Field notes

South Koreans turn to the pros to find Seoul mates

The young are turning to dating apps and matchmaking agencies in the S. Korean capital and beyond in search of partners

SEOUL • While browsing profiles on a dating app, Ms Jayine Chung was drawn to a man who described himself as someone who enjoys good food and throwing stones into the Han River.

"It was very quirky and amusing... Who does that any more? I needed to meet this guy," recalled the 32-year-old freelance theatre producer with a laugh.

After several rounds of shortlisting from a list of potential dates through the free app Norang Narang (Korean for "you and me") , they finally got to exchange contact details and arranged to meet the next day.

But Ms Chung was anything but impressed when her date, a freelance storyboard artist for TV commercials, showed up wearing a Burberry trench coat and driving a Range Rover, as if flaunting his wealth.

"Maybe he did it to get girls, but it sure didn't impress me. Then we sat down to talk, and he realised I'm not the materialistic sort. I was more interested in his work, like he's shot a short film, and his plans, and what's he like as a person," she recalled.

After he drove her home, she bought him a cup of coffee to thank him - a gesture that surprised him as most girls he had dated expected him to pay for everything.


Above: Ms Chung with her husband. She said she was not impressed when she first met Mr Song through a dating app, but they got to know each other better after dating. PHOTOS COURTESY OF JAYINE CHUNG, DUO


Above: Duo CEO, Ms Park (centre), with her team. The company makes as many as 17,000 matches a month for its members. PHOTOS COURTESY OF JAYINE CHUNG, DUO

That was the beginning of a relationship that culminated in their getting married in January last year, on the first anniversary of their first date.

Ms Chung and her husband, Mr Song Kyung Heub, 47, are part of a growing number of couples who met with professional help - be they matchmaking agencies or dating apps.

BOOMING BUSINESS

In the booming matchmaking industry worth an estimated 100 billion won (S$117 million), professional matchmakers are increasingly helping singles to find love - those for whom love is elusive because they are either too busy working or too shy to socialise on their own.

Another reason for using dating agencies is that social circles have shrunk, with more people preferring to spend their free time alone, often glued to their smart devices. Young people are less able to rely on friends and family to fix them up with a date, unlike in the past.

Even the South Korean government, eager to boost the country's low fertility rate of 1.24, has announced plans to introduce matchmaking services at national and regional levels from this year, to create more opportunities for singles to meet and to encourage them to get married and start a family earlier.

The median age for marriage has risen in the past few decades to hit 32.8 for men and 30.7 for women last year, an increase of over five years - 27.8 for men and 24.8 for women - from two decades ago.

Singapore's Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo, in Seoul last month to study the country's marriage and parenthood policies, noted how youth in both South Korea and Singapore have delayed marriage in recent years. She also noted, however, that the Koreans were more proactive in looking for love and embracing commercial matchmaking agencies.

In a Facebook post titled "Dating - Gangnam Style", she urged single Singaporeans to start early, like the Koreans, and be open to getting professional help.

There are some 1,600 dating agencies in South Korea, which is home to a population of 50 million.

Duo, which claims to be the largest dating agency in the country, has a membership of 31,000. It has made over 33,000 successful matches that led to marriages in the past two decades.

It uses a computerised system to crunch detailed information provided by members, including occupation, annual income, car and property owned, and residential zone, and conducts background checks to verify the information before pairing up members. It makes as many as 17,000 matches a month.

Duo chief executive officer Park Soo Kyung said the firm's motto is to pair singles with the aim of making "happy marriages". It has managers who talk to members to further define their ideal partner and dating coaches to advise them on how to carry themselves in order to win over their dream man or woman.

A typical male member is a 33-year-old university graduate who earns 40 million won a year, while a typical female member is a 30-year-old degree holder earning 30 million won a year.

RETURN OF A TRADITION

Matchmakers have traditionally played a key role in Korean society, said Ms Park. "Marriage partners were traditionally decided upon by parents because marriage was viewed as two families coming together as one. That's why they relied on matchmakers to collect detailed information and recommend a suitable match," she said.

