When Park Ji-hee started looking for a husband, she was worried that her very ordinary background – her father is a government official and she is a junior high school teacher – would interfere with her plans to marry rich.
So the 29-year-old bought designer dresses and had her hair done before every date. Her father even leased a BMW so she could make a better impression when she arrived at restaurants.
She thought she had struck the jackpot when she met a man of the same age who owned a profitable media company, and started hearing wedding bells.
But Ji-hee’s mother did some snooping and discovered the company was actually a struggling back-office operation. Like her daughter, this potential son-in-law was displaying aspirations rather than reality. That was the end of the “romance”.
Money has become so important in relationships these days that Koreans are not leaving anything to chance.
In addition to checking out claims about owning companies or having apartments in the affluent Kangnam area of southern Seoul, young Koreans are increasingly asking potential spouses for their credit histories.
A recent survey by Korea Credit Bureau, a credit information agency, found that one in three singles said they would check their partner’s credit rating before agreeing to marriage.
“Young men and women can meet boyfriends and girlfriends easily but they might not know enough information about them,” says Seo Tae-yeol, an executive at the credit bureau. “So they should get all the information they need – like a medical report and credit history. Then they can build trust,” he says.
Matchmaking agencies already require graduation and employment certificates from singles to calculate their “desirability rating”.
“Traditionally, people would take education, profession and family background into consideration when looking for a partner,” says Hong Kyung-hee, a “couple manager” at Daks Club, one of the biggest matchmaking agencies.
“But those things don’t matter so much any more. It doesn’t even matter if she’s not very pretty – there’s always plastic surgery,” says Ms Hong, who has 10,000 singles on her books. “Now it’s money that matters.”
In Korea, marriage is not just a love union between two people, it is a pact between two families, where the right mix of cash and cachet can benefit both sides. Traditional match-making is therefore still widely used.
Matchmakers such as Ms Hong have hundreds of tales of money mixing love. Like the parents who made their daughter call off her engagement to a man whose family lived in an apartment that was considered too small.
Wealthy singles find themselves overwhelmingly popular.
A Korean millionaire this month advertised his 38-year-old daughter through the Sunwoo dating agency, saying he was looking for a man to look after his only child – and his money.
“She studied abroad and now is a professional with a fairly good salary and property worth more than $2m,” the unnamed man was quoted as saying. “Her only shortcomings are that she’s a bit old and she’s short.”
The man was so inundated with would-be sons-in-law that other business chiefs hit upon the same idea, sparking a string of single-but-rich daughters being put up for grabs. For those without large bank balances, they can always try to be financially suggestive.
It did not work for Park Ji-hee, but it has for another of Ms Hong’s clients, a rather plain looking woman who “accidentally” spills half a dozen bank account books from her handbag when she meets men.
“A man who didn’t find her attractive at the start suddenly thought she was appealing, and now they’re dating,” Ms Hong says.
But what about love?
“Marriage is half about money and half about love,” the match-maker explains. “Everyone has an ‘ideal type’ in their mind so they come here with lots of conditions. After those conditions have been met, then they can think about emotions.”