Korean have described themselves as "contemplative, illogical and fatalistic." Non-Koreans often find them rude and pushy. They are hard working people who are oppressed with getting ahead and moving forwards, but not always paying close attention to what they are doing. They forget things quickly and don't dwell on the past. Their way of interacting with one another is defined very much by Confucianism.

In a survey conducted at a Korean university, more Koreans described themselves as "quick tempered" than any other characteristic. They also described Koreans as "tending to bluff," "egoistitic," "lacking patience" and "hating change." Among those who described themselves as "emotional" and "affectionate," 33.6 percent said that was a positive trait while 67 percent said it indicated "fickle and irrational" behavior.

When asked about the quality of their life on a 1 to 10 scale, 53 percent of South Koreans ranked themselves as 7 or better, compared to 60 percent in the United States and 8 percent in Tanzania.

Korean students are very good at flipping and twirling pens around in their fingers when they are studying or concentrating. The lips of some Koreans noticeably tremble and twitch when they are nervous or nervous. It is not uncommon to see men in their twenties in Korea with flecks of premature grey hair. This, many people say, is caused by the stress of school and work.

While Koreans are well-known for being hard workers. They also like to party and enjoy the outdoors a great deal. They enjoy hiking and going to the nearest mountain stream to collect water. According to “Cities of the World” people are “obsessed with nature, and with mountains in particular. Wherever you travel, you will see them out in the open air, clad in the latest adventure fashions.” They also like fashion and produce highly sought-after cosmetics. One young woman who likes to wear matching outfits with her husband. South Koreans tend to want to show off things they are proud of – including their relationships,

Korea os often described as a homogeneously Confucian society. Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “There is a danger in overstressing” this idea. Even during the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), foreign observers have been impressed with the diversity of the Korean character as expressed in day-to-day human relations. There is, on the one hand, the image of Koreans as self-controlled, deferential, and meticulous in the fulfillment of their social obligations; on the other hand, there is the Korean reputation for volatility and emotionalism. The ecstasy and euphoria of shamanistic religious practices, one of Korea's most characteristic cultural expressions, contrast sharply with the austere self-control idealized by Confucianists. Although relatively minor themes in the history of Korean ethics and social thought, the concepts of equality and respect for individuals are not entirely lacking. The doctrines of Ch'ndogyo, an indigenous religion that arose in the nineteenth century and combined elements of Buddhism, Daoism, shamanism, Confucianism, and Catholicism, taught that every human being "bears divinity" and that one must "treat man as god." [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]


Han is an idea that Koreans say is uniquely Korean and is key to understanding the essence of their being and soul that is based on a Chinese character that shows a heart and a head turned away. The famous Korean writer Yi Mun-yol called it “a peculiar mixture of tragedy and comedy.” Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: The phrase han p'it-chul ("one bloodline") often is used by Koreans at home and abroad to symbolize their shared identity as the members of a homogeneous nation. Blood and territory thus are the most frequently invoked metaphors associated with the nation.”

Han also incorporates a feeling of injustices directed at all Koreans over generations, a longing for a kind cultural purity that resembles the German ideas of volk, and irony. Han is generally described as a melancholy feeling. The irony is that it can be turned into humor. But at its darkest it can be extremist, vengeful and violent.

Gary Rector, one of the few Americans to become a South Korean citizen, told the New Yorker, “Han is anger and resentment that build up, and at the same time a feeling of frustration, of a feeling of desires that are unfulfilled. So resentment, frustration, bitter longing are lumped together.” Matthew Trammell wrote in The New Yorker: “In 2011, the Los Angeles Times reporter John Glionna wrote a story about han, a complex moroseness—an “ineffable sadness”—cited by Koreans as a definitive pillar of their culture. Glionna interviews local shop owners and elders who say that han is a part of everyday life in their homeland. The Korean-American scholar Elaine Kim considers how han has manifested across the diaspora, citing the reaction of Korean-American victims of the 1992 Los Angeles riots: “The discussions were all about whites and blacks; Korean losses were shunted to the side,” she explains. “The injustice was they weren’t responsible for the problem, and they couldn’t solve it. As I see it, that’s the definition of han.” [Source: Matthew Trammell, The New Yorker ,May 29, 2016]

Ed Park wrote in The New Yorker: “The most appealing novels in the “Library of Korean Literature” capture the existential turbulence of han while keeping a sense of humor about it. The didactic moments in Yi Kwang-su’s “The Soil,” a social-realist tome originally serialized in 1932 and 1933, are balanced with wry observations of customs and people, such as the modern man who has internalized Japanese values and looks down his nose at his country’s educational system: “Yes, there’s the Department of Korean Literature. I really don’t know what students learn there. I think literature is useless anyway. And to study Korean literature? Even worse.” (Yi, the most famous writer in the series, was one of the country’s first modernists and a leader of the Korean independence movement, though he was later tarred as a Japanese collaborator.)” [Source: Ed Park, The New Yorker, October 19, 2015]

Confucianism and Koreans

Many norms and mores of Korean society are rooted in the tenets of Confucianism, a system of ethics developed in China around 500 B.C. and is named after the Chinese scholar Confucius (551-479 B.C.). Confucianism emphasizes devotion and respect towards elders, parents, family and people in positions of authority. Many Koreans attribute their country's remarkable success in recent decades to these values. In modern Korean society, Confucianism is most noticeable in relations between people. The Five Relationships prescribe behavior between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, old and young, and between friends. If you fall outside any of these relationships, it is said, you do not effectively exist. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Even though South Korea seems very modern and secular and is very technologically advanced and Westernized, Confucianism remains very strong in the way people respect their elders, teachers and mentors, the way friends refer to each other as junior and senior, the way conservative morality endures and the way corporations and organizations have been structured.