Marriage in modern times has become a pursuit of free love and individual happiness, leading to the wane of the professional matchmaker.

However, with young people now becoming more pragmatic in their attitude towards marriage, they "would use information from matchmakers to find their ideal partners as they feel it is a rational thing to do", said Ms Park.

She added that as getting married and starting a family require big sums of money, young people don't want to risk going into it without knowing their partner's socio-economic background and financial status - information which dating agencies can provide.

Said sociologist Kim Soo Kyung, a research professor at Korea University: "Marriage has become like a business or contract. People care more about economic status and what university one graduated from, and that could be the reason why they are turning to dating agencies that have a lot of that data."

One concern, however, is that dating agencies rank members based on criteria that are "heavily weighted on materialistic indicators and aggravate gender discrimination", Prof Kim said. For example, some occupations with looks as a prerequisite, like flight stewardess, are ranked higher.

Another reason for using dating agencies is that social circles have shrunk, with more people preferring to spend their free time alone, often glued to their smart devices. Young people are less able to rely on friends and family to fix them up with a date, unlike in the past.

Then, one could go for "sogaeting", a one-on-one blind date with a friend's friend, or "meeting", a small gathering of six to eight singles who typically break the ice by playing some kind of drinking game.

Nightclubs would offer a so-called "booking" service, where a middleman would help men to approach women who they fancy and take them to their tables for a drink.

For financial consultant Choi Min Hee, 35, it was her mother's colleague who introduced her to her husband, an office manager, a decade ago. Ms Choi said she was under family pressure to marry early and, as fate would have it, her date turned out to be her ideal man. "I liked him because of his positive attitude, and I knew I could trust him because we met through our parents," she said.

They were married within a year of their first meeting, and they now have two children - a seven-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son.

LESS HUNG UP ABOUT MARRIAGE

South Koreans today are also less anxious about getting married, with marriage now viewed as an option and not a must. A 2014 survey by Statistics Korea showed that only 56.8 per cent of respondents think that marriage is necessary.

With high youth unemployment and a sluggish economy, many young people who are unable to find good jobs are choosing to remain single.

Some local governments have their own measures to encourage people to marry early and have children. Haenam county in South Jeolla province has been organising a two-day matchmaking camp for singles since 2014. The annual event successfully paired six couples last year, according to officials. The county holds the record for the highest birth rate in the country, with 2.4 births per woman.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government used to organise matchmaking events in the past, but has switched tactics to promoting small and affordable weddings instead in recent years, given that prohibitive costs are a deterrent to marriage.

However, some observers feel the state should not intervene as marriage is a private affair. Prof Kim, for instance, said the government should instead try to resolve issues that hinder marriage and childbirth, like high costs of housing and education, and create an environment that is conducive for families.

As society progresses, singles who are now better educated are more picky in choosing their lifelong partners.

Musical actress Song Hyo Jin, 28, has been single since her last eight-year relationship ended in 2012 . She has been dating casually, using apps to suss out prospective dates. "It's easy to meet guys, but harder to develop a meaningful relationship because we need a lot of time to warm up to someone we just met," she said.

She hopes to settle down by the age of 32 with a man who shares her Christian faith. "My parents want me to get married as soon as possible and they tried to matchmake me with their friend's son. I met him once, but it was quite a short meeting and I need more time to find out what kind of a person he is," she said.

Project manager Choi Jin Suk, 43, has tried dating apps but still prefers to go on blind dates set up by friends. His last girlfriend was introduced by a friend, but they parted ways last year.

He said it is harder to date now because his own expectations have gone up with age - the same applies to older women.

Some of his friends who tried dating agencies and found it useful have recommended it to him, but he is in no hurry to settle down yet. His ideal woman is someone who shares his beliefs and way of life.

"Right now I'm married to my job, but I do want to get married one day when I meet the right person," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'S. Koreans turn to the pros to find Seoul mates'. Print Edition | Subscribe