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Korean Culture - Food and Drinks


Korean Food




The staple foods are rice and kimchi (usually fermented cabbage) and are eaten with every meal. Korean food is hot and spicy. Common ingredients are garlic, chilli pepper, green onions, soy sauce and sesame seeds. Traditional Korean food is healthy. Kimchi has a high nutritional value and is believed to reduce cholesterol and help the immune system.


Soup, rice and side dishes panchan come with every meal. The preparation and washing up time involved has caused many a Korean housewife to complain. As more Korean women are choosing a career over staying at home, convenience food is catching on. Nowadays Western junk food is popular with school children. As the diet is changing, Korea has witnessed the emergence of the fat Korean.
The Koreans have not yet mastered the art of cooking Western food. It is possible to find peculiarities such as cream soup topped with cornflakes, pizza with peas and carrots and potato filled with pink cream.


Types of Korean Food


Kimchi is Korea's national food. There are many different kinds of kimchi. It is usually cabbage or radish mixed with chilli pepper, garlic and ginger and is left to ferment in salt water in large earthenware pots. Korea is resourceful with its food from the times when fresh vegetables were scarce. Another food that keeps for a long time is denjang, fermented soy bean paste.


Popular rice dishes are kimbab (rice and vegetables in rolls of seaweed), bibimbab (rice, vegetables, chilli paste and egg) and bukumbab (fried rice). Noodle dishes include udong, ramyon (usually instant cup noodles) and naeng myon (cold noodles). Chigae or stew can be tasty, the smell of denjang chigae (bean paste) receives mixed reactions from foreigners and kimchi chigae is very spicy. Kalbi tang (beef soup) is tasty but high in calories. For something healthier, try samgye tang (chicken ginseng soup).


Dishes popular with foreigners include mandu (meat dumplings), omu raisu (omelette with rice) and doncas (pork cutlet). Dokpogi (rice stick in spicy red sauce) and tiggim (battered fried food) can be found at street stalls. Usually a street vendor specialises in one type of snack, such as roasted chestnuts, peanuts, corn or sweet potatoes. For something more unusual try bondegi (chrysalis).


One of the most expensive kinds of restaurants is the DIY Korean barbecue. Bulgogi is marinated beef, kalbi is on the rib and pork (dweji kalbi) is cheaper. Meat is not essential to a Korean meal. If you are treated to a bulgogi meal by a Korean host, it is a sign of hospitality and generosity. Garlic and chilli peppers are side dishes. Koreans have a tendency to say 'It's not hot' as they chomp on the chilli as bugs bunny would a carrot. Unless you have a high tolerance for chilli, don't believe them.


The Koreans don't go in for desserts. A chilled sweetened drink is served at the end of a meal. Patpingsu is popular during the summer months. It is a fruit salad on ice with red beans and ice cream. Dok, or rice cakes are a sticky traditional sweet.


Eating Customs


Food is important in Korea. A Korean may ask when you greet them 'Have you eaten?' rather than 'How are you?' This is not an invitation to eat as it may be construed in the West, but a tradition from the days when Korea was a poor country. A person was considered healthy if they had eaten. Because of this past, Koreans don't like to waste food and when they entertain they expect their guest to eat well.


The Korean style is to eat quickly and conversation is usually limited to comments of how delicious the food is. Unlike Western restaurants, everybody eats the same food and the communal side dishes are placed in the middle.


Metal chopsticks are the norm and rice is usually eaten with a spoon. The utensils should be placed on the table when they are not being used, not left in the dish. Placing the spoon or the chopsticks upright in the bowl of rice will make your host shudder. This reminds them of the ceremony for their dead ancestors. The rice and soup bowls are not picked up like the Japanese custom.


Koreans talk with their mouths full, slurp their soup and noodles, belch and pick their teeth at the dinner table, but blowing your nose is a definite no-no. The Korean respect for elders dictates that everybody waits until the oldest person starts to eat. It is considered rude to smoke in front of someone older or to leave the table earlier than the oldest.


The oldest person usually pays for the meal. This is usually done discreetly by slinking off before the meal has finished. The bill is not brought to the table, but you make your way to the counter by the door. The price is inclusive of the side dishes, soup, rice and dessert.


Korean Drink




The Koreans eat when they drink. Anju or drinking side dishes range from a fruit platter, peanuts, dried squid or fries. Popcorn is usually free. Koreans usually sit in one place. There are not many opportunities for them to mingle with the other patrons.


Korean drinking is usually male dominated although this is now changing. It is not uncommon to see otherwise respectable businessmen urinating in the street or slumped in a dark alley.


Types of Korean Drinks


Soju, a clear alcohol is an acquired taste and is the national Korean drink. Many will argue how it is made. It can be distilled from rice, sweet potatoes and yams, but some brands are chemical, which is probably why it can leave you with a blinding hangover. Another traditional drink that is even more potent is makkoli, a milky white rice drink.


Koreans are not really wine drinkers. The best wine is probably Majuang Red or White, whereas Jinro is cheap and nasty. The most popular Korean beers are OB, Cass and Hite.



Soju & Cigs are never far away

Drinking Customs


The focus of drinking in Korea is the group you are with. When someone offers you soju, they are also offering you friendship. It is better to get drunk rather than break the good mood of the party.


With Koreans, you mustn't pour your own glass. When you receive a drink, receive with two hands or with one hand on the glass and one hand on your sleeve. It is more important to accept the drink rather than drink it. If you don't want to drink you could sip or touch the glass against your lips. Usually a glass is only refilled once it is empty.


If drinking with someone much older than you, it is considered polite to turn your head and drink away from them. Some Koreans drink like this in front of their parents. Usually one person is the ringleader of a night out and will organise the ordering of dishes and the payment. Sometimes the most senior pays, but amongst friends it is common to split the bill.