Koreans often strike Westerners as not being very logical. One reason for this is that they have been brought up with the Korean form of Confucianism, which puts a strong emphasis on following teachers, superiors, family members and elders with unquestioned authority rather than thinking for themselves.

Koreans have traditionally relied on superiors to tell them what to do and thus have been reluctant to assert themselves. Mentors and teachers are honored, even revered. There is a deference to command authority. People often ask your age not because they are particularly nosey but because they want to know where you fit into the Confucian scheme and know how you fit in terms of being an older person or younger so they know how to address you. After decades of maintaining their Confucian values and strong work ethic, Koreans are now showing more of an interest in materialism, money and superficial success.

Nunchi: the Korean Way of Sizing Someone Up

Nunchi is an important concept in Korean social relationships. It describes the social ‘art of understanding’ — a type of interpersonal understanding of yourself versus your peers. "If you have a fancy car, it has to [be] a fancier car than your neighbor, so you can tell them how much money you make," the owner of a small clothing shop in Seoul told NPR. Koreans don’t say someone has ‘good’ nunchi, but ather they have ‘quick’ nunchi – the ability to rapidly process changing social information and size up yourself in relationship to someone else. [Source: Elise Hu, NPR, August 5, 2015]

On the book “The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success” by Korean American journalist and author Euny Hong, Adrienne Matei wrote in The Guardian: “According to Hong, nunchi is the “art of understanding what people are thinking and feeling” – a quality held by those who are sensitive to the dynamics within a given group. Koreans cultivate nunchi from a young age. “Kids in Korea know the word by age three,” she says. “You usually learn it in the negative; if everyone is standing on the right side of an escalator and a kid is lounging on the left, the parent will say, ‘Why don’t you have any nunchi?’ It’s partly about not being rude, but it’s also partly, ‘Why are you not plugged into your environment?’” [Source: Adrienne Matei, The Guardian, November 11, 2019]

“The word “nunchi” itself roughly translates to “eye-measure”, a sort of sizing-up, not of individuals but of the overall context and atmosphere of a situation. It’s applicable to just about every social setting one can be in, from a wedding to a job interview. In action, nunchi involves noticing who, in any given context, is speaking, who is listening, who interrupts, who apologizes, who is rolling their eyes. From there, one can make potentially useful assessments about the nature of relationships and hierarchies within a group, the overall mood, and how to behave accordingly.

“As the truly skilled discern such cues intuitively even as they’re constantly in flux, Koreans don’t say someone has “good” nunchi, but “quick” nunchi – the ability to rapidly process changing social information. Because people with quick nunchi take the time to read the room, their chances of success in any social environment are high – they’re more likely to fit in and make connections and are less prone to coming across as clueless or incompetent, or of committing awkward faux pas. “At a very basic level, people will be happier to be around you if you have quick nunchi,” says Hong, “and from a Machiavellian point of view, you can negotiate better” by staying quiet, listening carefully, and gathering information from others before speaking.

“Because nunchi is a soft skill premised on discretion, Hong notes it can be a superpower for introverts. She claims approaching social situations through the lens of nunchi even helped her battle social anxiety, allowing her to remain grounded in stressful circumstances. Yet if the subtle art of nunchi is so powerful, why does it seem that these days corporate and world leaders seem to more often be blustery loudmouths, rather than sensitive, quiet types? Hong’s investigation of this question illuminates why the concept of nunchi – with its emphasis on unity, relationship building, and collective harmony – may be particularly relevant at a cultural and political moment characterized by divisiveness. It is, after all, essentially the power of understanding others.

Lack of Privacy and Zoned Out Behavior in Korea

Many Korean customs, values and personality traits arise from the fact that Koreans live so close together in such a crowded place. South Korea is one of the most densely populated countries the world. There are more Koreans than there are French, Italians and Spaniards. In South Korea they live in area about the size of Indiana. Everyday Koreans are packed together like sardines on subways and sit elbow to elbow in restaurants. If there weren't strict rules and a high degree of tolerance for things Westerners perceive as rude behavior, people would be at each other's throats more than they already are.

Personal space is hard to find in Korea and thus the concept of privacy is more of state of mind than a condition of being alone. Koreans are very good at shutting out the world around them and making their own privacy and losing themselves in their thoughts or what they are doing while surrounded by people. But even that is not enough for some people. Often, you see men parked in their cars sleeping or reading, sometimes for hours at a time.

Because they are used be around people all the time, Koreans often communicate with small gestures. Knocking, for example, is considered impolite in some places. A gentle clearing of the thrown and "ahem" is considered a more appropriate way of asking if it is okay to enter a room.

