MARRIAGE IN SOUTH KOREA
Marriage has traditionally been regarded as a rite of passage that confers a social status of adulthood on an individual. Marriage also is thought of as a union of not just a man and a woman but of their families and a means to ensure the continuity of the husband's family line. Traditionally, divorce was rare, but it tripled from 1980 to 1994. Monogamy is encouraged. Premarital sex is strongly frowned upon although many young country secretly do it. It is also becoming common for couples to break the old taboo and live together before they get married. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Marriages per 1000 people: 5.8 (compared to 9.5 in China and 2.5 in Argentina) [Source: OECD oecd.org]
Minimum Legal Age for marriage: 20 without parental consent; 18 with parental consent; same for men and women. [Source: United Nations Data data.un.org]
Age at first marriage: 33.2 for men and 30.4 for women (compared to 33.4 for men and 31.2 for women in Finland and 22.1 for men and 17.9 for women on Nepal) [Source: Wikipedia and Wikipedia ]
In 2015, 90 per cent of men and 77 per cent of women aged 25 to 29 were unmarried, according to a report in The Korea Herald . Among those aged 30 to 34, the figure was 56 per cent, shrinking to 33 per cent for 40- to 45-year-olds, the report said. One consequence of this is that South Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world, dropping to 0.95 at the end of last year – meaning that for every 100 women, just 95 children were born. [Source: Crystal Tai, South China Morning Post, January 20, 2019]
Over time South Korean couples have steadily been getting married later. The average marriage age has risen from 25.4 for men and 21.6 for women in 1970; to 27.3 for men and 24.1 for women in 1980; to 28.6 for men and 25.5 for women in 1990. In the 1990s, about 90 percent of women married in their twenties, although the average age of first-time brides increased from 20.4 years in 1950 to 25.9 years in 1997. The age at which Korean women got married rose from 24.8 in 1991 to 28.9 years in 2011 according to Statistics Korea.
Marriage Traditions in Korea
Women keep their maiden name after the get married. Marriages between couples with the same family, clan name and and origin place (tongsong tongbon ) were prohibited by law until 1997 when the Constitutional Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional. Confucians objected to the ruling saying it would "damage the nation's public morality.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The ideal form of marriage was and is monogamy... The rule of residence used to be patrilocal, but a growing number of young couples practice neolocal residence. Marital bonds have been so strong in the past that divorce was infrequent, even unthinkable. Now the number of divorces among educated, young, urban Koreans is increasing yearly. Divorce no longer carries a stigma, and remarriage does not have many guidelines. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]
In the old days, child marriages were common among aristocratats as a way strengthening bonds between families. National Geographic features of a photograph taken of a 10-year-old bride and 12-year-old groom in 1916. The couple was dressed in traditionally clothes, Most likely they married only ceremoniously and lived in separate quarters in the boy’s family house until they reached an age decided by their elders in which they could live together.
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Korean young people traditionally have relied on their families to arrange their marriages. Until the late twentieth century there were reasons for this pattern. With life expectancy in the range of forty years, people married and started families much younger, usually in their teens, and sometimes were betrothed, or "spoken for," before puberty. But more important, marriages were alliances between families, the joining of two ancestral lineages. Young people were in no position to make the calculations and decisions that went into a marriage. Adults needed to consider the astrological signs of the two young people, the histories of their clans, and the finances of the marriage. Only after these matters had been considered were the young couple given permission to get married. Even then, it was the custom for the bride and groom never to meet but to remain strangers until the wedding ceremony itself. Many older women in Korea today can remember peeking through their wedding veils to get their first glimpse of their husband-to-be.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
Married Life Traditions in Korea
In the old days single men wore a long braided pony-tail. After marriage the braid was cut into a topknot which was hidden under a traditional horsehair hat that symbolized married life. When a baby was born, straw was festooned across the door of a house. Red peppers in the straw signified a boy and charcoal represented a girl. The practice was used to scare away evil spirits.
In the old days, newly married couples moved in with the parents of the groom and the mother-in-law had the right to treat the bride like a slave. Husbands often called their wife Yobo, which translated to "Hey You," and no matter how badly a wife was treated by her husband or his family it was shameful for her to leave, and besides she had nowhere to go because her own family was not supposed to take her back. There is a saying in Korea that mothers-in-law are like toilets — the farther away they are the better. Even today, some couples live with the husbands parents and the wife and her mother-in-law have a hostile servant-master kind of relationship.
