Determinants of Consensual Divorce in Korea: Gender, Socio-Economic Status, and Life Course

Article excerpt


In many industrialized countries, the pressure to stay married has dissipated and marriages are more freely terminated than at any other time in history (Hughes, 2005; Wallerstein, Lewis and Blakeslee, 2000). In Korea, divorce has traditionally been regarded as a "family dishonor," which had repressed divorce for at least six hundred years (1) (Choi, Kim, and Cha, 2006). During the last few decades, however, the social taboo against divorce has rapidly decreased in Korean society. Census statistics indicate that the crude divorce rate (2) in 1971 was 0.3, and it has gradually increased to 3.5 in 2003 (Korea National Statistical Office, 2008).

With the prevalence of divorce, studies on divorce determinants have primarily been conducted from both the macro and the micro perspectives (White, 1991). At the macro level, structural and demographic variables which influence the occurrence of divorce have been examined. Sociological research, for example, has focused on life course and structural factors related to divorce (Amato and Previti, 2003; South and Spitze, 1986; Trent and South, 1989; White, 1991). Meanwhile at the micro level, interpersonal and psychological variables related to marital disruption were explored (Gottman, 1993). While a considerable number of studies on divorce determinants have been done in North America, what causes marital relationship breakdown has rarely been analyzed in other cultures such as Korea.

The purpose of this study is to examine the status of divorce determinants perceived by divorcing people in Korea, and to explore the variance of the divorce determinants by social demographic factors such as gender, socioeconomic status and life course. These three factors can offer a core analytical prism in viewing divorce decisions. They reflect significant variations in people's accounts of divorce based on structural factors and life cycle (Amato and Previti, 2003). For this study, 2,231 Koreans who visited family court to file consensual divorce filled out a questionnaire regarding their perceived cause of marital disruption. Among social demographic factors, socioeconomic status was indexed by income and education, while life course was categorized by the duration of marriage and the number of children.


Divorce in Korea

The crude divorce rate in Korea from 1970 to 2007 has fluctuated between 0.3 and 3.5 (refer to Table 5) reaching the peak in 2003 and decreasing thereafter. According to the 2008 Korea Census, the crude divorce rate in 2007 was 2.5 (Korea National Statistical Office, 2008). Among OECD (3) nations, Korea ranked second in divorce rate, only following the USA (UN, 2002). Several survey studies conducted in Korea reported that a range between 30% and 60% of married respondents have considered divorce at least once during the duration of their married life (Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, 2005; Han, Kang and Han, 2003; Lee, Kim, Choi, Han and Kim, 2002).

Since the 1970s, societal attitude toward accepting divorce has changed partly due to the feminist movement in Korea (Lee, 2003). In addition to the increase in gender equity in Korean society, there has been a drastic increase in the divorce rate since 1997 when the Korean economic disaster occurred. (4) Presumably, stress generated by financial hardship seemed to worsen marital relationships, resulting in the highest divorce rate in history. The increase in the divorce rate stabilized since 2004 when the Korean government actively intervened to improve family life by amendments in family law, and the establishment of new family policy.

Current divorce statistics in Korea showed that the average age of divorce has been increasing gradually. The average age of divorce for men is 43.2, while that for divorced women is 39.5. Compared to the average age of divorce in 1997, the results in 2007 were 4.1 years higher for men and 4. …