Choi Young Hee, Professional Matchmaker: Marriage the Shortcut to Successful Settlement in the South
February 4, 2013
The following article appeared on pages 58-61 in the April 2011 issue of NK Vision. Translation courtesy of NKnet volunteer Nova Mercier.
This is the belief of Choi Young Hee, matchmaker of more than 500 couples and president of the company Northern Women and Southern Men Wedding Consulting (남남북녀 결혼컨설팅 – 남남북녀: an old adage referring to the notion that women in the northern part of Korea are the most beautiful, while men in the southern part are the most handsome).
Choi, a professional marriage consultant for North Korean women and South Korean men, emphasizes that northern women are no different than their southern counterparts – they both believe marriage is one of life’s most important events.
Meeting one’s spouse and raising a family is one of life’s turning points, representing a new beginning. In this, North Korean defectors are no different.
According to Choi, this is because northern women are able to settle successfully in the South with the help of a spouse.
“There are limits to how much South Korean friends can help North Korean defectors settle in the South. A spouse, however, can help defectors lead stable lives in the country. This is because husbands are able to play the role of a brother and father.”
Successful marriage, successful settlement
Choi emphasizes that an active effort is required in order for North Korean defectors to meet a good partner, as success in marriage can determine successful settlement into South Korean life.
“I tell the women that they have to make an effort. Some even ask me why they have to provide basic personal records and documents. They need to stop thinking they can meet somebody without doing any work. If you want to change your destiny and have a secure life, then a positive effort is important,” she says.
Generally, she says that most defector women do not expect their potential husbands to have high professional or financial credentials, but some do carry higher expectations.
“(Credentials are)… a reasonable thing to expect but don’t look at the qualifications, look at the person. For North Korean defectors, meeting an understanding person who will take care of them is important. In particular, expectations should be lowered. Those with high expectations have a lower probability of meeting someone who will match their requirements. Keep in mind that if you lower your expectations the possibilities of meeting a good person will be higher.”
Above all, Choi emphasizes that getting to know a new person is the most important thing.
If you only focus on a potential partner’s qualifications and outward appearance you could let a good person slip through your fingers.
She explains, “If you go to meet somebody there is nothing to lose. You should meet somebody a few times and try to get to know them. You could feel warmly towards them, or you could feel disappointed. Undergoing a process like this can raise the possibility of meeting a good partner.”
She says that it’s also important to give off a good first impression, behave politely, and show an interest in the other person.
“When you are trying to find your life partner, you should show a positive attitude. If you made a time to meet, it’s not okay to be late or to not pick up your phone. Your personal appearance should be tidy and you should keep in contact via text message.”
After six years working as a wedding consultant, Choi knows that finding a good partner can aid in the settlement process. However, she has also witnessed the mistakes people have made when choosing a spouse.
These days, one in three South Korean couples will experience divorce. This is not dissimilar to the marriage experiences of North Korean defectors.
But Choi says that only three couples have divorced of all the pairs she has brought together.
In 2005 when her wedding consulting company was established, Choi matched 27 couples. In 2006, she matched 82 couples, and 2007 saw 103 couples brought together. She was able to match 96 and 112 couples in 2008 and 2009, respectively. In 2010, 82 couples were formed for a combined total of 502 couples.
Choi explains that other wedding consulting companies maintain an average matchmaking success rate of 20 percent, whereas Northern Women and Southern Men Wedding Consulting is coming close to a success rate of 70 percent.
She believes this primarily relates to preferences. When northern women make inquiries about southern men they are more concerned about what kind of person he is, as opposed to what credentials or qualifications he may hold.
Southern men like devoted northern women
Choi says, “If a northern woman is introduced to a man who works in a factory or doesn’t have any assets, they will still be married as long as he is caring and loving. For women like these who are living lonely and difficult lives in the South, a reliable husband is more precious than a house or a large fortune.”
Of course, many South Korean women feel the same, but Choi explains that it is both northern women’s disinterest in a potential husband’s credentials and their devotion to their husbands that explains the high marriage rate.
“Northern women respect their husbands. They are helpful around the house. For the most part their families are happy and live together in harmony because of their devotion.”
Choi also emphasizes this desireless dedication to their families can also help northern women conquer the cultural differences between North and South.
Certainly, after working so long in the industry Choi has gained her share of insight.
“Because I have been doing this work for a long time, I am able to read people. After the initial consultation, I am able to decide whether or not I’ll take the person on as a client. During our conversation, or by the expression in their eyes, I can know what kind of person they are and I can feel intuitively what kind of woman they would suit.”
However, Choi, just like many North Korean defectors, was once living a life in South Korea that at times seemed overwhelming. Yet it was no accident that she became a wedding consultant.
Being sociable by nature, she had plenty of friends and knew many people to set up on dates.
But for Choi, removing the label of “defector” in the South had become the most important thing in her life to the extent that facilitating marriages had not entered her mind.
Choi recalls there were occasions from time to time when she found herself introducing southern men to other North Korean defectors. If a man was rejected by one woman, she would introduce him to another.
Choi says, “At first, I brought together one or two people that I thought would make a good couple. This soon led me to start my business.”