Some Koreans are so oblivious to outside world their eyes seem to be glazed over. And, they are notorious for not paying attention to what they are doing. A couple of times Korean friends told me stories open women at a public swimming pools that forget to put their bathing suits in changing room and swam several laps before realizing they were butt naked.

The zoned-out behavior of some Koreans can sometimes have fatal consequences. Once, a man in Pusan walked straight on into a tree while talking on a cellular and died from internal bleeding. Another time, a man fell down sewer and stayed their for eight days until he was rescued.

Korean Toughness

Koreans have a reputation for being rougher and tougher than other Asians. The people in Seoul, wrote Anthony Spaeth of Time magazine, "have sharper elbows than in other Asian metropolis, the steps leading from the subway are steeper, the revolving doors in office buildings seem to spin faster."

Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: “This is not a country that gives up. Surely one of the most bullied nations on earth, Korea, some historians believe, has been invaded more than four hundred times through the years, without once being the aggressor, if you don’t count the Vietnam War. After the Korean War, the country’s G.D.P. per capita (US$64) was less than that of Somalia, and its citizens lived under an oppressive regime. Today, South Korea has the fourteenth-highest G.D.P. in the world. Is it really surprising, then, that a country that had the resilience to make itself over so thoroughly is also the capital of cosmetic about-faces? [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]

Once a 15-year-old Korean boy who leaped from the top a 15-story building and landed on a the roof of a car and suffered only minor injuries. A 31-year-old Korean man from the 10th floor of an apartment and sustaining only a slight shoulder injury after hitting a tree. James Brooke wrote in the New York Times: the “man regained consciousness while hanging from a pine tree.” After a plane crash near Pusan, “A woman seven months pregnant walked away from the crash site, suffering only bruises. Another man missing a shoe and his face covered with blood, stumbled into a neighborhood store, the Hope Grocery.”

In June 1995, in the worst disaster in Korea's history, the story Sampoon Department store in Seoul collapsed, killing 501 people and injuring 937. Miraculously, 16 days after the building went down a 19-year female employee of the store was pulled out alive. She told a hospital employee that she had no food or water, even rainwater, during the period of her confinement. When she was rescued she was thirsty but surprisingly didn't show signs of severe dehydration. The three survivors were heralded as heros, given gifts and job offers and asked to appear in television commercials.

For a long time South Korea has had the best Olympic archers but being a world-class archer in South Korea is no easy matter. To build mental and physical toughness they are ordered to stare at dead bodies all night in cemeteries, handle snakes, climb mountains with rubber dinghies on their backs, walking through haunted house filled with actors in scary costumes and clean up city sewage in Seoul.

Impact of Military Service of South Korean Males and Society

About 300,000 South Korean men are conscripted each year into the military or riot police in South Korea. Under law, all able Korean males who have completed high school are subject too conscription when they are 18. Those who refuse to fulfill their obligations face a prison sentence of three years, harsh treatment while in prison and tough parole terms when they get out. Many companies refuse to hire someone who has not served.

James Griffiths of CNN wrote: “Beyond objections to violence, South Korean men have another very valid reason for seeking to avoid military service: the army is notorious for the hazing and abuse many recruits go through. In 2014, then President Park Geun-hye urged action after photos emerged of the bruised and bloody body of a 20-year-old private, who was beaten and abused every day for a month before he eventually died. [Source: James Griffiths, CNN, June 29, 2018]

“The tough experiences of many men in the military have been at the core of an anti-feminist backlash to the #MeToo movement in South Korea by men's rights groups, even as the country has made some progress in tackling issues of sexual harassment and assault. James Turnbull, a Busan-based expert on Korean feminism and popular culture, said this reaction is "overwhelmingly driven by (the) perceived unfairness" that men perform military service while women do not. But he said that their time in the army is largely responsible for the negative attitudes and behavior the #MeToo movement is seeking to stamp out.

“"It's difficult to overemphasize the role of the military as a socialization agent" for young men, Turnbull said, many of whom join the military "after their first year of university, barely out of high school" and have little interaction with women during that time except female K-Pop groups who perform at bases. "This vision of women and male-female relations that the combination engenders — that men's role is to do important work for the nation, while women's is to remain on the sidelines offering their support, especially through their youthful looks and sexual availability — is pervasive in Korean daily life."

Hardworking Koreans

Koreans have a reputation for being the hardest working people in the world. Surveys have found they work more and sleep less than anywhere else in the developed world. According to one survey many of the men interviewed said their job was more important their family. People are admired for passing up their vacations to do more work. Two of the most commonly used words in the Korean language are endurance and diligence. One of the most common expressions is "without fail." "When things get tough," one businessman told Time, "Koreans will buckle down and simply endure."

An executive for the Ford Motor company in Korea said they make the Japanese look lazy. Kim Woo Chang, for example, chairman of the US$7 billion Daewoo conglomerate never took a vacation and never takes a day off. He built up his company up from scratch in only 21 years. It didn't hurt however that Kim was good friends with Korean president Park Chung Hee, the authoritarian ruler that had a lot to with creation of the Korean economic miracle. The company for all intents and purposes went bankrupt after the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis and was broken up.

