South Korea & Soju
Updated: Apr 16
South Korea has established itself as a soft power force, influencing the global economy through its entertainment industry and subsidiaries like K-pop and K-dramas. But what about alcohol? Is drinking as embedded into the culture in everyday life as one would assume from watching a K-pop music video like Psy's Hangover?
The short answer is... Yes.
Korean people drink a lot of alcohol. A Korean friend once explained to me that they drink as a culture to "express themselves" because they are "a reserved and withdrawn" people. It's a part of work culture, to drink with your boss and blow off steam. On average, South Koreans consume 14 shots of hard liquor a week, while Americans drink about three and Russians about six, according to Euromonitor statistics. It's a part of the social culture for older colleagues to encourage or force younger newcomers to drink far beyond their means, often to the point of danger. Not wanting to drink often leads to some loss of respect from peers. Due to its firm establishment in social hierarchy, Koreans are some of the biggest drinkers on the planet.
Big Traditions have social costs.
Korea has a long tradition of drinking alcohol, it accompanies many traditional worship and festive days. In the past, the tradition of alcohol consumption was associated with agricultural festivals - when the peasants and farmers had harvested rice, they took a small portion to prepare rice wine and celebrate their ancestors and the spirits (whom they thanked in the hopes that they would help more with the crops). Other events throughout the year also required the use of alcohol, not only for consumption and the pleasure it brought but also for rites to honour ancestors and accompany special days. Most notable among them is the solar or lunar new year which is still a large festival today.
South Koreans drink twice as much liquor as Russians and they consume more alcohol than any other nation. They have a range of drinking rituals and drinking etiquette to accompany it. Soju, a fermented-rice spirit, is king in Korea, with more than seven million bottles consumed every night. For those who have never tried it, soju is a vodka-like liquor that Korea has become infamous for - it's a cultural export that has popularity due to the media also. Drinking is treated as the social lubricant to build workplace camaraderie, secure business deals and to earn trust. But with an estimated 1.6 million alcoholics, and the social costs to health reaching $20bn a year, can the cap can be put back on the Soju bottle.
The Laws on drinking.
The legal drinking age is not strictly enforced in South Korea. Underage drinking is curbed more by the reluctance of bartenders to serve youth than by strict enforcement of the law. Still, the legal drinking age is 19 (or more specifically Jan 1 of the year the person turns 19, since everyone is considered a year older when the year turns due to the lunar year traditional Korean age system).
Bars and nightclubs are generally open from 6pm to midnight daily with longer hours (some opening from noon to the early-morning hours) on Friday and Saturday. In some areas of Seoul (like in Itaewon or Hongik) and other large cities, some bars stay open 24 hours. Beer and soju are widely available in grocery and convenience stores while wine is more likely to be found at speciality wine shops. Traditional Korean liquors (like makgeolli) can be found in traditional restaurants and some trendy bars. Alcohol is sold in department stores, supermarkets, and convenience stores. The consumption of alcohol in public places is not prohibited, so you'll often come across South Koreans drinking shots in the park.
Prices on alcohol are generally not regulated - a bottle of soju costs on average a little less than 3USD, that's less than some mineral waters. As the most popular drink, Soju covers several varieties, hailing back to tradition, originally, it was produced entirely from rice, however, the use of rice to produce this alcohol was prohibited from 1966 until 1999 following the lack of this basic cereal in the diet of the country. To meet growing demand and not jeopardize food independence, many alternatives have emerged to produce this alcohol. Instead of rice, several cereals or starchy foods such as potatoes, wheat, tapioca or corn are used. Today most of the "soju" sold are produced chemically which partly explains their ridiculously cheap price on the market. But hey, in South Korea beers also cost less than 3USD too.
South Korea struggles with drink driving. A new law strengthening the penalties for drunk driving entered into force on the 25th June 2019. With the coming into force of the new law, your driver's license is cancelled if your blood alcohol level is equal to or greater than 0.8 grams per litre, compared the 1 gram of litre before. This tightening of the sanctions against drinking and driving is the first time since the creation of the Highway Code in South Korea in 1961, which shows how dire the situation is. ChunSungsoo, from the Korea Public Health Association, said, "For 20 years, we've been proposing policies that can drastically reduce alcohol consumption - like increasing the price, regulating how much is sold, limiting ads … but they never pass in the national assembly.”