Number of Marriages Declining in South Korea
The number of marriages in South Korea was over 281,600 in 2016, the lowest number since 1974 and a decline of seven percent from 2015. The drop was attributed to a combination of factors, including youth unemployment, difficulties finding housing and a decline in the marriageable age population amid a general aging trend. [Source: Noh Hyun-woong, and Kim Yang-joong, Hankyoreh, March 2017]
Noh Hyun-woong and Kim Yang-joong wrote in Hankyoreh, “ As the marriage rate continues to decline, some are predicting that by 2025, one out of ten 50-year-old women (those born in 1975) will have lived the single life. The “single living rate” in demographics refers to the percentage of people who have not married by the age of 50. According to a Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA) report titled “Changing Forms of Marriage and Childbearing and a Paradigm Shift in Low Birth Rate Countermeasures,” the single living rate among women remained below 1 percent at 0.5 percent in 1990 and 0.7 percent in 1995, before rapidly rising from 1.3 percent in 2000 to 1.9 percent in 2005 and 2.5 percent in 2010. The report predicted that if the current trend continues, the rate will reach 7.1 percent in 2020 and 10.5 percent in 2025.
According to The Economist: “Successive governments have regarded the promotion of traditional marriage as a way to boost procreation, says Kwonkim Hyun-young, a lecturer in gender studies at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul. This does not seem to work. Granted, the stigma against cohabitation remains strong: only 0.2 percent of Korean households consist of unwed couples, compared with 10 percent in Britain and 19 percent in Sweden. But rather than getting hitched, many women remain single. And many married couples are having only one child: the number of children beyond a first fell by 37 percent between 2010 and 2013. So long as South Korean wives and mothers are expected to behave like their mothers did in the 1960s, many women will opt to fly solo instead.” [Source: The Economist, July 23, 2015]
Reasons Number of Marriages is Declining in South Korea
Noh Hyun-woong and Kim Yang-joong wrote in Hankyoreh, “The rate of decline was the steepest since the post-foreign exchange crisis year of 2000. The crude marriage rate, referring to the number of marriages per 1,000 people, fell to 5.5, its lowest level since statistics were first compiled in 1970. A complex combination of factors have been implicated in the steep decline in marriages, including demographic structure issues, social and economic conditions, and changing perceptions. To begin with, the actual population at typical marrying ages has been falling: the total number of South Koreans in their late twenties and early thirties was down by more than 2 percent last year for both women and men. The rise in youth unemployment has also continued. Last year, youth unemployment was at its second highest level ever since statistics on it were first tallied in 1999. Continued problems with finding housing and jobs have further resulted in changing perceptions of marriage. Findings from social surveys published every two years have shown a rapid decline in the percentages of respondents in their twenties agreeing that they “must” or “should” marry, from 59.3 percent in 2010 to 57.7 percent in 2012, 51.2 percent in 2014, and 42 percent in 2016. [Source: Noh Hyun-woong, and Kim Yang-joong, Hankyoreh, March 2017]
“The children of baby boomers generation, born between 1979 and 1982, has reached their late thirties, when the marriage rate is low, and the first real low birth rate generation born after 1983 is reaching typical marrying age, which has led to a steady decline in the population in that age group,” said Lee Ji-yeon, head of Statistics Korea’s population rend division. “Social and economic factors causing a decline in marriage, including a poor economy and youth unemployment, appear to be combining with changing perceptions of marriage to exert a complex influence,” Lee said.