An OECD report in 2015, said South Koreans work the second-longest hours among OECD countries, but with relatively low labor productivity. The Korea Herald reported: “Statistics compiled by the Paris-based club of advanced economies show that the average South Korean — including salaried employees, self-employed and part-timers — worked 2,124 hours in 2014, up 45 hours from the previous year. This marks 1.2 times, or 354 hours, more than the average for the 34 Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development member countries, which stands at 1,770 hours per year. Mexico was the only country ahead of Korea with 2,228 hours. South Korea was the most overworked country in the OECD bloc until Mexico knocked it off the top spot in 2008. Germans worked 1,371 hours, the least among the OECD, meaning Koreans work four months longer than Germans per year.” [Source: Korea Herald, November 2, 2015]

Se Ri Pak was the best woman’s golfer in the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She was taught the game by her father, a building contractor and former professional baseball player, who used to have her hit golf balls, sleep and listen to ghost stories in a cemeteries because she was afraid of cemeteries. Pak was known for her icy consistency and lack of emotion. Asked about her lifestyle during her rookie year, she replied, “I just practice, sleep, eat, practice.” When asked if she did anything for fun, she said “no.” When her manager was asked about her personal life, he said, “She has no boyfriend. She has no time.” At night she often studied English. Her one indulgence was a pet beagle.

Antonio Fatas, a professor of economics at INSEAD's Singapore Campus, told the Korea Herald: “While GDP per capita in South Korea is as high as that of France, GDP per hour is significantly lower _ about 40-50 percent lower. This means South Koreans achieve the same income by working many more hours. When you think about happiness you have to take this into account as we all derive some of our happiness from our leisure time.

Emotional and Short Tempered Koreans

Koreans frequently lose it. It is not unusual to see elderly women beating the hell out of each other or their husbands. I've seen fights, shoving matches and loud arguments at immigration in the airport, on buses, in the street, in schools, in homes, in the halls of government. Maybe related to this, Koreans can be very stubborn.

Fights often seem to break out at the drop of a hat. Once, I was going to work at 6:00am on a bus. The bus stopped and picked up a man who immediately started pummeling the bus driver — whose apparent crime was driving a little bit beyond the bus stop forcing the guy to walk a a couple dozen steps. The bus driver seemed like he had experienced this kind of thing before. He maneuvered the guy into a head lock and tossed him out the door and drove on like it was all in a day's work.

Hwa-byung is a mental disorder unique to Koreans. It is attributed to the to the suppression of anger and its symptoms include insomnia, fatigue, panic, fear of death, depression, indigestion and others. Sin-byung is another a mental disorder found in Korea. It is characterized by extreme feelings anxiety and bodily complaints associated with dissociation and possession by ancestral spirits.

Pali Pali Culture

It seems like people in Korea are always in a hurry and impatient. After a plane lands — after the announcement that tells everyone to stay in their seat until the plane comes to a complete stop — Koreans jump and grab their luggage and begin maneuvering for position to get off. Drivers switch lanes back and forth to get a little advantage. People eat and drink quickly and walk so fast, in such a headlong way, they don’t look where they are going.

The Korean way of rushing around is called “pali pali” or “hurry, hurry.” Sociologists credit it was being a driving force behind South Korea’s rapid development but also blame it for traffic jams, high rates of accidental deaths, corruption, slipshod construction and reckless expansion. One restaurant worker told AP, “Customers get angry and yell if they don’t get food quickly. When I take orders, may people say: ‘What is the fastest food you serve.” Koreans routinely pay “hurry up” money to government officials to get permits, licenses and contracts. Korean sociologists have said Koreans weren’t always in such a hurry. The great rush, they say, began in earnest under President Park Chung Hee. He pushed into South Korea into rapid development and reward companies that built bridges, buildings and roads ahead of schedule.

The Sewol ferry disaster in 2104, which left about 300 people, mostly high school students, dead, was blamed to a large degree on negligence and putting speed and profits before safety. Afterwards, Yu Kun-ham wrote in the Korea Herald: “What the nation needs to do is to upgrade its "pali pali" or "hurry, hurry" culture, a legacy of Korea's rapid industrialisation that began in the early 1960s. Former president Park Chung Hee sought to achieve economic growth as fast as possible to win the competition with North Korea. He pursued economic development in the same fashion as the military pursues the defeat of the enemy. Each year, he set an ambitious growth target and employed whatever means available to attain it. As getting things done assumed paramount importance, speed and efficiency often took precedence over safety. The late president's approach has taken root in every corner of Korean society, fostering the "hurry-up mentality" among Koreans. [Source: Yu Kun-ham Korean Herald, April 22, 2014]

“Yet the "pali pali" culture has both merits and demerits. Some experts assert that it has helped Korean companies become more competitive. They also cite it as a factor behind Korea's rise as a global IT powerhouse. However, it is also indisputable that the "hurry, hurry" mindset has bred indifference to safety, the underlying cause of the unending series of manmade disasters in Korea. To make Korea a safer place to live, the "hurry, hurry" culture needs to be changed. It should be brought home to people that they should not sacrifice safety even if they are in a mad rush to get things done fast.

Puritanical Koreans?

