"The room that I lived in with that girl was so far below the ground level that it was deeper than a well." That is a line from the 1977 novel "Raise the Bucket" by Choi In-ho where a college student moves into a basement flat with a girl who makes a living as a pickpocket. The novel is filled with invectives hurled at Korean society, where cohabitation before marriage is frowned on. The book ends with the rebellious young man returning to his parents. The motif of the prodigal son serves as one of the supporting themes of the novel.
In novels published since 2000, cohabitation before marriage has not been treated as a social evil. Some depict, for instance, a woman in her 30s having no qualms about shacking up with a man in his 20s or a woman in her 20s boldly announcing to her parents her intention to move in with a man.
The 2003 TV drama "Cat on the Roof" popularized the romantic notion of unmarried couples moving in together, which has now become a staple theme among many TV soap operas. The show "Just Married" also shows the joys and sorrows of an unmarried couple living together, and was a hit despite criticism that it promotes living in sin. Amid this trend, more and more young couples live together in college neighborhoods. One Internet portal surveyed 1,167 university students and found that 43 percent had no problems in living together with members of the opposite sex.
Figures published earlier this week by Statistics Korea show that 59.3 percent of Koreans in their 20s have no qualms about living with a member the opposite sex before marriage. Of those, 44.6 percent were men and 36.6 percent women. In 2008, a survey by a matchmaking agency showed that 59 percent of Koreans saw nothing wrong with cohabitation before marriage. In reality, such arrangements are beneficial in terms of cost since couples can split the rent and share dining-out and entertainment expenses.
The number of unmarried couples moving together in France has been growing since the 1980s. Not only was the trend due to more open attitudes toward sex, it also had to do with an increase in the number of couples finding it financially difficult to marry and have children due to a shortage of jobs. Since 1999, the French government began recognizing couples living together for more than three years as to all intents and purposes married under a new set of people-friendly policies. The move led to equal treatment for married couples and unmarried ones who live together.
The rise in unemployment among young Koreans and an increasing tendency among women to shun marriage play a role here too. At this rate, Korea will see increasing numbers of unmarried couples moving in together simply for financial reasons. The government may well end up following French footsteps.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Park Hae-hyun