Tuesday, August 13, 2019

South Korea's experiment

Mid-term exams at a South Korean middle school (Wikicommons - Samuel Orchard)

South Korea opened up to mail-order brides a quarter of a century ago. Most are from Southeast Asia (Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia), although some are ethnic Koreans from northeast China. Men outnumber women in South Korea, as they do elsewhere in East Asia, and the male surplus is even larger in rural areas because of the many women who move to cities for employment (Park 2011). 

As a result, 472,390 "multicultural marriages" were performed between 2000 and 2016 (Lim 2017). In 2005, the peak year, 13% of all marriages involved a foreign-born bride. This way of finding a bride has been especially popular in rural areas, where 40% of all couples are mixed (Park 2011). The offspring of these marriages "are expected to number over 1.6 million by 2020, with a third of all children born that year the offspring of international unions" (Lim 2011). In rural areas, this proportion is expected to be half of all children by 2020 (Park 2011).

Such children will increase both in absolute numbers and proportionately for three reasons. First, they are born mostly in rural areas, where incentives for childbearing are relatively high. Second, their mothers come from cultures where fertility is likewise relatively high. Third, Korean women have a very low fertility rate: only 0.98 children per woman in 2018.

South Korea is thus on track for rapid demographic replacement. This change is interesting not only because of its rapidity but also because it is happening in a country that differs considerably from Western Europe and North America in history and culture. Negative effects cannot be blamed on slavery, colonialism, or other chickens coming home to roost. Until the twentieth century the country kept to itself, to such a point that it was called "The Hermit Kingdom." There then followed Japanese rule, American occupation, and devastating war. Not until the 1980s did South Korea become truly advanced, and affluent.

So can South Korea change its population and remain advanced and affluent? This question is all the more relevant because the country has only one natural advantage in the global marketplace: its human capital.

Academic failure

In general, children of mixed parentage do badly at school: "The drop-out rate among mixed-blood youths is estimated at 9.4% in elementary schools and 17.5% at the secondary level, compared with less than 3% among ordinary Korean youths" (Kang 2010).

This poor performance is usually put down to the mother's poor language skills. "Because their mothers have difficulty in speaking and writing Korean, these children may be making slow progress in language development in comparison to the Korean children" (Kang 2010). If this explanation is correct, such children should do worse in subjects that demand much social interaction and language use. Conversely, they should do better in subjects that require abstract skills, like mathematics, or memorization of names and dates, like social studies. This is, in fact, the pattern we see in children of East Asian immigrants in North America.

But this is not the pattern we see in children born in South Korea to non-Korean mothers: "Their favourite subjects are music/painting/physical education (42.6%), while they dislike math (38.1%), social studies (19.2%) and Korean (12.7%)" (Kang 2010). The learning deficit seems to be strongest in those subjects that require the most abstraction and memorization.

Moreover, a study conducted over several months found that these children do not have language problems that can be traced to deficient learning at home from their mothers: "This study revealed that multicultural children did not exhibit any difficulty in communicating with others in everyday Korean but that they had varying degrees of academic vocabulary mastery" (Shin 2018). So the problem is not with learning of normal spoken language at home but with learning of specialized terminology at school. The study's author concluded: “This finding then raises the questions of why the simplified discourse about multicultural children's deficiency in Korean has been easily accepted as true in society and who benefits from the (re)production of the idea that they need special care, particularly regarding Korean language instruction” (Shin 2018).

Non-compliance with social rules

Koreans are expected to show a high level of compliance with social rules. These rules may apply to everyone (e.g., wearing seatbelts) or only to students (e.g., no smoking, mandatory hand washing). Compliance seems to be weaker in children of foreign-born mothers, as suggested by lower rates of hand washing and wearing of seatbelts and higher rates of smoking (Yi and Kim 2017).

Suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts

Children of mixed parentage are more likely to contemplate and attempt suicide, but this seems to be related more to decreased self-control than to increased depression or stress. Kim et al. (2015) concluded: "There was no significant difference in the levels of depression, self-reported happiness, and self-reported stress between adolescents from multicultural and monocultural families. However, suicidal ideation and suicidal attempt were significantly higher in adolescents from multicultural families."