Food and Drink Links


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 Korean Culture





Playing changgi during the lunch break

The foreigner can only hope to brush the surface when it comes to understanding Korean customs. Learning the language is the key to understanding the subtleties, but even so Koreans may adapt their customs because of your presence. The customs below are those that belong to traditional Korean culture, which is now changing and becoming more westernised.


Korean society values Confucian relationships, where an older or more senior person is shown more respect. A person who is married, with children and has a good job is placed higher in the Confucian hierarchy. This information is important for knowing where to place a new acquaintance, hence the common questioning about age, marriage and money when you first meet a Korean. People are firstly considered to be members of society and so questions about why you aren't married or don't have children are issues that affect the whole of society and are not considered to be personal questions.


Traditionally those at the bottom of the social scale have to show respect to their seniors. This respectful behaviour includes giving up your bus seat and laughing at their jokes even when they are not funny. When greeting them a lower bow and using two-handed handshake displays more respect. Traditionally, it was not appropriate to smoke in front of an elder, cross your legs or wear sunglasses.



Traditional medicine



The Korean language has honorifics to speak to a superior, usually for someone who is ten years older. It is rude to call someone by their given name; instead polite words which denote their age or their position are used such as sonsaengnim for teacher and baksa for doctor.


Ajumma or 'married woman' can be used for anyone over thirty, but more commonly for the middle-aged set. Halmoni is the equivalent of 'grandmother'. The words for brother and sister depend on the relationship, for example females use onni to mean 'older sister', whereas males use nuna. There are also different terms for older brother, depending on the speaker and the same word is used for younger brother or sister. In this case it is not restricted to someone in your family, it is a term that is used for someone who is the same age as your older sister or your grandmother. This reflects the closeness of Korean relationships. Even close family friends call their friend's mother omma or mother.


Because Koreans do not refer to each other by their first name, it can be confusing who they are talking about. Korea has a collective culture, and they like to share everything. For example, when they are talking about their house, they do not say 'my house', but uri jip which literally means 'our house'. It is the same for 'our mother', but maybe saying 'our wife' or 'our husband' takes it too far for foreigners.

Terms for family members are more complicated in Korean. They make a more important distinction according to the age and if the relationship is through the mother or the father. A distinction is made between a maternal and a paternal grandparent, and instead of plain uncle, they say 'father's older brother'.




A Korean's name begins with the family name, unlike the western tradition of having the family name as the 'last name'. The family name is only passed through the male line as the woman keeps her maiden name when she marries. The family book that records the family's genealogy only traces the males. This is why it is important to have sons who continue the family tradition.


Parents make huge sacrifices for their children, with an emphasis on education, and the parents may often decide the child's future. Nowadays families are smaller than they were a generation ago, when having eight siblings was not unusual. Now the ideal is to have one son and one daughter. The eldest son has the responsibility of looking after the parents in their old age, financially and also by living with them. At 60 years, a person has completed the full life cycle and can retire and the son looks after them.


The children are expected to pay for their parents' funeral, which is usually expensive. After death the children and continue to honour their family and show respect for their ancestors. This is done through memorial rites where they offer food and bow to them.


The father is the head of the family and traditionally children were brought up to be seen and not heard. A woman must first obey her father before marriage, then her husband, then her eldest son after her husband's death. Fidelity is important; if a woman's young husband died she traditionally was expected to remain faithful to her husband's parents.




Marriage is regarded as the joining of two families rather than two individuals. The future and reputation of the family name are thought of as more important than individual happiness.


When choosing a marriage partner, the parents opinion carries more weight in Korea than it would in the West. If the parents disapprove, the child would probably change their mind, believing that the parents' judgement is wiser than their own.


In Korea, it is assumed that everyone will get married, and if they don't find someone by themselves through a love match, then their parents or friends will organise blind dates for them. Traditionally a marriage was arranged and the bride and groom had no choice in the matter and didn't meet each other before the wedding.


When choosing a marriage partner, qualities such as character and the spouse's ability to produce good children are considered. They don't believe that passionate love will last for the duration of the marriage, and so they choose potential e.g. a man's future career and the woman's beauty. Money and the woman's good looks are believed by some to ensure a happy marriage.


Wedding halls are popular for the wedding ceremony. Usually the Koreans leave it until the last minute to invite guests to the wedding. The wedding guest is obliged to bring cash to the wedding and so an invitation written months in advance is thought to be presumptuous and rude.

The bride and groom exchange rings and watches while the guests usually give money. There is usually some arrangement between the families before the wedding, where money and gifts are exchanged. With wealthy families the bride's parents provide the 'three keys' for an apartment, a car and an office if the groom is a doctor or a lawyer. The groom's parents may have to pay for the white goods and furniture for the apartment. After the wedding the couple traditionally live with the son's parents (if he is the eldest son) and the grandmother would look after the child, but nowadays both parents and children prefer their privacy.


In Confucian thinking, there are strict roles within the marriage. The father is the decision-maker and the breadwinner, whereas the mother looks after the home, children and acts as a go-between for the father and the children. The husband usually hands over all his earnings to the wife who manages it and gives him an allowance.




Korea is very much a cash society where credit cards and cheques are not as common as the West.


There is no sensitivity with talking about money. If you buy something, a Korean will almost always ask you how much you paid for it. At the market or even in stores where prices are not marked, it is standard procedure to ask for a discount. Ten percent is usual, and if you are particularly talented you can try for more. In a restaurant or a taxi you don't have to tip.


Money is given with two hands, usually in an envelope or in a tray and received with a hand on the arm. Interaction with money is delicate but talking about it isn't.


