With an estimated 1.6 million alcoholics, Tammy Cho looks at why so many in South Korea are hitting the bottle too hard.
South Korea has an estimated 1.6 million alcoholics. But behind the stark numbers there are even greater costs. Despite the harm to individual health and the costs to society, drinking is seen as a social lubricant for South Korea’s overworked business employees and students.
The Journal of Korean Medical Science reports that every night about 6 million South Koreans drink 9.53 million bottles of beer and 8.97 million bottles of soju (a distilled Korean liquor with about 20% alcohol). According to the same paper, the World Health Organisation found in 2010 that Korea has the highest prevalence of alcohol abuse and dependence at 6.76 per cent of the population.
To anyone who has been to South Korea, this is no surprise. Drinking is a huge part of its corporate culture and combines different Confucian norms. South Koreans see it as the easiest way of alleviating stress and building relationships.
For business workers, drinking is non-negotiable. Drinks after work strengthen relationships with colleagues, and an invitation to drink with an office superior is a great compliment that should not be turned down. The drinking etiquette, which requires that a person’s cup never be left empty, increases the pressure to drink. Constant topping up makes binge drinking the norm, while refusing drinks is seen as rejecting generosity or denying someone who is trying to help you have a good time.
Drinking among teenagers and young adults is also growing. The same workplace drinking etiquette applies to university students. Despite a legal minimum age of 19 for the sale of alcohol, identification checks are uncommon at restaurants. Youth grasp every opportunity to have a good time – many students drink 5 nights a week.
Alcohol is absurdly cheap in South Korea. Soju is by far the most popular beverage. The distinctively green 375ml bottle contains six standard drinks and costs about 3000 won (AUD$3.50) at restaurants and bars. Soju and a variety of beers are available at almost every supermarket, convenience store, restaurant and street vendor, and even in hospitals. The country is awash with alcohol.
Marketing also plays a huge role, with popular celebrities and athletes featuring heavily in commercials for alcohol. Soju bottle labels have photos of young actors and pop artists, encouraging their teenage fan bases to purchase their star-endorsed beverage. Television dramas also normalise heavy drinking with humorous scenes of businessmen returning home completely inebriated and romantic moments of people falling in love over drinks at the local street-food shop.
The South Korean public’s indifference toward its binge-drinking culture is concerning. There is no popular desire to change Korea’s drinking culture or view it as problematic. The website “Black Out Korea” [recently blocked but documented by other blogs], where expats post pictures that “document the phenomenon in Korea where perfectly respectable citizens occasionally ‘black out’,” is an example. The images show people sprawled across footpaths, men in suits squatting over their vomit, and people sleeping against parked cars. The message of such websites is obvious – extreme binge-drinking to the point of passing out on the street is so normal and common, that no Korean national bats an eye.
The preference to ignore the binge-drinking problem is also reflected in the continued belief in fan death. Doctors who conduct autopsies of ‘fan death victims’ have stated that drunkenness is the likely cause of the hypothermia-induced deaths, however the media and public ignore the science and perpetuate the myth of death by fan-blown air.
Better education is needed on the safe consumption of alcohol and the serious effects of heavy drinking.
A major concern of heavy drinking culture is the impact on individual and public health. Harmful use of alcohol is a major contributor to injuries and over 200 diseases including alcohol dependence, neuropsychiatric conditions, cancers and liver cirrhosis. Regular intoxication can also cause problems in social roles – dysfunctional parenting, the break-up of relationships, and loss of productivity. The South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare estimated in 2013 that alcohol-related social costs are about US $21 billion a year.
There is an additional US $7.9 billion national cost for alcohol related violence and crime. Alcohol was involved in about 76% of public offences in 2012, and police report that about 40% of all violent crimes are alcohol-related.
Outcomes in sexual assault cases and public order offences show that judges and prosecutors are lenient towards drunken behaviour. Offenders of drunken behaviour and public disorder are, at worst, detained overnight in police stations and allowed to sleep off their drunkenness; sometimes incurring a small fine. Lack of proper punishment or therapeutic intervention perpetuates alcohol-induced criminal behaviour.
Excessive alcohol consumption impacts the drinker, their families, friends, neighbours and strangers, and imposes an enormous financial burden on wider society. However, binge-drinking is deeply rooted in South Korean culture as an essential part of building relationships and a harmless way to have fun.
It is time for South Korean policy-makers to revise the marketing and regulation of alcohol sales, and educate the public on healthier ways to drink. The country needs to sober up to this major problem sooner rather than later.