Violence and hyperactivity

Children of mixed parentage also show higher levels of hostility, fear, anxiety, and anger (Moon and An 2011). Between the ages of 5 and 12 years they are more likely to engage in hyperactive behaviors, as rated by their teachers (Park and Nam 2010). Finally, between the ages of 11 and 13 years they are more prone to delinquency and aggression (Lee et al. 2018).

On the other hand, Yu and Kim (2015) found higher incidences of violence at school and non-compliance with rules (smoking, drug use, alcohol use, sexual activity) only in children of foreign-born fathers and native-born mothers. Children of foreign-born mothers and native-born fathers were behaviorally similar to children of native-born mothers and native-born fathers. It is true that the other studies lump all “multicultural” children together, making no distinction between those with foreign-born mothers and those with foreign-born fathers. However, the second group is much smaller than the first—too small to explain the differing results. This may be seen in the study by Yu and Kim (2015), which had 88 binational children of foreign-born fathers versus 622 of foreign-born mothers.

The findings of Yu and Kim (2015) also run counter to the standard acculturation model. A child normally has a stronger bond with its mother than with its father, so a child should better assimilate Korean behavioral norms if its mother is Korean than if its mother is non-Korean. But here we see the reverse.


The most robust finding is that children of mixed parentage do poorly at school. The reason is commonly said to be poor language skills, yet the pattern of academic failure is actually the opposite of what that explanation would predict. Moreover, these children seem to have no trouble with everyday spoken Korean. Their problem is with specialized vocabulary that is normally learned at school and not at home.

Children of mixed parentage also seem to be less compliant with rules and more prone to violence and hyperactivity. This was the finding of three out of four studies. The underlying cause may be weaker mechanisms for self-control, self-discipline, and internalization of social rules. This factor may also play a role in the higher incidences of suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts.

In the academic literature, these findings are explained in terms of normal versus abnormal development. Children of mixed parentage are said to develop abnormally because they are more interested in music and physical education than in math. Their higher levels of violence and hyperactivity are explained the same way.  But what if they had been assessed in their mothers' home countries? Would they still seem so abnormal? On a global level, few societies expect the degree of academic nerdiness that Koreans expect of themselves. 

Better research is needed. My first suggestion: provide data on ethnicity. It’s not enough to distinguish between "native-born" and "foreign-born." A foreign-born mother could be an ethnic Korean from China who has more in common with a native-born mother. There may also be significant behavioral differences among binational children depending on which Southeast Asian country the mother comes from. The relevant factor is really ethnicity and not place of birth.

This factor may explain why children are less violent when they have foreign mothers and Korean fathers than when they have Korean mothers and foreign fathers. The foreigners are ethnically different in the two cases. In the first case, they are Southeast Asians. In the second case, they are either U.S. servicemen or migrant laborers who come not only from Southeast Asia but also from South Asia, Southwest Asia, and Africa.

My second suggestion: do not frame the issue solely in terms of "acculturation." i.e., insufficient learning by children of Korean culture, particularly the Korean language. This is not to say that acculturation is never a causal factor, but rather that it is assumed to be the only one, even to the point of misrepresenting reality.

Yes, culture does matter, but it interacts with other factors, including genetic ones. Humans everywhere have had to adapt to their cultural environment—more so, in fact, than to their natural environment—and this has been no less true for the Korean people. To survive in a highly complex and demanding culture, they have had to acquire certain mental capabilities:

- high cognitive ability (mean IQ of 106)

- high self-control

- high degree of compliance with social rules

- low time preference and, correspondingly, strong future-oriented thinking

- strong inhibition of violence, which can be released only if permitted by social rules

All of these mental capabilities have moderate to high heritability and are no less real than the more visible aspects of the human body, like gender, skin color, and body height. They exist because they have enabled Koreans to survive and flourish in a specific cultural environment

The Korean people have achieved a high standard of living through their knowledge, foresight, and self-discipline—qualities that are the outcome of a long process of gene-culture coevolution. Generation after generation of their ancestors have had to adapt to the demands of a harsh cultural environment, this adaptation being bought at a high price: the success of some individuals and the failure of many more. This is why Koreans traditionally revere their ancestors.

