"It felt awkward," Park said later, as he explained that a lifetime spent around men'at boys' schools, the military and now as a fireman'had made meeting women harder.
Anywhere else, Park's dating woes might have been strictly personal. But in South Korea, fretful about plummeting birthrates but still tied to conservative ideas about matchmaking, solving the difficulties of the lovelorn has become something of a national priority. The event Park attended was one of dozens of dating parties nationwide sponsored by an unlikely matchmaker, the government.
With arranged courtships fading, the Ministry of Health and Welfare began promoting the idea of dating parties in 2010. Under the enthusiastic leadership of its minister at the time, Cheon Jae-hee, it held four parties that year that brought together its employees at local corporations. Cheon officiated at the wedding of the first couple who met at one. Featured in a magazine article, the 31-year-old groom-to-be thanked the government and wondered if two children would be enough.
Since then, sponsorship of the parties has shifted mainly to ministry affiliates and local governments, which can win financial rewards for promoting marriage and childbirth.
Government officials are not the only ones trying to replace traditional matchmakers. Corporations, fearing critical shortages of workers in an ageing society, have begun ending informal bans against office romances, with some now paying for dating services for their workers. There are online dating services as well, but many young Koreans remain uncomfortable searching for a partner on their own.
So far, though, the results of these efforts have been mixed. Korean society is organised around affiliations'hometown ties and school and corporate friendships'so meeting a potential spouse to merit family approval has proved difficult.
"I usually date girls I get set up with by my friends, but tonight I came to this party to find someone naturally," said Yang Sung-mo, 29.
The catch with such unorthodox approaches, said Hahm In-hee, a professor of sociology at Ewha Womans University, is that society is not prepared. "It is very awkward to mingle with someone without knowing who the other person's parents are, where they are from, etc," she said.
The heart of the problem, local officials and others say, is that South Koreans have gotten ahead of themselves. As the country modernises rapidly, many of its urban youths are chafing not only at arranged courtships but also at dates arranged by friends. Still, Park and most other young South Koreans are not yet comfortable with the Western notion of casual dating as a path to finding a spouse.
But social mores are slowly shifting. Sociologists say young people are generally more open to premarital sex than past generations were, including ducking into love hotels. But those changes do not diminish the need for proper introductions for
The difficulties in meeting potential spouses have exacerbated an increasing tendency among South Koreans to marry late. As young women have gotten better jobs, analysts say, many are loath to give them up to shepherd children and care for ageing in-laws.
So far, several young people said, the government matchmaking parties have proved the best mix of old and new. But that is little comfort for Park from the speed dating party. In the end, he abandoned all caution when the organisers asked if anyone would publicly say who they most wanted to meet. He pointed to a woman with an infectious grin who he respected for not trying to hide her braces. She covered her face with her hands and refused to give him her phone number. Later, she and her friends left with a group of young men. Park was not invited.
"I think praying is the only answer," he said.