divorce-expect-even-more-complications/docview/2483665593/se-2?accountid=14518
- 중앙일보 “광주에 제사·추모 예배 돕는 '제사식장'.” 중앙일보, 중앙일보, 2 May 2011, news.joins.com/article/5435929.
- 기자 김진수. “[인터뷰] 영화 '82년생 김지영' 정유미 ‘그녀들의 이야기를 듣고 싶었다.’” 여성신문, 22 Oct. 2019, www.womennews.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=193875.
- “제사, 차례 문화 이제는 시대에 맞게 바꾸거나 폐지해야 한다.” 네이버 블로그 | 소프트맨의 블로그, m.blog.naver.com/afromz001/221359870583.