Modern Korea is known for kimchi, k-pop, Samsung, Korean barbecue, Parasite, and more recently, Netflix hit Squid Game. But you’re grossly mistaken if you think those are the only things of interest in the Land of the Morning Calm.
The Korean peninsula has survived for over 5,000 years, bringing with it a vibrant cultural legacy comprising all forms of art, cuisine, sports, customs, and beliefs. And they’re pretty good at preserving these, too, with many heritage items being listed either as UNESCO World Heritage Sites or Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Below are just 40 Korean culture facts. From special quirks to surprising traditions and the fascinating South Korean lifestyle, here are the most interesting things to know about Korean culture.
Facts about Korean values and beliefs
1. Hierarchical culture
Confucianism has largely influenced the cultures of East Asia and in Korea, this easily manifests in the hierarchical culture.
One of the most astounding Korean culture facts is that it’s not at all strange to be asked “how old are you?” by someone you just met. This is because age, along with gender, social and economic status, is an essential factor in determining social and professional interactions
Polite language is practiced but there are several words or honorific titles that reflect this hierarchy. Sunbae, unnie, hyung, oppa, and sajangnim are just some of the terms commonly used to show respect.
2. Filial piety
Filial piety, or hyodo in Korean, is one of the most pervasive Korean traditions. Derived from the Confucianism principle of maintaining order, this is the virtue on which the traditional Korean family system is built upon.
There is an emphasis on children’s obligations, loyalty, and devotions to their parents. Children are not only required to support and serve their parents while still living with them but beyond. For the eldest son, this traditionally meant living with his parents after marriage, providing them with financial support and care.
This respect extends to the death of a parent in the form of ancestor worship. For a wife, this means subordination to her husband and her husband’s family.
3. Bowing as a sign of respect
One of the best-known Korean culture facts is the tradition of bowing.
As early as in the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. until A.D. 669), bowing has been practiced as part of everyday life. It is so commonplace, often done along with a quick ‘thank you’ or ‘excuse me’.
A quick, short bow of about 15 degrees or a nod of the head is often enough in most situations. Do this when greeting someone older, asking for a favor, and exchanging objects. In more formal settings like business meetings, a deeper bow may be more appropriate.
4. Giving and receiving with two hands
Korean customs dictate that one should give and receive any object using both hands. This applies to business cards, money, and gifts. Receiving items with only one hand is considered rude.
Alternatively, you may use your right hand to receive items while holding your right wrist or forearm with your left hand. This is especially applicable when shaking hands and when someone pours you a drink.
5. Shoes off
This may not be unique to South Korean culture, or even to Asian culture, but the practice of leaving one’s shoes at the door is definitely normal, and even required, in this side of the world.
Koreans have a special relationship with their floor. Thanks to their unique heating system known as ondol, traditional South Korean homes are heated through the floor. Koreans use the floor to eat, sleep, and spend their leisure time. Of course, they would want it to be clean at all times.
That’s why in any Korean home, temple, guesthouse, traditional Korean restaurants, and even in some schools, you’ll be asked to remove your shoes and wear indoor slippers or just socks.
6. Saving face
One of the most interesting Korean culture facts that may be hard for others to fathom is the culture of “saving face”. Chaemyoun (체면) or “face” is synonymous with the appearance people want to present to others in terms of their status or roles in society.
Koreans will sometimes go to great lengths to disguise their current status if they are in ‘shameful’ situations like being divorced, having bad grades, or going through unemployment. For most Koreans, showing weakness is worse than revealing the truth.
In day-to-day lives, saving face can mean letting the older or senior person pay the bill, accepting food from elders regardless of dietary restrictions, and not seeking medical help for mental health issues for fear of losing face.
7. Korean age
The concept of ‘Korean age’ is one of the most confusing South Korean culture facts.
An East Asian practice (that only Koreans practice in the modern age), Korean age dictates that the time spent in the womb is counted towards a child’s age so a baby is automatically born one year old. To make it even more confusing, everyone also gets a year older on New Year’s Day.
This means a baby born in the last week of December as one year old will turn two the following week. That’s why Koreans always have two ages – a Korean age and an ‘International Age’, or how other countries count their age.
Shamanism predates Buddhism and Christianity in Korea and despite the technological advances in the country, many Koreans still believe in superstitions today.
One common superstition is the number 4 being unlucky. You won’t see the 4th floor in the elevator and gifts in blocks of four (like four candles or four roses) are avoided. This is because the number “four” in Korean is 사 (sa), which sounds like the Chinese character for death.
