CBC in South Korea

In this South Korean university course, dating isn't just for fun — it's compulsory

Facing a low national birth rate and concerns about dating abuse, a college course at a university in Seoul is teaching students about the foundations of healthy dating relationships, writes Matt Kwong.

Love lessons meant to educate generation that shuns marriage, home ownership, parenthood

Geun il Lee, left, and Po Kyung Kang, both 24, met on a compulsory date through a university course in Seoul that requires the students to date each other and document their experiences. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

She was interested. He was... distracted.

On their first mandatory dating "mission" last semester — lunch in the university cafeteria — 24-year-old Geun il Lee missed his classmate's signals.

He thought little of the fact that Po Kyung Kang, also 24, ordered another coffee to prolong their date, even though she mentioned she was late for her part-time job. He was nonchalant when she proposed they meet again — next time, off campus — to watch a two-and-a-half-hour historical epic about the second Manchu invasion of Korea.

"I agreed to see a movie with her without much thought," Lee said. He was too anxiety-ridden about an upcoming job interview to notice his lab partner was courting him. Lee figured their random pairing and compulsory lunch date was merely another academic obligation before he joins the workforce.

In fact, it was part of a course at Dongguk University in Seoul. But as a South Korean millennial, Lee's attitude was typical of many of his contemporaries — blasé about pursuing romantic relationships, focused on his CV, worried about his financial future.

Kang and Lee recently celebrated their 100-day anniversary, a milestone for some Korean couples. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

It might explain why Lee saw his promising get-together with Kang as little more than an assignment.

"I took this course because I was short one credit," he said. "I didn't expect anything to come of it."

Something did come of it. Lee and Kang are sharing their first Valentine's Day as a couple — another match made in professor Jae Sook Jang's love, sex and healthy relationships course, which requires students to date each other in three randomly assigned pairings, over separate dating "missions."

If that sounds forced, so be it, said professor Jang, who devised the curriculum 10 years ago amid concerns about plummeting marriage and birth rates in South Korea.

"The class is about dating and love, but it's not meant to encourage people to be in relationships. There are lots of people against dating and against relationships these days in Korea," Jang said. "But I do believe you should at least try and date, to try to be in a relationship once, to know if it's right for you."

Plunging birth rates

The desire to create love connections between classmates is perhaps understandable in baby-bereft South Korea. The new economics of singledom is breeding despair among a so-called "Sampo Generation," or "triple abandonment" cohort — people in their 20s and 30s who are too worried about financial security to pursue marriage, home ownership or parenthood.

Birth rates here have plunged, and are among the world's lowest. The Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs estimates that by 2100, nearly half of South Korea's population (48.2 per cent) will be 65 or older. Soaring housing prices, high tuition, a weak pensions system and high child-care costs are being blamed for why fewer people are having kids.

Broadly speaking, marriage in socially conservative South Korea is a precursor to child-bearing. As such, dating is viewed as a step toward tying the knot.

"I have some students who say, 'I'm not getting married anyways, so what's the point of pursuing a relationship?'" Jang said. "I tell them, 'Don't think of dating as part of the process of marriage. It's an independent thing.'"

Students enter college consumed by anxieties about career prospects, Jang said, but don't often parcel out as much time anymore to date.

Dongguk University professor Jae Sook Jang devised the mandatory dating course 10 years ago. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"A chance for these young people to date, even as part of a course, is part of the appeal."

The professor is encouraged by her class's popularity. More than 500 people register every term. Only 60 spots open on a first-come, first-served basis.

"Everybody knows at Dongguk University, this is the most in-demand course," she said last week at her lab. Nearby, Lee and Kang bantered playfully about having recently celebrated their "baek-il," or 100-day anniversary.

The 'burden' of parenthood

Kang grew up believing she would eventually wed someone and have children.

"But nowadays, I'm starting to feel that having a child is maybe a burden." 

Even if she does marry someone, friends dismiss her aspirational nuclear family as improbable. "They say, 'Oh, marriage and a child? Good luck with that.'"

Jang's class emphasizes healthy relationships, not necessarily family or fertility. A large component is promoting romantic relationships as worthwhile, and combating perceptions that dating is expensive or emotionally toxic.

Classes such as the dating and relationships course at Dongguk are seen as one way to combat declining birth rates in South Korea. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"It's a problem worldwide, but in Korean society, there's a misunderstanding that love is equivalent to obsession," Jang said. "That if you love someone, you're obsessed with them, and that you want to keep them as a possession." 

A 2017 study released by the Korean Institute of Criminology found that nearly 80 per cent of the 2,000 South Korean male respondents were found to have exhibited physically or psychologically abusive behaviours to their dating partners.

Jang said her lectures about warning-sign behaviours — snooping a partner's text messages, imposing curfews, dictating what someone should wear — are illuminating for many of her pupils.

"I felt like I learned what behaviours were OK and what I shouldn't tolerate," said Hyeun Ae Jang, 24, a student who enrolled in the course in the fall after experiencing dating abuse by a controlling ex.  

Jang said her professor has brightened her outlook on romantic relationships and possibly motherhood. Most of her girlfriends don't want to have kids, reasoning it would be too difficult to balance family with work pressures. But she would consider trying to have children "if the economic conditions were right."
Hyeun Ae Jang, 24, a student in last term's dating and relationships course, said she signed up for the class after experiencing dating abuse. 'I learned what I shouldn't put up with and what not to tolerate,' she said. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Lee, Kang's boyfriend, had the same caveat. 

Professor Jang relishes her dual role as lecturer and matchmaker. Two couples who met in her class have gone on to wed, and she officiated one ceremony. Jang assumes children will be on the way.

The professor wanted to dispel the myth that students who end up dating score better grades. In fact, Kang and Lee earned a B-plus and a C-plus, respectively. The professor's star pupil, Jang, got an A-plus, and is single.

Single, her student said — and quite content.

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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