South Korea

A portrait of a country and its culture

South Korea

South Korea is a country full of diversity with a wide range of terrains, religions, professions and traditions. It is loaded with more than 5,000 years of history while at the same time innovative and modern. Since its economic crisis in 1997, Korea has built itself to be a focal point in international relations and a dynamic site for tourist and expats.

In Korea, most activities, particularly pertaining to customs in the home, are done on the floor. The emphasis that Koreans place on the floor has roots in its traditional heating system. Unlike most countries that use a central heating and air system, the Korean people are accustomed to adjusting the room temperature by adjusting the floor temperature (“ondol”). Since they have been using the “ondol” system for so long, sitting and sleeping on the floor is quite comfortable for them.

When entering a room, it is normal to remove your shoes at the door. Although the floor is clean, Korean people often like to wear slippers around the house. Separate bathroom slippers are usually provided.

It is custom to eat sitting with legs crossed on the floor on cushions. Most meals consist of rice with vegetables and soup. Koreans also eat plenty of meat: pork, beef, chicken, and fish. Depending on what you’re eating, the meat is usually cooked right in front of you on the table over a portable gas stove. The meal is usually finished off with slices of fruit or “dduk” (Korean rice cake) for dessert. Do not be surprised if you eat the same sort of food in the morning as you do at night just in a different form.

Sleeping on the floor may take some getting used to for foreigners. It is great temperature wise, but if you’ve been sleeping on a bed your whole life, the lack of cushioning may be bothersome at first. Koreans usually lay several blankets down on the ground like a mat with pillows for head support. If you cannot get used to sleeping on the floor, it is possible to get a bed or a mattress. Many hotels and some houses are already equipped with beds.

The normal work hours for people are 9am-6pm Mondays through Fridays. Many people also work half days on Saturdays (until 1pm). Students from kindergarten to high school usually have half days on Saturdays and spent most of their week in school and being tutored.

Important Holidays

One thing that will be hard to ignore once in South Korea is how rich in culture the country continues to be. The people pride themselves on maintaining their numerous traditions to this day. Koreans use both the Solar and Lunar calendar which results in a number of holidays. There are 15 national holidays in all and most of them are observed by the majority of businesses, school, and other institutions. Especially during the 3-day festival of Seol-nal, everything except for public transportation shuts down.

· January 1st and 2nd: New Year's Day

· March 1: Independence Movement Day

· April 5: Arbor Day

· April 8: Buddha's Birthday (Seokka Tanshin-il)

· May 5: Children's Day

· June 6: Memorial Day

· July 17: Constitution Day

· August 14-16: Harvest Moon Festival (Chuesok)

· August 15: Liberation Day

· October 3: Foundation Day

· December 25: Christmas Day

· December 31-January 2nd: New Year's (Seol-nal)

Korean Cuisine - Highlights

Rice – the staple of Korean gastronomy; eaten at nearly every meal whether mixed with other items or to compliment a main dish; although there exists a wide variety of rice, plain sticky white rice and short-grain rice (made with plain rice, grains, and beans) are most commonly consumed

Kimchi – spicy pickled cabbage that is presented at almost every meal; it is made by soaking whole cabbages in salted water and spices for several hours and then smothering them in spicy seafood paste and other ingredients to create a strong flavour, it is loaded with vitamins and minerals and the tastes differ from region to region

Bul-go-ggi – the most popular meat dish in Korea; the thinly sliced beef or pork is marinated in soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil, green onions, sugar, and sometimes vinegar; the meat is usually cooked during the meal on a gas stove on the table; it can be eaten with rice and other dishes or in lettuce wraps

Kalbi – beef (or pork) short-ribs marinated in a similar sauce as bulgoggi but sweeter; what many people know as “Korean barbeque”; usually prepared in thin strips and eaten off the bone

Dduk – or chewy rice cakes; they are made from pounded rice or whole glutinous rice and come in all with different shapes, colours, and flavours; for the most part, dduk is sweet and is sometimes filled with anything from honey to red bean paste; the forms vary from the simplest plain white ovals to completely embellished with designs and colours; certain kinds of dduk are used to mark special occasions and holidays

Jap chae - thin sweet potato noodles combined with a medley of vegetables, egg, mushrooms and sauteed in soy sauce and sesame oil; vegetables are thinly sliced, cooked and sauteed separately, then mixed with the remaining ingredients and clear noodles; bits of meat and sesame seeds can also be added

Cha mae– a type of chate melon; a tough yellow striped skin on the outside and a softer white inside; the melon is sweet but not a ton; some people describe the taste to be a mix between honeydew melon and cucumber

Beh – the Korean word for “pear”; Korean pears are different from what most people are used to; they take on the shape of an apple and wear a tough brown skin; the inside is normally crunchier and lighter than what foreigners are used to

Soju – the most popular type of Korean alcohol; it can be compared to vodka but sweeter; the alcohol content varies anywhere from 20-45%

Common stereotypes

Impolite – It is always difficult to recognize what is custom and what is downright rude in another culture. In Korea, for the most part, the people who will seem the most impolite will be people in a higher position than you (supervisors, teachers, etc.) or elders. Since those are the people who are entitled to more respect in Korean society, they do not necessarily have to follow the rules. If you are given orders by a superior, whether nicely or not, it is advised that you follow through so you do not come off as impolite. This also means that you always wait for the superior to do everything first before doing it yourself: eat, drink, talk, etc. Also, certain things that are unacceptable elsewhere are completely normal in Korea. For one, it is normal to slurp your soup because it is usually too hot not to.