All of this has been gained through much effort over many generations, but it can all be lost in one or two. To do or to undo—which do you think is easier?   


Kang, S.W. (2010). Multicultural education and the rights to education of migrant children in South Korea. Educational Review 62(3): 287-300.

Kim, J-M., B-G. Kong, J-W. Kang, J.-J. Moon, D.-W. Jeon, E.-C. Kang, H.-B. Ju, Y.-H. Lee, and D.-U. Jung. (2015). Comparative Study of Adolescents' Mental Health between Multicultural Family and Monocultural Family in Korea. Journal of the Korean Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 26(4): 279-287.

Lee, J.S., J.M. Kim, and A.R. Ju. (2018). A structural analysis on the effects of children's parentification in multicultural families on their psychological maladjustment - comparison with children in monocultural families. Journal of the Korea Institute of Youth Facility and Environment 16:117-130.

Lim, T. (2011). Korea's multicultural future? The Diplomat, July 20

Lim, T. (2017). The road to multiculturalism in South Korea. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, October 10

Moon SH, and H.J. An (2011). Anger, anger expression, mental health and psychosomatic symptoms of children in multi-cultural families. Journal of Korean Academy of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 20(4): 325-333.

Park, S. (2011). Korean Multiculturalism and the Marriage Squeeze. Contexts 10: 64-65.

Park, J.H., and J.S. Nam (2010). The language development and psychosocial adjustment of multicultural children. Studies on Korean Youth. 21:129-152.

Yi, Y., and J-S. Kim. (2017). Korean Adolescents' Health Behavior and Psychological Status according to Their Mother's Nationality. Osong Public Health and Research Perspectives 8(6): 377-383.

Shin, J. (2018). Minority youth's mastery of academic vocabulary and its implications for their educational achievements: the case of 'multicultural adolescents' in South Korea. Multicultural Education Review 10(1): 35-51,

Yu, J-O, and M. Sung Kim. (2015). A Study on the Health Risk Behaviors of Adolescents from Multicultural Families according to the Parents' Migration Background. Journal of Korean Academy of Community Health Nursing 26(3):190-198


OntheSly said...

If the TFR for all South Korean women is .98, one would expect the tfr for ethnically Korean women to be even lower, presuming that non-Korean women in rural areas have more children, which seems likely. Any figures or guesses on what the TFR for ethnically Korean women might be?

Sad to see the Koreans doing this to themselves.

Santo said...

An irreflexive obedience-prone is not a quality, it's extreme domestication.

''Sad to see the Koreans doing this to themselves.''

It's globalist capitalism.

Anonymous said...

You fail to consider selection effect from parent, father who need to import women from overseas, and woman who need to become mail-order bride to get better life, is not best genetic parent. racial/ethnic consideration is irrelevant in front of such extreme selection.

Anonymous said...

According to wikipedia there's only 160.000 foreigners married to South Koreans in 2018: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_to_South_Korea#Binational_marriage

70.000 of those are Chinese and Japanese(not sure if that's nationality or ethnicity).

I can't read Korean so can't confirm the source though.

OntheSly said...

Wait, there's a serious discrepancy between two of your sources.

"in 2015, there were 19,729 “multicultural children” born (out of 438,420 total live births)." That's less than five percent in 2015. (Lim 2017)

"In June, the government announced that the number of children with at least one parent of non-Korean heritage reached 150,000 this year, a number that has increased fourfold over the last four years." (Lim 2011)

Either the number of children born to mixed unions drop precipitously from 2011 to 2015, or one of these figures is plain wrong.

Anonymous said...

It is worth keeping in mind the most of these brides will probably be coming in from China and Vietnam. Even factoring in Negative selection for intelligence this will probably result in kids with a mean iq of 92-95. When you factor in these kids will probably be more likely to marry another Korean the net impact will probably be minimal in a generation of two. Honestly this is probably better for S. Korea than having a bunch of suicidal single men living on their own.

