Monday, August 5, 2013

Love's Labour's Lost: Marriage (or not so much) in Korea

At the end of the Korean War in 1953 the average Korean woman was having 6.3 children. Today, it is down to 1.3--one of the lowest in the world. Korea is a classic case of a society becoming rapidly urban, well-educated and modern in economic terms, while remaining very traditional when it comes to the family. As in Japan (which ruled Korea from 1910-1945) women who marry are expected to take care of the children and the elders, both at the same time, leaving little time to maintain a career. Added to this dissonance in the speed of change in family values is the question of how do young people meet a suitable potential mate? This was the topic of a story in today's New York Times.
In a country where arranged courtships are fading into the past, the Ministry of Health and Welfare began promoting the idea of dating parties in 2010. Under the enthusiastic leadership of its minister at the time, Cheon Jae-hee, it held four parties that year that brought together its workers and employees at local corporations — making a splash in the news media. Ms. Cheon officiated at the wedding of the first couple who met at one. Featured in a magazine article before the wedding, the 31-year-old groom-to-be thanked the government profusely and wondered if two children would be enough to meet expectations.
Since then, sponsorship of the parties has shifted mainly to ministry affiliates and local governments, which can win financial rewards for activities that promote marriage and childbirth. The municipal government that threw the party Mr. Park attended has been named a role model by the city of Seoul. One government-financed agency, the Planned Population Federation of Korea, claims a different kind of victory: by hosting parties, it is working to undo its past success when it encouraged vasectomies as a booming South Korea feared being held back by population growth.
In truth, South Korea would have been held back by population growth. It's rapid decline in fertility created a classic demographic dividend which, combined with an increasingly educated population, has produced an economic miracle very similar to China's. But, just as China's young people do not seem too inclined to jump into marriage and raise the birth rate, neither do young Koreans.  In referring to these government-sponsored dating parties, a professor of sociology in Korea notes "that society has not been prepared for such a radical change."
“Approaching or socializing with someone you don’t know at all feels very unfamiliar to Koreans,” she said. “It is very awkward to mingle with someone without knowing who the other person’s parents are, where they are from, etc.”
This explanation reminded me distinctly of the cultural roots of xenophobia--a genuine fear of strangers.

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