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Dating Agencies in South Korea Pair Men with North Korean Women

The WSJ reports, “North Korean women often risk their lives to defect to the South, crossing the heavily guarded Chinese border on foot before beginning a lengthy resettlement process. Then comes the loneliness.

When Na Soo-yeon arrived in Seoul in 2008 after fleeing North Korea, she found herself alone in an unfamiliar society where she knew no one. To ease her solitude, she sought a husband from South Korea who could provide companionship and help her adjust to life in the South.

“I just wanted a good guy who was financially stable and could guide me through life in South Korea. Everything is so different here,” Ms. Na, 48 years old, said.

Like many North Korean women who have defected to South Korea, she turned to a marriage agency.

(Hong Seung-woo met his wife, Ju Jeong-ok, through his own agency. Matt Douma for The Wall Street Journal)

The company that paired Ms. Na with her husband is run by Hong Seung-woo, who says one of his company’s goals is to help North Korean women settle happily in the South.

“For the North Koreans who come here, their main goal is to make South Korea their home. To do that, they need to build a network that can support them,” says Mr. Hong, who himself married a woman from North Korea. Mr. Hong has operated his company, Namnam Buknyeo, since 2006 and says the firm has orchestrated 450 marriages in that time.

Women can register for Namnam Buknyeo’s services free, while men have to pay a fee of 3 million won (about $2,800) for introductory meetings with a maximum of five women over the course of one year. The company screens all of its male clients, and men who are unemployed, already married or disabled aren’t eligible.

Some South Korean men seek North Korean wives instead of those from elsewhere in Asia because of shared language and customs. Korean conventional wisdom also has it that the most handsome Korean men hail from the South and the prettiest women from the North. The name “Namnam Buknyeo” is an abbreviation of the Korean expression for “Southern man, northern woman.”

Mr. Hong met his wife, Ju Jeong-ok, when she signed up for his company’s services shortly after settling in South Korea in 2012. He says that on their first date, he knew right away that he wanted to marry her. “I was considering several women at the time, but she was really pretty, and seemed so kind and genuine that I was sure I would ask her to marry me,” said Mr. Hong.

According to a recent poll by match-making firm Bien-Aller, 69% of South Korean men said they were “somewhat positive” about the prospect of marrying a North Korean woman, while 84% of South Korean women said they were “somewhat negative” on the question of marrying a North Korean man.

Lim Soon-hee, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, says that a lack of familiarity between South Korean men and North Korean women can lead to misunderstandings that cause problems during marriage.

“North Korean women see South Korean men on TV dramas and imagine that their husbands will be romantic and take care of them, while South Korean men think that North Korean women are obedient. Once these fantasies are broken, both parties can end up disappointed and hurt,” says Ms. Lim.

Na Hyang-sook, 36, who arrived in South Korea in 2008 and found her husband through an agency last March, said seeking a partner through a company was helpful as it clarified both parties’ intentions at the outset of the relationship. “I think going through the agency was better than just meeting someone randomly, because it meant we could begin with similar expectations,” said Na Hyang-sook.

“Our business is to match couples who will be happy,” said Mr. Hong. “We don’t misrepresent any of our clients’ situations just to make money in the short term. We’re dealing with people’s lives here, which are much more important than money.”

Ms. Na Soo-yeon says that she and her husband had problems with communication in the early stages of their marriage, as the versions of the Korean language spoken in North and South Korea have become different over the years, but are now living happily. She says marriage has been easy compared with some of the tribulations she dealt with earlier in life, growing up in and fleeing North Korea.

She said, “Coming from North Korea, I’ve been through plenty in my life. I can easily handle a South Korean man.””

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