- Korean Drinking Culture starts in College
- Korean Drinking Culture tied to Korean Work Culture
- Easy Accessibility of Alcohol
- Endorsement of Alcoholic Drinks by Korean Celebrities
- Alcohol regulations in Korea
- Rules to drinking in Korea
- Rule #1 Penalty for being late
- Rule #2 Down the first shot
- Rule #3 No empty glasses
- Rule #4: Don’t pour your own drink
- Rule #5 Glass position based on age
- Rule #6 Pour with two hands to your elders
- Rule #7 Accept Alcohol with two hands from your elders
- Rule #8 Turn away when taking your drink in front of your elders.
- Rule #9 Only Two Reasons for not drinking
- Korean Drinking Games
- Hangover Nation
When it comes to drinking and partying, Koreans are known to get down with the best of them. South Koreans drink more liquor than anyone else in the world. For example, the average American drinks about 3 shots of hard liquor a week. The average South Korean in Korea drinks on average 13.7 shots a week. The drink of choice in Korea is by far Soju. Soju and Korean beer are key in bringing people together for a good time. It is estimated that South Korea sells over 9 million bottles of Soju every single night! This is not only because South Korea has a work-hard and party-hard culture that has been around for decades. In this article we will deep dive into the Korean drinking culture as a whole and why South Koreans drink so much.
So the next time you visit South Korea you will have a complete understanding of Korea’s drinking scene and will know what to expect.
Korean Drinking Culture starts in College
There is a massive drinking culture at many of the Universities in Korea. It is almost like a right of passage for many students. There are university entrance parties, department parties, sporting events, club events, and so much more that makes drinking very prevalent on all college campuses in Korea. Many colleges in South Korea have been criticized for encouraging drinking among students during college freshman retreats. However, nothing really has changed over the years. So why do college students in Korea drink so much?
Depression, stresses related to their studies and trying to get the best scores results in students looking to relieve their stress by drinking. Furthermore, getting into Universities in Korea is very difficult. Most students spend their high school years studying in order to get into the best schools. Therefore once in, many look to catch up on the fun they missed out on during high school.
Korean Drinking Culture tied to Korean Work Culture
South Koreans are known to work some of the longest hours of anyone. Koreans are under constant stress and pressure from their company to perform. Therefore, once working hours finish, Koreans really want to release their stress via eating, partying, and of course drinking. Korean are naturally shy and alcohol is a way to really open up. Even the shyest Korean becomes a lot more talkative after a few shots of soju. Therefore going for some drinks is a way to quickly break the ice in order to get to know each other better.
Hoesik (Company Get-Togethers)
Most companies have a company get-together called Hoesik where a lot of drinking and bonding takes place. Hoesik plays a vital role in the Korean drinking culture. Most Hoesiks don’t stay in one location but have multiple “rounds” that eventually lead to Karaoke. Drinking in Korea is looked at as a way to build bonds in business and with your coworkers. It also gives employees a chance to air out any company issues freely, even with their bosses. In a way, these companies’ get-togethers are not just a way to relieve stress but are an important part of building a stronger connection with your team. Therefore, it is frowned upon if you don’t attend Hoesiks.
Easy Accessibility of Alcohol
The legal age for drinking in Korea is officially 19. However, ID checks are not common in restaurants. If an underage person finds a restaurant that does not check for ID, this will be the go-to place for underage kids which in turn will drive business to the restaurant. Soju can be found pretty much anywhere in Korea. You can even drink at a movie theater in Korea. Compound this with the fact that a bottle of soju is super cheap (Around $1) and you have a nation where close to 1.6 million of its citizens are alcoholics.
Endorsement of Alcoholic Drinks by Korean Celebrities
There are currently no restrictions on alcohol advertising in South Korea. Therefore, beer and soju brands in Korea rely a lot on celebrities to promote their products. For example, Kpop stars IU, PSY, Lee Hyori, BTS, Irene, and Suzy have all done soju ads in the past. It is estimated that alcohol companies in Korea spent over $300 million dollars on advertisements that showcase Korean celebrities.
In fact, it is rare to see an advertisement for Korean alcohol that doesn’t have a Korean celebrity promoting it. Furthermore, Korean dramas and movies tend to normalize heavy drinking and portray it as a normal part of Korean life. Many feel that this has been a major reason why there has been an increase in the number of underage drinking in Korea over the past few years.
Alcohol regulations in Korea
There are no laws in Korea in regards to how much alcohol you can consume. None is expected to come anytime soon. This is because liquor companies in Korea hold a lot of power and influence over politicians in Korea. This is why South Korea has the highest cases of liver disease in the world.
The Korean government has tried to discourage drinking by lowering the legal limit for blood alcohol content to 0.03% down from the 0.05% that had been the standard for over 58 years. If caught, there is a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison and or a 20 million won fine. However, this has caused no slow down in drinking in Korea as most Koreans take the taxi after a heavy night of drinking. There are even services in Korea where you can call a “designated driver” who will drive you back home in your car.