Other superstitions include:
- Leaving an electric fan on while you are sleeping in a closed room can kill you.
- Writing names in red ink was considered a form of death threat.
- Dreaming of pigs is a sign that you will be rich.
- Shaking your leg restlessly can shake off the good luck coming your way.
9. Blood type
Another fascinating aspect of Korean beliefs and traditions is blood type or 혈액형 (hyeoraekyeong). It’s common to be asked about your blood type. And no, they’re not looking for blood donors.
Many Koreans believe that one’s blood type is indicative of his or her personality and it’s used to judge whether someone can get along with you or not, especially in potentially romantic relationships.
In case you’re wondering, Type A people are known to be responsible and caring but also anxious and perfectionistic. Type B people are outgoing, optimistic, and passionate but can be self-centered.
The best romantic match is said to be between a Type A woman and a Type O man. Type B females should avoid Type A males at all costs!
10. Couple shirts and other matching outfits
Speaking of couples, one of the cringiest Korean culture facts, at least for non-Koreans, is the practice of wearing matching outfits – same shirts, shoes, pants, or caps.
This is one form of public display of affection (PDA) that is not frowned upon. It’s also one way to show off things they’re proud of, including relationships.
Facts about the Korean Language
11. Chinese vocabulary
One of the Korean culture facts that don’t seem surprising at all, given Korea’s proximity to China, is the Chinese language’s influence on the Korean language, particularly in vocabulary.
Although the Chinese language has a completely different grammar, many of the Korean words used today have Chinese origins. This is because written historical records in Korea were maintained in classical Chinese.
Ancient Korea used Hanja, Chinese characters adapted to the Korean language, until King Sejong finally developed Hangul. That’s why even today, there are still lots of Sino-Korean words.
12. Two counting systems
One of the most mind-bending Korean culture facts for language learners is the Korean counting system.
In Korea, there are two sets of number systems and small and large numbers use different vocabulary. These two counting systems are the native Korean system and the Sino-Korean system.
The native Korean counting system is used for general counting, like counting your age, counting objects, people, hours, and more. It is also used to count up to 99.
Sino-Korean numbers, on the other hand, are used to count dates, money, minutes, distance, phone numbers, and numbers above 100.
For fellow Asians, the concept of combining English with the local language is not particularly new. There’s Taglish in the Philippines, Singlish in Singapore, Manglish in Malaysia. In Korea, the Korean version of English words is known as Konglish.
Common Konglish words include:
- 아파트 (apateu) – apartment
- 사이다 (saida) – cider, but often used to refer to Sprite
- 핫도그 (hatdogeu) – corn dog
- 이벤트 (ibenteu) – event or promotion
- 머플러 (meopeulleo) – muffler or scarf
- 핸드폰 (haendeupon) – cellphone
Loanwords are also very common in the Korean vocabulary. These are words with Korean pronunciations but the same English meanings. Some examples are:
- 컴퓨터 (keompyuteo) – computer
- 포크 (pokeu) – fork
- 피자 (pija) – pizza
- 비타민 (bitamin) – vitamin
14. Differences in North and South Korean languages
The Korean peninsula has one language called Hangugeo in South Korea and Chosonmal in North Korea. However, due to the extensive time these two countries have been separated, each language has evolved to exhibit differences in pronunciation, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary.
Standard South Korean is essentially Seoul language close to the Gyeonggi dialect while the North Korean language is derived from the Pyeongan dialect.
While South Korea uses Konglish, North Korea encourages its citizens to not use any borrowed words. If they have to, words from the Russian language are preferred. Some words are also spelled differently by the North and the South, but the pronunciations are the same.
Facts about religion in Korea
One of the most noteworthy Korean culture facts is the coexistence of many religions in the country. Korea has a variety of religions that influence Korean culture and values.
Buddhism is one of the earliest religions in Korea and one that largely affects the Korean way of life. Chinese monks introduced Mahayana Buddhism to Koreans, which became the predominant religion during the Three Kingdoms Period until the Unified Shilla time.
Interestingly, Buddhism coexisted with Shamanism at the time. Many Buddhist temples have a small chapel on the main hall, which houses shamanist deities. Today, Korean Buddhism has gained more popularity through the templestay program for travelers and those seeking retreats.
Although not a religion but a social philosophy, Confucianism has a great influence on Korean culture and traditions. It was the state religion of the Joseon dynasty and it still lives as an ethical prescription for modern Korea.
Some of the key principles and practices derived from Confucianism include ancestor worship, obedience and respect towards seniors, the value of education, the hierarchical system, family values, collectivist culture, loyalty, and modesty.
17. Shamanism and fortune telling
Shamanism is primitive religion in Korea that is occasionally practiced today. Shamanist ceremonies are sometimes held to cure illness, ward off misfortune and bad spirits, and guide a deceased family member safely into the spirit world.
Consequently, fortune telling, which is closely related to Shamanism, is still practiced. While many visit street-tent fortune tellers, some do take them seriously.
A reading of your fortune can be done through physiognomy, your time and date of birth, palm reading, or tarot cards.
Facts about Korean cuisine
Here’s one of the most mind-blowing Korean culture facts: there are over 200 types of kimchi! This explains why this iconic Korean food is part of every meal.
And I mean, every meal. You can eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack.
Kimchi, for the unoriented, is a fermented dish that uses a variety of vegetables (e.g. cabbage, radishes, leeks, spring onions, etc.) and seasonings.
Depending on the fermentation process, ingredients, region, and weather, its taste changes. The fermentation process also makes it one of the healthiest foods in the world.
19. Bap (rice)
A staple food in Korea, rice or bap is always present at the dining table and comes in various forms. Ssalbap or steamed white rice is the most typically consumed.
Variations like bibimbap (steamed rice topped with seasoned vegetables, meat, and gochujang), japgokbap (rice cooked with other grains), and kongnamulbap (rice with soybean sprout) are also common.
Furthermore, rice is also made into rice cakes (tteok) which are used in popular dishes like tteokbokki and injeolmi.
20. A nation of drinkers
South Korean people love drinking and are known as one of the biggest alcohol drinkers in Asia. This strong drinking culture is rooted in the tradition of holidays being celebrated with food and alcohol.
The national booze is soju, a distilled liquor traditionally made from rice, wheat, or barley. This clear drink has a rather high alcohol content that varies from about 16% to 53% ABV but is loved by many.
Soju is sold everywhere at a low price and is usually enjoyed during social gatherings.
21. Low obesity rates
With a diet of healthy dishes that are rich in vegetables, fruits, and fresh seafood, it’s no wonder that Korea has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world.
In 2020, it was reported that Korea has the lowest level of obesity among OECD countries, with 4% of the adult population being obese and 30% being overweight (including obese).
However, this figure has been steadily rising. OECD projections indicate that this number will increase by 5% within the next ten years.
22. Food delivery service
Editorial credit: Ki young / Shutterstock.com
One of the unique South Korean food facts is the unmatched food delivery service. The majority of restaurants will deliver not just outside your door but anywhere, even in the middle of a public park!
But that’s not all. This efficient, organized system extends until after you eat. The delivery man will sometimes swing back later to collect the plates and containers that came with your order. Service culture FTW!
Facts about Korean entertainment and beauty standards
23. Hallyu (Korean Wave) as cultural export
Hallyu is a Chinese term that means ‘Korean Wave’ and it has come to define the collective growth of Korean pop culture (K-pop), TV (K-dramas and K-variety), and the movie industry.
To some degree, it also extends to Korean fashion, online games, skincare (K-beauty), and Korean cuisine (K-food).
South Korea is perhaps the only country in the world that has made it a goal to become the leading exporter of pop culture and become a soft power in the process.
The South Korean government has been providing support to creative industries since the early 1990s. This includes providing financial support to creators, policies that encourage investments, and incorporating pop culture into tourism programs.
24. K-Wave and fashion
Although Korea is known for its traditional clothing called hanbok, it is also a well-known fact that modern South Korean fashion is making a dent in the global scene, largely due to pop culture.
In modern Korean culture, being well-dressed is the norm. Known for being expressive, South Korean fashion is greatly influenced by Western culture and social media trends.
But, thanks to K-Pop and K-entertainment in general, the opposite can be said to be true, too. Now, the Western audience takes cues from Koreans when it comes to fashion. Many international brands are partnering with Korean celebrities to attract younger audiences, too.
25. Skincare and cosmetics
One of the well-known Korean culture facts is South Korea’s beauty standards. Everyone literally wants to put their best face forward.
Youthful looks, moisturized skin, and having a small face are just some of the hallmarks of beauty in South Korea. Having a skincare routine that ranges from 10 to 18 steps is pretty normal and even children are taught to put moisturizer on their skin.
This beauty standard extends to men, too. The rise of male K-pop stars with perfect good looks has pushed men to even embrace makeup and skincare. In fact, South Korean men are the world’s biggest male spenders on skincare.
26. Cosmetic surgery
South Korea has the most plastic surgeries per capita in the world. In a highly competitive culture where beauty gives you a leg up, going under the knife is accepted.
It’s estimated that as many as one in five women has undergone some sort of procedure in Seoul.
However, this isn’t some excessive remodeling. The top procedure is blepharoplasty or double eyelid surgery. Liposuction, jaw surgeries, and nose jobs are also common.
Korean holidays and celebrations
27. Valentine’s Day and White Day
Among the most bizarre Korean culture facts is the celebration of Valentine’s Day in South Korea. Contrary to how many cultures celebrate this holiday, in Korea, men are the ones who receive gifts and pampering.
In South Korean culture, women buy chocolates and other gifts for their male partners. Women would have to wait a whole month for men to return the favor in a holiday called ‘White Day’.
Celebrated every March 14, it’s essentially another Valentine’s Day but this time, men give gifts to women. These gifts typically include candy, chocolate, snacks, or other types of gifts that girls like.
28. Couples at Christmas, families at New Year
While most people worldwide celebrate Christmas with their families and New Year’s Eve with friends or partners, Koreans do it differently.
Christmas Day is treated as another holiday for couples in Korea. Although many people do celebrate Christmas with their families, it’s not critical and if they’re in a relationship, they will likely spend it with their significant others.
New Year’s Day or January 1, while still celebrated, is not as huge as the Lunar New Year or Seollal, which typically falls on either January or February. Before Seollal, many Koreans travel to their hometowns to visit their families.
A baby’s first birthday, locally called dol or doljanchi, is a very important affair in Korea. This is because Korea had a history of having high death rates among children, with many children dying before their first birthday.
One of the quirkiest Korean culture facts is the fortune telling ritual called doljabi. In this ritual, the baby is placed in front of various objects such as books, pens, money, stethoscope, thread, and so on. The baby is encouraged to pick an object from the selection. Whatever he or she picks will foretell his or her future.
For example, a child who picks money will grow to be wealthy. A pencil means the baby is destined to be smart. A stethoscope means he or she will be a doctor or nurse.
Definitely a strange practice but it’s one of the most enduring Korean culture and traditions.
30. Gifting toilet paper
If you ever find yourself moving houses in South Korea, don’t bother buying toilet paper because you’ll surely receive some.
One of the most practical traditions in South Korea is giving a load of toilet paper as housewarming gifts. Not only is it practical, but it also has a deeper meaning behind it.
For Koreans, cleaning supplies signify luck and good fortune to the receiver who just moved into a new home. Just as toilet paper unrolls or unravels, the gift-giver also wishes for the unraveling of success and good health in the new home.
Facts about sports in Korea
31. Martial arts
Koreans are sport-loving people. Sports, especially martial arts, is a surviving Korean heritage that is not only a means of physical improvement and self-defense but also a form of recreation.
Taekkyeon is one of the oldest martial arts in Korea. It includes fluid hands and feet techniques to unbalance, trip, or throw the opponent. It was the first martial art to be listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
But the most popular type of martial arts in Korea is taekwondo, which uses kicks, blocks, throws, takedowns, and grappling. In 2002, it was officially adopted as an Olympic sport, the only Korean martial art to have this recognition.
32. Olympic Games
Speaking of Olympics, one of the Korean culture facts that make Koreans proud is the country’s participation in Olympic Games.
South Korea first participated at the Olympics in 1948 and has sent athletes to every Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics since then, except in 1952 and 1980. It has also hosted two Olympic Games – the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
South Korea’s performance at the Olympic Games is also stellar, ranking 18th on the combined (Summer and Winter) list of countries with the most medals. It has a total of 357 medals, with the most number of medals in judo, archery, and short track speed skating.
33. Famous athletes
Koreans love sports and they love their sports stars. The most famous athletes in Korea are treated like gods, with loyal fan bases that rival that of a K-pop star’s.
Some of the top sportspersons Korea has produced have made it on a global scale, too.
These include Choo Shin Soo who formerly played for Texas Rangers, Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur, Ryu Hyun Jin of Toronto Blue Jays (previously played for Los Angeles Dodgers), former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Park Chan Ho, Olympic gold medalist Kim Yuna, and former Manchester United midfielder Park Jisung
34. e-Sports mecca
Modern Korea loves traditional Korean sports. But they also love virtual games. In fact, it’s no secret that South Korea is the birthplace of competitive video games known as e-Sports.
The online gaming culture in South Korea developed at a faster pace than anywhere else in the world. This is largely due to the introduction of high-speed internet in the late 90s and the proliferation of 24-hour PC bangs or gaming cafés (more on this later).
While in other countries, video games may be seen as mere hobbies, e-Sports in Korea are now run like a professional sports franchise league. It helps that there is support from the government; the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA) was created to manage e-Sports.
KeSPA is now a member of the National Olympic Committee of South Korea and has built the world’s first e-Sports stadium in 2005 in Yongsan. And by 2022, e-Sports will be part of the Asian Games.
More interesting facts about Korean culture
35. Highly educated nation
One of the most impressive Korean culture facts is the country’s education rate. South Korea is one of the most educated countries in the world, which is seen as one of the reasons for its remarkable economic success.
87.6% of adults aged 25-64 have completed upper secondary education, higher than the OECD average of 78%. It’s also the top-performing OECD country in reading literacy, maths, and sciences with the average student scoring 519, above the OECD average of 486.
Of course, this high regard for education isn’t without cost. Korea is also known for having a merciless education system. Students typically spend a total of 12 to 16 hours at school and at after-school academies called hagwons in preparation for suneung.
Suneung is the Korean word for the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), a standardized eight-hour exam that determines which university a student can attend and his or her future career opportunities. This hypercompetitive test is the most stressful time in a student’s life.
36. Voice phishing
Here’s one saddening Korean culture fact: voice phishing is one the greatest threats in modern Korean culture.
Voice phishing, sometimes referred to as ‘vishing’, is a criminal practice that takes advantage of the telephone system to steal someone’s personal and financial information and as a result, steal money from that person.
This criminal phone fraud extends to messenger phishing. Text or voice messages offering attractive loans or asking for a small amount of money are the common tactics used by phishers.
In 2018, 334 billion won were generated from 54,973 cases of voice phishing. This number is seen to increase further as massive crackdowns are only able to arrest low-level managers or phone operators.
37. Korean bang culture
Bang means ‘room’ in the Korean language. But when used as a suffix, it specifically refers to a private room with a dedicated function, often related to entertainment.
A PC bang (PC 방) is an internet café. A noraebang (노래방) is the term for Korean karaoke rooms, private booths where you can sing all you want. Can’t visit an actual golf course? Try a screen golf bang (스크린골프방) and whack the ball at a screen.
Is the Korean winter chill too much for you? Head to a jjimjilbang (찜질방) or Korean bathhouse and sauna. Whatever form of entertainment or leisure you seek, there’s a high chance that there’s a bang for it.
38. Fast internet connection
One of the well-known Korean culture facts is the country’s high-speed internet connection. South Korea is a wired country and has consistently topped the list of countries with the fastest internet speeds.
It doesn’t matter where you are, whether at an internet café or an actual café, fast and cheap broadband and WiFi connections are everywhere.
Not only does Korea have the fastest internet speed. It was also the first country to have 5G network access across the country!
39. Plastic cash
Not only is South Korea one of the most wired nations. It’s also one of the countries that use less cash and more credit cards.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a place in Korea that doesn’t accept credit cards. Thanks to the pricing benefits it offers, credit card is the preferred payment method in the country. In 2020, the average frequency of credit card usage was 136.2 times – much higher than developed countries like the US, the UK, France, and Canada.
Debit card usage is also high. People use cards to pay for food delivery, restaurants, taxis, movies, shopping, and more.
40. Still at war
We conclude this list of Korean culture facts with a sobering one: the North and South are still at war.
It’s easy to forget it as you walk the streets of Seoul or as you watch K-dramas from the comforts of your home. But the two Koreas are technically still at war as no peace treaty was ever signed.
The combat ended in 1953 when the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, creating the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in a truce that separated the North from the South.
In 2018, the leaders of both countries met for the first time in over a decade, agreeing to conduct peace talks to formally end the conflict but these talks have been stalled.
And that caps off our list of Korean culture facts! If the traditions of South Korea fascinated you and you want to continue learning all about Korea, we recommend these interesting reads:
- 30 Things South Korea is Known and Famous For
- 25 Books About Korea to Add to Your Reading List
- 40 Interesting Facts About Korean Cuisine