Less and Later Marriage in South Korea

Hyunjoon Park, Korea Foundation Professor of Sociology, sheds light on why marriage rates are falling in South Korea, particularly among highly educated women and low-educated men.

Hyunjoon Park, Korea Foundation Professor of Sociology

The marriage rates in South Korea—and in other wealthy East Asian countries like Japan and Taiwan—are declining. Fewer people are tying the knot, or are waiting longer to do so. In a new article in the journal Demography, Hyunjoon Park, Korea Foundation Professor of Sociology, and co-author James Raymo of Princeton University summarize their research on the effects of the changing marriage market in South Korea.

Raymo and Park based their research on two five-year periods, twenty years apart (1985-89 in comparison to 2005-2009).  Examination of the data show that the marriage rates have significantly declined between the two periods. Raymo and Park’s research found a particularly interesting decline among highly educated women and low-educated men.

Why is this happening?

More and more women are earning college degrees, while men are not keeping pace, explains Park, who is also Director of the James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies. The educational composition changes within a society that is characterized by a strong gender-based division of labor (women stay home with children, while men work) and substantial gender inequality is resulting in a disproportionate marriage market.

“In societies with strong gender-based divisions of labor like South Korea, highly educated women tend to want a partner with equal or more education than themselves,” says Park. “For South Korean women who attended university, we see an almost 10 percentage point decline in terms of the predictive probability of marriage by age 45, and only half of low-educated men—those who did not attend high school—are getting married by age 45.”

With more women achieving higher rates of education, partners of equal or greater education levels are becoming harder to find. Instead of marrying men with lower education levels, these women are delaying marriage or not getting married at all. This causes a ripple effect. Now, low-educated men  also have fewer options in the marriage market. However, Raymo and Park found that low-educated men are realizing a way to bridge the gap.

"Marriage and family life are becoming expensive propositions in South Korea and are increasingly only available to the highly educated and wealthy."

In a novel finding, Raymo and Park’s research highlights the impact of the recent trend on the marriage rates: that low-educated South Korean men are marrying foreign-born women, primarily from Vietnam, China, and the Philippines, at a much higher rate than before. Often, these marriage connections are made through matchmaking services and agencies, says Park. The increase in these marriages is significant.

“When we looked at the 20-year difference, we found that if there was no international marriage between these two periods, the overall marriage rate would be lower by almost 10 percentage points for low-educated Korean men,” says Park. So, while the educational composition of the marriage market in South Korea is leading to less and later marriage, that decline is mitigated by low-educated men making international marriages.

Raymo and Park’s research demonstrates that context matters. The article, titled “Marriage Decline in Korea: Changing Composition of the Domestic Marriage Market and Growth in International Marriage," makes the case that the decline in marriage rates in South Korea is not only due to the decline in the desirability of marriage but also to a reduction in the feasibility of marriage. Previous studies in East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have argued that women are delaying or skipping marriage because their education levels (and subsequent careers) no longer make marriage desirable to them. Raymo and Park find that, in South Korea, desirability is not the only problem. In fact, although weakening, the desire to be married is still strong.

“Many highly educated women in South Korea still find the prospect of marriage desirable, they just can’t find the partners they find desirable,” says Park. “We also find that the social norm of a clear gender-based division of labor within marriage remains strong within the country.”

Raymo and Park’s paper extends the research on marriage markets in East Asia in two important ways. Previous research on Japan only looked at women, while Raymo and Park found a similar impact on low-educated men, which provides stronger evidence to support the marriage market composition argument overall. Second, their examination of the role of international marriage in compensating for the declining marriage pool for low-educated men is new to the field.

Currently, Park is building on his research and writing a book on the topic of family as a luxury in South Korea.

“Marriage and family life are becoming expensive propositions in South Korea and are increasingly only available to the highly educated and wealthy. I see big shifts in family behavior between low-educated and highly educated populations, and my book will deal with those changes,” says Park.


By Katelyn Silva