In an article on K-Pop Euny Hong wrote in Quartz that one reason why Korean pop music is successful than Japanese pop music is that Korean culture is puritanical — and for global spread, that’s a good thing. Despite what you see in Korean movies, sexual repression in everyday South Korea is enforced to an annoying degree. A female Korean-American friend of mind recalls not being allowed to attend slumber parties as a child, because, “You don’t sleep at another person’s house until you are married.” When I’m with my parents, who live in Seoul, I am still expected to walk out of the room if we’re watching a movie with a sex scene, even though I’ve been an adult for quite a long time. They still won’t let me take taxis at night because they’re worried I’ll be kidnapped. [Source: Euny Hong, Quartz, November 16, 2012]

“Weirdly, a lot of Western parents can relate to, and even envy, such concerns. If a somewhat conventional culture like the U.S. is going to accept a foreign pop trend, it has to have palatable morals, and overprotectiveness is an appealing one. Japan is a different story. It, too, is sexually repressed, but it’s not puritanical. Take the J-pop band AKB48 (so named because the band has 48 members). They frequently wear school uniforms while performing, and their songs have lyrics like “My school uniform is getting in the way.” A song like that would be banned in Korea. In Korea, by contrast, schoolgirl uniforms are only worn… for school. And they have much longer skirts than do their Japanese counterparts. Japanese girl idols are expected to publish photobooks, consisting of pin-up style pictures. The Guardian wrote that such books “will invariably feature a selection of bikini shots shot on beaches in Hawaii…Sales of photobooks are so brisk that they have their own charts.”

“Meanwhile, Korean culture protects childhood innocence at any price. Which means that even if the K-pop idols are of age, they can’t appear in a spread that would be inappropriate for their child fans. Patrick St. Michel noted in our sister publication the Atlantic that K-pop bands “aren’t glimmering examples of feminism, but at least they look and act like grown women.” An example of a somewhat grown-up K-pop girl band is the nine-member Girls’ Generation, recently featured in The New Yorker.

“Part of South Korea’s puritanism has to do with having a large Christian population (26.3 percent, as opposed to Japan’s 2 percent). But most of it predates the arrival of Christian missionaries by many centuries. The preservation of childhood innocence is rooted in Confucianism, a rigid system of social order that dominated every aspect of public and private life. Confucianism began in China around the fifth century BC and migrated to Korea. By the 14th century, it had became Korea’s system of governance, and this led to a lot of weird stuff, including male primogeniture, filial piety, and the use of really hard exams for determining one’s entire life course. Part of the Confucian way was extreme sexual separation.“Boys and girls must not share a seat after age seven,” was the dictum, and even as adults, aristocratic men and women in old Korea lived in separate compounds.

Regional and Religious Differences in South Korea

Koreans divide themselves into five groups: 1) southeasterners and people from Pusan, regarded as direct, manly and boastful; 2) northwesterners, considered honest and aggressive; and 3) northeasterners, thought of as tough and resilient. 4) People from the southwest are regarded as clever, skilled compromisers but unreliable and politically disruptive; and 5) people from Seoul and the central part of Korea are considered gentle, narrow-minded, busy and selfish.

According to “Governments of the World”: “South Korea is an ethnically and linguistically homogenous society, although since the late 1980s, there has been increasing international migration. Still, in 2004, immigrants accounted for less than 1 percent of South Korea's population. Despite ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, there are strong cleavages in South Korean society. The strongest of these rifts derives from regional and provincial differences, and the most pronounced is between Kyongsang province in the southeast and South Cholla province. This cleavage is partly a result of overt discrimination and political favoritism, which was very strong prior to 1987. Into the twenty-first century, discrimination (in general) and regional disparities lessened, but South Korea continued to struggle from problems associated with regionalism. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities Thomson Gale, 2006]

“In addition to regional differences, South Korea is also divided along religious lines. Religious differences, however, have not been a major source of conflict. About 32 percent of South Koreans are Christian (mostly Presbyterian, followed by Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and Methodists), and close to 24 percent are Buddhist. There are also smaller numbers of Shamanists (those who practice traditional spirit worship), followers of Cheondogyo (an indigenous religion that combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Christianity), and Islam.

“Seoul is South Korea's capital and business center. Although it covers only 0.6 percent of the country's total area, its population of 10,276,968 (at the end of 2003) constituted almost a quarter of the national population.”

Change and Modernity

Things have changed rapidly in South Korea in the last few decades. Ed Park wrote in The New Yorker: “Two decades ago, when I spent a year in Seoul, the city my parents came from, after I graduated from college, I couldn’t have fathomed that South Korea would become an epicenter of state-of-the-art anything; there was hardly any evidence that a new, high-tech, high-speed civilization was on the way. [Source: Ed Park, The New Yorker, October 19, 2015]

“Things changed after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. As Euny Hong detailed last year, in her book “The Birth of Korean Cool,” the South Korean government, reeling from the recession, decided to invest in pop culture as a prime export, resulting in the wildly popular boy bands and girl bands and soap operas that went on to make up hallyu, the wave of Korean culture that has swept over Asia, and, increasingly, the rest of the world. These days, South Korea is famous for being among the most wired countries in the world, with whip-fast Internet speeds and a smartphone in every hand. Thousands fill stadiums to watch video-game tournaments, and plastic surgery seems as common as hair dye. It sounds like science fiction.

