Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Alcoholism in Korea

Dear Korean,

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:
Seoul Caritas Counseling Center:
Busan Alcohol Counseling Center:
Daegu Catholic Alcohol Counsel Center:

Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. That alcohol is so freely consumed, in both personal and professional functions, and is consumed to the point of commonly blacking out makes me wonder how some people AREN'T alcoholics... Going to a hoesik or MT often requires staying out, drinking, and eating more than one usually likes - at least if any of my adult students that talked about it were accurate. It's accepted because the majority does it, plain and simple.

    There's also a lot of trust in the society. If you pass out, you're probably not going to get beat up or have your things stolen.

  2. My boyfriend saw that photo and said "Wow. That's like one big block of hangover.

  3. Is there any governement tax on alcohol? Because 1$ for a bottle of soju, is kind of cheap.

  4. My personal Korean refrigerator photos is this one:


  5. I mean my personal favorate Korean refrigerator photo... :P

  6. Haha, this is a great topic! I think one reason why Korea may rank 50th in terms of alcohol consumption, is because its less common for Korean women to be alcoholics or drink excessively. At least based on my anecdotal evidence.

    At school dinners, I always notice men, and especially Koreans of an older generation, pounding back the soju. While the female teachers largely drink very little or stick to Cider(Korean sprite) or Coca Cola.

    Older Korean men I think, can drink far more than the North American counterparts. I've noticed guys drinking large cans of Hite outside of convenience stores at 8:04am. Or a group of men still keeping the night going at a 24 hour restaurant in the morning, drinking soju.

    While, I have no data, I can certainly say, that some Korean men, love drinking several bottles of soju in a night. Which would likely put me in a hospital.

    Although, I can also add that the cheapness of Korean beer turns English teachers into weekend alcoholics, and that drinking until 7am on the weekends is seen as a normal thing. So, I guess English teachers shouldn't be that critical...

    p.s. The Korean health care system does rock. Much like my Canadian health care system.

  7. Linked without comment:

  8. What is alcoholism, and who is an alcoholist is subjective. Quite unbelieveable is the fact, that an originally noncomformist attitude is now playing a role in gaining the acceptance of others.How is that?

  9. I think the per capita consumption figures here in Korea are strongly affected by the reasonably large proportion of teetotalers here. It seems a large proportion of people who drink here drink a lot, whereas there's a significant number of teetotalers to offset the per capita alcohol consumption figures.

  10. Could you write a post commenting about this research that a student from Bryn Mawr College wants to do on non-Asians who want to look Asians?

    I think that if you do, many more people will be able to look at it & she might have a larger data.

  11. LOL @ The fridge of soju. Sadly, my brother and father both drink too much. I think the younger generation of Korean girls are following the men in this regard.

  12. I am not so sure that there are that many alcoholics. Koreans like to drink - and culturally it is very much acceptable for many social and business events. I think the main difference between Koreans and some western countries is that Koreans generally start drinking at dinner time, whilest, westerns drink during the day and continue on... I have not seen too many Koreans that seem to be dependent on alcohol. It is just a thing to do from dinner and then, then, then...

  13. I'm pretty sure the figures and ranking of the wiki link are completely false. I made a report on alcohol consumption on Korea for an exportation opportunity survey of french wine in Korea a few years ago at uni, and I found very different figures and datas. The problem is that international observers have a very bad knowledge of Korea and figures given by the government may be manipulated.
    Korean sources give very different figures about alcohol consumption in Korea (ok it's figures for adult male consumption, but still, the different with the 2ne is creepy) :

    I'll add that 35% of the world consumption of 17yr old scotch occurs on Korean soil.

    And purely subjectively, I'll say I've never been to a country where you can see people drink rice wine in front of a convenience store at 3 in the afternoon on a daily basis.

    As I'm not korean and dont speak perfectly korean, I'd like the korean to dig in korean sources to find more figures on the subject.

    Thank you in advance :-)

  14. Benoit,

    Not only is the figure about adult male consumption, it is also the figure for the consumption of over 20 percent alcohol beverages only -- which knocks out beer and wine, but includes soju. The Korean thinks that figure is more or less meaningless.

    But the Korean is very interested in whatever data you might have.

  15. Ask a Korean!, are you kidding? I'm sure you're familiar with SNU that is adored by virtually every Korean, and well, this is some data that came from them:

    "Lee Jeong-gyun, a professor of medicine at Seoul National University, led a research team that studied the problem [alcoholism] and concluded that Korea has the highest percentage of adult alcoholics in the world. The team calculated that just over one in five Korean adults are alcoholic, and said that is a warning about the perils of Korean drinking customs."

    As far as Koreans always trying to compare themselves to Americans, and trying to come out on top---please, stop it. No one cares about that. You can't fix the problem if you deny that one exists. Here's to helping the Korean people deal with this societal problem----and please stop trying to make it seem that things are going well in Korea and that so many other problems are so worse off!

  16. WHO 2005 figures in their 2011 Global Health Observatory report compared the drinking habits of Japanese, North Americans, and South Koreans. The figures for South Korea are really quite eye opening. In 2007, the per capita consumption of alcohol in Japan was around 8 liters of pure alcohol per year, versus 9.4 for the USA, and 14.8 for South Korea. Since the South Koreans drink far more hard liquor than the Japanese or Americans, they also have a far higher rate of disease and death because of alcohol.

    WHO says that the rate of alcohol use disorders was 2.25% of Japanese men, and 0.13% of women, while in the USA it was double that number, at 5.48% and 1.92% respectively. In South Korea, an astonishing 13.1% of men but just 0.41% of women had problems with alcohol. The death rate by liver cirrhosis is also very telling. In Japan in 2005 it was 11.9 men and 3.6 women per 100,000 people. In the USA it was 13.5 and 6.1, and for South Korea it was 33.1 and 6.9 respectively. In other words, Korea has almost 3 times more people dying from alcoholism than Japan does.

    We can think of several reasons why Japan has fewer terminal alcoholics than some other developed countries. One of these is rather interesting, comprising a mutated enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase, which helps to metabolize alcohol. For some reason, Chinese and Japanese populations have a high incidence of the mutated enzyme and therefore get drunk easily and demonstrate exaggerated aspects of drunkenness with even a small amount of consumption, such as increased blood flow to the face, raised heartbeat, headaches and nausea, and heavy drowsiness. These effects of course mean that Japanese drinkers tend to stop much sooner than, say, people from European, Polynesian, Native American, and surprisingly, Korean ethnic groups, whose enzyme is still intact.

    You can find more about the Chinese-Japanese versus Korean linkage to mutated aldehyde dehydrogenase genes by looking up the research of one Dr. Ting-Kai Li, a professor of medicine and biochemistry at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.

    A second reason for the lower rate of alcoholism is probably related to the type of alcohol that Japanese drink compared to other nations. According to WHO, in 2005, Americans drank 53% beer and 31% spirits as a share of overall alcohol consumption, and the South Koreans drank 18% beer and a massive 81% spirits [sic: overwhelmingly soju over whisky and other spirits]. The Japanese on the other hand drank 22% beer, 42% spirits, and 33% "Other", where "other" refers to sake and other fermented beverages that can be considered types of wines or light beers.

    Indeed, sake is considered by some to be healthy for you, similar to partaking in moderation red wine by the French. Yuji Matsumoto, the first Master Sake Sommelier in the USA and one-time President of the Sake Institute of America, reckons that sake inhibits cancer formation, due to the presence of a lymphocyte created during the lees pressing process, known as sake kasu. He also describes the benefits of sake in reducing the incidence of cirrhosis of the liver, arteriosclerosis, cardiac infarction, osteoporosis, and senility.

  17. It has been a long time since the posting of this comment, but I wanted to make a correction based on 2012 statistics. South Korea is 13th, and the US is 57th, with the top ten mostly former Soviet puppet states. I am beginning to believe, along with the data that Native Americans drink copious amounts of alcohol, that people who are oppressed and for the most part hopeless consume too much alcohol. This is true in post-Soviet states because alcohol is abundant and time spent not working is limited. The Native Americans have extremely limited economic opportunities. In the case of South Korea, we are talking about a nation with massive disparity in income and astronomical per capita productivity. This is a recipe for alcoholism. Essentially, the Korean people are using alcohol as medicine to cope with the deregulated economy there, which allows for long hours for little pay. There are multiple reasons for excessive drinking. I think that desperation is the common thread between being overworked and underemployed.

  18. This is a long time coming too. I can't believe that The Korean did not acknowledge his ignorance on this subject here in this post. I find that most of the posts by The Korean carry an air of arrogance. Yet, if The Korean cannot acknowledge his mistakes here in this post in particular, it shows that The Korean is not only arrogant but ignorant.

  19. An earlier study of Alcoholism in Korea

  20. The medical tourism package is for plastic surgery. Why are you even bringing up The US healtcare system for this post? Angry much?

    1. most expensive health care in the world maybe?


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