2d marriages gaining acceptanceSitting before the computer in his one-room apartment, 62-year-old Park Jang-il is happy as a hare in clover playing online games, while the voice of golden-oldies singer Pat Boone wafts from the stereo.
Though his apartment is small, it is neatly organized and well-appointed. Unlike many bachelor pads, Mr. Park’s flat in Gaepo-dong, southern Seoul has no dirty laundry or loose socks lying about, nor even a hint of previous days’ leftovers.
It would be difficult to conclude that Mr. Park has lived alone since divorcing 13 years ago.
His two sons have long grown up and begun their own lives, apart from him. But for the sharp-eyed, a picture on the wall of Mr. Park posing alone in Washington beside some pillars hints that he has no wife.
“Living alone is the most comfortable thing you can imagine,” Mr. Park insists. “Especially for a person like me, who is the only son in the family and very self-indulged.”
Mr. Park says that as recently as a few years ago he never felt lonely; because he had so much work, he gave little thought to needing a soul mate. Want to do the laundry? Just throw the dirty clothes in the machine, Mr. Park says. Want to eat? There’s a great selection of cuisine at the corner restaurant.
But it turns out that no matter how much Mr. Park expounds on the joys of single living, he now longs to share his life with someone else. The absence of a companion hit him hard last year, when he was so sick he could not sit properly.
“I thought to myself, ‘What if I die like this, alone?’ ” Mr. Park recalls. “I could die and nobody would know about it.”
Mr. Park continues, “I would like to have someone whom I could grow old with, someone whom I could cuddle and spend my time riding Rollerblades or dancing with.”
Since then he has gone on dates with several older women, an uncommon concept in Korea to this day. Though none of the ladies he has shared evenings with at a dabang, or coffeehouse, has yet met his standards, Mr. Park says he will stick to the mature dating scene until he finds the perfect mate with whom to live out his days.
It turns out Mr. Park is not the only older Korean seeking a soul mate. The country has witnessed a sharp rise in the number of elderly people seeking mates or getting remarried, a sharp contrast with figures from only a decade ago.
Last year 47,000 men and 52,595 women remarried, according to the Korea National Statistical Office. Of these, 2,463 men and 1,091 women were between 55 and 59 years old; that is more than double the 1990 levels.
Among those aged 60 and above, last year 2,300 men and 703 women registered as husband and wife, compared to 1,400 men and 297 women in 1990.
Marriage among older women, long considered shameful in Korea, has witnessed a spurt in recent years. It is fueled, experts in the field say, by increasing acceptance in Korean society of second marriages.
“The unfavorable perception of second marriages contributed by Confucian thought ― which frowns on women who remarry ― has changed in recent years,” says Kang Il-jeong, a counselor at the Korea Legal Aid Center For Family Relations. “Now people are more free to make their own choices and enjoy the remaining days of their lives.”
The increasing divorce rate also accounts for the growing number of elderly people who remarry.
In 2002, about 145,000 couples divorced, a 7.6 percent rise from the previous year. That translates into 398 couples splitting up daily.
Korean adults who divorce in their 40s tend to feel especially lonely when they enter their 60s, explains Ms. Kang, because that is when their children begin to form their own families and pay less attention to their parents.
“Then, elderly people start searching for something meaningful in their lives and they wish to live feeling like a woman, feelings they had ignored while tending to their children in younger years,” Ms. Kang continues.
Improvements in medical care have also contributed to the remarriage trend, Ms. Kang says. In 1960, Koreans’ average life expectancy was 52.4 years, but by 1999 that had been prolonged to 75.6 years of age.
Advances in health care have also improved the sex life of people in their 60s and above.
Consider Baik Joo-do, a 79-year-old who has been dating a woman 15 years his junior for the last eight years. Mr. Baik likes to brag about how his sex life has hardly changed since he was in his prime.
“Age is not a problem anymore,” Mr. Baik insists. “Medical science has made a miracle for my girlfriend and me.”
Mr. Baik talks at length about dates and tours he has taken with his girlfriend. Recalling when he gave her a huge bouquet of flowers on her birthday, he giggles. Mr. Baik goes on about how the woman stole his heart, but has kept him feeling perpetually young.
So why not get married and move in together? Mr. Baik bridles at the suggestion. Marriage would ruin a perfect relationship, he insists.
“I’ve often seen those who rush into matrimony regret it later ― or break up, in the worst-case scenario,” Mr. Baik says.
In particular, Mr. Baik worries that if he gets married his children and his girlfriend’s children would not support them as they do now; they would become a lot more businesslike.
“It’s all about money,” Mr. Baik says. “Dating is different; all you need to do is have money to date, but bringing someone into the family would only complicate the financial inheritance, which will expose hatred and envy.”
Mr. Baik adds that marriage also requires finding money to live together. But since income is scarce for both himself and his girlfriend, he says, marriage would disturb a delicately arranged lifestyle.
Jeon Young-eun, a counselor at the Korean Information and Referral Service Center on Aging, says the most common complaints she hears from elderly people eager to marry center on their children’s objections.
Much of the family bickering concerns the issue of inheritance, explains Ms. Jeon, since the wife’s portion of the inherited fortune tends to be larger than those for the children.
“Some of the children say they would agree on a wedding ceremony but will not put their father’s new bride’s name on their family registration,” Ms. Jeon says, adding “I can understand because in some cases that ends up as fraud.”
Ms. Jeon relates one case of a 50-year-old woman who married a 70-year-old man, only to run off with his entire fortune three years after they married.
“It happens, whether we like it or not, and that’s why 80 percent of the children of elderly people who wish to get married oppose it,” Ms. Jeon says.
Most elderly people are aware of the consequences, Ms. Jeon says, but their loneliness tugs at them strongly day after day. “They are also human, and no matter what their age is, people do tend to feel lonely.”
She continues, “The number of elderly people is increasing rapidly in our society as well, and more lonely people will seek their matrimonial partner at a late age.”
Whereas Koreans above age 60 accounted for 7 percent of the population in 2000, government officials project that this age bracket will make up 14 percent of the total in 2019 and 20 percent in 2026.
“It’s about time that we accept that [marriage is] one way to spend the remaining years of one’s life with someone, even if it’s a second marriage, and congratulate them,” Ms. Jeon says.
Mr. Park clearly seconds that opinion. Despite his best efforts, however, he has hit choppy waters so far. A couple of days ago, the woman he met on a blind date did not appeal to him because she was too Korean, he says.
“The woman was waiting for me in front of a dabang, instead of waiting for me in the coffeehouse,” Mr. Park says. “She said she was too embarrassed to sit by herself.
“I want someone who is more lively and more outgoing, instead of someone who is plainly shy and timid,” he grumbles.
Today, Mr. Park has donned a spiffy suit and tie, hoping to impress the woman he’s been set up with. Who knows? She might be the person he spends the rest of his days with.
by Lee Ho-jeong