Officials in Korea play matchmaker
SEOUL, South Korea — As hopeful singles at the speed dating event shifted from table to table introducing themselves, Park Chang-won, a 32-year-old firefighter, grew more and more morose.
By the last table, Mr. Park was uttering only his name and age. Then he sank into silence.
“It felt awkward from the outset,” Mr. Park said later, explaining that a lifetime spent around men — at boys’ schools, the military and now as a fireman — had made meeting women harder.
Anywhere else, Mr. Park’s dating woes might have been strictly personal. But in South Korea, fretful about plummeting birthrates but still tied to conservative ideas about matchmaking, solving the difficulties of the lovelorn has become something of a national priority. The event Mr. Park attended was one of dozens of dating parties nationwide sponsored by an unlikely matchmaker: the government.
In a country where arranged courtships are fading, the Ministry of Health and Welfare began promoting the idea of dating parties in 2010. Ministry affiliates and local governments, which can win financial rewards for activities that promote marriage and childbirth, sponsor most of the parties.
There are also online dating services, but many young Koreans remain uncomfortable searching on their own. Most prefer to rely on the companies to make the match for them.
The results have been mixed. Korean society is organized around group affiliations, so meeting a potential spouse without formal introductions to merit family approval is difficult.
Until the 1980s, young people relied on matchmakers and family connections to find spouses, sociologists say. Those practices waned as industrialization started an exodus to South Korean cities. Families turned to a growing number of dating services that performed background checks.
But in recent years, urban youth exposed to the West began to complain that even the less formal blind dates set up by friends were stressful.
The trouble with unorthodox approaches like dating parties, said Hahm In-hee, a professor of sociology at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, is 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.”
Social mores are slowly shifting, but those changes do not diminish the need for proper introductions for serious relationships.
So far, several young people said, the government parties have proved the best mix of old and new. Local officials perform thorough background checks, matchmaker-style, but once everyone is checked, officials encourage mingling.
That is little comfort for Mr. Park from the speed dating party.
In the end, he abandoned all caution when the organizers asked if anyone would publicly identify the person they most wanted to meet. He pointed to a woman with an infectious grin whom he respected for not trying to hide her braces, then knelt to present her with a bouquet provided by the party planners.
She covered her face with her hands and refused to give him her phone number. Later, she and her friends left with a group of young men. Mr. Park was not invited.
“I guess I will continue the introduction thing through friends,” he said later. “But I think praying is the only answer.”