Koreans do not sign financial papers with a signature, but use a family stamp instead. This is considered more secure than a signature and the responsibility is on the owner to make sure that the 'name chop' does not get into the wrong hands. The stamp uses red ink, although this colour is usually used to write a dead person's name.

Out and about


Within the Confucian hierarchy all relationships are not equal. If a relationship has not been established then strangers cannot be placed into the system. Strangers are like non-people and in Korea, where personal space is less available, there is no reason to apologise if you bump into someone in the street. In the street Koreans are unsmiling and serious looking. This is because they rarely interact with strangers. For example, if someone smiles at them on the bus, they are considered to be crazy. If children say hello to a foreigner, they are not making a greeting, but are having a giggle at your expense.


Once you have been introduced, Koreans are extremely gracious and generous. When you are shopping and you buy four apples, they will often give you extra. If Koreans offer their food, it is a sign of friendship, and might want you to take two pieces, as taking only one means that you are not so friendly.


Koreans also show their friendship by touching each other. They do not hug or kiss each other, but the new visitor may be shocked at the numbers of girls holding hands, and the guys who would otherwise look gay in western culture. In Korea there is no homophobia because they won't admit that gays exist. Only young couples will display affection in public, much to the embarrassment of the older generation.


If you are invited to a person's home, it is polite to take a gift, as they will probably provide dinner. In the house, you must remove your shoes because Koreans traditionally live, sit and sleep on the floor and the outside dirt that your shoes carry should be left away from the living area.

When saying goodbye, a Korean might walk their friend to the door, or their car to make sure they get away safely. Girls in particular don't like to do anything by themselves whether it is shopping, eating or going to the toilet. In public toilets they will bang on the door. You should bang back if you are inside. When queuing in the women's toilets, there is not one queue but a queue for each toilet.


Business etiquette


It is rude to call someone by his or her first name. Usually a third person will introduce people in business relationships, as Koreans are reluctant to introduce themselves. When meeting for the first time, a short bow and an exchange of business cards are appropriate. If Koreans shake hands they hold their ribs with their other hand out of respect.


A senior position in a company is not usually based on merit, but on age and service time to the company, so usually the person who has been there the longest is the most senior. They treat superiors formally and value titles and positions and use them when addressing each other.

During a business meeting the Koreans value the process of a business deal rather than its actual completion. The conversation that leads up to the deal is valued and business is only dealt with at the end of the conversation. Koreans don't like to be direct and prefer to talk around a subject which can be infuriating as you won't get a straight answer, and even after thirty minutes it is still unclear what has been agreed on. They don't like to make decisions hastily and may sit on a decision for three days. Often things are left until the last minute, but when it does get done it is usually efficient.


Koreans do not like to say no and try to avoid confrontation. For example, at a language institute where they had to lay off some of the teachers, they sacked everybody publicly, then rehired the ones they wanted secretly so everybody could save face. A Korean may not keep a promise or not return a phone call because they are avoiding confrontation and saving face. A Korean may expect you to understand their circumstances and this is more important than being punctual and dealing with contracts. Trust for a western businessman is based on the ability to stick to an agreement, but for the Korean it is based on understanding the company's situation and why they might not be able to agree to something.


The Koreans integrate business with the personal and will often have large drinking sessions with their clients as a way of establishing a business relationship. Koreans may see the foreigner's demands for a contract signing as insincere whereas foreigners see the personal drinking meetings insincere. If a westerner is personal with a business associate, that relationship will continue outside the business relationship, but with the Korean it would not. A foreigner on a business trip would be eager to close the deal, whereas a Korean wants to spend time developing the relationship.


Family customs:





Korea was originally animistic, believing that all things in nature contained spirits. This traditional religion and folk practices extended through farming and village life. Buddhism was introduced in the 4th century AD from China and was adopted as the state religion during the unified Silla dynasty. Buddhism was later blamed for social corruption and was stamped out by the Chosun or Yi dynasty, which adopted Confucianism as the ideology for organising the state. When Christianity first arrived in the 18th century it was perceived as a threat and was persecuted, but in recent times it has flourished.

Koreans do not necessarily identify themselves with only one religion. Confucianism, Shamanism, Buddhism and Christianity are all present in modern Korea and a Korean may take on practices from more than one of them without any conflict.

For this reason membership is not definite and statistics throughout this article should be taken as guidelines only. In Korea approximately 1/3 are Buddhist, ¼ are Christian and the remainder follow Confucianism and traditional religion.

Generally Christians are more exclusive in their faith and stand up to be counted, whereas people can be loosely Buddhist, as there is no strict membership. Confucianism on the other hand is ingrained on the Korean collective subconscious, while traditional folk beliefs can be combined with all of the religions.

Korean Buddhism is linked with shamanism, an area of the temple might be dedicated to the shamanic spirits and monks may sell lucky charms and tell your fortune. With the introduction of Confucianism and the stress on having sons, people flocked to the shamanic Mountain Spirit to ask for them.

There are traces of the religions in the non-religious. Many Koreans share the Buddhist idea of karma, a fatalism that aids their endurance and patience in the face of hardship. Christianity has also left its mark on the wider society through the education of women and being politically active and vocal about social problems.

Folk Religion

Folk religion is also described as shamanism and is not restricted to Korea. It is not an organised religion, and has no temples or churches and is based on traditional customs. There is a belief that all things in nature have a spirit and can be called upon to different requests, for example, a farmer may ask the Dragon King for rain.

Much of shamanism is focused around the mudang, the shaman or wise person who performs kut or ritual where the spirit and the present world are linked. The role of the shaman is to mediate between the spirit and this world.

If someone has died prematurely and are childless, the spirit of this person is grounded to this world and less likely to move on to the next world, so kut would be held for this kind of person.

