Problems Linked to a Korean Wedding Tradition

by CHOE Sang-Hun, IHT 18 November 2009, 23/11/2009

When a daughter of Kim Jong-chang got married last June, Mr. Kim did something unusual: He eliminated the cashier and the cash-filled envelopes.

These are fixtures of a South Korean wedding, as much so as the wedding officiant. Before entering the wedding hall, guests line up in front of the cashier’s table to hand over an envelope stuffed with cash. The cashier opens the envelope and registers the guest’s name, and the amount given, in a velvet-covered ledger — often while the guest is still standing there.

“The problem with this tradition is that it can be abused for bribery,” said Mr. Kim, governor of the Financial Supervisory Service, which regulates the South Korean banking and securities industries. “In my case, many banking officials would have shown up with cash gifts. They would have wondered whether I was annoyed that they didn’t put enough in the envelope.”

Chipping in to help friends defray wedding or funeral expenses is an old custom in South Korea. But in recent months, it has been criticized as wasteful, and sometimes even as a conduit for vote-buying and bribery. President Lee Myung-bak exhorted South Korea’s rich and powerful to set an example in fighting the “vain and extravagant” wedding culture.Ban Ki-moon, the South Korea-born secretary general of the United Nations, invited only a few close friends and relatives to the wedding of his son in May, as did Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan when his daughter married in April. In October, Chung Jung-kil, Mr. Lee’s chief of staff, followed suit. Still, these low-key weddings were considered such oddities that they made the news.

The measure of a family’s social standing is seen in the number of guests at weddings, as well as the amount of money given and the sumptuousness of the banquet. Some families send out thousands of wedding invitations. A bank account number is sometimes included so people who can’t attend can still send money.

Every year, the roughly 330,000 South Korean couples who get married spend an average of 15 million to 20 million won, or $13,000 to $17,000, in wedding expenses, said Lee Woong-jin, head of Sunoo, a matchmaking company that conducts an annual survey on wedding expenses. The cost can exceed 50 million won for hotel weddings.Much of that is covered by the cash gifts. Last year, South Koreans gave out 8 trillion won, or 524,500 won for each household, in cash gifts for weddings and funerals, according to the National Statistical Office. But these envelopes also reflect a culture in which giving cash is considered so natural that people sometimes call it a “greeting” — and, in some cases, use it as a cover for bribery. When South Korea’s election laws were revised in 2004, they banned politicians from giving cash envelopes, except at the weddings and funerals of close relatives.

Three candidates running for election at provincial farmers’ and fisheries’ cooperatives were indicted in September and October on charges of giving cash gifts at voters’ weddings. A provincial education chief was widely criticized in the media in April after he reportedly invited 2,000 people — including the principals of all 460 schools under his jurisdiction — to his son’s wedding. Chung Woo-jin, 50, president of Q&Q Medi, a medical supplies company, said many wedding guests show up “reluctantly,” fearing they might lose out on business contracts or promotions if they don’t. “So they show up to prove that they were there, give the envelope and hurry off to have the meal, without even taking a look at the bride or groom.

Meanwhile, some younger couples are rebelling against what they call a “commercial” wedding culture controlled by parents. It is generally the parents who send out invitations, collect the cash and pay for the wedding, and by and large, more guests are there for the parents than for the couple getting married.

South Korea has seen campaigns for wedding frugality before. In 1973, the late military strongman Park Chung-hee tried to ban written invitations, flowers and gifts from weddings and funerals, in the belief that such customs were wasteful and detracted from his campaign to build and modernize the economy. But enforcement was sporadic at best, and experts say weddings grew more extravagant after 1999, when the restrictions were lifted and five-star hotels and wedding agencies entered the market.
Mr. Kim, the financial watchdog chief, predicted that it would be some time before the cash envelope tradition faded. “Frankly, I found myself thinking, ‘I’ve given out all these envelopes over the years. Why shouldn’t I get them once for my daughter’s wedding?”’ he said. “It’s not always easy in our weddings to tell the difference between bribes and genuine gifts.”

To read the full article, Questioning a Korean Wedding Tradition, click here.

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