Thousands Set for S. Korea's 'Battle of the Singles'
Tens of thousands of lovelorn South Koreans are set to take part in a "battle of the singles" on Christmas Eve -- a mass dating event triggered by an innocuous query posted on Facebook last month.
More than 36,000 people have signed up for the event in a park in central Seoul since two young men jokingly floated the idea on the social networking site and met with an overwhelming response.
"We only asked 'What do you plan to do on Christmas Eve?' and people started to leave thousands of comments that they were single and miserable and had nothing to do," Justin Chanwook Jang, one of the two organizers, told AFP.
"So we suggested this idea to help lonely singles find love on Christmas Eve ... we never imagined it would grow this big," said 29-year-old Jang, who plans to participate himself.
Some businesses have decided to enter into the spirit of things by allowing single employees the day off on Christmas Eve which falls on Monday, and around 200 firms have offered to sponsor the event.
The rules of "the battle" are simple.
Women must dress in red and men in white and all gather at the park, which sits on an island in the Han River that bisects the capital.
The two groups will stand facing each other a few meters apart until the event starts at 3:00pm (0600 GMT) -- then run towards a potential date and grab his or her hands.
Those who manage to get a date are encouraged to post photos taken with their new partners on the event's Facebook page.
It remains to be seen how many of those who signed up will actually attend, but Jang is confident.
"I'm witnessing how social networking sites can help a tiny idea grow so big and so quickly ... it's overwhelming," he said, adding that more than 200 people had volunteered to act as stewards.
When it became clear just how many people might turn up, the organizers informed the police and asked them to help monitor the event.
News of the "battle" has been publicized on major Korean Internet sites and Twitter, with a flood of postings expressing both excitement, skepticism and concern.
"This will be a scene we all must watch ... a horde of men chasing after women to grab their hands and girls frantically running away," tweeted @ksmfilm.
"My only concern is white is not my color. I'll pretend that I'm sick on that day so that I can leave work early," said one anonymous commentator.
One Facebook user warned that the mass event was an open invitation to sexual harassment and pickpockets.
The concept has spread outside Seoul and similar "battle of the singles" have been arranged in several other cities.
Some businesses, perhaps scenting a free marketing opportunity, have decided to embrace the event.
K2 Korea, a Seoul sportswear company, has offered all single employees a paid holiday, provided them with red and white jackets to wear on the battle day, and even promised a cash prize to those who find a date.
"About 70 of our 300 workers are without partners ... we wanted them to have the holiday in a happier mood so that they can eventually work better," a K2 spokeswoman told Agence France Presse.
Seoul online matchmaking site operator I-Um Socius also offered a day off to its employees -- most of whom are young and unmarried.
Jang, who is hoping to interest Guinness World Records in what he hopes may turn into the world's biggest dating event, said he had been approached by a company in New York to organize a similar event in Manhattan next Christmas.
Out of a population of some 50 million, South Korea -- one of the world's most-wired nations -- has 31 million smartphone users and nearly 20 million users of either Facebook or Twitter.
But virtual social connection is not necessarily translating into physical partnerships, as a slowing economy and financial constraints cause many young people to put off the idea of marriage or opt to live alone.
According to Statistics Korea, 404,931 couples got married in 1990 across the country. By 2011 the figure had fallen by nearly 20 percent to 329,087.
The country's fertility rate stood at 1.2 percent in 2009 -- the lowest among members of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development -- before inching up to 1.23 in 2010.
That, combined with growing life expectancy, means South Korea has one of the world's most rapidly-aging societies -- a trend that will have profound economic implications in the decades ahead.