“As I was meeting many Southerners during that time, I began to realize how they view North Korea and the defector community. From then on, I started to gain insight into how Southerners think. When marriages began to evolve out of the initial match-making meetings I had set up, the president of the North Korean Defector Association (탈북자 동지회) heard this and made me a proposal. They explained to me that in the South there are plenty of wedding consulting companies, but there are not many enterprises that help defectors. They proposed I start a company that would.”
Choi accepted this proposal and began working as a counselor at the Soongeui Welfare Department (숭의복지부).
In order to acquire skills as a professional matchmaker, she began visiting wedding information companies to seek advice and materials. She says that her experience as a matchmaker greatly helped her to become a professional marriage consultant.
“To gather information and to learn more about the industry, I started studying from the largest wedding companies in the country, like Daks (닥스). I actually became an active member, becoming matched up myself, and began learning the know-how of the field.”
Later, Choi and the chief of Daks became close, and she worked at the company as a manager.
After working in this job for a year she had built up enough experience and professional counseling skills to establish her own company. In November 2005, she founded Northern Women and Southern Men Wedding Consulting.
Wedding consulting is highly satisfying work
By this time, Choi had begun to realize that bringing together couples was enjoyable, but it was helping women who had overcome the same life or death crises she had that made her feel her work was worthwhile.
Throughout the interview Choi emphasized her belief that, “The shortcut to successful settlement in South Korea is marriage.”
“Helping to find supportive partners for North Korean women who have come to the South to find freedom is really fulfilling work. I am so busy to the extent I have no free time on the weekends. But I find strength when I see my efforts result in the creation of happy families.”
Unsurprisingly, Choi has formed emotional bonds with her clients. Despite feeling tired, when she gets a phone call saying “I’m pregnant,” or “It’s my baby’s first birthday party,” she says she feels a sense of personal satisfaction.
“When I see clients who are happy I also feel thankful. Now sons and daughters are being born and growing up in a happy family. There are also many couples these days that have become pregnant. Every time I hear news like this I, too, am glad. In the future, I will continue to do my best and put in a positive effort so that more couples can meet and live happily.”
Choi believes that women who came from North Korea amid sad circumstances to find freedom in the South are able to maintain close relationships with each other due to this shared experience.
“I feel close to North Korean defector women. Despite only having met somebody once, it’s like I’ve known them for a long time. Through our shared experiences, we can open our hearts and speak frankly to each other. If this kind of sympathy wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have enjoyed this much success.”
Choi notes that while divorce among her clients is very rare, breakups have occurred due to alcohol abuse by the husband.
“I feel very sad when marriages fail. In some cases, the women are unaware of severe alcohol abuse issues before marriage. One husband was cheating on his wife and another beat his wife every day after coming home drunk. I honestly feel a sense of responsibility for cases like these. There was one time when I consoled a woman after her breakup. Then I introduced her to another man who became her second husband.”
Learning about South Korean society by running a roadside food stall
Choi has also had her share of difficult experiences.
Before starting her wedding consulting company in 2005, she lived the same hard and overwhelming life many defectors face today.
“Coming from a socialist society, it was really difficult for me to figure out everything about living in South Korea on my own.”
In 2002, while doing part-time jobs at places like convenience stores, saunas, and restaurants, Choi went through every possible hardship.
“Life was difficult. In the process of settling down in the South I was deceived by people and had problems with love and money. It was so hard. I knew nothing, and it was difficult to adapt to a place where I had no relatives. To top it all off, I underwent difficulties like having to find where to eat, and how to find a place to live.”
But Choi persevered for her young daughter, who had also come with her to the South.
She struggled hard to save money, though her low monthly pay made it difficult to accumulate much.
She eventually began working a roadside foot stall, which did not require much money to start and allowed her to show off her cooking skills. While running the stall for around two years, Choi was able to gain regular customers and a good income.
Choi’s life became more secure as she realized that saving money could be fun.
“While running the roadside stall, I began to learn a lot about Korean society that I hadn’t known before. At that time, in order to become a Southerner, I realized I had to learn the skills I needed by myself in order to live well. Frankly, in a capitalist society only money has importance. It’s a sad fact that if you have no money it is difficult to live, but for my young daughter I was determined to succeed.”
Forget the idea of making money quickly
Choi also notes that while the process of making money in South Korea may be difficult, she stresses that it is unwise to be led into the temptation of making easy money. She directs her criticism particularly at those women who choose to make money in the adult entertainment industry.
“In this capitalist society it’s upsetting that many North Korean women are choosing to work in such places for easy money. It’s because of women like these that there is a negative image of defectors in South Korean society. We’ve risked a lot to come here, which means we should work hard. There is so much to learn and there are a lot of good things one could do – I don’t understand why anyone would want to learn bad things. Don’t try to make easy money! You have to make money drawing on your own strengths, and in a healthy and honorable way.”
She also adds, “Don’t spend too much time dreaming. You actually have to go out and achieve things for yourself. Successfully settling down in the South requires a lot of effort, just as farmers toil in the fields to harvest their crops.”
Finally, Choi also provided a tip from her experience as a food stall worker and marriage consultant: you have to enjoy the process of saving money.
“Don’t be upset if you have no money, and don’t try to get it for free. Going out and working hard is important. Don’t be greedy for big sums of money. Try and lose yourself in the joy of saving money.”
“We refugees have to set an example for reunification. We should settle well and live well, so when unification occurs we will be able to honorably face the families we left behind.”