“Such breakneck change can’t help but come at a price. The titular mother in [the book]“Please Look After Mom,” for instance, travels from the countryside to Seoul to visit her grown children, only to get lost in the subway. The novel captures the unsettling dislocation of the country’s rapid rural-to-urban transformation, and the transition from an elder-venerating Confucian hierarchy to a youth-focussed culture obsessed with physical beauty. This degree of change has left a deadly legacy: as Kim Young-ha noted in a Times Op-Ed last year, South Korea’s suicide rate has been the highest in the industrialized world for eight years running.”

Cheating in South Korea

Cheating is called cunning in Korea and it is very common practice especially in universities, at least when I was at a university there in the 1990s. At that time students routinely wrote formulas and answers on desk tops before an exam and then sat at same desk during the exam. Women sometimes wrote the answers on the part of their leg concealed by their skirt. High school students were more creative. When taking a multiple choice, for example, students sometimes asked teacher about a question they don't know — number 25 for example — and students who knew the answer to the question would hand signals to tell the student whether the answer was A, B, C, D or E.

According an informal survey at Seoul National University, Korea's top university, in the 1990s, students estimated that between 25 and 30 percent of all students cheated. University students also routinely pass in reports that are plagiarized works by other authors word for word. In the early 2010s at least seven lawmakers accused of academic plagiarism.

Annually in March, the South Korean justice ministry test administers a test for those vying for appointment as judges. The test is given in Seoul and takes three hours, during which, to prevent cheating, restroom breaks were not allowed. In the past those who need to go to the bathroom were given plastic bags (for men) and skirt-like covers with plastic pots (for women), for use in the back of the exam room. [Chuck Shepard’s, News of the Weird, AFP, March 8, 2002]

In June 2009, two South Korean men were arrested for using high-tech electronic devices to give real-time answers to people cheating on the TOEIC English exam. The men made about US$39,000 sending answers to university students and job seekers. [Source: AFP]

In June 2016, the ACT college-entrance exam was canceled in South Korea and Hong Kong just hours before hours before test takers were going to take it. ACT spokesman Ed Colby said, “ACT has just received credible evidence that test materials intended for administration in these regions have been compromised,” ACT said in a statement.Colby declined to discuss how the test had leaked or where. He said ACT discovered evidence of the breach on Friday. Colby said the cancellation affected about 5,500 students who were scheduled to take the test at 56 different test centers. They will receive refunds of registration fees. He said it was “not feasible” to reschedule the exam; the ACT will not be administered again until September. "It impacts innocent students who had no involvement in any kind of wrong activities,” he said. [Source: Steve Stecklow, Reuters, June 10, 2016]

Happiness and Work-Life Balance in South Korea

According to OECD: “When asked to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10, Koreans on average gave it a 5.9 grade, lower than the OECD average of 6.5. Happiness or subjective well-being can be measured in terms of life satisfaction, the presence of positive experiences and feelings, and the absence of negative experiences and feelings. Such measures, while subjective, are a useful complement to objective data to compare the quality of life across countries. Life satisfaction measures how people evaluate their life as a whole rather than their current feelings. [Source: OECD Better Life Index]

“Finding a suitable balance between work and life is a challenge for all workers, especially working parents. The ability to successfully combine work, family commitments and personal life is important for the well-being of all members in a household. Governments can help to address the issue by encouraging supportive and flexible working practices, making it easier for parents to strike a better balance between work and home life.

“An important aspect of work-life balance is the amount of time a person spends at work. Evidence suggests that long work hours may impair personal health, jeopardise safety and increase stress. In Korea, the percentage of employees that work very long hours, is much higher than the OECD average of 11 percent.

“The more people work, the less time they have to spend on other activities, such as time with others, leisure activities, eating or sleeping. The amount and quality of leisure time is important for people's overall well-being, and can bring additional physical and mental health benefits. In Korea, full-time workers devote 61 percent of their day on average, or 14.7 hours, to personal care (eating, sleeping, etc.) and leisure (socialising with friends and family, hobbies, games, computer and television use, etc.) – close to the OECD average of 15 hours.

South Korea’s Score in OECD Better Life Index

According to the OECD: “Korea performs well in some measures of well-being in the Better Life Index. Korea ranks above the average in housing, civic engagement, education and skills, jobs and earnings, personal security, but below average in income and wealth, subjective well-being, environmental quality, health status, social connections, and work-life balance. These rankings are based on available selected data. [Source: OECD Better Life Index]

“Money, while it cannot buy happiness, is an important means to achieving higher living standards. In Korea, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is USD 21 882 a year, lower than the OECD average of USD 33 604 a year. There is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest – the top 20 percent of the population earn more than five times as much as the bottom 20 percent.

“In terms of employment, 67 percent of people aged 15 to 64 in Korea have a paid job, slightly below the OECD employment average of 68 percent. Some 76 percent of men are in paid work, compared with 57 percent of women. In Korea, the percentage of employees working very long hours, is higher than the OECD average of 11 percent.

“Good education and skills are important requisites for finding a job. In Korea, 88 percent of adults aged 25-64 have completed upper secondary education, higher than the OECD average of 78 percent. This is truer of men than women, as 90 percent of men have successfully completed high-school compared with 85 percent of women. Korea is a top-performing country in terms of the quality of its educational system. The average student scored 519 in reading literacy, maths and science in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This score is higher than the OECD average of 486. On average in Korea, girls outperformed boys by 19 points, much higher than the OECD average gap of 2 points.