The Economist reported in 2015: One reason for the decline in marriages “is that wedding expenses, mostly met by the groom and often including the couple’s first home, have become prohibitive for many. Another is that Korean families used to be so desperate to have sons that in the 1980s they aborted lots of daughters. Now one in seven men of marriageable age lacks a potential partner. Also, some women want to “marry up”, which is harder now that so many women have degrees and good jobs. Many others are no longer prepared to play the role of a traditional wife. The mean age at which women marry has risen from 25 in 1995 to 30 today. [Source: The Economist, July 23, 2015]
More Women Remaining Single in Korea
The Economist reported in 2015: ““PLAN B”, a guidebook for unmarried women living in Seoul, begins with a test. “Have your parents chided you for wanting to live alone?” “Are you often told that a woman’s best chance of happiness is being a wife and mother?” Too many noes will land the reader in the “soft tofu” category — unprepared for the rigours of life as a single woman in socially conservative South Korea. (Other types include thick-skinned “watermelon” and die-hard “walnut”.) [Source: The Economist, July 23, 2015]
“The guide, put together in 2014 by the Seoul metropolitan government and the Unni Network, a women’s organisation, and distributed in 600 offices and public places, offers tips for staying safe, good reads on living solo and information on dining clubs for young singles. The proportion of single people in Seoul more than doubled between 1990 and 2010, and they now account for 16 percent of households. Four in ten South Korean adults are unmarried, the highest share among the 34 OECD countries. In Seoul over a third of women with degrees are single.
Crystal Tai wrote in the South China Morning Post: “The government in Seoul is well aware of the issue. Since 2005, it has spent 36 trillion won (US$32.1 billion) on trying to lessen the financial burden of having children, offering childcare subsidies of 300,000 won (US$268) per month alongside other incentives to young families. More new measures were unveiled in July, such as extending paternity leave to two years from the previous one, during which time new fathers are guaranteed 80 per cent of their normal wages – capped at 1.5 million won (US$1,338). [Source: Crystal Tai, South China Morning Post, January 20, 2019]
“Such efforts have yet to make a substantial impact, however, and critics argue that much more needs to be done to stimulate an interest in marriage among the country’s youth. “It doesn’t work because from the younger generations’ point of view, the [social and economic] costs of marriage and bearing children are too high and the current level of government support is not enough,” said Kang, the economist.
“In deeply conservative and patriarchal South Korea, women are also realising what they stand to lose by getting married. “Many women are aware of the unfairness they face after marriage,” said the 32-year-old female freelancer in Seoul, alluding to the social expectation that women quit their jobs and become homemakers. “These days, some women will even officially announce their plans to stay single and childless for the rest of their lives.”
“Shin Gi-wook, a sociology professor at Stanford University who specialises in Korean politics, said women also found it difficult to balance holding down a career with the societal expectations that are placed on them. “Social support systems are not in place [and] social institutions are still male-driven and male-centric,” he said. “The multiple roles working women are expected to continue to play in the family and in society – as mums, wives, daughter-in-laws … make it difficult for them to prioritise marriage and motherhood over their careers.”
“Ultimately, according to sociologist and University of Seoul lecturer Michael Hurt, South Korea needs to rid itself of ingrained sexism and reform its long-standing negative policies towards women if it wants to raise a birth rate that has it set on the path towards “natural extinction by 2750”, as one study commissioned by the government found in 2014. “Sexism in Korea should be redefined as anti-Korean, because Korea is headed towards demographic holocaust,” he said. “Every time a woman is pushed out of her position at work because she got married, that makes people not get married. If Korea wants to make more Koreans, they’ve got to cut the sexism.”
“Single Weddings” in South Korea
According to The Economist: “The Unni Network wants to popularise the neutral term bihon (single) over mihon (not yet married). It has held public bihonshik, ceremonies for women who choose not to wed and vow to live happily as singles. Some studios are offering “single weddings”: photo shoots for unmarried women in bridal gowns. Park Hong-joon, who owns a photo agency in Seoul, has heard wedding guests say they wanted their special-day snaps to be taken in their prime. He now offers dresses and stylists as part of a single-wedding package. [Source: The Economist, July 23, 2015]
“Clients sometimes invite friends to join the photo shoot. Quite a few are unmarried women in their late 30s and 40s who want portraits for their homes. Some hope to add a husband later. Others want to celebrate their solo status, says Mr Park. In Japan, where the idea arose, an agency offers male models as grooms, but no women there have opted for the service.
Men have poured scorn on single weddings, says Mr Park, calling the concept “absurd”. Some snipe that these women’s “marriage strike” is selfish and unpatriotic, by which they mean that they would like women to carry on shouldering nearly all the burden of housework, child care and looking after ageing in-laws. Even otherwise modern-minded online men’s clubs, such as “I Love Soccer”, have taken to deriding feminists and calling women’s forums childish. Birth rates in most rich countries have plummeted in recent decades (see article) — but further and faster in South Korea than almost anywhere else.
