Living Together － and No Ring in Sight
That boys and girls over 7 years old should not even sit next to each other was one of the central tenets of Confucian lessons taught during the Joseon Dynasty. Times have changed, but such sentiments linger among many of society's conservatives. Just a few years ago a high school ethics teacher in Seoul was fired for seating a boy and girl together.
But what about the Confucian taboos for adults? Topping the list, quite likely, is an unmarried couple living together. Recently a few matchmaking Web sites that cater to singles who want to find a partner to cohabit with have appeared.
The founder of one of them, Park Yong-beom, is a former TV program producer for the local education broadcasting network. "I thought I should be the first to outwardly approve what's really happening," Mr. Park said of his site, www.solo.co.kr. Next in line to give living in sin the nod was local pop group Cool, with their song "Jumpo Mambo," who sing, "Let's live together and see if we're fit for each other."
It's hard to estimate how many couples are cohabiting in Korea because very few are willing to admit it. Sharing a house, and a bed, with your lover before marriage is considered as forbidden as coming out as a homosexual, according to Mr. Park. But one of the clients of his site, Yoon Seung-il, 31, says there are a lot: "There are many couples living together secretly, including myself." Mr. Yoon met Shin Mi-hee, 34, on Mr. Park's site. "These sites have more than 100,000 people registered as members," Mr. Park said.
It takes just courage and 10,000 won ($8) － for women it's free － to join a different living-together matchmaking site, www.shafeel.com. Once signed on, you send your photo and personal details, including your preference to either move into the another person's house, have him or her move into yours, or find a new house together. After six contacts, a fee of 5,000 won is charged for each additional attempt.
Our Mr. Yoon found his Ms. Shin on the Solo site early this year, but only after four unsuccessful pairings with potential significant others. Before moving in together, the two dated for about three months, "as normal couples do," as Mr. Yoon put it. "Since we knew from the start that we planned to live together, I didn't even bother to ask her," he said.
Mr. Yoon moved into Ms. Shin's house, a tiny but cozy apartment in Yangjae-dong, Seoul. Everything in their home smells of newlywedness. "Our neighbors are newlyweds and assume we're married too," Mr. Yoon said. "I don't want to tell them we're not married. Why should I?"
Besides the unwitting neighbors, their parents are quite unaware of the couple's living status. Mr. Yoon's parents are safely living far away in the United States, while Ms. Shin's are in Cheonan, Chungcheong province. Seated in their cramped kitchen, Mr. Yoon said, "If my parents were in Seoul, I wouldn't have done this." Though they say they live as typical newlyweds do, there are some differences: Ms. Shin refuses to cook meals for Mr. Yoon, and Mr. Yoon does much of the housework, like the laundry.
"Women really take charge when it comes to living together," Mr. Yoon said, eliciting a scornful sniff from his partner. Ms. Shin, a particularly reticent interviewee, said that women who live together before marriage assume more risk than men. "If people knew I lived with a man before marriage, I would never be forgiven," she said.
But membership data at www.shafeel.com shows that women may be more interested in these arrangements than men. Of members in their early 20s, more than three-fourths are women. Among those in their late 20s, about half are women.
An associate professor of sociology at Ewha Womans University, Hahm In-hee, said that in the past couples only cohabited if they were desperate to save money. "But now," she said, "more young and educated people are trying to live together before marriage."
Actually, Mr. Yoon is not a rookie at living together. Two years ago, he moved in with a woman six years his junior, whom he met at work, but it turned into a nightmare. "Her drinking was the problem," he said. After six months they decided mutually to call it off － no yelling, no crying － in accord with their promise to "play it cool" from the start. But Mr. Yoon sees no reason to publicize his past.
"Mi-hee doesn't know about this," he said. "I didn't tell her because it wouldn't do any good." In his defense, he said there are three conditions for living together: Never talk about marriage, never pry into the other's privacy and always be ready to say goodbye. He said he and Ms. Shin are getting along well so far. They are satisfied for now, but are unsure whether or how long their happiness will last. Discretion is paramount. "If I live with another woman or get married," Mr. Yoon said, "I will never tell her that I lived with other women; also, I'd be hurt if I learned that my bride had lived with another man, though it's O.K. if she slept with others a couple of times."
According to Ms. Hahm, the so-called shacking-up movement is a sign that Korea's wedding culture may be getting obsolete. Marriage in Korea goes beyond connubial bliss; it's seen as a union of two families, and young people find the responsibilities daunting.
"Younger people want to choose their own lifestyle," Ms. Hahm said, "and living together seems to be one of the best 'alternative' ways, though not all young people are bold enough to think of it." The sociology professor thinks living together can be acceptable for some young people, but that the Internet sites that promote the trend beget shallowness and cynicism in human relationships.
"And I think this living-together movement, especially just for fun or only to check out each other's personality, does no good for the society," she added. "More specifically, it can raise social problems such as abortion."
Though Mr. Yoon and Ms. Shin answered "Nobody knows" to their future plans, the couple seems quite happy together and give off a sense of security. "My friends who got married don't hesitate to tell me that marriage is like going to the grave," Mr. Yoon said. "But I wouldn't say that about living together; I am so satisfied, and most of all, happy." Posing for a moment, he raised his eyebrows. "We're not doing anything bad, are we?"
by Chun Su-jin