By Andrew Salmon
Arguably the most pressing long-term issue confronting millennial Korea is its declining birth rate. According to reports, South Korea today has the fastest aging population on earth. This trend has ominous ramifications.
Higher taxes will be required from a dwindling workforce to support an expanding populace of doddering droolers. Insurers and pension providers will go the wall and health costs will skyrocket as worm-feed proliferates. Korea’s tigerish national virility will be sapped as its cool, high-tech and energetic population morphs into a nation of geriatric zombies.
What lies behind this worrisome trend? Pundits point to the decline of the traditional family and the rise of the nuclear family; a falling marriage rate countered by a rising divorce rate; a ``me” generation replacing the traditional ``we” generation; and so on, blah de blah.
Me? I blame Starbucks.
Pretty much anywhere you go in 21st century urban Korea, the once-customary waft of kimchi is overpowered by the bouquet of brewing beans; you can’t walk ten paces in Seoul without stumbling into yet another Starbucks-style coffee chain.
I am not suggesting that espressos, Americanos or caramel macchiatos are ravaging local sperm counts.
I am suggesting is that these ubiquitous coffee franchises have pulverized the customary ``Stage One” mating locale for South Koreans.
Doubtful of my theory? OK, let us take a scientific, anthropological approach to the issue.
For a species to successfully propagate, there must be mating. For mating to take place, there must be a pre-mating ritual. A pre-mating ritual requires a location appropriate. Here is where the problem lies.
In the good old days, coffee shops were independent stores, not chains. On the downside, they served woeful coffee. On the upside, they boasted partitions, curtained alcoves, padded sofas, low lighting and cheesy muzak. In these discrete surroundings, a loving couple could linger for hours over a single cup. In short, they provided the perfect terrain for romance.
It does not take a sexologist or romantic novelist to realize that these vanished dream havens are a far cry from the bustling, well-lit, open-plan, Seattle-style caffeine emporiums of today.
To see the damage modern cafes have done, let us join a courting young couple on their date.
Chul-soo and Hyun-hee are students at a downtown university. It is early evening as Chul-soo guides Hyun-hee into a coffee shop. They order and park their bums.
Chul-soo gazes lovingly into Hyun-hee’s radiant eyes. ``Should I pop the question or shouldn’t I?” he wonders. He’s desperate to proceed to ``Stage Two” but, damn it, this place offers no cover! It is both noisy and crowded. A pair of businessmen are sitting a few feet away on the left, a group of ajummah on the right.
Minutes pass. Coffee is slurped. Chul-soo can restrain himself no longer. ``Hyun-hee,” he whispers, sotto voce. ``After your latte…why don’t we head to a DVD room?”
``Say what?” responds Hyun-hee. ``It’s noisy in here!”
``Plan A” is foiled. Chul-soo opts for ``Plan B.” This is the bold, manly approach ― direct attack! Leaning across the table, his neck cranes forward as he prepares to plant one…
With Chul-soo’s pursed lips advancing inexorably, Hyun-hee is desperately flustered. She fancies him, but no decent maiden can be seen kissing in public! There is only one response. She winds back her arm, unleashes a wicked slap and storms out.
Stunned, red-faced and teary-eyed, Chul-soo is left with his Americano as the adjoining businessmen snigger and the ajummah guffaw. The poor fellow’s libido has taken a blow from which it may never recover.
A tragic tale ― but ‘twas not ever thus.
In the coffee house of yore, a lad could craftily advance upon his lass. A peck on the cheek, a gentle embrace ― then it was a cinch to proceed to the more intimate confines of a DVD room. From there, it was but a hop, skip and a jump to the love motel. After that ― well, wedding bells and the pitter-patter of tiny feet could not be far distant.
How do we return to this desirable state of affairs?
Clearly, the market cannot be trusted to do the right thing: Government intervention is demanded. I suggest the creation of a ``Ministry of Romance.” This elite bureaucracy should commission an immediate study on the ideal fittings and ambience of the extinct traditional coffee shop.
Once this ideal has been established, all chains ― Starbucks, Tom n Toms, Caffe Bene, etc. ― will be legally required to set aside and outfit a certain portion of their space in retro style. After all, they already have smoking zones ― why not smooching zones?
With these zones set up, red-blooded chaps can steer their maidens in the appropriate direction and the mating dance can begin anew. Meanwhile, in the romance ministry, demographers will watch with satisfaction as Korea’s birth rate climbs off the charts.
Oh, and should any rich, attractive and buxom female reader seek a partner for their visit to the ``Coffee Shop of Love” ― mine’s a mocha grande.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, ``Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.