Kut might be held because of illness, financial crisis, making a journey or to release dead ancestor's spirits in to the spirit world. In a village they might be held regularly to ensure that everybody is kept safe and well. Folk music originated as an accompaniment to farmer's shamanic rituals often requesting a good harvest. Folk dancing also has its origins in folk religion.

After the suppression of all religion by Kim Il Sung in North Korea many of the shamans fled which now leaves South Korea with two kinds of mudang; the more mystical which originally comes from North Korea and the hereditary which originates in the south.

The shaman is traditionally a woman. The naerim mudang, whose roots come from the north is charismatic and has an illness sinbyong, which means they have received the special gift. They are trained by an existing shaman who treats them as a spiritual daughter. This kind of shaman may go into trances or have visions. In the ritual or kut the naerim mudang guides the dead spirit to the other world and becomes possessed by the dead person and communicates with the family. They may sing and cry. Another kind of ritual is where the mudang dances to the beat of the drum and they are possessed and the client jumps up and down.

The other kind of shaman is the tangol mudang, which originates in the south. This kind of shamanism is hereditary and more regimented than the charismatic naerim mudang. The rituals are scheduled and the tangol mudang does not go into a trance. Instead they allow the family member to become possessed by the spirit. They answer the shaman's questions by holding a basket that shakes as a positive response.

A mudang maybe asked to preside over a kosa, which is held to ask the spirits to bless a new business, office or home. Food, wine and a pig's head are laid out and wine poured in the appropriate areas and people bow. These are still frequently held, even though many may not value the spiritual aspect of the rite. Housewives may also perform this ceremony to bless their home. The house spirits are believed to live in the roof beam or in the chimney, so this practice is obsolete for those who dwell in high rise apartment blocks.

Mudang are also talented at fortune telling. Many Koreans claim they have nothing to do with fortune-tellers, but press them further and you will probably find that their mothers consulted them over their name, university entrance exam and marriage. The year, month, day (lunar calendar) and time of your birth together hold a special significance in determining your future. Visiting a psychologist in Korea is almost unheard of, and so the fortune-teller can fill this role by listening to problems and giving hope for the future.

There are probably many more than the 40,000 registered mudang in Korea, but they are often scorned by the larger populace (50% of whom claim to be religious sceptics) as superstitious and have been persecuted since the Chosun dynasty.


Buddhism arrived in 372 AD when a monk from China came teaching karma and the search for happiness. During the Three Kingdoms period many other Chinese traditions were absorbed and Buddhism was adopted as the state religion.

Buddhism flourished after the Silla united the kingdoms and state funds were spent on Buddhist constructions, for example the Buddha statue at Sokkuram Grotto and the temple of Pulguksa in Kyungju. Buddhism was at its most powerful in the following dynasty. The Koryo dynasty was responsible for the Koreana Tripitaka, the impressive wood-block carvings of Buddhist texts at Haeinsa. During the Chosun dynasty Buddhism was banned and neo-Confucianism was institutionalised.

Korean Buddhism comes from the Mahayana branch, which emphasises the salvation of all beings. The seon strand in Korea is the equivalent of Japanese zen or Pure Land Buddhism. There are 18 sects in Korea, the most popular being the Jogye sect to which 90% of Korean Buddhists belong. It combines seon, which emphasises meditation and contemplation and gyo that focuses on studying Buddhist texts. The next popular sect is the Taego that was installed by the Japanese during their occupation in the Chosun dynasty. This sect is different as it allows its monks to marry.

At least 25% of Koreans are Buddhist, but this figure may rise to 50% when considering those who may come out of the woodwork for national holidays such as Buddha's birthday. With the recent economic boom, many Koreans didn't want to give up their new-found worldly pleasures. At the same time with increasing westernisation Koreans are turning to their traditional religious roots as a way of maintaining their distinct Korean identity.


It is not clear when Confucianism first entered Korea, some records indicate that it was during the Three Kingdoms period. During the Silla dynasty Buddhism was the official religion but Confucianism provided the structure of the state and in the Koryo dynasty emphasis was placed on the Confucian examinations modelled on the Chinese system. Through these exams, a person of low birth could theoretically rise to a high position in the civil service, being rewarded on grounds of merit and not birth.

It was during the Chosun period that was adopted as the state ideology. It was based on the ideals of Confucius and combined with the practice of ancestor worship and the idea of the eldest male as the spiritual head of the family to form neo-Confucianism. Buddhism from the previous dynasty was held responsible for corrupting social order and was criticised for lavishing money on temples. A strict code of social conduct was used to form a hierarchy where everyone knows their place.

The five relationships, which were originally preached by Confucius and formulated by Mencius, all have an attitude which sets how one should behave. These are father and son (fililal piety), ruler and subject (loyalty), elder and younger brother (respect), husband and wife (distinction in position) and friends (trust). The elder and younger brother relationship has a wider application in society that anyone who is older should be shown respect. It is only friends of the same age who are true equals.

In the husband and wife relationship each has clearly defined roles and the man is superior. The sexes were segregated from an early age and the women were considered as temporary members of the family who later had to serve their parents in-law and provide a son. The father was the head of the household whose authority could never be questioned. This superiority of males is found in the inheritance laws. The family is traced only through the males and the eldest son holds the first rights to inheritance and women had no claim.

There was an emphasis at this time on decorum rites and ceremony. Education was also highly valued in this period. Confucian scholars were educated in the Confucian classics and knew the Chinese characters well. They formed an elite that was displaced by the invention of hangul, the Korean script that allowed the rest of the populace to read. Importance is still placed on exams to enter middle school, high school and the all-important university entrance exam.

