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Republic of Korea: The nature of discrimination against divorced women and their children, and whether there is any state or other recourse available to them

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 27 January 2000
Citation / Document Symbol KOR33644.E
Reference 2
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Republic of Korea: The nature of discrimination against divorced women and their children, and whether there is any state or other recourse available to them, 27 January 2000, KOR33644.E, available at: [accessed 21 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

No information on the discrimination against divorced women and their children and state or other recourse available to them could be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate, other than that provided in Country Reports 1998:

The amended Family Law, which went into effect in 1991, permits women to head a household, recognizes a wife's right to a portion of the couple's property, and allows a woman to maintain greater contact with her offspring after a divorce. Although the revisions helped abused women, divorce remains a social taboo, and there is little government or private assistance for divorced women. These factors, plus the fact that divorced women have limited employment opportunities and have difficulty remarrying, leads some women to stay in abusive situations.

Country Reports 1998 provides additional information on the overall situation of women and children in the Republic of Korea.

The following 28 January 1999 article in The Korea Herald on a rising trend of divorce amongst the elderly, and the difficulties these women are facing, has been reproduced in full:

When her 84-year-old husband accused her of theft, Kim Chang-ja, 76, called it the last straw and decided to end her marriage of 52 years.

She soon left home and demanded a divorce. But her husband refused and Kim started to take legal steps to obtain one. "I have wished for a divorce for many years. I lived like a slave," she said appearing on a local television.

Kim said that her husband was so stingy with money that she had to support herself and four children by running both a lodging house and a small booth selling cigarettes. In recent years, she was often beaten by her husband who suspected her of infidelity. At her first trial in 1997, the judges granted her a divorce. But the appellate court Jan. 4 dismissed her case and ordered her to remain in the marriage. Undaunted by the ruling, Kim, who lives alone in a rented room near her eldest daughter's home in Seoul, made a final appeal to the Supreme Court Jan. 18. 

"Even though I might lose, I cannot live together with my husband again. I want to live as a human for the rest of my life," she said.

The appellate court ruling said that it fully acknowledged that Kim was mistreated by her husband, but the judge taking into account the couple's advanced age and social values when they got married concluded that it was more proper for Kim to stay with and take care of her husband who is suffering from senile dementia. "Fifty two years ago, patriarchal authority was stronger than now and their marital vows were made at that time," the ruling said.

Judges also defended her husband, identified only as Lee, saying that he lived a thrifty life himself, which led to amassing of a considerable fortune, and that his suspicions of infidelity was caused by his illness. Kim is not alone in being ordered to remain in a marriage against her will. Last September, a similar ruling was delivered in the case of Lee Shi-hyong, 71, who filed for divorce against her 91-year-old husband. The rulings touched off a strong protest from women activists. "It is a blatant infringement on human rights to order elderly persons to stay in a marriage against their wishes only because they do not have much time left," said Kwak Bae-hee, a counselor at the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations. She also found fault with the ruling concerning Kim which says that she is responsible for taking care of her ailing husband. "The judges are trying to put the entire burden of caring for her husband on the wife," she said. "The burden should be shared with the children and the state." Many in the judicial circle agree that the rulings are a result of the nation's conservative, male-dominated judiciary. "Taking into account the conservative nature of Korean judiciary, the rulings are hardly surprising," said Ha Seung-soo, Lee's lawyer. "If a younger woman sued for divorce, chances are stronger that she might have won the case." He argued, "Requiring women to continually endure hopeless situations, after having put up with it for a long time, reveals a male-centered desire to maintain social order at the cost of victimizing women." Lawyers for male spouses brushed aside the criticism. 

"It is absurd to call the trials as discrimination against women. There are untold stories between couples. The cases should be dealt with individually. It is wrong to link divorce cases of the elderly with women's rights," said Hwang San-song, a well-known woman lawyer.

The rulings also highlight a trend in which a rising number of elderly Korean women are taking legal actions for divorces, a phenomenon which is only beginning to be recognized. As Koreans are increasingly exposed to Western values, the rate of divorce has steadily risen among young couples. But for many older couples, getting divorced is still regarded as a taboo and Korea still has a relatively low divorce rate compared to other countries.

But in a clear departure from the past, an increasing number of couples in their 50s and 60s have been getting divorces over the past decade.

Government statistics show that the divorce rate among couples who lived together for more than 20 years, doubled in 1996 to 9.6 percent of the total number of divorces, from 4.6 percent a decade ago.

More than 80 percent of the divorces were initiated by wives, according to family counselors. "Many elderly women, who have long endured mistreatment from their spouses, are now taking legal steps to leave their husbands once the children are grown and married," said Kwak.

The rise in elderly divorces was primarily triggered by the 1991 landmark revision in family law which entitles women to a portion of the money accumulated by the couple during their marriage. 

The statute and the court's interpretation state that although a woman may not receive cash wages for household labors, she, nonetheless, has the right to a portion of the couple's wealth. Most women have asked for half of the assets, Kwak said. 

Not surprisingly, the issue of old women petitioning for divorces is raising concern among many aging men. 

"In the past, women were supposed to follow and serve their husbands. Now they are trying to surpass men," said a disgruntled grandfather in the television show. 

Despite the grumbling of discontented elderly men, it is certain that petitions for divorces by elderly women will rise in the future as the life span of Koreans increases.

"The rise in divorces among the elderly can be seen as a reflection of Koreans' positive attitude toward their old age. As the life span of Koreans increases, they are choosing to enjoy their lives, rather than sticking to unhappy marriages," said Pyon Hwa-soon, a chief researcher at the Korean Women's Development Institute who has recently published a report on "The Elderly and Korean Society." In the report, Pyon said that divorces among elderly couples are strongly related to the state of couple's relationship in the early period of marriage. "There is a strong possibility that women, who had to put up with a lot of mistreatment while young and failed to find methods to solve conflicts with spouses, would demand divorces in the twilight years of their lives," she said in the report. The rise in divorce among the elderly, therefore, is mainly a result of a male-dominated society. To maintain a happy marriage, male spouses should treat their wives as equal partners and try to positively adjust themselves to the growing changes in society, Pyon said. 

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998. 1999. United States Department of State. Washington, DC. United States Printing Office.

The Korea Herald. 28 January 1999. Byun Eun-mi. "More Elderly Women Demanding Divorces: Revised Family Law Helps Women Leave Their Husbands in Twilight Years." (NEXIS)

Additional Sources Consulted

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996. 30 January 1997.

Human Rights Watch World Report 1999: Women's Human Rights.

IRB Databases.

Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee. 7 July 1998. "Anti Discrimination Committee Told of Adverse Effects of Economic Crisis on Situation of Women in Republic of Korea."

Internet sources, including:

Derechos Human Rights

Korea Women's Association United

Korea Women's Hot Line

Search engines, including:

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