Forget Marriage, South Koreans Aren’t Even Dating
Crystal Tai wrote in the South China Morning Post: “It’s the dreaded question single South Koreans find themselves fielding from relatives, friends, colleagues and even strangers on a regular basis: “When are you getting married?”. “My parents pressure me [about marriage] whenever I visit them,” said one 34-year-old man living in Seoul. “They joke about it at first, but they get really serious by the end of our conversation.” A 32-year-old female freelancer also based in the capital tells a similar story. “When I meet people for the first time, they ask me why I’m not married. It’s especially common for older Koreans to ask these questions,” she said, adding that the younger generation tends to find such queries rude and unnecessary. [Source: Crystal Tai, South China Morning Post, January 20, 2019]
Yet despite this near-constant push to marry, an increasing number of South Koreans are forgoing weddings altogether. In fact, many don’t even date any more. A survey by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs published in early January found that as of 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, less than 40 per cent of 20- to 44-year-olds were actively dating. The proportion in traditional marriages is even lower.
“A 2013 survey found that South Korean couples spent an average of US$90,000 getting hitched – including venue costs, wedding gifts for in-laws and other items. The economic burden does not end with the nuptials, either. One Australian women who recently married into a Korean family described marriage as a way for families “to trade wealth”, bargain and exert power. “If the son’s family has a famous name or the son is a doctor [then] that family can expect a large payment from the female’s family because they think they deserve some kind of tax from others for their perceived ‘high status’ in society,” said the 34-year-old.
A culture that prioritises work and study over relationships is another oft-cited reason for South Koreans staying single. OECD data showed that in 2017, the average South Korean worked nearly 250 hours more than counterparts in the US, and 424 hours more than those in Germany. Last year, a survey of 1,141 people by employment websites Job Korea and Albamon found that 68.3 per cent were too focused on their careers or personal lives to get married, while 47.5 per cent were worried about financial pressures.”
South Koreans Rush to Marry in Auspicious Double Spring Year
In 2006, a rare and auspicious double spring year, there was a rush to get married in South Korea. Reuters reported: “South Korean fortune tellers say the last time it was this lucky to get married Napoleon Bonaparte's armies were marching through Europe.. The anomaly in this lunar year is that it includes two first days of spring, one at the very start last January and the other at the very end early next February. Korean fortune tellers say that, in years this rare, water will flow along dry river-beds. "Having two springs in a year creates prosperous energy and means it is a good time to get married," said Kang Pan-seok, vice-director of the Korean Fortune Tellers' Association. [Source: Reuter, June 23, 2006]
“Kang said the double-spring phenomenon had only occurred 12 times since 221 BC. Many South Koreans consult fortune tellers for advice on love and the buzz about the double-spring lunar year has caught the attention of those planning to get hitched. "Couples getting married in that period can have a long and happy life together," Kang said by telephone.
“Bride-to-be Kim Hee-young had been hoping for a March or April 2007 wedding punctuated by the first blooms of flowers. Instead, she will wed in December this year when trees are bare and rivers freeze in the icy Korean winter. "We didn't want to have our wedding during the cold season, but we are following our parents' wishes to have the wedding during the year with the lucky double spring," Kim said. Some fortune tellers say the happiest arrangement is to get married this lunar year and then have a child next lunar year.
“So, South Korean couples are flocking to wedding halls, buying expensive gifts and providing a shot in the arm for a wedding industry that has been in a slump for years. And the rush is on to get hitched this year because fortune tellers call the 2007-08 lunar period the year of the widow. In other parts of Asia that follow the lunar calendar such as China, local fortune tellers say this is a good year to wed but they don't push it with the same, once-in-200-year urgency found in South Korea.
“Between January and April this year, wedding hall revenues rose for the first time in four years while beauty parlours took more money than in early 2005, government statistics show. Retailers report a surge in sales for some common items given as wedding gifts, such as fur coats for mothers-in-law and home electronics for the couple. For the rest of this year, finding a wedding hall or hotel in which to get hitched in major cities will be increasingly tough. "Total reservations for weddings are up by about 20 to 30 per cent from a year ago," said Jenny Shin at the Seoul Hyatt Hotel. She said the best weekends had been booked for some time and little was open for the rest of the year.
