A Match Made in Heaven - for $11,628

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A Match Made in Heaven - for $11,628

It's a warm summer day, and a woman in her 50s is visiting Cha Il-ho's Pangbae Matrimonial Agency, in Seocho-gu, Seoul, looking for a husband for her successful, young daughter.

"He should be a nice smart man," the woman said.

"Doctor? Lawyer? Accountant?" Mr. Cha asked.

Surprised, the woman stammered, "Well... he should be a good man and..."

"What occupation?" Mr. Cha interrupted. "Don't you care what university your son-in-law graduated from?"

"No!" said the women decisively.

"Then what occupation?"

"Professionals except for doctors, judges and prosecutors, those kinds of people are all too busy," said the woman.

"Then are lawyers all right?"

"They are fine. Also accountants, foreign ministry officials and high-ranking government officials," said the woman.

Moving on, Mr. Cha asked, "And what height?"

Such are the challenges in finding someone to marry in today's Korea. In spite of modernization and the increased influences from the West, young Koreans still seek matchmakers (known as jungmaejangi or madam-ttu) to locate a mate.

In a land where for hundreds of years, family was a top priority, marriage has long been a serious business. Once parents and neighbors tirelessly looked for marriage partners for their children because the quality of the marriage would so greatly affect the family's fortunes. For a young man, marriage was necessary to become an adult. With so much on the line, matchmakers were often friendly and nosy neighbors, who talked to the parents and checked out the prospective parties thoroughly. The art of bringing couples together even inspired a saying: "One will go to heaven it he succeeds three times in matchmaking."

Although the number of singles in their 30s increased from 156,000 in 1980 to 757,000 in 1995, such traditions remain strong in Korea. Today, the matching making business is estimated to be at least 50 billion won ($38 million) yearly, according to a marriage agency Duo.

In Korea there aren't many chances for young people to meet a variety of the opposite sex since majority of Koreans have a much more closed social network than people in the West do. Finding potential mates in bars is also unaccustomed to most Koreans. Many young people go out with people they meet through online chatting services but that kind of meeting usually doesn't lead to wedlock. Unless people meet their mate in their schools or workplaces, it's hard to meet the right person.

Mr. Cha has 34 years of matchmaking and more than 3,000 marriages to his credit. "I charge 200,000 won for each client when they register in my company and receive 2 million won when they get married to the person I introduce."

His matchmaking method is simple. Women should be pretty, have a wealthy or able father. They should be graduates of Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Korea University or Ewha Womans University, if they want to meet a professional. Nonprofessional men, such as salaried workers of such Korean conglomerates as Samsung, LG and SK are not as popular as they used be because the corporate restructuring after financial crisis hit Korea at the end of 1997 made those jobs more unstable. Once these conditions are met, a "face reading" in which he makes decisions about character and personality, is a final step.

Mr. Cha is scientific. On a shelf in his office he keeps yearbooks and directories of all the universities in Seoul, as well as lists of single eligible attorneys connected with the Judicial Research and Training Institute.

"Women must be pretty and men must be over 170 centimeters tall and have a stable income or family money if they are going to be introduced to decent people,"said Mr. Cha. "However, men with the best jobs can be introduced to pretty, accomplished ladies even if they're not over 170 centimeters tall or not handsome."

Not all matchmakers are so utilitarian. Lee Chang-hwan, 42, said matchmaking should be done with caution since wrong marriages can ruin lives. "Finding a spouse who is wealthy, smart and handsome is important, but selecting a trustworthy person is most important for a successful marriage," Mr. Lee said.

The desire to find a mate who fulfills the needs can be achieved at high costs.

"A girl who is not accomplished or pretty but has rich parents, is willing to pay 10 million won to 15 million won to get married to a lawyer or doctor," said Mr. Lee. "People seek out for what they do not have. It is a natural thing for those who only have money seek to obtain influence by marrying into those who have the potential of becoming an influential figure."

Mr. Lee sets up marriages for about 10 to 15 couples a year. He does not allow his clients to be introduced to more than four people, since he says it is a frustrating experience, especially for women, when it does not turn out well.

"Since I set up good matches, clients come to me automatically," Mr. Lee boasted.

Park Ui-ja, 58, uses a similar approach.

"Most of my clients are from high-class households: Men who have passed the national bar examination, who graduated from prestigious medical schools, accountants, diplomats."

Ms. Park says that her "feeling" on whether her clients would fit each other is important. She mostly matches people with a similar family background, character and lifestyle. For instance, she introduced a man who was going to study abroad to women planning to do the same.

"I always have an interview with my clients before I introduce them to anyone," said Ms.Park. "I never introduce people I do not personally know."

This kind of certainty was a theme all matchmakers addressed. "I hire a private detective to confirm the occupation and personality of clients and inquire at the taxation office to confirm the amount of their property," said Mr. Cha.

Mr. Lee goes even further. He checks out clients' sexual history before making introductions. Some clients even demand tests for venereal disease and drug screenings of their prospective marriage partners.

"You never know what a person is really like before you get to live with him, since in the first meeting people can hide their real selves," said Mr. Lee. "Before matchmaking I call all my sources to dig out the reputation of my client as well as the reputation of his and her parents."

Marriage agencies armed with advanced marketing methods begin to encroach matchmakers' turf starting in about 1997. The agencies lure clients by matchmaking, but parents don't usually get involved and there's much less scrutiny than a jungmaejangi.

Marriage agencies such as Duo, Sunoo, Piery and Daksclub, have grown from 100 to 200 percent annually. It is estimated that there are about 300 to 400 marriage agencies nationwide. Clients of marriage agencies must satisfy certain conditions: Men must graduate from universities and women must graduate from 2-year-colleges. The "couple manager" of the marriage agency interviews them and "grades" their levels accordingly.

The marriage agencies charge for introductions, not for actual marriages. For instance, the largest marriage agency Duo charges 700,000 won to a client and then gives that client the names of 12 people.

If a constant exists, it's that male clients of a marriage agency believe that the ideal job of their mate should be a teacher. Teachers in Korea rarely get laid off and have enough free time on their own to dote to the family.

"Korean men are still conservative, for they do not really want an extremely capable woman as their wife," said Woo Seung-pyo an executive of the marriage agency Daksclub. To promote the services, marriage agencies often set up huge events. Late last month, Sunoo held a festival in which 4,000 young men and women met to find Mr. or Miss Right.

Matchmakers and couple managers agree that people who get married must have been destined to meet each other. This rings true for 26-year-old Kim Hye-ryeon, who will wed a surgeon in November. Ms. Kim who works for a pharmaceutical company in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, met her future husband, six years her senior through a marriage agency in January.

"I wasn't sure I would meet the right person through the marriage agency in the beginning," said Ms. Kim. She was introduced to prospective marriage partners through marriage agencies and her acquaintances several times at the urge of her mother who was anxious that Ms. Kim would end up becoming an old maid. Her doubts disappeared when she met her future husband.

"How we live together for the rest of our lives is more important than how we met," she said.

by Koh Han-sun

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