For 500 years in the last dynasty, Confucian policy viewed Buddhism as an evil enemy and so harshly suppressed them. Buddhist property was confiscated and monasteries could only exist in rural areas. The Confucian system disappeared from social administration and government when the Japanese annexed the country. However, the basic tenets still exist in the mindset of the Koreans with regards to the five relationships, and ancestor worship is still practised.


The numerous red crosses that illuminate the night skyline give an indication of the popularity of Christianity in Korea. Christianity has flourished more than in any other Asian country. The largest congregation has 700,000 members at Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul. Out of 10million Christians, 2 million are Catholic, 2 million are Methodist and 5 million are Presbyterian The former president Kim Dae Jung is a devout Catholic and even suggested to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il that he should invite the Pope to visit North Korea.

Christianity first came to Korea in the 18th century by Jesuits from China. At first Christianity was a scholarly pursuit. The first followers got involved to translate the Christian literature as a means of understanding western culture. These scholars met to debate Catholicism, and when they realised their knowledge was limited, they sent one of their scholars to Beijing to learn more. He returned a baptised convert and baptised others in Korea. It is perhaps unusual that Christianity was not brought by missionaries, but it was Koreans who themselves started to adopt the rites and baptism.

The first Korean baptism was in 1784 and Christianity rapidly became popular. The growing movement threatened the royal family. During the 1790s Christians were heavily persecuted and in 1801 many were martyred. The main bone of contention was over the refusal of the Catholics to bow to their ancestors, which they considered to be idol worship. At this time Christianity was suppressed and went underground.

The second wave arrived in the form of Protestant missionaries in the 1880s. The first was a Japanese missionary who distributed Bibles in Chinese, Japanese and some parts in Korean in Busan.

Dr Allen was the first western missionary. In 1884 he inspired confidence in western medicine when he saved the prince's life after a coup attempt. Not only were they missionaries of Protestantism, they were missionaries of modernisation and western culture. The missionaries founded many schools and hospitals and taught the ideals of hard work and democracy. They were also politically active, and during the occupation made enemies with the Japanese as many were involved in the Declaration of Independence.

Perhaps Christianity has gained recently popularity because of the Korea's recent suffering. After the Korean War the doctrine of the death and resurrection of Jesus could be applied to the hope they had for their country. The teaching offered a framework to explain their suffering in terms of sacrifice. The church offered a community where people could share their troubles and help others. It has been argued that with the more recent modernisation, Koreans adopted Christianity because they didn't want to inherit more from China or Japan.

Modern Christianity

Arising from a spiritual revival in the United States during the 19th century are the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA), Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. They all have a presence in Korea, although they are not influential. The SDAs are known among English teachers for putting them out of a job, as they offer free English lessons to Koreans as a way of introducing them to their church. Jehovah's Witnesses have gained notoriety as conscientious objectors to the 26-months military service who are jailed for the same period and given a criminal record.

The most visible of these groups in Korea is probably the Mormons. Founded by Joseph Smith, the official name of their church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As well as the Bible, they follow the Book of Mormon, which was revealed exclusively to Joseph Smith by an angel. In the States, they are probably most known as holding the reigns on the state of Utah and practising polygamy in the past. In Korea, American missionaries are usually recognisable by being clean cut and well dressed, with a white shirt, tie and black name badge. They often undergo language training and speak Korean well and can be seen waiting in the street waiting to accost passers-by.

Even more recent and also claiming to be Christian is the Unification Church although it is reviled by most mainstream Christians as a perversion of Christianity. Typically regarded as a cult, these days it doesn't get the media attention it once did.

Tong Il Kyo, the Unification Church or the Moonies (after it's leader Moon Sun Myung) is originally Korean. They became notorious in the West as a group that brainwashes its members and swindles them out of their money, while forcing them to sell flowers and literature and live in communes. They are also famous for the Blessing, a mass wedding ceremony where thousands of couples are chosen by Moon to be married at the same time. Sometimes the couples don't speak the same language and once he chose a brother and a sister, which followers insist show how Moon can sense the special bond between the individuals.

Moon was born in Chong-ju in Pyonganbuk-do, now in North Korea in 1920 by the lunar calendar. He was originally from a Christian background and Jesus appeared to him on a mountain and told him to continue with God's work that Jesus was unable to complete. Moon professes himself to be the Messiah and the Divine Principle, which he wrote, emphasises the doctrine of the True Parents who are Moon and his wife.

The first church was built in Busan out of Budweiser boxes somewhere between Busanjin and Beomildong. The group was formally founded in 1954 as the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity in Seoul. In 1955 a group of Ehwa Women's University professors decided to investigate the new religion. Unexpectedly, they became some of the first converts and were promptly fired from their posts.

Moon is still alive and lives in the United States. His empire includes many companies including national newspapers and universities and he is said to be one of the world's largest arms dealers. Many stories circulate about him, typically involving his many deserted wives and illegitimate children. He has been imprisoned many times, most recently for tax evasion.

Moon involves himself in politics. In the 1970s the Unification Church held a rally for Nixon during the Watergate crisis. In 1991 he visited North Korea and met Kim Il Sung. Moon has sees himself as a world leader and has grandiose plans to have an office in governments all over the world. His ultimate goal is to unite all kinds of Christianity world-wide.

New Religions

South Korea and a cult hit the news in 2002 with the announcement that the first human cloning had taken place. BioTech, a company based in Daegu was involved with impregnating a woman with a cloned embryo. BioTech is an affiliate of a US company Clonaid is owned by the Raelian movement. Former French journalist Claude Vorilhon, now known as Rael, founded the group after an alien visitation in the 1970s.

The Raelians, who have a base in Seoul, believe that life was created by super-intelligent aliens in a mass cloning experiment. More cloned births by lesbian mothers have been planned for the future. The group has been associated with free sex and in Rael's early publications he is often photographed with beautiful topless women.