Arranged Marriages Versus Love Marriages
Marriages have traditionally been arranged but that custom is changing. Many couples date and meet their spouses in ways not too different from Westerners. Many however meet through a a somewhat modernized form of arranged marriage where families, kin and matchmakers recommend several candidates, leaving the final selection to the persons getting married.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Traditional marriages were thoroughly arranged, particularly among the noble class as a form of class endogamy. Although arranged marriages are still popular in rural villages, an increasing number of educated and urban Koreans choose their own mates. Many of them use a compromise form between arranged marriage and free choice: parents, kin, and friends recommend several candidates equal in their qualifications and leave the final selection to the persons who are going to be married (mat'son ). Semiprofessional matchmakers are emerging in the cities; they arrange marriages between children of the newly rich and privileged class, charging high commissions for their services. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]
Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Many urbanites find their spouse at schools or workplaces and have a love marriage. Others may find partners through arranged meetings made by parents, relatives, friends, and professional matchmakers. “In urban centers, the arranged meeting often takes place in a hotel coffee shop where the man, the woman, and their parents may meet for the first time. After exchanging greetings and some conversation, the parents leave so that the couple can talk and decide whether they would like to see each other again. Most individuals have freedom in choosing a marital partner. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: Even with "love marriages" “at some point in the relationship the family always gets involved. All young people recognize their accountability to parents and the parents' need to be part of the final stages of courtship, if for no other reason than the social display that seems to be required in the engagement and wedding ceremonies. These ceremonies are enor- mously expensive and serve as occasions for extended family members and business associates of the parents to get together and pay their respects.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
Arranged Marriages in South Korea
In a national survey in 1979, 70 percent of men and 80 percent of women said they preferred to depend on matchmakers rather than romance to find a spouse. These days more than half of all marriages are love matches, but many are still arranged. Marriage. Family background and educational level are important considerations in matchmaking.
In the old days, couples that liked one another were not allowed to meet freely together. Matches were made by elders who met to discuss the character of potential mates and decide whether or not a marriage would take place. Families usually had more say in regard to a marriage than the man and woman who were getting married. Marriages are still regarded as unions between families and traditional considerations still plays a part in deciding who marries whom.
Before a traditional marriage takes place the families of the bride and groom have a couple of meetings. The first one determines if the families are compatible. The second sets the terms for the wedding ceremony and decides who pays for what. Wedding expenses are usually shared by the groom and the bride's family.
Matchmaking Services in South Korea
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Matchmaking is a vital part of the marriage process even in the most contemporary urban settings because no one likes to be embarrassed when things go wrong and someone gets rejected. It is much better to have a friend in between, carrying messages of encouragement or discouragement to the families.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
When people reach marriageable age, they are often too busy to go around searching for mates. Many of them turn to matchmaking services to set up dates with the idea being that they could lead to marriage. Matchmaking services are required to be licensed by the government. Counselors are required to be morally acceptable, 35 years of older and have a college degree in psychology, education or social welfare.
Some churches and large corporations have their own matchmaking services. There are also computerized services that often put a high emphasis on favorite colors and birth signs — as well as hobbies, interests, blood types and opinions on certain subjects — in their choices of compatible prospective mates. Matchmakers that deal primarily with the upper classes often charge high fees. There are even matchmaking package tours.
According to Korean Culture Blog: There are many professional matchmaking agencies which maintain a large network of members in South Korea. For example, Duo, which claims to have more than 29,000 members , charges membership fees of 1 million to 4 million won, depending on the service the members require. These professional matchmaking agencies use more systematic method of analysis of their members. For example, Duo asks each new member 150 questions about their character, family, education, income, debt, height, weight, smoking and drinking habit, occupation, hobbies and family background (including parents’ occupations and education) with the required documentary proof and the exact characteristics of the person they are seeking before matching the member up with prospective partners by computer. Members are given between 7 to 10 “suitable” introductions from the Duo database. [Source: Korean Culture Blog, 2015]
“Some agencies may also arrange matchmaking parties for singles. For example, Duo has arranged a matchmaking party at a hotel in which participants were divided into groups and men moved from table to table so that everyone had a chance to chat with everyone else. At the end of the 5-hour session, each participant submitted a “love-match card” where he/she wrote down the number of the person he/she liked so that the couples were matched.