“In terms of health, life expectancy at birth in Korea is 82 years, two years higher than the OECD average of 80 years. Life expectancy for women is 85 years, compared with 79 for men. The level of atmospheric PM2.5 – tiny air pollutant particles small enough to enter and cause damage to the lungs – is 27.9 micrograms per cubic meter, the highest level in the OECD, where the average is 13.9 micrograms per cubic meter. Korea also performs below the OECD average in terms of water quality, as 76 percent of people say they are satisfied with the quality of their water, compared with an OECD average of 81 percent.

“Concerning the public sphere, there is a moderate sense of community and high levels of civic participation in Korea, where 78 percent of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in time of need, the lowest figure in the OECD, where the average is 89 percent. Voter turnout, a measure of citizens' participation in the political process, was 77 percent during recent elections; higher than the OECD average of 68 percent. Social and economic status can affect voting rates; voter turnout for the top 20 percent of the population is estimated at 92 percent and for the bottom 20 percent it is an estimated 60 percent, a much larger difference than the OECD average gap of 13 percentage points, and points to shortcomings in the political mobilisation of the worst-off.

“In general, Koreans are slightly less satisfied with their lives than the OECD average. When asked to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10, Koreans gave it a 5.9 grade on average, lower than the OECD average of 6.5.

South Korean Kids Rank Last in Happiness Survey

In a survey conducted in 2014, South Korean children were crowned the least happy kids in developed countries, with the country’s ultra-competitive education system named as the primary culprit. Reuters reported: “South Korea ranked at the bottom among 30 countries in terms of children’s satisfaction with their lives, the country’s health ministry said, followed by Romania and Poland. “The most relevant factor to the children’s life satisfaction is academic stress, followed by school violence, internet addiction, negligence and cyber violence,” the ministry said of its survey of more than 4,000 households with children younger than 18. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, November 4, 2014]

“World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim, himself born in South Korea, said the educational system put a heavy burden on children, with its focus on competition and long hours of work. South Korea’s survey results were measured against those of 27 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) grouping of 34 wealthy countries, plus Romania, Latvia and Lithuania.

“The survey, the first such exercise by the South Korean government, comes as around 600,000 students gear up for the annual college entrance exam, with places in prestigious schools and a pathway to a secure job at a top corporation on the line. More than half of children aged between 15 and 19 who are suicidal give “academic performance and college entrance” as a reason, according to National Statistics Korea.

“South Korean parents are well-known for marching their children off to cram schools until late in the evening, and beginning English tutoring in kindergarten. South Korea also made a poor showing in the survey’s child deprivation index, which includes child poverty as well as time for hobbies and school or club activities. It came in last, after Hungary and Portugal.

“World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, who was born in Seoul and moved to the United States at age five, said that South Korea’s education system exacted a heavy cost. “Students endure a substantial psychological burden from competition and long hours of work,” he said during a visit to Seoul on Tuesday.

Are Koreans Unhappy?

World Happiness Report Score: 5.9 (compared to 7.5 in Denmark and 3.3 in Tanzania). South Korea ranked 54th out of 156 countries The ranking is based on a Cantril ladder survey in which respondents in each economic are asked to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale. [Source: United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Wikipedia wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Happiness_Report

When asked to comment on why it seems economic growth had failed to bring true happiness to many Koreans. James Rooney, a professor of international finance at Sogang University; told the Korea Times: “I think it is fair to say that happiness has a lot to do with expectations. For most of the last sixty years or so Koreans have gotten accustomed to high growth rates, a rapidly improving standard of living, and an education system that seemed to promise them intellectual and social advancement into the first ranks of global society and access to a strong employment market. But for the last decade or more those expectations have not been getting met to anything like the same degree as in the past. So the expectations that grew naturally out of past experience are no longer being met and satisfied, and that detracts from the happiness that Korean people should be entitled to feel after all these years of hard work. [Source: Korea Times, Kim Jae-kyoung April 4, 2018]

Andy Xie, an independent economist based in Shanghai, said “Happiness has two components: 1) how affordable are essentials like housing, education, and food, and 2) how one compares to his or her peers. In the East Asian Model, housing is expensive. And it is a major status symbol for comparing one's self to one's peers. Culturally, people should view their houses as places to live, not as status symbols. Unfortunately, East Asian culture will be difficult to change. East Asian parents view happiness in their children's success. They spend money and time to force their children into cram schools, making them unhappy. Eventually, only a few can succeed. That's math. So most parents become unhappy.

Katrina Ell, an economist at Moody's Analytics based in Sydney, said: “Happiness is a qualitative measure that is difficult to measure and often has little correlation with economic variables like income, education attainment and GDP growth. South Koreans have a global reputation for being hard workers and highly valuing education. Perhaps the tide is shifting away from seeking happiness from those areas and towards other endeavors. Youth unemployment remains uncomfortably high in South Korea, despite hope it will be reduced with various government incentives. It's difficult to feel happy without income and using your skill set.