The birth of 'Eve' in 2002 in the United States, who was claimed as the first cloned child is seen by the Raelians as the first step to immortality. After the September 11th tragedy, Rael explained that terrorism could be eradicated in the future because each of the victims could be cloned and recreated.

South Korea has its fair share of cult horror stories. The leader of Chun Jo Hoe or Heaven's Gathering Mo Haeng-Ryong was charged for defrauding his followers out of $90 million. He swindled the members by convincing them that the world was going to end, but they would be spared if they donated all their money to build a shrine. The church was situated about 200km north east of Seoul.

Another cult, the Youngsaeng (everlasting life) Church hit the news in 1998 when six members of the group and the leader, Woo Joong-min, committed suicide by burning themselves inside a van. The leader had a history of fraud and swindling his followers, some of whom had disappeared.





 POP culture





Compared to other nations, Koreans are diligent and hard working. The high school student bears the exam hell burden, and later in the life comes the TOEIC cramming and job-hunt for the University student. Once at work, businesspeople have to work long hours and are expected to marry, have children and also take care of their parents. When they relax they want to escape the pressures of their daily grind. In their spare time they are techno-crazy, obsessed with text messaging, playing computer games or chatting with virtual friends. Computer games and comics are a form of escapism which takes them into an imaginary world.


Banji - couple rings

Korean youth are generally more innocent their western counterparts. There is no drinking or drug culture and they leave home and become financially independent much later. The homes are often too small for children to entertain their friends. Young couples cannot find the privacy they desire at home and they have to go elsewhere, hence the popularity of video and singing rooms.



Norae bangs or singing rooms have private cubicles equipped with a karaoke machine and tambourines. Popular western songs include Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree and Yesterday Once More. A karaoke bar is different from a norae bang as it sells alcohol, is more expensive and you embarrass yourself in front of the whole bar if you want to sing.


Video rooms are notorious in Korea as a place where young couples go to have sex. The sleazier ones have more adult movies and blinds that completely cover the window. Coffee shops are the place for gossiping girls and blind dates. Computer rooms or PC Bang are filled with goggle-eyed Starcraft and Diablo addicts. Deaths have been realted to this obsession. One casualty died in a PC room because they didn't sleep or eat for days. In another case a guy found where his virtual opponent lived and finished him off for real. A housewife suffered a similar fate when she was murdered by her husband for chatting with an Internet buddy and neglecting the housework.


Outside arcade game rooms are the DDR dance machines with the squares that light up to the music. Also there are the machine punch bags that have many macho types competing with their friends.


Comic book rooms are popular with adults and children, but the adult books tend to be more pornographic. At manhwa bang or comic book rooms you can rent the books or pay by the hour. Some are translated from Japanese and start at the back of the book.




If the hairstyles of the Korean soccer team are anything to go by, Ahn Jung Hwan's perm and the goalkeeper's dyed spiky mullet, Korean fashion is what westerners would call 80s style. The sun visor and purposely-ripped jeans are also alive and well.


Girly handbags for men are the height of fashion

Small rucksacks, guys with women's handbags, imitation Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren goods, flouncy country girl skirts, long pointy shoes, and girly pink and fluffy things such as Barbie handbags are all trends in Korea. The older generation goes for tucking their trousers into their socks, and at the weekend they deck themselves in hiking gear complete with the fishing jacket and feathered Austrian hat.


The Koreans take pride in their appearance and outside of Seoul it is unusual to find a rebellious trendsetter. They are generally conservatively and smartly dressed and often wear their Sunday best to go shopping and to the movies. The office look is popular for high school students and university students. There is a contrast between this and the sneakers, jeans and sweater bunch.


Dyed hair is usually brown - blonde is a little daring. They also have their hair straightened and love to shop for glitzy hair clips. Long hair for guys unusual and rarer still are beards and moustaches.



Cutsy obssession with cellphone accessories

Women feel an obligation to wear make-up as part of a cultural tradition and out of respect for themselves and other people. Wearing make-up does not have connotations with sexual attraction or interest in the opposite sex. To save themselves time, many have their eyebrows tattooed. Body tattoos however, are illegal in Korea and are the trademark of gangsters.


Cosmetic surgery has boomed in Korea, in particular the double eyelid operation where the eye is made to look larger and rounder. Also rasing the bridge of the nose and adjusting the jaw to make the face smaller are also popular.



Famous Korean pop groups are Shin Hwa, G.O.D, SES, NRG, Baby VOX and HOT. In 1998 President Kim lifted the ban on Japanese culture, so now Korea is also exposed to Japanese music.


Some Korean tunes are rip offs of western tunes. 'Because I Got High' by Afroman (I was gonna clean my room until I got high…) is now sung by a rapping Korean boy band donning leather jackets.


The only singer to have a sexy and raunchy music video would have to be transgender Hari Su. A common theme of music videos is the tragic love tale where one of the lovers is injured or killed in a nasty accident. Last year MTV broadcast plane crashes, motorbike accidents and a scene where the girl is blinded by photographic chemicals.


Busan holds the International Rock Festival every year at Gwanganli beach. Korea proudly sent its own punk band No Brain overseas to perform at the Mount Fuji rock festival. The lead singer bit the Japanese flag and tore it shouting 'fuck you Japanese'.




Probably the most well known Korean movie amongst foreigners is Chingu or Friend. It was filmed in Busan and tells the tale of school friends who later join rival gangs. It received attention last October when the movie was blamed for the copycat killing of a high school student in a Busan classroom.


Films are heavily censored in Korea. Mago a budget arthouse movie caused a stir this year because of a scene depicting 825 nude actors.

Korean movies have been popular overseas, with North and South Korea being a common theme. Swiri, a movie about two lovers who were spies for North and South Korea was popular in Japan last year. Joint Security Area about the friendships within the truce village Panmunjom on the border between North and South Korea was watched all over Asia.