Shy – Koreans can come off as being timid or modest which is a characteristic of the culture. Boasting is looked down upon heavily because it does not leave room for respect to exist. It is normal to remain humble in all situations and to bring things up with the utmost respect and humility.

Workaholics – It is true that South Korea has one of the highest average workweek hours in the world. However, it is not because they are obsessed with money and have no regard for family, but exactly the opposite! Family is one of the most important, if not most important, things in Korean culture and working hard to support the people in your household is a sign of commitment and love.

Submissive women – Moulded by Confucianist ideals, Korean women were always expected to maintain a certain poise and delicateness in the society. This does not mean women are forced to stay in the home without any rights. Korean women choose to respect the men of the family by offering her services as a mother and housewife. Nowadays, as in many parts of the world, the climate is shifting and more and more women are entering the workforce. However, there are still many Korean women who opt to stay at home to raise kids and take care of household chores as a sign of honour.


After years of being under the control of foreign invaders, South Korea, or the Republic of Korea, gained its independence with World War II. After splitting from the North, South Korea developed a stronger economy than its other half. And after being under military rule for over 30 years, South Korea finally elected its first president.

Presidential elections occur every 5 years based on direct popular vote and a president can only rule for a single term. Now Korea is a modern liberal democracy with a multi-party system. Uri Party, Grand National Party, Democratic Labour Party, and then Democratic Party are among the most popular with a few others that make up only about 3% of the votes.*

*Information was collected in April 2007 and is subject to change.


It is a society based on a strong personal network and close relationships. Getting to know people and developing a level of trust with them is vital. Since Korea was built on Confucianist ideals, it stresses the importance of family. There is a lot of emphasis on respect and honour due especially to those of a higher status: elders, bosses, hosts etc. Since there is such an emphasis on personal relationships, it is completely normal to be friends with your boss or like a son or daughter to other elders. When greeting someone of a higher status, you should always bow lower than him or her as a sign of reverence. Always allow your superior to initiate everything whether you are eating, talking, drinking, etc.


Korea is a highly conservative society and some people place a negative connotation on homosexuality. Although it exists in the country, it is not openly addressed among the people. In the past, the government has blocked gay/lesbian websites and prohibited gay film festivals in fear that it may “detriment” the minds of the young people. There are several gay/lesbian bars and hangouts particularly in Seoul and Pusan. However, it should be noted that there is an overlying sense of homophobia embedded into the culture.

The traditional form of disciplining children in Korea is through physical discipline. In most homes and even in schools, kids are usually punished with anything from swats on the hand to lifting up heavy objects for long periods of time. Recently, especially with Western influences in the country, many have claimed the method of raising children as utter abuse. Although physical discipline is acceptable in many Korean homes, there are some parents who get out of hand and seriously hurt young children. Social violence has become a growing issue as well as domestic violence between married couples. The slow reaction to this issue is due to the cultural norms of Korea but the government has felt the pressure to fix violence in the home thanks to international support.

A brief history of South Korea

South Korea boasts a 5,000+ year history with its beginnings in the first known kingdom of Gojoseon in 2333 BCE. However, there is evidence of pre-historical Korean pottery that dates back as early as 8000 BCE. Thousands of years after the initial establishment of Gojoseon, Korea surrendered to the Three Kingdoms who conquered the entire peninsula and much of its surroundings. During this time, Korea influenced most of the cultural and political movements in Japan.

For many years, the many Korean kingdoms competed for power until Silla, of the original Three Kingdoms, allied with China, unified most of the peninsula under its power in the 7th century. After about 200 years of rule under Silla, the Goryeo dynasty took over, introducing a more formal and advanced political system. In addition to the new laws, Buddhism became the religious ideology of the people. The history of Korea continued to be a struggle for power between several leaders until the first Japanese invasion at the end of the 16th century.

Although Korea successfully fought back with the help of the Chinese, Japan did not stop trying to conquer the peninsula. After several efforts, Japan finally coerced Korea to become its protectorate in 1905 with the Eulsa Treaty. Japan became more aggressive and intimidating while occupying the land until its defeat in 1945 in World War II.

Soon after, the peninsula split into North and South Korea based on separate political ideals. However, the division at the 38th parallel did not prevent the invasion of the Communist North into the democratic South, initiating the Korean War in 1950. After the war, South Korea attempted to use Western democracy as a model for its own government but only with the Six Republic did Korea succeed.

Ten years after its first popular election in 1987, Korea suffered along with most of the East Asian countries a devastating financial crisis. Though since then, South Korea has revived its economy and is now the 11th largest economy in the world in terms of nominal value. The successful boom since the 1997 crisis can be attributed to Korea’s many advancements in the high-tech industry. It continues to be an impressive model for innovations in the cell phone and internet market today. More and more foreigners are finding South Korea to be an unanticipated haven for work and leisure.

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  • Foreigner in Seoul, 21 December 2009 Reply

    Dates of Holidays

    Both the Chuseok and Seollal holidays follow the lunar calendar. The dates of the holidays always change and are not held each year on the above-mentioned dates.