SEOUL — As a North Korean defector on the hunt for a husband in Seoul, Choi Young-hee was unlucky in love.
Working days as a food vendor, she went on blind dates with a lot of frogs -- men more wily and Westernized than their conservative northern counterparts, perfectionists who often boorishly asked if she could set them up with her North Korean girlfriends.
So in 2005, a deflated Choi began playing professional matchmaker, and soon found she was a better bridesmaid than a bride.
Four years later, she has brought together 360 couples, in her own small way accomplishing what all the highfalutin diplomacy could not: uniting a hopelessly divided Korean peninsula through cross-cultural marriages.
Forget about all the nonromantic static coming out of North Korea, this self-proclaimed Cupid from Pyongyang means business.
Her company, South Korean Man-North Korean Woman Marriage Consulting, is a play off a proverb that says South Korea is home to good-looking men and North Korea the domain of ravishingly beautiful women.
Choi, an energetic 43-year-old, handicaps eligible men and women like a racetrack veteran.
South Korean men are charmers, full of sweet talk, she says. But some overdo the cheesy compliments. Yet even at their worst, she says, they make better mates than North Korean men.
"North Koreans are hard men of few words. They don't have as much consideration for a woman."
Some South Korean men have decided they want North Korean wives, who favor more traditional values. In many cases, their parents were displaced from the North during the Korean War, and they relate more to the culture there.
North Korean women are also seen as exotic yet still Korean.
"Many men don't want an international marriage," Choi says. "And then the idea of marrying a North Korean strikes them."
More than half the nearly 15,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea are women, according to government statistics. In 2007, South Korea revised a law to enable North Korean defectors to divorce the spouses they left behind.
Choi knows a lot about North Korean men -- she used to be married to one, but she left the marriage when she and her daughter defected in 2002.
Back then, Choi was girlishly slim, as evidenced by a photo she keeps in her matchmaking office. The years may have added a bit of weight, but in contrast to the image of North Koreans as drab and gray, Choi is full of color, a woman who laughs easily.
When a visitor asks to photograph her, she rushes into her dressing room and consults a rainbow-hued closet full of outfits.
"Does this look good on me?" she asks, holding up a blue dress with a frilly neckline and beading.
Moments later, a customer appears -- a middle-aged South Korean man who is tired of the dating scene in Seoul, where he says many women are "snobbish."
"I came here to find out if North Korean women are different," he says. "I am curious."
In Choi's hands, he may be in luck. Her office is full of pictures of happy couples, many posing with the matchmaker herself.
Her list of eligible candidates numbers about 100 South Korean men and 370 North Korean women. Her services are free to women from the North, a gesture Choi makes out of camaraderie.
Men pay about $1,900 a year for a guaranteed six dates.
One 40-year-old North Korean defector met her husband through Choi only two months after escaping to the South. Now she's happily married.
"He was the third guy I dated," says the woman, who asked not to be named.
Best of all: Her husband likes her cooking.
"I mostly make him North Korean food, but he neither nags nor gets angry," she says. "North Korean guys are emotionally numb and selfish."
But not all North-South unions are made in heaven.
One woman said she needed money to bring her brother across the border. When her date gave her the cash, she vanished.
Then there was the man who seduced his date by saying: "There is nobody but you. I want to marry you," Choi recalls. But the Lothario broke up with the woman soon after the couple had sex.
Then he asked Choi for a refund.
But Choi, a believer in marriage, says the risks are worth it.
"Nothing is more important for us than marriage to settle down in South Korea," she says. "It is a turning point to start a new life."
Choi isn't the kind of woman who takes no for an answer. She and her daughter survived a year in a Mongolian prison before fleeing to Seoul. An ordeal like that makes finding a husband pale in comparison.
"I still have the tenacity given by Kim Jong Il," she says, referring to the North Korean leader.
Yet even with all her success, Choi isn't sure she wants to restart the search for her own mate.
"My friends tell me, 'Hey, you go find someone for yourself first -- stop hooking up others.' " Choi says. "But as I say to my staff, I probably shouldn't go out with clients.
"There is a saying that the monk cannot shave his own head."