Unification, in marriage: An interview with ‘Heeyon’
“Because North Korea is a very patriarchal society, I heard that the wives are very devoted to their husbands. Is that true?” South Korean men are taking an interest in North Korean women as potential marriage partners; marriage consulting company Heeyon shares their experiences in creating ‘unification marriages’
North Korean refugees, especially women, have become increasingly active on the small screen in South Korea. Part of their appeal includes not only their good looks, their distinctive North Korean accents and the North Korean tendency to be unabashedly frank, South Koreans love female North Korean TV personalities because of their pure-heartedness. South Korean men have also taken a liking to North Korean women, many hoping to make them their brides. Many marriage consulting companies, as a result, have been using “namnam buknyeo” (an old Korean saying that translates to “men from the South, women from the North” meaning that the two are the most attractive and compatible couple) as a marketing slogan. In fact, there are now over thirty marriage consulting companies that use such slogans to attract subscribers.
The ‘unification’ marriage market may be more diverse now, but it’s not all sunshine. South Korean channels MBC and KBS have reported that some marriage consulting companies fabricate the personal details of their female customers to make them appear North Korean and attract more male subscribers.
New Focus interviewed Park Shi-Eon and Kim Young-Soon, co-directors of “Heeyon”, a marriage consulting company with a special interest in North Korean refugees. Both Park and Kim are escapees from North Korea. Their hope is to offer services connecting North and South Koreans by introducing them as they are – without the need to lie or exaggerate.
Park and Kim, how would you describe your relationship with one another?
We are very close – even closer than sisters. The ups and downs of our escape stories are very similar, and that we are two female North Korean escapees living in South Korea also enables us to connect with other another better. And so, we pooled up our personal savings and started this partnership.
Specifically, what parts of your relationship make you feel close?
Park: Actually, I’ve never really thought about that. I just knew that I could trust Kim. She’s never acted in a way that made me stop and re-think our relationship. If I must, Kim is very feminine, and kind as well. You would think that sometimes a person would try and hide their inner feelings, but Kim is too genuine for her own good – her emotions make themselves apparent in her expressions. Sometimes, I can see her struggling emotionally, but she will never admit it, which makes me feel sad for her.
Kim: Park is diligent, and meticulous. Once she’s got her mind to something, she will finish it to the end. She often stays back late at night to work, which encourages me to work even harder.
Many North Korea-related marriage consulting companies use “Namnam Buknyeo” as their marketing slogan or company name. Why have you decided on the name “Heeyon”?
Park: The two syllables mean Happiness (Hee) and Connection (Yon) in Chinese characters. “Heeyon” means forming happy relationships. It is also a promise on our part to help people find love. Kim and I are closer than sisters, and we wanted our relationship’s happiness to extend to the relationships around us.
Why a marriage consulting company?
Kim: To be certain, it was not because we were part of that class known as North Korean women. We also weren’t following a market trend. Park and I used to work in a marriage consulting company
owned by South Koreans. We were managers there, employees that were supposed to introduce people to each other, but many South Korean men asked to be introduced to us, which was surprising. We sought to speak with them, and found out that South Korean men thought of North Korean women quite positively. They believed North Korean women to be honest and devoted to family, especially their in-laws. We wanted to create more opportunities for South Koreans to meet with North Koreans. Also, we were talented at our jobs – at our previous company we made the most matches. Even if this was based on pure luck, with Park and my good fortune combined we thought that we had a good shot.
What are some of the things that South Korean men typically ask when specifically asking about North Korean marriage partners?
Park: Of course it differs from person to person depending on their tastes and preferences, but a lot of them ask the following questions: “They didn’t get any plastic surgery done, right?” “Would they be willing to move in with my parents?” “Do they drink, or smoke?” “Because North Korea is a very patriarchal society, I heard that the wives are very devoted to their husbands. Is that true?” “North Koreans don’t spend a lot of money on luxury goods. Is that true?”
Kim: To look at that in a more positive light, South Korean men don’t ask about how much money the women might have or be able to bring into the family. They look for specific character traits instead. They don’t care about calculating dowries, which makes our job of making meaningful relationships a lot easier.
What do North Korean women look for in South Korean men?
Kim: There are a lot of North Korean women who seek to marry into South Korean families to help them settle faster into South Korean society. Many North Korean women have the perception that the bigger the family, the better, which contrasts with recent South Korean attitudes towards marriage. I think it’s because many of them escape their homes in North Korea and arrive in a place where they have no family and know nobody. Marrying a South Korean man would enable them to settle faster, and feel more emotionally stable. Many North Korean women have given positive feedback, saying that the South Korean men they’ve been introduced to were kind and gentle.
From Heeyon’s point of view, what is the true appeal of a North Korean wife?
Kim: Without a doubt, North Korean women are hard workers. If people don’t work that hard in North Korea, they’d end up starving to death. North Korean wives and mothers strive to feed their families, and are very independent.
Park: And they are pure-hearted. Of course this would be different depending on the person but most North Korean women are grateful for the smallest things and try their best not to be wasteful, over-indulgent or greedy. It’s a habit developed from their previous everday life in North Korea.
Although there are around 30,000 North Korean escapees, mostly women, living in South Korea currently, making matches between South Korean men and North Korean women can’t be easy. Also, it is important to have a steady number of female subscribers, which is true for all other marriage consulting companies as well. What is a defining aspect that makes Heeyon distinctive from other marriage consulting companies?
Park: Actually, when we were starting up our company, we found that to be a problem. But the answer actually lay in the question. As you said, the number of North Korean women who subscribe to services is extremely limited, and to further secure their subscriptions is not an easy task. We decided to specialise in making connections between North Korean women and South Korean men, so that narrowed down our market and gave consumers what they really wanted. Women who have been on multiple dates also become afraid of getting talked about amongst the other subscribers of some marriage consulting companies, considering the refugee community is relatively close-knit. To minimize this risk, we tailor matches painstakingly by identifying exactly what South Korean men are looking for in a wife. That way, we can avoid setting up and repeating dates where the two were not compatible in the first place. There are other strategies we use, but this is one of our most important ones.
Kim: Honesty is our greatest policy. We saved up little by little to construct this company. Even the interior design was by us. We have dedicated our lives to Heeyon. Because we are so personally invested in Heeyon, we know that we have to be honest. We fully believe that once we lose our integrity, we lose the entire company.
Let’s be honest. South Korean men pay a lot of money to meet North Korean women through marriage consulting firms like Heeyon. Of course there are firms that hire people to pose as North Koreans, but there is also a problem with insufficient background checks on the part of the company. What do you have to say about that?
Kim: In our interviews, there are a few women who were forced into marriage in China, who had children there but ended up escaping to South Korea by themselves. I want to set an example about honestly by being honest about my past as well. I am one of those women. I have a ten year old son. I am unashamed about it now, because I feel what could only be described as a mother’s love. That mother’s love was the thing that motivated me to stay alive and to keep working. A lot of men see this quality and ask if I would consider remarriage.
Any concluding remarks?
Kim: We are Heeyon, a company that seeks to connect South Korean men with North Korean women – but in future, we hope to be at the forefront of South and North Korean unification.
Learn more about Heeyon at their official website: http://www.heeyon.co.kr/
By Jang, Jin Sung.
Read in Korean.