There are many police stations all across Korea which is surprising because South Korea is seen as such a safe country. However many of the police stations are very busy dealing with incidents involving over drinking. Alcohol plays a heavy role in domestic abuse, fights, relationship breakups, and overall loss of productivity. Close to half of all police reports are alcohol-related.
The cost of policing drunks and medically treating them cost the Korean government an estimated $25 billion a year. Furthermore, prosecutors do not file charges for cases involving drunks. The reason is that most judges and prosecutors are lenient towards drunken behavior. This is a major reason why many sexual assault cases are not prosecuted properly and incidents involving intoxication typically involve an overnight stay at the police station and at worst a small fine.
Rules to drinking in Korea
Drinking will always be a part of Korean culture. Therefore, it is good to know some of the unwritten rules when it comes to drinking in Korea. A lot of these rules apply when drinking with elders or superiors. In order to fully understand Korean drinking culture, you will need to drink in Korea which is why it is critical to know some of the rules.
Rule #1 Penalty for being late
There will be a penalty for being late to any kind of social or work gathering when drinking is involved. If you are going to be late, expect to drink to “catch up” with the others. Usually, it is one full shot if you are lucky but the standard is to take 3 drinks consecutively.
Rule #2 Down the first shot
It is a common rule in Korea that the first shot or drink you drink it all. From that point on, you can take your time but that first drink is a “one-shot”. Koreans know how to get the party started right away.
Rule #3 No empty glasses
There should be no empty glasses on the table. If you see a glass empty you should pour them another drink. Therefore those that don’t want to drink should leave their glass half empty. Only if a glass is empty should alcohol be poured.
Rule #4: Don’t pour your own drink
If your glass is empty someone will pour you a drink eventually. Try not to pour your own drink. A tip would be to find an empty glass of another person and pour them a drink. They should in turn pour you a drink as well.
Rule #5 Glass position based on age
When you clink glasses, you should adjust your glass so that your glass is either lower or higher based on age. For example, if you are older your glass should be higher. If you are younger your glass should be lower. If you don’t know the age of the person, this really will not apply.
Rule #6 Pour with two hands to your elders
When pouring elders a shot or beer use both hands. You can also use one hand and please your other hand on your elbow or chest. This is a sign of respect. If they are younger or the same age you can pretty much pour whatever way you want. This is why Koreans are constantly asking each other how old they are.
Rule #7 Accept Alcohol with two hands from your elders
When accepting alcohol, accept with two hands. Yes, this also applies to small soju glasses. Again if it is not your elder you can accept the drink however you like. But it is advised to just accept with two hands-on on any occasion.
Rule #8 Turn away when taking your drink in front of your elders.
It is a sign of respect to not look at your elder when taking your drink. One of the strangest rules in Korean drinking. You must turn away and drink almost in secret.
Rule #9 Only Two Reasons for not drinking
There are only two reasons that are acceptable for not drinking. One is for religious reasons and the other is for medical reasons. Any other reason will be frowned upon so if you really do not feel like drinking, say you are taking medication.
Korean Drinking Games
Korean drinking games are a part of Korean drinking culture. When drinking in Korea, you will most likely play a Korean drinking game. While there are too many to list we will focus on the three main ones so you are not lost when it happens.
Bottle Cap Game/Up-Down
Take a soju cap and put a tissue in it to hide the hidden number inside. Twist the loose part until it is straight. Make sure you don’t tear off the loose part. Then take turns flicking the loose part with your finger. The person who flicks it off does not have to drink. Rather the person to the left and right of you will have to drink. The two losers will then play rock, scissor, paper and the winner will get to see the hidden number inside the cap. Then the other will go around trying to guess the number. The person who knows the number will say up or down based on the number said. The point is to not get the number. If you get the number you will have to drink.
Baskin Robbins 31
This is one of the quickest and simplest Korean drinking games you will play. A player will say a number from 1-3. Then the next player will add either 1, 2, or 3 to the number said. This goes on until a person is forced to say 31. That person has to take a shot.
For this game, you will need a beer glass and a soju shot glass. Fill the glass with beer. Then put the soju glass in the beer glass so that the soju glass is floating. Players will take turns pouring soju into the soju glass. Players can put as little or as much soju as they want. Whoever makes the small glass sink, drinks the whole glass. One of the most dangerous games as it requires one person taking a full So-Mak (Soju+Beer) shot.
When you walk the streets of Gangnam, Hongdae, Itaewon, etc, you will see both young and old walking the streets drunk out of their minds. Sunday mornings it is not unusual to see pigeons eating vomit left by people who over drank. There might even be a number of people passed out on the street! Hangovers in Korea are so bad that there is even a site called “Black Out Korea” where ex-pats in Korea posted pictures of Koreans passed out drunk all across Korea.
This has also resulted in Korea having some of the best hangover drinks and foods in the world. You can consume these hangover drinks before, during, or after drinking. There are also a variety of hangover foods to eat after a night of heavy drinking. Therefore, if you are planning to get wasted in Korea, know that there are many solutions for your eventual hangover. Hope this article was helpful and remember, drink responsibly….stay thirsty my friends.