Kim Seul-ki, a manager at Lush Korea, has publicly declared her commitment to singledom by holding a solo wedding.
“Now that everyone knows I’ve declared sologamy, questions about my marital status just naturally dissipated. It’s very satisfying and I can’t think of any negative sides to it,” Kim, 39, said, recalling her marriage to herself last year.
“It made me feel like my perspective on life and my values could be accepted as they are,” she added.
Kim was among six employees at the UK-based cosmetic retailer’s Korean unit that received the company’s "sologamy" benefits last year. They include a special cash bonus of 500,000 won ($370) and a 10-day vacation for a solo honeymoon, mirroring the perks offered to those entering into matrimony.
While marriage rates continue to fall in South Korea, the number of individuals committing to themselves through sologamy ceremonies is on the rise, although there is no official data available. Those who hold solo weddings do not just celebrate their decision to self-marry. Often, they do so to resist the pressures of a marriage-centric culture, where societal benefits go mainly to married couples.
Recouping cash gifts
“Self-love” is the main spirit of sologamy weddings, but Korea’s deep-rooted cash gift culture around weddings is an undeniable catalyst behind the practice.
Traditional Korean culture involves wishing newlywed couples happiness through gifts of cash. The amount given ranges anywhere from 50,000 won into the millions of won.
While these gifts are given with good intentions, there is an unspoken expectation that a reciprocal gesture will be made when the giver gets married. This system worked smoothly in the past when Korea's marriage rates were high, but problems have surfaced as marriage rates have dipped to record lows over the last few years.
Sologamy weddings are typically seen as a way for single people to recoup the money they previously spent at the weddings of acquaintances, said South Korean TV personality and YouTuber Jaejae, whose real name is Lee Eun-jae and who has held a sologamy wedding herself.
Suh Yi-jong, a sociology professor at Seoul National University, said that “in the past, a cash gift culture was adopted ... for mutual benefits within society.” However, with the surge in the number of single or unmarried households and rising inflation, more people are starting to believe that the tradition no longer carries the same mutual benefits, he added.
Solo ceremonies are heavily tied to South Korea’s declining marriage rates and the growing perception among those in their 20s and 30s that marriage is no longer “mandatory,” according to Suh.
A Statistics Korea survey released last year involving 36,000 Korean nationals showed that 36.4 percent of respondents aged 19 to 34 had a “positive perception” of marriage as of the end of 2022 -- a drop of 20.1 percentage points from 2012’s 56.5 percent.
Marriage rates in South Korea saw yet another record low in 2022, separate data from Statistics Korea released earlier this year showed. Around 192,000 couples tied the knot in Asia’s fourth-largest economy last year, slipping 0.4 percent from the previous year.
The figure is the lowest since 1970, when the statistical agency began compiling related data, representing the 11th straight year of decline.
Still an uncommon phenomenon
Lush Korea introduced sologamy benefits in June 2017 to ensure that all employees, including those who choose not to marry, are included in the company’s welfare and benefits program.
“It represents the company’s culture of upholding diversity and inclusivity. Everyone’s lifestyle is respected,” said Jeon Ha-na, a spokesperson for the company.
In recent years, more Korean companies have followed suit.
In September 2022, Lotte Department Store started providing the same cash and holiday benefits for unmarried employees aged 40 or older as employees who are tying the knot.
LG Uplus adopted the same measure in January this year, with the minimum age set at 38.
“Twenty-five employees signed up for sologamy benefits within three months of us adopting the program,” a Lotte Department Store spokesperson said. “It’s getting very popular among employees in their 40s and 50s who have no desire to get married.”
Outside these companies, however, solo weddings remain uncommon.
Special Day 2014, an event-planning firm, said it has yet to receive any request to help plan a sologamy wedding, despite having launched a package early last year. The firm appears at the top of search results on Korea’s largest web portal Naver for “sologamy wedding.”
“We have been promoting sologamy weddings since early last year, but we have yet to receive any requests,” the firm’s spokesperson said via phone. “We get an average 50 requests per month to help plan wedding events.”
Lush Korea’s Kim shared that while she is satisfied with her self-marriage ceremony, she has gotten mixed reactions from friends and family.
“Some said they respected and even envied my decision, while others said that it was ‘too early’ for me to make such a commitment,” she said.
“But in the end, it’s all about finding happiness as an individual, I think.”