I drove 700 kilometers (435 miles) from Seoul to my hometown after hearing that the mother of a close friend had passed away. Even though we met at the reception room of a mourning altar, it was good to see old school friends gathered in one place. Shortly after exchanging greetings, a period of awkward silence descended. But the conversation turned lively when a friend started talking about another friend who recently married off his son. This is a familiar scene among people in their mid-50s. The weddings of their children are some of the big moments as mature parents.
“They had to marry him off quickly because the bride was already pregnant,” he said. “Fortunately, he graduated from a medical school. Otherwise, marriages are so hard these days.”
Then another friend pitched in. “Don’t start on it. I have two single sons - 29 and 26. I cannot get a good night’s sleep when I think about them.”
Another sighed, “By the time a boy finishes military service and returns from an overseas language course to build his credentials, he’s already 27. Still, decent jobs are hard to get. It was much easier in our time.”
“It’s not easy even if you have a job with a large company,” the next friend chimed in. “You can save 10 million won ($9,010) at most in a year. But jeonse (lump sum housing contracts) in even small provincial cities is over 130 million won. Who wants to get married to a man without a home these days? It takes at least 100 million won to marry off a son.” He added that he envied people who had daughters.
A friend who had two daughters snapped back, “That’s ridiculous. Do you know how calculating boys are these days? They inquire what kind of job their would-be-bride has and how long she can sustain the job after marriage. It is not so easy to meet their so-called criteria.” He raved on, “Truly, house rents have gone up. It would be OK if the boy’s family asked the bride to help out on the rent. Instead, we are required to cough up luxury watches, mink coats and designer bags. Do they want to make it even just because they paid for the rent?”
Rants about marriage and dowries evolved into outbursts about the younger generation in general.
“What is wrong with them anyway? We all started from a cold single-room in the basement.”
“It is now taboo to ask younger folks why they don’t get married when we meet them during holidays.” Then suddenly they all turned on me as a representative of the press.
One friend complained,” Your newspaper writes that welfare populism can ruin the country. But you’re totally wrong. If young people can’t marry, there won’t be children. And there will always be money enough for free universal child care and school meals.” The bitter sarcasm continued. “If you ask me, what this country needs is not free-for-all day care and school meals but a free marriage system. I miss the eccentric presidential candidate Huh Kyung-young who pledged to offer 100 million won to those who get married.”
Given the mood at my hometown funeral parlor, the next presidential candidate who promises to pay for marriages for young couples would immediately win the hearts of the 50s generation. Lawmakers may even have to get in on the marriage platform by promising to make it a crime if dowries or marriage budgets stretch beyond a fixed limit. Bolder politicians could promise to finance marriages for young people. Of course, they will assure the public that the funds are available. Politicians always do.
The finance ministry will argue that our fiscal integrity remains above the average for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Even if money runs short, the government can always raise tobacco prices on the reasoning that it is in the best interest of public health. Taxpayers’ year-end bills would, of course, shoot up, but the government can allow them to pay the bills in 12-month installments if they complain.
Opposition party head Moon Jae-in would surely assert that financing won’t be a problem if 100 trillion won worth of tax deductions for the rich are scrapped. President Park Geun-hye would likely join the chorus by stressing that making marriages easy for everyone was the primary reason why she became the president.
Korea’s modern marriage rituals were established in the 1960s and early 1970s. In those days, the cost of acquiring a home - the responsibility of the boy’s side -and the cost of buying furniture and appliances - the bride’s - was almost the same. Now home values are about four times more even if the bride buys the most expensive electronic appliances and furniture. The cost is unsustainable for average families. There is no future for a society in which young people cannot marry because they can’t afford the cost of getting hitched. Before talking about welfare, taxes and reforming labor regulations, our society seriously needs to do something about our abnormal marriage practices. This is no laughing matter.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 24, Page 34
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho