Decoding Korea's 'virtuous' drinking culture

Lee Ha-seong, a 31-year-old Seoul-based economic news reporter, has a worry on his mind with the year-end holiday season approaching.

“It's impossible to avoid drinking to build relationships with others here. Most social gatherings involve people drinking a lot until everyone loses their minds," he said.

The most challenging part of life as a journalist in Korea is not the reporting but the unavoidable drinking that comes with it, he said.

“Whenever I participate in company gatherings, senior reporters tell me that I should drink every single drop of the first glass of somaek (beer mixed with soju) no matter how much I can't hold my alcohol, and then just try to get into the spirit of things while pretending to drink," he said.

If he doesn’t drink, he faces strong pressure to conform from the more senior reporters, Lee added.

Lee is one of the growing number of Koreans questioning heavy drinking as a required way of building relationships in companies and organizations here, defying a longstanding social norm that "drinking well" is a quality required to perform well at work.

Alcohol has played various important roles throughout Korean history. Among them, it has been regarded as one way to share "jeong," the Korean word for affection or attachment.

Literary works and historical archives tend to describe alcohol positively, as necessary for human health and life, according to the "Encyclopedia of Korean Culture," released by the Academy of Korean Studies. For instance, the sentences, “Alcohol is the best of a hundred medicines,” and, “Drinking alcohol gives muscle strength and relieves lingering illness,” comes from the ancient Chinese text, "Han Shu Shi-Huo zhi," written during the Goguryeo era (37 B.C.-668 A.D.).

Other literary works read that alcohol can serve as a means for people to socialize with family members and friends, fostering deeper conversations that strengthen personal relationships far more effectively than before they started to raise their glasses together.

"There is nothing better than alcohol to honor the elderly and perform ancestral rites," according to the "Seonghosaseol" (1723). And, "Alcohol is necessary to circulate one's 'qi' and blood, spread 'jeong' and perform rites," reads the "Chungjangkwan Jeonseo," written during the latter 18th century.

Some experts say that the present notion of drinking as a virtue comes from Confucianism, and thus, such alcohol-friendly ideas have permeated Korean culture.

Confucianism, a traditional belief system in East Asia, still holds significant influence in the Koreas, China and Japan, among other places.

In China today, people say that the amount of alcohol someone drinks reflects their sincerity to the person they toast, according to Lorna S. Wei, assistant professor specializing in English linguistics at the Central University of Finance and Economics in Beijing, China. As a result, pouring alcohol for one another is a way of showing affection, she added.

The tradition of building social and business relationships over alcohol is also a longtime practice in Japan. The Japanese neologism, “aruhara," refers to being harassed to drink, often to excess, indicating negative sentiments toward coerced drinking.

Positive perceptions of heavy drinking, however, face more resistance today due to increased health awareness and growing emphasis on empowering individual rights, as well as the influence of social distancing measures and remote work culture during the pandemic.

According to OECD data from 2022, Koreans in recent years actually don't drink as much per capita as the OECD average. Annual alcohol consumption per capita in South Korea recorded a rate of 7.7 liters last year, just under the OECD average of 8.6 liters in 2022.

However, the OECD's Health Statistics 2023 report noted regardless that Korea has a notoriously bad drinking problem, including a culture of binge-drinking and strong social pressure to participate in it.

Because one goal of company dinners called "hoesik" is for company subordinates and their superiors to drink a lot of alcohol to get closer to each other, it is hard for even those who cannot drink well to refuse to attend them when asked by their bosses, managers or more senior employees. In some organizations, skipping a hoesik is treated as a bigger sin than missing work.

According to job portal site JobKorea’s 2020 survey in which 659 workers were asked about their participation in hoesik, 45 percent said they were "free to choose" whether to attend the company dinners, though 41 percent said they "worried how it would look" if they didn't. Thirteen percent said attendance was "mandatory."

Despite these statistics, even if originating from supposedly good intentions, one person telling another to drink can escalate into an act of coercion in Korea, where subordinates worry that saying no to superiors could lead to exclusion, conflict or jeopardizing their job. This culture of seniors having the authority while subordinates are expected to follow has resulted in numerous Koreans even losing their lives due to being pressured to drink excessively.

According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Korea Public Health Association, there were 22 deaths resulting from coerced drinking at local universities 2006-2016. Those who died were mainly first-year university students who couldn't refuse when more senior students asked them to drink.

Coerced drinking occurs most often in workplaces where hierarchical relationships are strongly emphasized. “Some employees who were pressured to drink at hoesik have died after drinking alcohol in Korea,” said Kim Hyun-deok, an attorney at labor law firm Cheongryang. “In 2018, a worker who couldn't drink well died when he lost consciousness after drinking at a two-day workshop, which was judged by the court to be an occupational accident, considering the worker’s position as a new employee at a workshop attended by the worker’s boss, because the worker had likely been pressured to drink.”

However, the Korean government has generally been passive in tackling the culture of binge-drinking, experts say.

“Because alcohol is an addictive substance, it is very easy to get addicted to or drink too much. However, due to Korean culture considering alcohol a positive thing, Korea has almost no policies to limit alcohol consumption other than regulating drunk driving or restricting underage drinking. This is why binge-drinking is so prevalent in Korea,” said Lee Hae-kook, professor of psychiatry at the Catholic University of Korea and chair of the Korean Academy of Addiction Psychiatry.

The government’s soft view on alcohol intake as well as the culture of binge-drinking here have made South Korea home to more and more alcoholics, according to Lee. Alcohol-related socioeconomic costs -- such as from diseases and accidents -- amount to more than 20 trillion won ($15.13 billion) a year, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

A study with the English title, “Prevalence of the Major Mental Disorders among the Korean Elderly," conducted in 2011 by Seoul National University geriatric mental health researchers showed that the lifetime prevalence of alcohol addiction in Korea was reported to be 13.4 percent -- skewed heavily toward men at more than 29.2 percent, compared to women at 3.1 percent.

Lee's view is that alcohol's low cost and taxes are other factors that have contributed to making Korea home to increasingly more alcoholics.

According to 2020 OECD data, alcoholic beverages in Korea have experienced less price inflation than other non-alcoholic beverages. While prices for carbonated drinks and fruit juice increased by 208 percent and 61 percent, respectively, between 2005 and 2018, alcohol drinks increased between 4 percent and 36 percent. Soju is particularly inexpensive. According to the Korea Consumer Agency, the average price of a standard 360-milliliter bottle of soju in Korea is 1,380 won at hypermarkets and 1,950 won at convenience stores, as of Oct. 20.