A wisecracking professional matchmaker breaks the ice as 40 people aged in their 20s and 30s gather at a hotel for a blind date.
Mass blind dates are common in South Korea, but there’s something unusual about this event in Asan: The city government is the one playing Cupid.
“Matchmaking is no longer a personal business, it’s the duty of the nation,” Yu Yang-sun, a municipal official organizing the recent event, told reporters in the city 90km south of Seoul.
“Newborn babies are hardly seen here these days. If the young grow older unmarried and produce no kids, the nation will no longer have the basic human resources to sustain itself,” Yu said.
Asan’s birthrate is 1.08, much lower even than the low national average, said Ko Bun-ja, one of Yu’s deputies who is helping organize the event.
“Well, folks, give birth to a baby and become a patriot like me,” Noh Gyeong-seon, who is seven months pregnant, told the group as she proudly displayed her bump.
Some blushed, others giggled.
Five hours later, 12 of the 40 had decided to keep dating — much to the delight of city officials hearing the distant chime of wedding bells.
After years of promoting family planning in the crowded nation of 48.6 million, South Korea in recent years has become increasingly alarmed at the prospect of an aging society — with a huge pensions bill and too few workers to sustain economic growth.
The government is increasing the number of nursery schools and providing more financial support — such as tax breaks or subsidized baby-sitting — for married couples who start families. Cash gifts are sometimes provided for newborns.
But the birthrate — the average number of babies born during a woman’s lifetime — remained near the world’s lowest at 1.19 last year. Fears are growing that the population will start shrinking within a decade.
“It is a quasi-emergency situation,” Minister of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs Jeon Jae-hee told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper recently. “If the low birthrate continues, the nation will no longer be able to exist, with all four state insurance systems set to malfunction.”
The homogeneous society may have to rely on foreign immigrant labor to stay afloat, Jeon said.
The economic downturn is making it even harder to reverse the downward trend.
The number of marriages fell 4.6 percent year-on-year to 329,600 last year and the number of births dropped 5.5 percent to 466,000, official data show.
“Because of economic difficulties, couples delay marriage and consequently birthrates are falling,” said Jeon Baek-geun, director of the National Statistical Office.
He predicts the population will peak at 49 million in 2018 and then start falling.
Asan launched a state-run center in 2007 to fund the matchmaking business, the first local government in the country to do so. It has since been joined by Seoul’s southern district of Seocho and the southwestern city of Jeongup, among others.
Asan brought 300 people together through quarterly blind dates last year. Twenty of them are still dating, with marriage in mind, and the city says it will continue the initiative.
Its marriage and counseling center has registered 1,700 people looking for spouses, along with detailed information such as the preferred type of partner, hobbies and religious and academic backgrounds.
Officials say the nation’s low birthrate is partly due to more women joining the workforce and the lack of a comprehensive welfare system.
The high cost of child-rearing is also a deterrent.
Education-obsessed South Koreans traditionally spend small fortunes on private schools or private tuition to give their offspring an edge in a competitive society.
“This is a country where it’s really uncomfortable to marry and raise children, given the shocking cost of education,” said Bang Jeong-ju, 30, one of the women on the recent blind date in Asan.
“My friends all say that if you cannot afford to give your kids a really good education, just don’t get pregnant. Otherwise, pregnancy would be a sin,” Bang said.
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