Traditional Matchmakers and Fortunetellers
A traditional Korean marriage is set up by a matchmaker hired by the parents when an individual reaches marriageable age. Traditionally, most matchmakers have been elderly women with knowledge of the Asian astrology. They are often an aunt or some other relative of the prospective bride and groom. Sometimes they are professional matchmakers.
In their search, the matchmakers take various things into consideration — education, family background, and kunghap, a kind of fortunetelling in which fortune is determined by the Four Pillars as expressed by the date and time of birth. Even today, couples often will not marry if their kunghap is unlucky.
Matchmakers keep notes on prospective mates and bring couples together based on their education, family income levels and astrology. The couples usually meet at a hotel or coffee shop with the parents in attendance. If the couple like each other and the families have favorable impressions, the couple is allowed to date.
If a couple like each other enough and want to marry a fortuneteller is consulted. Based on birth information, the fortuneteller determines if the couple is a good match and, if they are, determines an auspicious day to get married. If the couple is deemed a bad match by the fortunetellers the marriage may be rejected by the families. Often though there is some procedure the couple can go through to appease the gods if they are intent on getting married. When a wedding match is approved, the couple are often asked if they will be eating noodles, since noodles are often served at wedding.
Traditional Korean Rural Matchmaker
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “During her career as the family planning worker in South Valley Hamlet, Mrs. Kim had an informal side-job as a chungmae, or matchmaker. Because she traveled the entire district by foot, bicycle, and bus visiting households in faraway pockets of the valley, she knew who was of marriageable age and was in a position to make suggestions to young people and their parents. The following conversation with the mother and aunt of a twenty-one-yearold boy who was coming home from service in the army was typical of Mrs. Kim's career as a matchmaker. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
“The young man had told his family that he was ready to settle down, and he was a prime candidate for marriage. "You say he's twenty-one and finished with the army. Is he the eldest or a younger son?" "He's our eldest," the mother said. "I do wish we could find him a good match." She was thinking about her own need for a male grandchild. "Yes," said Mrs. Kim. "But nowadays girls are reluctant to marry eldest sons. They have too many responsibilities. Their mothers-in-law work them like slaves and they have to entertain the whole family so often it wears them out." Mrs. Kim was speaking from experience. "I know," said the mother. "My husband is an eldest son too. But we still have to think about our old age, and our son needs a good wife. Do you know anyone?"
“"Well," said Mrs. Kim. "I do know a house in Dragon Pass Village where the daughter has just graduated from high school. Her parents are impatient with her because she hates farm life and wants to marry a city boy. Is your son going to be a farmer?" "We have been talking about selling the farm and moving to the city," said the mother. "But city life seems so dirty and dangerous and you have to live in a small apartment. We have many problems to solve before we can make our decision. So for the time being we'll have to stay here and our son will help us do the farming." "So you're asking me to find you a farm wife for your son," remarked Mrs. Kim. "It won't be so easy!"
“Mrs. Kim looked around the room and made a quick inventory. Electricity. A small radio. A fan. No other conveniences. But the floor was very well laid, the wallpaper was better than in most houses, and she had heard that the family made a good living from a ginseng field on the hillside. She decided that the farm would be worth a lot of money when it sold. She knew she could take this back to the girl's family, which was actually not very well off. "Is your son handsome? Is he strong? What's he like?" "Oh," said the mother, "he's always been an obedient and loyal son. When his grandmother was living he used to carry her across the stream on his back so she could visit her church friends. He's always helped his father with plowing, transplanting, and harvest. He's even gotten up on occasion to help me with the breakfast rice." "And how far did he get in the army?"
“"Actually, he was sent to fight in Vietnam and now he's a sergeant. He's done very well. By the way, what's this girl like?" "She's kind of ordinary. She's healthy, though, and won't have any trouble bearing children. Except for her overbite she's actually somewhat pretty, I'd say. The teeth themselves are white and strong. I wish I had a picture. When's your son coming home? Maybe you can send him over to South Valley Hamlet so I can see him. Meanwhile I'm planning to visit Dragon Pass tomorrow and I'll see how the family is doing with plans for their daughter. They might be really interested in this. I'll get back to you." Mrs. Kim had many such conversations with families in the Poksu valley. They often led to serious negotiations and marriages. “
Seon: Marriage-Oriented Dates
Some couples meet on seons, blind dates set up by matchmakers, friends, families or dating services that have the expressed purpose of finding a marriage partner. A popular meeting place for blind dates in Seoul in the early 2000s was the Prince Coffee Shop at the Lotte Hotel. At around 7:00pm, a popular meeting time for seons, the coffee shop was filled with young men sitting around anxiously waiting for the dates who usually showed up about a half hour late. Couples that had difficulty locating one another enlisted a waitress who walked around the coffee shop ringing a bell and carrying a sign with the date's name.
