Early Adolescents and Divorce in South Korea: Risk, Resilience and Pain

By Chung, Yeonok; Emery, Robert | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

Early Adolescents and Divorce in South Korea: Risk, Resilience and Pain


Chung, Yeonok, Emery, Robert, Journal of Comparative Family Studies


INTRODUCTION

South Korea has witnessed a dramatic increase in divorce in recent years. In 2003, the crude divorce rate in South Korea peaked at 3.5 per 1,000 population, which ranked 3rd among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations. Since then, the rate has declined somewhat to 2.6 in 2006 (Korea National Statistical Office, 2007). By comparison, the U.S. divorce rate topped out at 5.3 per 1,000 population in 1979 and 1981 (Emery, 1999), but declined to 3.6 in 2006 (Eldridge & Sutton, 2007). The 2003 South Korean divorce rate was 9 times higher than it was in 1970. Of married women over 20 years old in South Korea today, 22% are expected to divorce before they are 59 years old (Han, Choi, & Lee, 2000).

Korea is a collectivistic culture that values family relationships much more strongly than in individualistic cultures like the U.S. (Gohm, Oishi, Darlington, & Diener, 1998). In collectivistic cultures, divorce has not been socially acceptable because it breaks the foundation of parent-child relationships. As a result, divorce rates historically have been low in Korea and East Asia generally. As in South Korea, however, divorce rates also increased in China and Japan in recent years (see Dong, Wang, & Ollendick, 2002; Ogawa & Ermisch, 1994). The rise in divorce makes it important to study its effects on East Asian children. In South Korea, over 70 percent of divorces involve children. Aspects of Korean culture, including a family tradition of father custody, the tertiary role of the nonresidential parent, the view of remarriage as a return to normal family life, and the public shame associated with divorce, offer unique tests and perspectives on the consequences of divorce for children.

The rise in divorce in East Asia is generally attributed to recent societal changes including rapid economic development, the elevation of women's rights, and a more complicated and diversified social system. "Family values" also are evolving in Korea, but the value placed on family remains very strong. Unlike what some claim about the U.S., the rise in divorce in Korea does not seem to be attributable to a decline in the value placed on family, or indeed, the stigma attached to divorce. The Korea National Statistical Office (2007) reported that, in 2006,59.9% of a random sample of South Koreans over 15 years old held a negative perception of divorce.

Studies in the U.S. show that parental divorce has generally negative effects on children's psychological adjustment (e.g., Amato & Keith, 1991; Emery, 1999). Approximately 20-25% of children from divorced families suffer from clinically significant behavioral or emotional problems (Hetherington, 1989; Zill, Morrison, & Coiro, 1993). Importantly, however, most U.S. children are resilient in the face of divorce (Emery & Forehand, 1994). Still, even resilient children often experience what we term psychological distress or emotional pain related to a parental divorce and the events leading up to and following a marital separation (Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000). That is, many resilient children, who are well-adjusted according to objective psychological measures, still report unhappy memories, emotions, and/or relationships owing to their parents' divorce (Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000).

While children's adjustment to divorce has become a concern in South Korea, research is in the beginning stage. We performed an extensive search of the KISS (Korean studies Information Service System) database, using the keywords "divorce and children" and "divorce and offspring." We found 51 articles written in Korean, which could be classified into four categories: 23 empirical studies, 13 review articles, 4 conference proceedings, and 11 case studies/treatment illustrations. Of the empirical papers, only seven studies included a non-divorced comparison group and at least one-objective psychological measurement of children. …

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