Only in Korea, country of alcoholics…

March 28, 2009  |  Expat Life

Soju (rice alcohol) in juice-box-type containers. Complete with straws.


  1. Soju isn’t rice alcohol. I mean seriously, if you’re going to call Korea ‘country of alcoholics’ at least try to get the rest of your facts straight.

    • I know that now it is chemically made, but at one point it was made from rice. I believe that it still is in North Korea.

      And if you want, I can quote you the statistics that I was referring to with my subject line.

  2. Korea has the highest percentage of alcoholics in the world at 16%. For comparison, the US’s is 5.55%.

  3. Yes, I agree soju is not rice alcohol.

    As far as statistics are concerned, I assume you’re referring to some sort of per capita alcohol consumption statistic or other. To make a leap from alcohol consumption to alcoholism is, I have to say, fairly glib.

    And if you have a statistic that indicates that some huge portion of the population of Korea consists of actual dictionary definition alcoholics then I am going to have to respectfully disagree.

    So yes, please do point me towards that statistic.

  4. It is not now, but it was originally made from rice. Or at least, so says wikipedia and my Korean culture books.

    Here you go: “A survey by the Ministry of Health and Welfare last February said 16 percent of Koreans are alcoholics, and that the number of women with the problem has risen dramatically since a 1984 survey on the subject.” Article here:

    Also, 27% of men admitted freely to having a seriously drinking problem: If those are the ones who are willingly admitting to it, I can guarantee you that the real statistic is much, much higher.

  5. See this article:

    “지금 한국에서는 남자 성인의 약 70%가 음주를 하고 있으며 전체 인구의 5% 이상이 알코올을 상습적으로 음용하고 있다. 또 기관마다 통계치에 약간의 차이가 있지만 적어도 100만명 이상이 알코올 중독 상태인 것으로 조사되고 있다고 한다.”

    “Currently 70% of adult males in Korea drink alcohol and over 5% of the total population drinks alcohol habitually. Although each organization’s statistics vary a bit, it has been found that there are at least 100,000 alcoholics in Korea.”

  6. Hmm, maybe I’ve become infected with that most regrettable of Korean traits, mindlessly defending Korea from criticism. Thank you for the provocative information.

    I can only assume that the Koreans with whom I’m associated are younger and better educated than average and thus I’m not exposed to this rampant alcoholism on a daily basis.

    • You do seem a bit defensive of them, even in the face of hard statistics. I did find other sources as well, stating that they do have the highest rate in the world. You can deny it all you want, but the facts are there.

      I barely associate with Koreans, since there are only 2 on this island who speak English other than my co-teacher. Both of them are young and educated, but in general, the island is largely people under 18 and over 45, as it is highly rural. But, that is beside the point, since I’m not talking about encountering alcoholics here, I’m merely talking about the Korean statistics.

  7. Personally, considering that alcoholism is a socially constructed disease, the fact that 27% willingly admitted to having a problem, that’s the study I would most likely go with.

    Also, both the articles I linked you two were also written by Koreans, and the first was about a study done by the government which, frankly, I would trust.

  8. Well, my thoughts:

    1. Soju hasn’t been made with rice for so long that the reality is more interesting: it’s made with industrial byproducts, ie. ethanol from factories, as (IIRC) Park Chung Hee decreed long ago. (Wikipedia also notes this.) In fact, when I see someone claiming that soju is made from rice, I usually assume they’re gullible fresh off the boat and are taking for granted what they’re told by random know-nothings. I’m not calling you that, Driftingfocus, but what you wrote summons up the tendency in me.

    2. I suspect “country of alcoholics” is really just lazy shorthand for “society with a decidedly intense relationship with alcohol”, “intense” being defined as, “not like my own country’s general relationship with alcohol.”

    Problematic as those comparisons are, in my experience most Koreans will readily agree that most people who drink soju do so in order to get drunk, not to savour its wondrous flavours and fine nuances. Many Koreans — especially younger women — complain about “drinking culture” in Korea, including the speed and amount of consumption, the practice of forcing others (especially one’s juniors) to drink, and so forth. More and more women are refusing to drink at work-related outings, and more and more companies — like yours, Joe, if I remember right — are choosing not to have regular, required get-drunk outings with employees.

    I’m sort of between the two of your opinions. I think there’s definitely a difference in attitude and practice when it comes to soju consumption — and that in our own history, certain periods have borne a resemblance, and that economics and industrialization and so on all play a role, as I hint in this post about the English Gin Craze and Korean soju consumption — and I certainly think critical examination is warranted. If the differences are pronounced enough for it to be commonplace to see vomit puddles on sidewalks on a regular basis in Korea, but not in, say, urban Canada, then it very can be compared to other places to see to what degree this drinking culture impacts upon productivity, public health, and family life. (To mention a few of many possible areas.) But to what degree, and why, is a much more interesting question, one that very few Westerners bother to address when talking about this.

    But on the other hand, writing something like, “nation of alcoholics” wouldn’t count for insightful criticism — and just because one isn’t trying for that, doesn’t excuse its lack. (“I wasn’t trying to be insightful!” is a poor defense when someone calls you to task for being superficial in your commentary.) Nor is posting the juice boxes of soju all that insightful: it’s something one sees on many, many foreigner blogs in Korea.

    Asking whether maybe Koreans just don’t have the same conception about certain consumer packaging as we do — we think juice boxes are for kids, but Koreans obviously must not — is more interesting. When (and in what way) did the juice box arrive in Korea, and how did that affect its social reception?

    Asking what kind of situation soju juice boxes get used in is interesting. (I’ve never seen people drink from them, for example.) Are they more popular among old people? Young people? Are they for picnics? Who buys them?

    There are lots of interesting questions to be asked, if one feels like it.

  9. 1. I know that soju is no longer made from rice, nor has it been for quite some time. However, most of the people who read this blog have never set foot in Korea, and saying “rice alcohol” is faster than explaining what the story behind it is, especially since most of them, frankly, won’t care.

    2. I said “country of alcoholics” primarily for sarcastic and cynical reasons, but also because Korea is, by their own studies and admission, the country with the highest rate of alcoholism in the world. I’m not saying everyone here is an alcoholic, but they do, as you say, have a very intense and, I think, negative drinking culture. Most Koreans I know would agree.

    3. Nowhere did I ever say that Korea is alone in its alcoholism (in fact, the post itself had no commentary at all, other than the joke subject line and a description of what the photo was of). At various times in history, England, France, Germany, and the US have all had very high rates of alcoholism, and Russia still does have a lot of problems with it.

    Here’s the thing: I’m not trying to be The Grand Narrative. If I want to read insightful commentary on Korean culture, I go there, and I suggest others do the same. I have a minor in East Asian Studies. I am by no means an expert (far from it), but I did study Korea enough that really, I don’t like to think about it in an academic context these days, unless I have to or unless it’s about something I encounter in my life here. I do ask myself questions like you have written above, but frankly, I’ll be honest, I’d rather be out taking pictures than doing social research.

    As for the photo itself – it was funny to me, because I had never seen them before. I live in a very, very small rural town (we only have two convenience stores, to give you an idea), and so I don’t get exposed to as much weird Korean stuff as those of you in the cities do. And since most of my readers, as I stated before, have never set foot in Korea, they haven’t seen those either. My posts that have photos of “weird Korean stuff” or Englishee/Konglish stuff tend to get phenomenally higher hit counts than my Korean culture posts, and since there are much better blogs about Korean culture (such as yours, Joshing Gnome’s, and The Grand Narrative), I tend to focus on looking at the weirder side of Korea as I see it, rather than trying to write insightful cultural commentary.

    Does that explain things a bit more?

  10. A late comment, but Japan sells sake in juice boxes with straws, too. Not only in Korea 😉

  11. yeah, I’ve been seeing “juice boxes” of that size with red and white wine in the states for about two years now. They are by no means in every convenience store but they are around. True fact.

  12. That’s interesting… your stat is very different from the WHO stat that I cite in my post:

  13. I am now living in Korea and expected that Korea would be full of drunken old men clinking their bottles of Soju whilst stumbling down the streets. But actually, from my experience, drinking is very responsible. In the UK, most pubs are open from at least 12noon (soon as early as 8am) and you can guarantee that you will see the locals flocking the place. In Korea however, the “old guys” will get together at noon (with a bottle of Soju) to play a game of chess. No-one before 10pm even goes out, and if they do I have only seen 1 or 2 Koreans looking a bit worse for wear. The problem now in Korea is that there are a lot of foreigners taking advantage of the cheap and easy to get alcohol from shops etc. and getting wasted. The Koreans are like everyone else…they like to have a drink…and they like to be healthy…they don’t binge (unlike my country and sometimes ME) they simply enjoy…and why the hell not?
    All in all, we are all “holics” of something or another, don’t you agree?

  14. @Jason

    You either know that you are lying, or you haven’t been here long enough. I live in a very upscale area. There are high-priced villa communities within walking distance, and the native-English teachers are actually required to have teaching experience and appropriate degrees to work in most schools here. The “old guys” most certainly have no problem getting drunk earlier in the evening, and the “middle-aged guys” are experts at getting trashed before 10PM. The ones that go past 10PM achieve a level of intoxication that probably has them close to hallucinating, and I see this during the weekdays when I go to get water or a snack from the convenience stores. These aren’t poor people, either. These are men wearing very nice suits, and who, aside from the overwhelming inebriation, look like they probably hold highly professional jobs. To be fair, I also know many Koreans who do not drink at all. However, they will very easily explain how difficult it is to be a part of Korean society if you don’t have a strong drinking stomach.

    But, Jason, here’s the thing. If you have stats to go along with your claims about the U.K., then post them. They would probably be interesting to read and good for comparison. What the author did here was to post actual numbers and the references to validate them. Without doing the same, the rest of us just don’t have much of an argument, and your last-minute attempt to point the finger at the “foreigners,” makes you seem like many of the highly English-proficient Koreans who go out of their way to defend Korea in all possible situations, even when the facts leave them with little defense.

  15. Former english teacher in korea here from the US

    On average id see 1 drunk korean stumbling down the street or subway everynight that i walk home or go downtown.

    My schools director — comes to work wasted 3-4 times a week. Breath wreaks of alcohol. Slurred speech. Cries during breaktime — in the bathroom. Always asks you to go drinking with him after work

    My female korean english teachers love to drink to get drunk fast — everytime we go out on a friday night. At least 1 vomits out the street every week and they think it’s cute or gives them character i guess

    They always force u to drink

    I had 2 sixteen yr old students (male and female) who proudly admits they get drunk with their dad everynight and they love it. Only exception is on school test nights

    One kid in class came bruised with black eye. Says he fell off bike but after seeing so many drunk dads (whom i have gone out with) i have my doubts

    Korea land if alcoholics? Now why or how could anyone assume or say such a thing!? Shame on u

  16. Hahahaha I’ve been living and working in Korea for the past 3 years. I work in a Korean company and a vast majority of my friends are native Koreans. For all of you that don’t agree with this [exaggerated] statement, you clearly do not know Korea. 😛


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