Lee Min-jun is still basking in the joy of newly married life, having recently returned from a honeymoon to the Maldives after tying the knot in November.
But deciding to get married was not a straightforward decision for the couple. “We met at a local club for pet owners a year and a half ago,” says Lee, a 32-year-old real estate agent in Paju. “We had a lot of differences, but I still ended up chasing her.”
Personality differences aside, the biggest consideration for him was financial. “I was dating my wife when my business was just starting to stabilise, so financial worries were a big concern,” he says.
They are not alone. The average cost of getting married is 230 million won (US$196,000), the country’s leading marriage consulting business, DUO Info Corporation, found in a two-year study on 1,000 newlywed couples.
That is almost six times the amount the average South Korean in their 30s makes per year (US$32,900), and almost nine times what Koreans below the age of 29 make a year (US$22,152), according to Statistics Korea.
Another survey by the Korea Consumer Agency in 2017 found that the basic cost for a wedding was US$40,000 if housing was excluded.
As a result, marriage rates have fallen to their lowest level since data started to be compiled in 1970, as couples are increasingly put off by the expectation to spend heavily on a new home and lavish wedding reception.
“We can think of declining marriage rates as a result of changing values in today’s times, but we need to look at it as a combination of social issues arising from the economy, the job market and living expenses,” Park Soo-kyung, the founder of DUO Info Corporation, said in a recent interview.
“Burdensome marriage and housing costs, incompatibility of work and family, and a negative social perception towards marriage” have all contributed to the downwards trend, she said.
Her company has consulted more than 40,000 couples since it started in 1995.
In 2018, the country’s marriage rate was five per 1,000 people, with 257,622 couples tying the knot, according to Statistics Korea.
The rate has steadily declined from 1996, when the marriage rate hit an all-time high of 9.6 per 1,000 people and a record 430,000 couples got married. In 2009, the marriage rate shrunk to 6.5 per 1,000 people with 390,800 couples marrying.
A study on worldwide marriage rates by the Organisation for Economic and Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2017 put China’s rate at almost 10 per 1,000 people while Japan was around 5 per 1,000.
DUO Info Corporation lists housing as the biggest expense for the average newlywed couple, contributing 73.5 per cent (US$146,389) of costs, with exchanges of wedding gifts between families second (US$23,500) and planning a wedding banquet (US$11,544) the third-biggest cost.
“The new apartment that we purchased in Paju costs 380 million won (US$324,500), but we would not even have a chance at looking at apartments in Seoul or a suburb near the city,” says Lee.
Seoul was ranked the seventh-most expensive city globally in the latest Worldwide Cost of Living Survey conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit, with the city’s mayor recently posting on Facebook that housing prices have continued to rise for 24 consecutive weeks.
Park explains that newlywed couples are most likely to settle in new houses that match their expectations. “Since the young generation grew up at a time of relative economic prosperity and receive plenty of financial support from parents, it’s unrealistic to expect newlywed couples today to start off living in a one-room house.”
Only 1.9 per cent of respondents the company surveyed lived with their parents after getting married.
South Korea ranks among the highest in Asia in terms of wedding expenses. The Asean Post reported in September that weddings in Malaysia cost an average of US$11,900, while Cambodian weddings, which have festivities lasting three days, cost between US$15,000 to US$20,000. In the Philippines, the average wedding costs US$19,000 while Indonesian weddings are cheaper with an average cost of US$8,200.
The average wedding in China cost around US$12,000 in 2016, the BBC reported, while a survey the same year by Recruit Holdings’ Zexy magazine showed found the cost of a wedding in Japan was US$34,400.
In the Korea Consumer Agency survey, 94.6 per cent of the 2,000 respondents expressed negative views on the high costs of a wedding.
“Formality is something that is sacredly kept during the marriage process for any family that upholds tradition, so, it’s really a marriage of families-to-families in South Korea,” states Kim Sang-eun of DUO Info. She says attendance at weddings supports this claim.
At Lee Min-jun’s wedding in November, more than half the guests were new faces to the couple. “About 20 per cent were family and relatives, 30 per cent were my wife’s and my friends, and the rest of the 50 per cent were our parents’ guests,” says Lee.
Accordingly, parents are expected to contribute significantly to the wedding expenses. Samsung Life surveyed 1,501 parents in 2016, of which 63.8 per cent said they paid between 40 to 100 per cent of the costs for their child’s wedding.
On the other hand, Korean wedding guests are expected to give cash gifts when they attend a ceremony.
“A lot of people invite guests to their weddings as a way to get back the cash gift they paid at other weddings,” explains Kim.
According to the DUO Info study, “the fixed idea of a customary marriage” was the number one reason (47 per cent) couples could not reduce costs or omit formalities from their marriage process. Other reasons included how weddings were viewed in comparison to other weddings by friends and acquaintances, how this affected the reputation of the family, and the mindset of both sets of parents.
“Even though small weddings became popular after top celebrities Lee Hyori and Lee Na-young started the trend back in 2013 and 2015 respectively, the reality is that most couples get married in well-decorated wedding banquet halls as per tradition,” she says.
“They say customs have changed a lot, but there still remains the custom of exchanging wedding gifts between families of marrying couples,” adds Kim.
Weddings gifts were the second costliest item for newlywed couples, with an estimated 27.6 million won (US$23,500) spent on gifts ranging from jewellery to cash.
For many Koreans in their 20s and 30s, the high costs of a wedding and finding a balance with parents about marriage plans can become an obstacle to committing to a marriage in the first place.
“I don’t think I would be able to get married right now if I had a boyfriend, as I only hear more about the difficulties of a marriage as I grow older,” explains Yoon N.K., a 28-year-old NGO worker in Seoul.
“Maintaining a relationship with a spouse’s family and finding a balance between parents of both sides of the family don’t sound that inviting to me.”
Yoon’s friend, Park H.R., a 28-year-old educator also in Seoul, has already felt the burden of having to come to terms with her boyfriend’s family on matters of a future wedding.
“My boyfriend tells me that his parents are OK with not exchanging any wedding gifts between the families,” says Park, whose family is also happy not to. “But I can’t assume anything at this point, as relationships between families can break down in seconds due to disagreements.”
She realises she will have to accept interference from parents in planning a wedding. “As both our parents will help us pay for the massive amount of costs, I can’t help the fact that our parents will be major players in our marriage.”
South Korea’s drop in marriage rates comes amid the increasing popularity of a feminist movement which has instilled negative perceptions about traditional marriages in the country. The #MeToo movement and the spycam porn epidemic have contributed to the creation of the “4B” or the “Four Nos”, in which women vow to never wed, bear children, date, or have sex.
The recent hit film Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 , which centres on a married mother who confronts the social obstacles that exist in a male-dominated society, has also touched a nerve with many women.
Last year, just 22.4 per cent of Korean women perceived marriage as necessary. But a decade ago, that number was 47 per cent.
We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.