In May, Korea was proud of director Im Kwon-Taek's achievement at the Cannes Film Festival. He won the best director award for his movie Chihwaseon about a painter.


Busan hosts the Pusan International Film Festival every year, in October or November.




Korean TV has been a hit all over Asia. Soap operas have been exported to China, and Taiwan. The dramas, if you don't understand Korean, are only good value to get an idea of what the ideal Korean home looks like. The Korean drama is distinguishable because the girls always cry.




Essay on bangs:

Interviews with famous Koreans:

Guide to Korean films:

Korean culture in general:

Guide to Korean youth culture:

On Korean celebrities:

Korean music:

Article on Korea's cosmetic surgery boom:

PC Rooms:

Fads in Korea:

Fashions in Korea:

Video bangs:






 Korean Arts







Korea impressed the world by hosting the 1988 Olympic Games and more recently the 2002 World Cup. At the opening ceremonies Korean arts were displayed for the world to see. This achievement was made more amazing in light of Korea's modern history. Korea survived the attempts of the Japanese to eradicate Korean culture during the Japanese occupation between 1910-1945. Korea's survival spirit continued after the country was left devastated by the Korean War between 1950-1953. The country flourished and was able to put on elaborate displays of its culture.


Arts and Crafts


The earliest Korean paintings are murals that date back to the Three Kingdoms period. Chinese painting and calligraphy influenced Korean traditional art. During the Koryo period, Buddhist painting became popular and later with the influence of Christian missionaries Korean painting took on features of landscapes and scenes from everyday life.


Unlike western painting, which is life-like and almost like a photograph, Korean painting has no viewing point and the eye is allowed to wander over the painting. There is also no perspective and objects appear out of proportion. The colours in Korean painting are calm and subtle.

Traditional paintings usually consist of landscapes, flowers, birds, portraits and altar portraits of Buddha. The four noble gentleman paintings are called sagunja. The four plants are the plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo. Confucian scholars painted these during the Chosun dynasty. The plants represent courage, nobleness, productivity and integrity respectively.


Sculpture became popular with the introduction of Buddhism. Buddha sculptures were carved in bronze, wood and stone. These declined in the 14th century when the country adopted Confucianism. Shamanic woodcarvings were found all over Korea. The grandfather stones at Jeju Island are thought to be carvings of guardian spirits.


Korean pottery originally came from China. The Koreans developed their own kind of celadon, a bluish green ceramic that the Chinese came to envy. Buncheong is a Korean creation, a kind of pottery with a grey tinge with simple designs. The Japanese had their eye on this design and forced the potters and their families to live in Japan and work for the Japanese. This sparked the Imjin War.


The Koreans are also famous for their paper products. Hanji is made from hemp or mulberry pulp. It produces a durable material that has been used to make wardrobes, chests, calligraphy desks, and when oiled it can be used to cover floors or to make umbrellas and fans.

Calligraphy or seoye was popular with the educated elite during the Chosun period. It was a form of mental discipline and along with painting and poetry was one of the necessary accomplishments for the cultured gentleman. Four tools are needed for calligraphy, an ink stick, and a stone for grinding, paper and animal-hair brushes. Traditionally, Chinese characters were painted within an imaginary square. The thickness of the ink and the composition are important and the artist could not make any corrections.


Music and Dance


Korean traditional music is usually divided basically into two groups: classical or court music, jeongak, for the upper echelons of society, and folk music, minsogak, for the common people.


The first Korean classical music was Chinese court music and was known in Korea as tangak meaning that it had come from the Tang Dynasty in China. It was first introduced during the Shilla period, but now the term refers to all Chinese music.


Korean drums

Confucian music came later during the Koryo period when the Chinese emperor sent performers to the Koryo court. The music is simple and reflects the harmony of Confucianism. King Sejong enjoyed Confucian shrine music for Confucian ceremonies and also for entertaining in the royal court.


Buddhist music includes yombal, or the recitation of sutras, hwachong, a humble request by a monk who bangs a cymbal while another may hit a drum and pompae, which is a ritual chant used a Buddhist rites.

Folk music was popular with farmers and often accompanied shamanic rituals requesting a good harvest. The different kinds of folk music include nongak, sanjo, samulnori and pansori.


Nongak is an outdoor affair that combines singing, dancing and music. Sanjo is lively folk tunes, whereas pansori is like traditional Korean opera, which is an epic tale performed by a solo singer to the beat of a drum.


Samulnori is four-man drumming and dancing and is a combination of traditional, shamanic and modern compositions. The four instruments are the hourglass drum (changgo), large gong (ching), small gong (kkwaenggwari) and the barrel drum (puk).

Korean traditional music is usually played on percussion, wind and string instruments.

Among the characteristic traditional instruments are the kayagum, a 12-string zither, the yanggum, a percussion string instrument that is a predecessor of the modern day piano, and the tanso, a bamboo flute.


The drumming that accompanies dancing can be exciting. One form of dance requires the dancers to play the drums and dance at the same time. The most popular folk dances are seungmu, drum dances, talchum, mask drama and salpuri which has roots in early religion.

The masked dance usually doesn't have one story that threads through the performance. Instead, each scene is independent, usually a satire of all types of people with pantomime singing and comedy.


Folk dance is usually very lively and colourful. In the fan dance, the dancers wear brightly coloured costumes and they form a circle that has the appearance of a flower.


A classic court dance is the ball throwing dance where the girls have to throw a ball through a hole and are either rewarded by the flower girl or are punished with a black mark on their cheek from the brush girl. Other famous court dances are the sword dance and the mugo, a drum dance with eight dancers. The patterns that are made by four dancers with flowers and the others with drumsticks symbolise military formations.