This strengthing of the law hasn't gone unnoticed but without the cultural shift to move with it, natives are dubious that it will bring much if any change. Tech. Sgt. Jose Cardenas, a dental assistant, asserts he doesn’t agree with South Korea’s new law: “I don’t think [the grams outlined in the new law] is enough to affect your capability to do anything, maybe depending on your physiology,” he said. “But I doubt it's hardly enough to cause harm to someone, outside of you just being clumsy naturally.”
Sadly, in Korea drinking is an essential part of socializing and it is considered a bonding process between family, friends and people who want to establish a good relationship. Due to this, there is a range of social rules and hierarchical etiquette associated with drinking. Did you know that one of the most important rules is that the youngest person is the one that pours the drinks for their elders, whether they are higher in social rank or age? When pouring alcohol, especially for the first time, Koreans are expected to use both hands to pour. If they are receiving alcohol, they are expected to hold their glass with both hands. And, although this is not always enforced, it is considered polite to turn your face slightly away from others when you are drinking. It is considered extremely bad luck to pour your own drink, but many people don’t follow this rule if they pour a round for everyone. If you get the last drop of alcohol in your cup, it is considered good luck. If you see that someone’s glass is empty or almost empty, you should immediately offer to refill it. Immediately. It's easy to see how this culture is conducive to causing grievous harm and health problems.
Furthermore, to expand on workplace drinking culture, Hoesik (회식) is a Korean term for eating and drinking with your boss and co-workers after work. The idea is that this strengthens your relationship with your co-workers. Most Korean workers must attend these events after work and drink with their boss. It supposedly blows off steam if there have been any working tensions and many Koreans feedback that seeing each other drunk strengthens camaraderie. But there is also a palpable social pressure as it is considered very rude to refuse a drink (or ten) from your boss. Koreans are also prone to becoming alcoholic because of workplace stress, so this is a temporary fix for a bigger problem of being heavily overworked.
This documentary shows Jiyeon Shin, a university student, stating that she usually goes out drinking five times a week with friends. As she often studies 18 hours a day, she's very self-aware and states that stress is what drives her and her friends to drink."I think maybe now I've become a bit of an alcoholic... It's usually me who initiates the drinking and it often ends up with throwing up and hangovers." Asked whether she could ever imagine a day when South Koreans drink less, Jiyeon is adamant."Absolutely not. Liquor is something that's naturally shared between friends and family. I think Korean drinking culture is very uplifting. So, I don't think the day we have less will ever come … nor should it."
South Koreans love hangover solutions and nursing those who are hungover as opposed to dissecting systems that make blackouts so prevalent. South Korea is responsible for an infamous hangover ice cream, which promises to erase all the symptoms of people who spend their night drinking away. The most popular hangover remedy is a drink called Condition and there are also usually a range of hangover pills by the chewing gum beside the cashier at the local supermarket. Hungover people are also prone to sleeping in a jimjibang (a Korean sauna) in a bid to sweat out the toxins in the morning.
He now suffers from cirrhosis of the liver, a chronic condition caused by over drinking. But he admits that he is still drinking. While Kim offers a cautionary tale, Korea's younger generation shows no sign of letting go of the culture of drinking to excess.
One last shot.
Korea is slow to move on alcohol change despite the generally abysmal health effects it is having on the population, and the understanding that alcohol culture is exacerbating overworking and workplace stress. As seen with Australia, in our Alcohol around the world series, as alcohol is firmly embedded into the culture, laws are not being strictly enforced and it is even hard for some laws intended to reduce alcohol harm to be passed. Drinking is the biggest social activity, with the prevalence of 24 hour bars, students and workers alike see this as the biggest, if not the only, socially acceptable and encouraged destressing activity that is available.
Here are some more great resources to dive headfirst into if you want to learn more: