Why are there so many alcoholics in Korea? Why is it so socially acceptable to be an alcoholic in Korea? What sorts of organizations are there for helping alcoholics in Korea?
Someone deeply affected by an alcoholic when living in Korea
Dear Drunk Friend,
Let us take one question at a time.
First, are there many alcoholics in Korea? There is no way to know for certain, because the definition of “alcohol dependence” is very elastic, and the estimation of the total number is not an exact science. The firmest statistic comes from National Health Insurance Corporation – a fantastic nationalized health insurance that most certainly did not turn Korea a socialist country – there were around 182,000 patients who were treated for alcohol dependence in 2008. How that number extrapolates into the total number of alcoholics in Korea is anyone’s guess: the estimates run anywhere between 1.8 million to 7 million.
(Aside: Can we just agree that American healthcare system sucks like a Hoover? Consider this -- Korean American travel agencies now have a "medical tourism package", where people can tour Korea and take advantage of Korea's incredibly cheap health checkup and other treatments. Why more Americans are not embarrassed by how crappy America's healthcare system is beyond the Korean.)
Yes, it is totally inappropriate to have this picture up for a post that talks about alcoholism. But the Korean could not help himself.
While there is no firm data, available comparative data indicates that Korea probably is not among the world leaders in alcohol dependence. World Health Organization compiled a list of countries by per capita alcohol consumption, and Korea finishes at number 50 – above the median among 191 countries surveyed, but not necessarily in the elite group of drinkers. The winner is Portuguese, who – astonishingly, the Korean must add – consume more than twice of Koreans per capita. Both United States and Canada rank ahead of Korea. Among Asian countries, Thailand ranks first, then Korea, followed by Japan.
Second, is it socially acceptable to be an alcoholic in Korea? Not really. It is true that there exist specific subgroups in Korea (e.g. among young people or high-stress occupation like attorneys) where binge drinking is a badge of honor, like within fraternities or among investment bankers in the U.S. But overall, alcoholism in Korea is nothing to be proud of. There is a general sense of benign neglect over alcoholism in Korea, but the Korean is not aware of any country or culture that swiftly intervenes at the first sign of alcohol dependence. (Except, of course, certain cultures that condemn alcohol consumption altogether.)
One important distinction, however, is -- while alcoholism is not a badge of honor in Korea, public drunkenness in Korea is certainly more tolerated than in America. Korea has no open container law that is common in the U.S., and no "drunk tank" that rounds up the intoxicated. In fact, at night around popular hangouts, it is quite common to see people having passed out on the street after what presumably was a night of revelry. (An excellent new blog, Black Out Korea, chronicles the examples of this hilarious phenomenon.)
Third, where can you get help for alcoholism in Korea? A quick Internet search reveals a number of options, spread throughout major cities in Korea. Here are some links to visit:
Lifeline Alcohol Counseling Center: www.lifeacc.or.kr
Seoul Caritas Counseling Center: www.cacc.or.kr
Busan Alcohol Counseling Center: www.busanacc.org
Daegu Catholic Alcohol Counsel Center: www.alcoholcenter.or.kr