By Dina Tokbaeva
Ask Aikyz Kojogeldieva why she married Jin Sang-Yoon and the word “love” is not part of her answer.
“I’m an orphan. I had no place to live so I lived with relatives. I could not find a husband and I had to struggle for money every day,” said Kojogeldieva, a journalist who, at 32, feared she was running out of time to find a partner. “I felt hopeless.” She and Jin, who traveled to Kyrgyzstan from South Korea expressly to find a bride, married on February 26 in a small ceremony in Bishkek with her friends.
Kojogeldieva is one of an increasing number of Kyrgyz women registering with private marriage agencies to find a foreign husband. The women are looking for stability and a way out of poverty; the men tend to be seeking a devoted spouse. Since the agencies started appearing in Bishkek about five years ago, South Korea, of countries outside the former Soviet Union, has become the most common source of grooms. Bilateral political and cultural ties between the two countries have strengthened over the past two decades.
“In November 2011, I registered as a ‘bride’ at one of the marriage agencies. In a month I was told a groom was coming to Kyrgyzstan. When we met in Bishkek, he made a very good impression on me. He looked dignified. We seemed to get along well,” said Kojogeldieva. “Now I am preparing to move [to South Korea]. I am also learning Korean.”
Staffers at several agencies in Bishkek estimate that thousands of “mail-order brides” have left Kyrgyzstan since the country gained independence in 1991.
Thirty-year-old university lecturer Munara Kerimkulova and 49-year-old primary school director Park Chang-Soo, who is from a small town in South Korea, were married in Bishkek’s municipal wedding hall (ZAGS) in January. Despite her advanced degree in psychology and fluency in English, Kerimkulova could not find a job that paid her more than $130 per month. Moreover, if she followed tradition and married the Kyrgyz man her family had found for her, she feared, she would have to give up her career.
“According to our customs, I would barely know this person. I know I would have to live with his family and forget about work. … I found a way to escape this type of marriage by finding him [Park]. Many people think it’s impossible to fall in love so quickly. But I was waiting for this kind of man all my life,” Kerimkulova told EurasiaNet.org. It took her seven months to find a match through an agency. Now she expects the visa to take five months, and then she will move to Korea.
Park says that back home he was unlucky in love. A Korean marriage agency pointed him toward Kyrgyzstan, telling him that a lot of Korean men these days find successful marriages in former-Soviet countries. “Munara is different. She respects me like no one else. And she is very fond of Korea,” he said.
So far Park has spent almost $15,000 arranging the marriage. The groom is responsible for all costs: agency fees (which agencies would not disclose), travel expenses, translation and legal fees, and sometimes even a $1,000 “kalym” (“bride price”)—a Kyrgyz custom that a groom pays his bride’s parents. It costs nothing for a Kyrgyz woman to register – only, in accordance with local tradition, that she supplies her own wedding shoes. In addition, she must be 16 or older and pass an HIV/AIDS test.
Local television, newspapers, and online media run advertisements for a handful of agencies in Bishkek offering to connect girls to foreign — often specifically South Korean — grooms.
“South Koreans and Turks are now the most popular foreign grooms for Kyrgyzstani women,” said Lubov Savchenko, head of the Cupid Family Creation Club, a marriage agency in Bishkek. “Local women tend to consider Eastern countries, such as Korea and Japan, more stable than Western ones. Eastern men, in the eyes of local women, are more progressive and enterprising.
Many local women tell us they would like to meet a companion and go abroad with him, as they complain that local men have forgotten how to court women. They are also doing it for practical reasons, searching for a wealthier husband.”
Some women may have no idea what they are getting into.
“Many women who approach us have little idea about South Korea, and we recommend they at least go online and Google South Korea. Many want to register right away and consider it [getting information] unnecessary,” said the director of another agency specializing in South Korean grooms.
“Unfortunately, some girls cheat,” the director said on condition of anonymity. “They use us to find a groom just to receive a Korean visa. We’ve had cases where wives left their spouses in Korea after two days of living together.”
Kyrgyz legislators have tried to stanch the trend, with little success. In November, two parliamentary deputies drafted a bill that would ban marriage agencies from advertising on television and in newspapers. One MP claimed, according to local press accounts, that “our women are taken as sexual prisoners abroad, they are victims of religious and psychological manipulations.”
The bill failed. It seems many Kyrgyzstanis feel their country has more pressing problems.
“Deputies should improve living conditions inside the country so that Kyrgyz men can provide their wives with a dignified life,” said Sanjarbek Ermatov, who runs a small grocery store in Bishkek.
Dina Tokbaeva is a freelance journalist based in Bishkek.