The Korea Herald


Marriage race: Koreans get cautious, calculative in search for 'the one'

Heights, jobs, assets constitute important factors for ideal partners for young Koreans pursuing marriage as path to status, not just love

By Choi Jeong-yoon

Published : June 6, 2024 - 16:32

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“Why is it so hard to find someone to marry?”

This pressing question torments 28-year-old Kim Jeong-sik (not his real name), who invests significant time and money into his search for a suitable partner. For Kim, it is not all about love or destiny but about finding someone with whom he can build a “decent family,“ ideally someone from a similar or higher economic and social status.

“While I used to fall for romance and attraction based on instinct in the past, now I think about whether the person is competent, financially stable and suitable to develop a future with. I do not even initiate dates with people I cannot picture the future with even though I am attracted to them. In that sense, I currently have the perfect girlfriend, but that doesn‘t mean that I am attracted to her.”

Although he has a "perfect girlfriend," Kim said he is still contemplating the most fitting partner for a successful marriage — a struggle shared by many young Korean adults navigating the "marriage market" in search of an eligible spouse.

Kang, a 28-year-old office worker in Seoul, who has also been actively seeking a boyfriend with the intention of marriage, receives brief introductions of a man's height, residence, company name, and Alma mater to even his MBTI almost daily.

It is an unspoken rule among young Koreans in their 20s and 30s to prepare such descriptions, often accompanied by two to three pictures, to facilitate blind dates arranged by acquaintances, according to her.

Rather than meeting random people from online dating apps or aimless gatherings, they prefer strangers introduced by friends, as “the person is better vetted and there is a lower chance of meeting swindlers or someone weird.“

These profiles are sometimes exchanged “like cards.”

“If an introduction of a person I get is not satisfactory or not what I’m looking for, I toss it to my friends and if they both want to be introduced, their contacts are exchanged,” Kang explained.

Despite finding it emotionally draining to meet new people every week, she feels compelled to continue the process to achieve a successful marriage.

“Everything feels like a business, having to mull over all the conditions. But the fear that if I don’t find a boyfriend to marry now, I will miss out on this marriage market and be left with only a few choices of eligible men makes me keep searching,” Kang said.

“I feel like I am in a race competing with other women my age -- racing to find a good boyfriend before everyone takes them all.”

Both Kim and Kang, who identify as part of the MZ generation — known for being more liberal, self-expressive, and inclined toward personal pleasure — view a “successful marriage“ as more than just a union based on affection. Born in the 1990s, when South Korea reaped the benefits of economic growth and technological advancements, this generation has also faced significant pressures and challenges in a highly competitive and rapidly changing society. Observers note that these social changes have influenced their approach to making crucial life choices in early adulthood, including the pursuit of marriage.

Kwak Keum-joo, professor emeritus of psychology at Seoul National University, points to the widespread perception in Korea that marriage is one of the keys to a “successful life,” which is why people are more inclined to an “artificial match.”

“Korea is a society that strongly encourages individuals to strive for improvement, earn more, and achieve promotions. The country‘s rapid and condensed development placed a premium on success and advancement, intensifying materialism and consumption,” said Kwak.

This is why prospective partners are often meticulously evaluated on factors such as occupation, salary, physical appearance, age and lifestyle. Even family backgrounds, including parents’ jobs, education level and pension coverage, are considered.

Ideal partners in marriage market

The “market” is one thing, but what has now become a “race” to marry the most ideal person is attributed to the tendency in Korea to rank and list everything, thus generalizing what is considered good or bad.

“Rankism is prevalent in Korea. One can list ranking on a lot of things based on social consensus, such as schools and companies. And because Korea was a hierarchical society, even though there are no formal classes among people nowadays, unseen classes still define individuals,” says Kwak.

Rather than finding a compatible partner, people often seek those who rank highest in economic and social aspects, like by graduating from a prestigious university or working at a major conglomerate, Kwak notes.

According to Duo Information, one of the major matchmaking businesses here, the “ideal husband” is typically 178.7 cm tall, earns 60.67 million won ($44,450) annually, possesses 335 million won in assets, is two years older than the woman, a university graduate and an office worker.

The ideal wife is 164.2 cm tall, earns 44 million won annually, has 217 million won in assets, is 2.3 years younger, a university graduate and an office worker.

These trends were highlighted in the recent TV reality program “Couple Palace,” which provided insights into the 2024 marriage market in Korea. The show featured 100 single men and women bluntly presenting their qualities and desires, from income and property ownership to occupation and loans.

Screenshot from the Mnet TV program Screenshot from the Mnet TV program "Couple Palace," where a female participant says she favors a house in Seoul's Gangnam district to a male participant. (Screenshot from "Couple Palace")

The most popular scene from the mega-couple matching survival show was a woman rejecting a man for “not being able to afford a house in Gangnam,” adding that she “favored living in Gangnam over the male contestant” despite showing a strong attraction to him. With the reason for their breakup being housing issues, this incident sparked public debate, illustrating the materialism of Korean society.

Reviewers found the show successful in presenting the paradoxical phenomenon of a boom in matchmaking despite all-time low births and marriages.

The number of marriages in South Korea has steadily decreased over the past decades from some 435,000 unions in 1996 to below 200,000 in 2021, witnessing a record low of 192,000 marriages in 2022, a decrease of more than 55 percent in 25 years, according to recent data by Statistics Korea.

Though the country witnessed a slight increase of 1 percent last year, with around 194,000 couples tying the knot, experts pointed to delayed marriages during COVID-19 being held which is not a clear indicator of a shift in declining marriages.

A survey by Statistics Korea last year also highlighted that only half of the population considers marriage essential, with only 15.3 percent of the population aged over 13 responding that “marriage is a must“ in 2022, a decline from 20.3 percent in 2012. This sentiment was particularly strong among women and even more so among the unmarried, with a mere 29 percent of teenagers viewing marriage as a necessity.

Matchmaking as risk management

Matchmaking business in Korea is not just for old maids and aging bachelors anymore. It is thriving due to an increase in clients looking for the one based on their profiles and assets.

Duo Information reported a record-high revenue of 38.2 billion won ($29.2 million) last year, up 5.2 percent from the previous year, according to the Financial Supervisory Service’s electronic disclosure system.

The firm’s revenue hovered around 28 billion won until 2020 but surged 35.9 percent as more people outsourced the partner-finding process.

“Rather than spending time and patience on normal dates, our clients hope to find a partner with matching conditions quickly. Our job is to shorten the process, revealing crucial details like family background and income early on, which are usually considered rude to ask about initially,” an employee at a matchmaking firm told The Korea Herald.

A 29-year-old surnamed Jang, who is using a matchmaking firm to find a wife himself, said he prioritizes the status of a potential partner because he believes marriage could be a“social ladder” to climb to higher economic and social tiers.

“Let’s be honest. Though it is snobbish, it’s true people want to marry someone who is better than themselves so they can level up their economic and social status through a partner,” he said.

Kwak of Seoul University also noted the fear of failure is another factor for such a phenomenon.

“Marriage is now a choice, not a necessity in Korea. Young people are cautious and calculative, trying to avoid losses when marrying someone,” she said.