Bright, educated & desperate

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Bright, educated & desperate

The hit TV series "Sex and the City" revolves around four professional women searching for Mr. Right but only discovering Mr. Wrongs: legions of commitment-phobic, narrow-minded, snobbish New York men (with the occasional foot fetisher or cross dresser tossed in for bad luck).

Korean women love the show. But the truth is, their situation is just as bleak.

Smart, upwardly mobile Korean women have changed with the times and are embracing the educational, cultural and professional opportunities that have opened for them on the peninsula and abroad. In the process, though, some miss finding a spouse, and ultimately consider sacrificing their careers for marriage.

"Even if you're successful at work, you end up feeling exhausted and lonely," says Choi Ji-hyun, 28, a former management consultant who now works in the media. "And nothing can fill that loneliness." Except marriage.

Ms. Choi says she wants to wed within the year, and that she'd gladly quit her job to marry and have a family, if that's what her spouse wanted, even though she holds a master's degree in international trade and is considered a rising star at her company.

She's bright, witty and -- this is an understatement -- attractive. She comes from good breeding (her father is a diplomat). But there's a catch.

Korean men. She can't find one willing accept her worldly views (the product of living abroad for much of her life), her strong moral convictions (smokers, drinkers and carousers need not apply) and her belief that women should be on equal footing with men, but be treated as ladies.

She meets innumerable bachelors through friends and her job. But after a few dates, when the relationship should be turning serious, men turn and run. Commitment is a four-letter word in Seoul, she says, just as it is in "Sex and the City."

While Ms. Choi wants nothing more than to marry, Lee Seon-jin is about to walk down the aisle -- and she's petrified.

"It's great to picture myself marrying the man I love, wearing fancy wedding gowns and holding a lovely ceremony," says Ms. Lee, a 28-year-old accountant who has been dating the same man for a year. "But it's frightening that the nation's divorce rate keeps rising and rising."

South Korea recorded its highest divorce and lowest marriage rates in more than three decades in 2001, according to the National Statistical Office. (Statistics for 2002 haven't been released.)

More than 135,000 Korean couples got divorced in 2001. That's 15,000 more than in 2000 and nearly triple the 45,700 couples who divorced in 1990.

Meanwhile, the number of couples marrying dropped to roughly 320,000 in 2001 from 334,000 in 2000 and 399,300 in 1990, according to the agency.

The rising divorce and falling marriage rates are due to a number of reasons including changing values and the pressures of personal debt. "More and more women are highly educated. They have higher expectations as a result of their career opportunities," notes Ryu Seong-hye, a sociologist at Ewha Womans University. "Men, meanwhile, are holding onto traditional values -- that women should sacrifice everything for their family -- and this may be contributing to the rising divorce rate."

Regardless, most singles and social scientists agree that it's not easy to meet people of the opposite sex in Korea. The strict social conventions about approaching strangers, while crumbling, make chance encounters difficult. Couples often meet on the job or are introduced by family or friends.

That has provided a new twist to an old practice in Korea: marriage arrangement. More than 20 companies in Seoul are using databases to match couples; four dominate the market. Although most won't release membership figures, they estimate that between 20,000 and 30,000 singles belong to the clubs.

Even the matchmaking companies say they have problems meeting their clients' age and educational background preferences. "Professional females, who tend to be in their late 20s to mid-30s, are looking for men whose backgrounds are similar to theirs. But professional males tend to be looking for younger women and place a high value on their appearance," notes Hahn Bo-reum, a manager at Daksclub Co., one of the largest matchmaking companies in Seoul.

It's not unusual in Korea, as in many Asian countries, for university-educated men to marry women with high school diplomas. But rarely will a woman holding a university degree want to marry someone with less education.

Daksclub's members pay at least 800,000 won ($685) for three months' membership -- those with professional backgrounds pay 2 to 5 million won -- during which they normally meet 10 to 12 people with comparable backgrounds and interests. Roughly 20 percent of the club's 4,000 to 5,000 members are women with professional backgrounds; just 15 percent are men with similar credentials.

Ms. Hahn notes that even though social and educational backgrounds are significant considerations, they shouldn't be determining factors when marrying. "Background is important when meeting one's better half, but you can't marry and live with another person's conditions [about work and raising a family]," she says. "People should bear in mind that personality comes first."

Marriage counselors caution about scurrying to the altar, noting that the highest divorce rates are among newlyweds with brief courtships. The highest rate for divorce in Korea, 31 percent, is among couples who have been married less than four years; the lowest, 19 percent, is among couples who have been married more than a decade.

"Women shouldn't rush into marriage because they're lonely, getting pressure from the family or think they're getting older," says Kim Ae-soon, the author of the book "Being Single and Fabulous," which suggests taking the time to find a good soulmate. "Life is long enough for people to find and marry appropriate matches."

But the pressure is relentless. "Professional women can't help but feel the need to marry because Korean society places such a high value on marriage," says Bang Hee-jeong, a professor specializing in female psychology at Ehwa Womans University. "In this system, women don't have other options. Furthermore, highly-educated, professional women want to make up for their losses -- spending so much time studying and working -- and the first step is to find a husband to start a family."

Not everyone agrees. Ms. Kim, a successful public relations executive in her mid-30s, who worked in Tokyo and Singapore before returning to Seoul, says she'll sacrifice marriage for her career. "I'm a traditional, conservative girl," says Ms. Kim, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But loving someone is one thing and marrying him is another. Right now, I like the balance [between work and relationships] and would like to leave everything as it is."

Ms. Kim is the exception. More typical is Ms. Park, a 30-year-old dentist from Gyeonggi province, now living in Seoul, whose younger sister is married. (Ms. Park also requested anonymity.)

Lonely, living alone and struggling to make her one-woman dental practice a success, Ms. Park now questions whether the six years she invested in schooling was worth the sacrifice. "Last Lunar New Year, I wished for a boyfriend," says the petite Ms. Park, whose wish didn't come true. "This year, I wished for a husband."

by Kim Hae-noon
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