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By Kim Soo-yeon
SEOUL, Jan. 10 (Yonhap) -- Han Jun-seok, a 32-year-old office worker, feels laden with worry when his girlfriend asks him when he's going to pop the question.
Han finally landed a job at a pharmaceutical company late last year after failing for years in his pursuit of becoming an accountant, but he's hesitant to tie the knot. Although he's reached what many see as the right age to get married, he feels that economic burdens still stand in the way.
"My girlfriend waited for me for a few years until I got a job. But now she is pressing me to pop the question as early as possible. But I'm not ready to get married because I don't have enough money," he said.
Han is among the growing number of South Koreans who are either delaying marriage or reluctant to tie the knot because they believe that they are not financially prepared for such a major life event.
Add to that social changes in which more women receive higher education and enter the workforce -- thus focusing more on their careers than marriage -- and the result is that more South Koreans are putting off their nuptials, raising the average age for tying the knot.
According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, among 492 single Korean men aged 30 to 35, a shortage of earned income topped the list of reasons to delay marriage with 14.3 percent, followed by anxiety of job security with 13.9 percent.
For 271 single women under the same age group, missing the "appropriate" time for marriage ranked first with 17.6 percent, while employment conditions accounted for a mere 4.4 percent.
"For single men, being either unemployed or lacking stable income sources seemed to serve as important factors for postponing marriage," said Sohn Joo-young, deputy director for the ministry's division of population policy.
In 2009, a total of 76 percent of about 1,740 single men were found to have an inclination to get married, down from 83 percent in 2005, according to the survey.
Out of about 1,580 unmarried women, a total of 73.1 percent said they want to walk down the aisle, slightly down from 73.8 percent, it added.
"In general, men have more of an inclination or feel more of a need to get married than women. But the survey shows men's willingness to wed declined more sharply than women between the cited period, mainly due to insecure employment conditions," Sohn said.
Since the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis took away the long-cherished notion of lifetime employment in South Korea, the job market situation has grown bleak with the portion of temporary or part-time workers increasing.
The local economy recovered swiftly from the recent global financial turmoil, but people have yet to feel the full impact of the recovery as the jobless rate was presumed to reach 3.8 percent last year. The unemployment rate among people aged between 15 and 29 has hovered above 6 percent.
"As more young people regard marriage as a matter of choice, they are holding off on getting married," said Lee Sam-sik, head of the low fertility and aging society research division at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
"Changes in traditional values about marriage, instability in job market conditions and rising wedding costs are putting pressure on them to delay marriage."
In land-starved South Korea, skyrocketing home prices are mainly to blame for a pile of economic burdens for couples looking to tie the knot.
Lim Jung-mee (alias), a 31-year-old female office worker, never hesitates to say that the costs associated with finding housing were among the biggest reasons she could not help but hold off on her nuptials.
"I wanted to get married three years ago, but you can't just get married because you're in love -- it takes a considerable amount of money," said Lim, who got married in December to her husband of the same age after a 10-year relationship. "My husband's parents could not help us financially in securing a home, so we needed more time to save up money."
Lim and her husband managed to find a leased two-room house spanning 15 pyeong in the eastern part of Seoul. One pyeong equals 3.3 square meters.
According to Sunoo, one of the country's largest matchmaking firms, the average newly married couple spent 172.5 million won (US$154,017) in preparation for their wedding in 2009, more than double the average of 82.8 million won in 2000.
In 2009, newlyweds needed an average of 127 million won to secure housing, sharply up from 46.3 million won seen in 2000, indicating that finding a home is one of the main economic burdens for Koreans in a society where men usually provide a home upon marriage.
In South Korea, owning a home has long been regarded as the main way to augment one's assets. But as higher real estate prices make it difficult for the large numbers of would-be newlyweds to buy a home, most of them turn to leasing by paying key money in a lump sum, called "jeonse," under a two-year contract.
Job market jitters have also led to a reduced number of marriages and raised the average age for tying the knot, which is feared to aggravate the problem of South Korea's low birthrate, experts say.
According to a report by the Bank of Korea (BOK), if temporary jobs increase by 1 percentage point, the number of marriages will fall by 330 and the jobless rate will rise by the same margin, with the cases of marriage declining by between 835 and 1,040.
If other variables were to remain intact, and housing prices and jeonse prices rise by 1 percentage point, the number of marriages would fall by 78 and 100, respectively.
"To tackle the low birthrate and the problems of an aging society, efforts are needed to cut child-rearing expenses and increase childcare facilities. But fundamental solutions (to these problems) would be to bolster job security and reduce the jobless rate," said Yi Sang-ho, a senior economist at the Institute for Monetary and Economic Research under the BOK.
"To help reduce economic burdens of young people preparing for marriage, it is important that (the government) stabilize home prices, in particular, jeonse prices."
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