Making decent headway improving employment prospects for the young would lift happiness levels of young people. Addressing high youth unemployment is easier said than done and does take time. Some useful strategies would be reducing the skills mismatch between what is taught at institutions of higher education and what is required in the private and public sector. This could be addressed via direct liaison with institutions, questioning why young, well-educated Koreans are generally not desirable employment candidates.

Alicia Garcia-Herrero, the chief economist Hong Kong-based, said: “Korean's unhappy reality seems to be related to the massive effort behind their economic success. Many European countries, such as Finland and Norway, have been rich for a very long so they have not had to make the sacrifices that Koreans have made during the past few decades. At the very same time, Korea has not built a huge welfare state as a way to protect its citizens in bad times — either when unable to work due to sickness, being unemployed or simply being ill... Although my comments above are quite positive, I need to add a slightly negative note on Korea's society which relates to their still very limited openness. I believe that opening Korean high schools and universities to foreigners would help both in terms of future growth but also in terms of diversity of ideas and happiness overall. I recently visited Seoul and felt that it is too homogenous a society to maintain the level of innovation needed for Korea to keep its edge. Beyond growth, diversity also brings happiness if those coming bring talent and good practices.

Lost and Discordant in Modern Korea

Ed Park wrote in The New Yorker: ““The novels in the Library of Korean Literature series are populated with the broken and the dispossessed, young drifters, like Jin-man and Si-bong, looking to carve out a place for themselves in an ungraspable, shifting world. Another such character introduces himself in the first sentence of Jang Jung-il’s novel “When Adam Opens His Eyes,” translated by Hwang Sun-Ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges: “I was nineteen years old, and the things that I most wanted to have were a typewriter, prints of Munch’s paintings and a turntable for playing records.” The nameless narrator (he’s called Adam by a lover, in honor of his being her first man) hasn’t scored high enough on the standardized exam to get into the university of his choice, so he plans to spend a year cramming. [Source: Ed Park, The New Yorker, October 19, 2015]

“Naturally, he doesn’t lift a finger to accomplish that goal — which isn’t to say that he does nothing. A hundred pages later, he buys a typewriter, and with it the promise of a different, differently programmed life. “If I write a novel, I will begin by depicting the portrait of my 19th year this way,” he says, and then quotes the book’s first paragraph nearly verbatim. This seems an optimistic conclusion — the narrator has made something of himself, and we’ve just finished reading the evidence — but, on the next page, Jang violently drops us into the novel’s wildly discordant final section, “The Seventh Day.” If the book’s first stretch was a study in passivity, “The Seventh Day” is all action: sex, lots of it, between an unnamed man and woman, graphically described and mixed with literary chat. “No virgin finds climaxing easy in her first experience,” Jang deadpans. “Except that this is a porno novel.” (The transgressive 1999 film “Lies,” which might be retitled “Fifty Thousand Shades of Grey,” was based on another of Jang’s novels.) Like the coda to Don DeLillo’s “The Names” or Wong Kar-wai’s “Days of Being Wild,” the end of “When Adam Opens His Eyes” seems spliced in from a different work. Who are these nameless, insatiable characters? Maybe they are yet another product — concentrated, unbearably intense — of the narrator’s typewriter, the vision that comes with Adam’s newly gained knowledge of the world.

““When Adam Opens His Eyes” was published in 1990, before South Korea’s great pop boom; the narrator’s typewriter and cassette player are practical necessities, not ironic totems of a bygone age. But a number of more recent novels betray a certain nostalgia for an earlier, less technological time, when life didn’t have to be constantly mediated by a screen. No computers show up in “At Least We Can Apologize,” and when Jin-man and Si-bong make calls they do it strictly via pay phone. A similar analog atmosphere can be found in “No One Writes Back,” by Jang Eun-jin, also published in 2009, and translated by Jung Yewon. “I left home with an MP3 player and a novel in an old backpack,” the novel begins. The speaker is Jihun, who for three years has moved from motel to motel with his late grandfather’s faithful, though blind, guide dog. He spends his time looking for places to stay, carrying on a one-sided correspondence with the people he meets on his rambles, and skirting his own vast, withheld sorrow. “I write letters because I want to convey to someone the stories of these people,” he explains, “but also because I want to let someone know that a day had existed for me as well.” One gets the sense that the immediacy of text messaging and e-mail would be too much for Jihun to handle; he wants to make contact with other people, but not at the expense of keeping his distance.

““No One Writes Back” is composed of short, numbered chapters, its progression echoing Jihun’s own peripatetic existence. As if to avoid the complications that could come from any budding intimacy, Jihun assigns numbers rather than names to the people he writes to. “My name is . . . ,” one of the people he encounters, a writer selling her novel on the subway, starts to tell him. He cuts her short: “ ‘I don’t want to know,’ I say, because I fear that we really will have to get to know each other once we start calling each other by name.”

“The book’s centerpiece is Jihun’s letter to his sister, who has become a cosmetic-surgery addict. “With scissors in hand, you cut up all the photos with your face in them, and even burned up the photos of your hundredth day celebration and your first birthday party,” he writes. The letter is a heartbroken critique of a society gone insane with images. Seen through Jihun’s eyes, the Korean craze for such facescaping starts to seem a sort of unconscious sacrifice: in order to be properly absorbed, the dramatic changes visited on the nation need to be visited on the body as well.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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