Sunday, April 13, 2014

expat spouses: you may be required by law to learn Korean

From over at the ROK Drop blog, I saw the following blog post: "Korea Implements New Marriage Laws Requiring Foreign Spouses to Learn Korean." The post quotes part of an AFP article. The most important paragraph of that article:

The latest regulations, effective as of April 1, require those applying for a resident-through-marriage visa to pass a language proficiency test, and for Korean partners to show an annual income in excess of 14.8 million won ($14,000).

So if you're an expat married to a Korean, and if you're looking to gain residential rights via a spouse visa, you'd better bone up on your Korean. Pronto.

I should note, though, that the article also says this:

Officials say this tackles the two main causes of marital strife among mixed-marriage couples — inability to communicate and low income.

It's cute that the government is saying that this new law is for your own good, but it seems to me, then, that if the Korean spouse speaks English well and the couple is drawing a more-than-decent income, then there's no need for the expat spouse to take a Korean-proficiency test. Not according to this logic, anyway.*

I'm still formulating my attitude toward this new law. On the one hand, such a law is consistent with my belief that expats who are in Korea for the long haul have a moral obligation to get curious about the culture that's feeding, clothing, and sheltering them. The least show of gratitude to the country that gives one life would be to learn something about that country's language. Learning a language means learning a culture—habits of mind, worldviews, and so on. What better way to reach out than to try to build bridges of understanding? The new law operates in a manner consistent with that spirit.

On the other hand, my inner libertarian balks at the notion of forcing any sort of morally worthy action, because the simple fact of requirement sucks the moral value out of the act. Immanuel Kant wrote eloquently of duty in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, but even Kant assumed that duty's moral value stemmed from free will. Duty is how I bind myself to something or to someone, not how the state binds me to it. So a gesture meant to be moral, meant to be a way of building bridges of understanding, becomes a mere obligation that one must fulfill in order to avoid punishment.

Externally speaking, law or no law, the results are the same: the person aiming to learn Korean will learn Korean. Internally, though, the moral content of those gestures is different: in the case of a free choice to learn Korean, the act of learning the language has moral worth; in the case of a legal obligation to learn Korean, altruistic morality is replaced by selfish pain-avoidance.

You could try to counterargue that, in the latter case, it's still possible to want to learn Korean even while being required to do so. I don't deny it: there's no necessary contradiction. But the legal obligation still trumps the heart's desire, as is readily apparent when you expand the scope of legal requirements to include more and more human actions. Do a reductio ad absurdum: what happens when all actions deemed "good" become required by law, so that the failure to perform them entails punishment? Would you like to live in such a society?

*The article also says that the law is designed to stem the tide of illegally(?) purchased foreign brides (with the implication that the brides are purchased by Korean men):

“Strong state intervention is inevitable to stop ineligible people from buying foreign brides,” a Justice Ministry official said. “This is a diplomatic issue related to our national image.”

I think, however, that once the law is on the books, it's going to have to be more widely applicable than to the deplorable situation it purports to address.



ZenKimchi said...

One thing that hasn't been stated much on expat blogs is that they only require that the couple be able to communicate in any language.

Kevin Kim said...

Yeah, I started wondering about that myself: what about international couples in which neither spouse is Korean?