The first date usually consists of having coffee and conversation together. It is reportedly bad luck to have a meal together, a superstition one woman told the Korean Herald was probably made up by "some guy who was too cheap to pay for dinner." If everything goes well and the couple goes on a second date they usually have dinner.
In an unofficial survey by the Korean Herald of 20 couples who met on seons in the early 2000s, the average number of seons a person went through before finding a marriage partner was 12, with a low of one and a high of "more than 20." One woman waiting at the Lotte coffee shop told the Korean Herald, "My brother said that he'd been on about 100 seons before he got married last year. Now, its my turn to find a spouse." All of the 20 couples interviewed were married within nine months after meeting their partner. Twelve were married within three months and one couple was married within a month.
Seons are often arranged by a matchmaker and initiated by parents. According to Korean Culture Blog: “You may have seen in the Korean TV dramas that the parents ask a professional matchmaker or a family friend who has a strong network of social contacts to help recommend a suitable partner for their son or daughter who is in his/her thirties but is still unmarried and does not have a boyfriend or girlfirend. As this method is more marriage-oriented, the parents prefer someone who at least matches their own family background in terms of economic and social status. A meeting between the couple in which they will try to get to know each other will be arranged. If they are happy with each other, they will start dating. As there is usually pressure from the parents to get married as soon as possible, the couple may get married as soon as one or two months after the first meeting. As the potential spouses are screened by the parents before the first meeting, it is less likely that there is family opposition to the marriage. If the couple proceed to marriage, the matchmaker will receive a fee. [Source: Korean Culture Blog, 2015]
More Educated Korean Women Seek Out Matchmakers
Jin Kyu Kang of Reuters wrote: “If you are thirty-plus and a woman with a masters degree in South Korea, you may need the help of a matchmaker to find love — and your worried mother may even end up doing the legwork for you. As women in this rich Asian country have become better educated, with five times as many now getting advanced degrees as in 1995, they have also become more choosy and are less likely to settle for the role of meek spouse traditionally expected of Korean women. "I heard if you are a female with master's degree, it is much harder to arrange a meeting than if you have a bachelors degree because of an unfavorable perception toward 'too smart women' here," said Lee, 24, a college senior in Seoul who wished to be known only by her last name. [Source: Jin Kyu Kang, Reuters, Mar 15, 2012]
As the average age in which women get married has risen to around 30 “plenty of worried mothers” are “getting things rolling for their daughters. "My daughter is in her early 30's, an age considered late for marriage here", said a woman in her mid 50s who wished to be identified only by her surname Ahn and who took her daughter to one of the many match-making agencies in Seoul. "I was worried that if she does not find her match this year, it will be much more difficult to marry in the coming years, so I went to the firm with her and made her join."
“At DUO, a matchmaking firm, its 26,000 members can choose between five different membership programs with fees from 1.08 million won (US$971) to 8.8 million won. In a bid to attract clients, the site displays the average annual income of its male and female customers, as well as statistics on their professional standing. "In a privately set up blind date, you cannot be entirely sure of how much of personal information given to you is accurate," said DUO spokesman Yon Jun.
“Critics say the industry prioritizes income, status and materialism. Local wags have coined the phrase "employage" to sum up employment and marriage. "If your father works in the financial industry or is a high-ranking administrator, you will find your match with similar backgrounds through a matchmaking firm, starting a perfect marriage on the back of parental support," said comedian Choi Hyo-jong, a presenter on a local satirical show called "the Wart's Kindergarten".
“Demand appears to only be rising. Overall, the industry is estimated to be worth 100 billion won (US$88.79 million), according to local newspaper Asia Business Daily. This compares to estimates of around 50 billion won in 2005, media said. Experts said anxiety in tough economic times appeared to be playing a part. "With increasing uncertainty and anxiety about the future weighing on people, the concept of marriage has become a tool to maintain one's social status," said anthropology professor Kim Hyun-mee at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021