Truth Seeker said...

Is it generally true that multiracial children do worse than monoracial ones, including here in the West? Have there been studies on that? If so, wouldn't we expect evolution to limit the percentage of interracial mating in society at a certain rate?

Anonymous said...

@OntheSly I think one of those numbers is yearly and one is cumulative. 150.000 from 37.500 in four years would mean an increase of 28.000 yearly from 2007-2011. So 19.700 in 2015 is a decrease in pace. And 5% in 2015 contradicts the earlier claim of one third expected in 2020.

Michel Rouzic said...

I agree with one of the comments, while ethnicity must be a major factor there also obviously must be a selection bias. The foreign woman who becomes a mail order bride for a Korean peasant is probably not the daughter of an engineer and a doctor. I'd expect those women not to be high achievers even compared to their national peers. Perhaps the same goes for Korean men who marry such women, their performance would have to be compared to that of their peers who married Korean women.

OntheSly said...


You're right. Can't believe I misinterpreted that. And you're right that five percent of kids being born to foreign moms in 2015 is not going to turn into 1/3 by 2020.

Peter Frost said...

On the Sly,

The TFR for northeastern China is now down to 0.75. I suspect ethnic Koreans are close to that level.


I've seen anecdotal evidence to that effect, i.e., the men who seek mail-order brides tend to be "losers." On the other hand, there is a real shortage of Korean women in rural South Korea.


Initially, a large proportion of the mail-order brides were ethnic Koreans from northeast China. Today, the two leading source countries are Vietnam and the Philippines. More critically, the fertility rate is higher among women from Southeast Asia. So the ethnic origins of the children do not match the ethnic origins of the immigrant brides.

On the sly,
"five percent of kids being born to foreign moms in 2015 is not going to turn into 1/3 by 2020."

That projection seems believable. Keep in mind the very low fertility of ethnic Korean women (less than 0.98) and the higher fertility of Southeast women (Philippines: 3 children per woman, Vietnam: 2 children per women, Indonesia: 2.1 children per woman, 2.5 children per woman.

"In 2005, 13% of all marriages in South Korea were interracial or interethnic marriages and the rate of international marriages was even higher in rural areas where about one-third of all marriages were interracial or interethnic."


OntheSly said...

"That projection seems believable. Keep in mind the very low fertility of ethnic Korean women (less than 0.98) and the higher fertility of Southeast women (Philippines: 3 children per woman, Vietnam: 2 children per women, Indonesia: 2.1 children per woman, 2.5 children per woman. "

I still think the jump seems way too high for such a short time frame. And there's no reason to think native Korean fertility is going to stay at such a low level indefinitely. Birth rates go up and down and yearly tfr's are just a snapshot. A number of European countries had fertility drop to very low levels and have seen their tfrs increase significantly, though usually not to replacement. Czech Republic, Romania, Russia and Georgia all come to mind. (Georgia's fertility is now at replacement actually, thanks to their church.) I could see South Korean fertility following that pattern.

Anonymous said...

"I've seen anecdotal evidence to that effect, i.e., the men who seek mail-order brides tend to be "losers."
Interesting, I can see a kind of similar thing in my coworkers. Marriage rate to a foreigner is like 25%. Way above national average (less than 5% for men, if I recall correctly). Although, it is in Europe and I work around engineers and scientists. Quite bright ones and finantially well off (working in private sector).
Different regions seem to have different kinds of culture and selection in consequence.

"Czech Republic, Romania ..."
Do you know gypsies? I do.

PS: Every few years there is a lamentation [in media] for ever falling PISA scores and related metrics.

Anonymous said...

Overwhelming majority of these "mixed parentage" are between Korean men and foreign Asian women.

Anonymous said...

For the autists here: the majority of Koreans marry each other. The rest are Korean men getting with women from surrounding Asian countries as well as western white women and a sprinkling of African women.

The bad performance of biracial Asian children usually was a result of sexpats / war brides and racist white men coming to Korea. There is little to no performance difference between Asians with intra-ethnic Asian parents.