Some famous dances are Buddhist in origin, for example the butterfly dance and the cymbal dance. In the former the angels symbolically come from heaven, in the latter they play the cymbals. With the drum dance the sufferings of the dead are relieved with each drum beat. The dances are usually accompanied by chanting.


Sungmu is a monk dance that represents either enlightenment or temptation. The dancer wears a robe with long sleeves and acts out being alternately attracted and repelled by the beating drum. The tension mounts until he is drawn to the drum, when he produces the drumsticks from his sleeves. He builds up the tension by drumming then finally walks away.



The Tripitaka Koreana is a Buddhist work that was written on a series of wood blocks. It is housed at the Haein Temple and was believed to protect Korea from foreign invasions. The monks print them by covering the block in ink and printing it on paper.


Hangul is one of Korea's proudest inventions. King Sejong and his scholars created the Korean alphabet in the 16th century. It was a welcome change from the Chinese characters that were previously used only by the educated elite. Hangul is phonetic, scientific and relatively easy to learn which might account for why Korea has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.


Buddhism, Confucianism and Shamanism influenced early literature. Early works, such as legends and folk tales express an appreciation of nature. The morals of respect for elders and leaders, good being rewarded and evil punished are significant in early literature.


The most famous early work is the Samguki or The History of the Three Kingdoms, which was written by Ki Pu Shik in 1145. Samukyusa or the Myths and Legends of the Three Kingdoms was written in by Illyeon to complement the Samguki. It was written in the 12th century but was not printed until 1512. The content is not systematic and is not about the three kingdoms, but mostly the Shilla Kingdom. There are stories about the creation of Korea by the man-god Tangun and the origins of Buddhism. The book, while it is not strictly historical, gives an insight into the thinking of the time.


While early Korean literature was heavily influenced by Chinese works, after the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945 there was a decisive turn away from Chinese and Japanese influence, and western and Christian thought is now more prevalent in modern Korean literature.



The traditional Korean house has an elevated one-storey design, with wooden beams set in stone, clay walls and roof tiles. No nails were used to assemble the structure, only notches so the house could be easily dismantled. The traditional roof slopes upwards at the edges as if it is smiling.

The house is arranged around a courtyard and covers two, three or four sides of a square with the courtyard in the centre. The number of areas in the house depended on the wealth of the family. A rich family would have had separate quarters for the women, men and servant as well as an ancestral shrine.

Koreans use the traditional heating system or ondol today, although there are some differences. The traditional system consisted of a clay floor and burning coal underneath, nowadays the floor is heated by water pipes. The traditional floor is covered with oiled paper that is comfortable to sit and sleep on. Rooms often have low ceilings to make the most of the warmth.




Probably the most popular board games that are still played in Korea are baduk and changgi. Baduk, travelled from China to Japan (where it is known as go) has a grid and the two players either have white or black counters. The pieces do not start on the board; each player alternately places one counter at a time. There is no front line as in chess. The aim is to occupy as much territory as possible. Changgi is originally from China, and is similar to chess, in that each of the Chinese characters on the pieces represent a war figure. The pieces are either red or blue, and the stronger opponent can play with fewer pieces. Another board game is yutnori, which was usually played on New Years Eve. The game is played by throwing beans or sticks in the air then calculating the score according to where they land on the board.

Baduk and changgi are generally played by men, but a traditional women's game is nolttwigi or the jumping see-saw. It was popular at New Year's when the women could show off their new clothes. They would jump on the end of the board, springing their partner in the air. It is said that women liked this game because it meant they could see over their courtyard walls.


The tug of war from Yongsan was a game that has links with the next year's crop. If they pulled the rope they believed that they would have rain and if the women won they would have a good harvest.


Korean wrestling or ssireum was later passed on to Japan where it was developed into sumo. Tightrope walking and kite flying were also popular. There are about 17 different kinds of tightrope walking and the artist would have to sing songs or tell stories at the same time.

Martial Arts


The martial arts that exist today are a fusion of the ancient traditions and they have been standardised after 1945. They have been affected recently by the Japanese occupation when Korean martial arts were banned.


Taekwondo literally translates as the way of the foot and the fist and has its roots in the ancient martial arts of subak, hwarangdo and taekyon. In recent times it has been affected by Japanese karate during the occupation. It is characterised by high fast spinning kicks. Each student is expected to perform breaking tests and display knowledge of pressure points. Taekwondo is not as effective as other martial arts as a self-defence method as it does not involve fighting on the ground where most street fights end up. Taekwondo is also a sport where the objective is not to hurt your opponent but to demonstrate your power and speed. Every Korean man receives Taekwondo training during his military service years. Like all martial arts, the qualities of discipline and correct behaviour are valued.


Hapkido literally means the way to co-ordinate internal energy. Its method is made up of kicking, striking, twisting, throwing and joint locking. The emphasis is on using the hands and the feet whereas Taekwondo is mostly kicking. Weapons are used in advanced stages of training. This is a good martial art for self-defence.


In ancient times, there were three kinds of martial arts; Sahdoh Musul, which was tribal martial arts, Boolkyo Musul, which was Buddhist, and Koongjoong Musul, which was for the royal court. Recently these were combined to form Kuk Sool. Other combination martial arts are Tang Soo Do, which attempted to unite all martial arts under one name and Kong Shin Bup, which means empty body and open mind.


On Korean Arts:

Performing Arts:

Links on Korean Arts:

Arts and Crafts:

Korean musical instruments:

Korean traditional music:

Listen to Korean music:

Guide to Hapkido and Taekwondo




Korean folk games:

Korean literature:

Korean Calligraphy:

On Korean painting:

Korean paper crafts:

Korean architecture: