I’ve traveled to the Republic of Korea (South Korea) more than 10 times over the past 18 years. Over that period I’ve noticed many aspects of society that make this country unique. I even married a Korean during that time!
Here are some of the things you probably didn’t know about Korea and the Korean people.
There is no “breakfast food” in Korea. Koreans eat a big morning meal and it’s usually no different from a meal you’d eat for any other meal during the day. There’s meat or fish accompanied by soup and rice. Alternatively, rice or soup is the main dish as in bibimbap or Galbitang (Beef Short Rib Soup). There are always one or more banchan (side dishes) like various kimchi, spinach, or bean sprouts.
Unlike Chinese or Japanese, Koreans eat rice with a spoon. I will often see foreigners struggling to eat rice in Korea with their chopsticks when it is proper etiquette (and easier!) to use a spoon. Instead of chopsticks made of bamboo or plastic, Koreans use metal chopsticks. The Koreans originally used wooden chopsticks but some believe the change occurred when the nobility began using silver chopsticks that would tarnish with poisoned food. Eventually, the rest of the population could afford metal chopsticks and nowadays they are considered more hygienic, although arguably more difficult to use. Additionally, Koreans don’t eat with knives at the table. Koreans use scissors to cut meat, kimchi, and other foods.
One of the first things you might notice in Seoul is the number of churches and the plethora of neon crosses lit up at night. Christianity is strong and growing in South Korea and has its strongest following in Seoul. In 1900, only 1% of the country’s population was Christian. Today, Protestantism and Catholicism account for 8.6 million and 5.8 million adherents each. In 2014, Pope Francis visited the country. Christianity was first brought to Korea by Confucian scholars who encountered it in China. In 1603 a Korean diplomat, returned from Beijing carrying theological books written by an Italian Jesuit missionary.
If you’ve traveled to South Korea, you can’t help but notice coffee shops on seemingly every corner. Many people associate Korea as a “tea” drinking culture and for good reason. Koreans have been drinking teas made from various leaves, roots, flowers, fruits, and grains for centuries.
Over the past few decades, coffee has surged in popularity. In 1976, a company in Korea became the first in the world to make instant coffee mix packets that contained both sugar and powdered milk. Korea’s coffee market grew three times over the past decade and today the country has an annual coffee consumption of 512 cups per person.
It’s not only coffee consumption that has increased, but a growth in cafes and coffee culture as well. South Korea has the world’s highest number of coffee tasters and specialty coffee shops. South Koreans account for more than half of the world’s approximately 5,000 official “Q-graders,” people who are certified “coffee cuppers”. With more than 17,000 coffee shops in Seoul, or about 17 for every 10,000 people, Seoul has more coffee shops per capita than Seattle or San Francisco.
Mountains seem to be everywhere in South Korea. As you travel throughout the country, you’ll see almost every acre in the valleys used for agriculture, cities, or villages. The mountains are forested. The fact that South Korea is about 70% mountains, combined with cold winters (especially in the territory of North Korea) may have discouraged expansion from the Chinese empire and saved Korea. Traveling around the country you’ll notice the highways and railways frequently go through tunnels. Unsurprisingly, hiking is a favorite pastime here.
About half of the entire population of South Korea lives in the Seoul metropolitan area. Reaching 25.5 million, it’s the same as the entirety of North Korea’s population. The whole of South Korea is listed at 51.5 million. For comparison of the population density, South Korea has a slightly bigger landmass than Portugal but has 5 times as many people. However, the population is falling.
South Korea has the lowest fertility rate of any major nation in the world. It dropped to 0.78 in 2022, down from 0.81 a year earlier. This means the average number of expected babies per South Korean woman over her reproductive life is below 1. The replacement level fertility rate needed to maintain the current population is about 2.1. At the current rate, the South Korean population will fall to 37.7 million (from 51.5 million) by 2070.
This plummeting birth rate could potentially impact the South Korean economy, which is the world’s 10th largest, due to labor shortages and the need to support a higher percentage of retirees. The problem has become so dire that the government has spent US $210 billion over the past 16 years to try to reverse the falling birth rate. On a personal note, I’m doing my part. Last November our baby was born and has become one of South Korea’s newest citizens.
Korean written script was developed specifically for the language. Until 1443, only the upper classes could write and the written language they used were complicated Chinese characters. King Sejong gathered a secret committee of linguistic scholars to develop Hangul (Korean-language script).
What makes Hangul unique is the fact that basic consonants were created in replication of the human pronunciation organs, imitating the shapes of the organ of articulation at the moment they are pronounced. It is remarkably less–complicated to learn that other world scripts.
I like to joke that Korean parking garages are so clean you could sit down and have a picnic on them. In the United States, parking garages are notoriously grimy places. Me bestowing this title of “cleanest parking garages” is totally unofficial. It’s not a competition, but if it were, South Korea would win.