PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: The brides-to-be are brought down from poor Cambodian villages and herded into city hotels, where they are lined up and put on display for prospective grooms flown in from South Korea.
Over the past four years, some 2,500 women have wedded South Korean men, passing through an underground matchmaking business that few in Cambodia knew existed until recently.
A report to be released next month by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration sheds light on the growing phenomenon. A crackdown on marriage brokers in neighboring Vietnam is pushing the activity into Cambodia, according to the report, an advance copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
"It's become a big business," said John McGeoghan, an IOM project coordinator in Cambodia. "We now see that these marriage brokers are popping up in Cambodia. This is a new market for them, and there's a lot of money to be made."
Potential grooms reportedly pay brokers up to US$20,000 (euro13,000), the IOM report says. The bride's family receives at most US$1,000 (euro650), with the rest pocketed by brokers. It is unclear how many are now operating in Cambodia.
The grooms, mostly factory workers and farmers, have trouble finding wives in South Korea because they are low-income earners, IOM says. Although some of the marriages prove successful, others herald loneliness, broken promises, divorce and sometimes violence, the report says.
Kim In-Kook, a South Korean embassy official, confirmed that the number of marriage visas issued to Cambodian brides soared from 72 in 2004 to 1,759 last year. He declined further comment.
Growing South Korean investment and tourism in Cambodia is also playing "a significant role in the expansion of transnational marriages" between the two countries, the IOM report says.
Cambodia's government publicly acknowledged the issue for the first time this month, apparently alarmed that it could slide into human trafficking, in which women are tricked or forced into marriage.
Earlier this month, the Interior Ministry announced it was canceling licenses of two South Korean companies for engaging in the matchmaking business. The firms had registered as export-import firms to secure legal entry into the country, a ministry official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release information.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng denounced the firms' activities as "human trafficking."
Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke out on the problem shortly after, telling law enforcement agencies to be stricter in issuing marriage certificates "to prevent deceptive activities." He also urged parents "not to be so easygoing" about sending their daughters into brokered marriages with foreigners.
Traditionally, marriages in Cambodia are arranged by parents. Now, brokers are approaching Cambodian families. If interested, the families provide photos of their daughters, which are sent to South Korea or posted on Web sites, the IOM report says.
Brokers arrange 4-to-6 day marriage tours to Cambodia for prospective grooms, most of whom have expressed interest in more than one woman, the report says. The men are ushered through something akin to underground speed-dating, followed by a marriage ceremony.
"Most of the matchmaking occurs in restaurants or small hotels located in or near Phnom Penh," the report says, referring to Cambodia's capital city. "There the men typically select a bride from as many as 100 who are made available."
The women are mostly in their late teens and early 20s, attracted by promises of high living standards and money, the report says.
It cites one marriage in which a South Korean man promised to make monthly remittances to his bride's family, but was too poor to keep the promise. "This caused tension and arguments that resulted in domestic violence," the report says.
The woman is seeking divorce, but has received threats from the Cambodian marriage brokers, who have told her she would be charged US$1,000 if she returns and her parents would be harmed, the report says.
"It's not as romantic and wonderful as (the women) thought it would be," McGeoghan said.