Contemporary Culture of South Korea

From New World Encyclopedia
Packed Street in Myeongdong, Seoul

South Korea's contemporary culture has been shaped by the passionate pursuit of modernization. Since the end of the Korean War, South Korea has sought to improve its economy, shrugging off the effects of Japanese colonial rule and the devastation of the Korean War. The 1988 Olympics in South Korea marked a phenomenal upsurge in economic and technological development. That, in turn, led to an assault upon Korea's traditional regard for the extended family and the values of filial piety. Today, South Korea is struggling to keep its traditional values in the face of a rapid growth in national prosperity and standard of living.

The contemporary culture of South Korea derives from the traditional culture of Korea, but since the 1948 division of Korea developed separately from North Korea's culture. The industrialization and urbanization of South Korea have brought many changes to Korean's lives. In the past, most people lived in small rural areas. Changes in lifestyles have led many young people to leave the rural farming areas to find new opportunities in the cities (particularly Seoul). In the past, several generations would commonly live under one roof; today South Koreans have moved towards living in nuclear family.


Korean popular music

See main article: K-pop Many Korean pop stars and groups have become well known in East Asia and Southeast Asia. K-pop often emulates American popular music, and usually features young performers.

The emergence of the group Seo Taiji and Boys, in 1992, marked a turning point for Korean popular music, as the group incorporated elements of American popular musical genres of rap, rock, and techno into its music. Dance-oriented acts dominated the Korean popular music scene of the 1990s. Recently, rock music has made some headway into the mainstream, with acts like Yoon Do-hyun Band gaining national recognition.

Popular artists who diverge from the traditional K-pop sound include Lee Jung Hyun, a female techno artist; 1TYM, a four-member rap troupe; and Wax a female singer. South Korea has spawned its own form of hip hop artists, including Jinusean, Drunken Tiger, and Epik High.


Karaoke is commonly called "Noraebang" (노래방, literally, "song room") in Korea. Koreans sometimes use the Japanese-derived Garaoke/Karaoke (가라오케/카라오케) and various Korean alternatives, like Norae yeonseupjang (노래연습장), or Norae yeonseupshil (노래연습실). Korean people enjoy performing Noraebang in transport vehicles such as tourist buses. Noraebang, the equivalent to the Karaoke-Box in Japan, whereas Koreans also use the term Karaoke (카라오케) in Korea (singing in front of all visitors of a Karaokebar).

Film and visual media

Movie theatre lobby in Korea

Since the success of the Korean film Shiri, in 1999, Korean film has become much more popular, both in South Korea and abroad. South Korea's domestic film industry enjoys a majority market share, unlike most countries where Hollywood productions dominate. The film Shiri portrays a North Korean spy preparing a coup in Seoul. The film set a record in Korean cinema history by selling more than 2 million tickets in Seoul alone. That helped Shiri surpass box office hits such as The Matrix or Star Wars. The success of Shiri motivated Korean film makers to invest large budgets in Korean productions.

In 2000, the film JSA (Joint Security Area) enjoyed a huge success and even surpassing the benchmark set by Shiri. One year later, the film Friend matched that record. In South Korea the romantic comedy My Sassy Girl outsold The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, which ran at the same time. As of 2004, new films continue to outperform older releases, and many Korean productions have proven more popular than Hollywood films. Over 10 million people watched both Silmido and Taegukgi Hwinalrimyeo (The Brotherhood) representing a quarter of the Korean population. Silmido, based on a true story, depicted a secret special force. The director of Shiri enjoyed another a blockbuster movie about the Korean War.

That success attracted the attention of Hollywood. Films such as Shiri have been distributed in the U.S. In 2001, Miramax bought the rights to an Americanized remake of the successful Korean action comedy movie, My Wife is a Gangster. The 2003 suspense thriller, Janghwa, Hongnyeon (Tale of Two Sisters), enjoyed success as well, leading DreamWorks to pay $2 million (U.S.) for the rights to a remake, topping the $1 million (U.S.) paid for the Japanese movie The Ring.

Inside a Korean movie theater.

Many Korean films reflect how much the Korean people long for reunification and suffer from the division of the peninsula. Many of the films underline feelings, leading critics to compare Korean films to French films. The Korean film industry has recently diversified the types of movies produced. In February 2004, the controversial director, Kim Ki Duk won the award for best director at the 54th annual Berlin Film Festival for 'Samaria, about a teenage prostitute.

In the Cannes Film Festival, two Korean films, Oldboy by Park Chan-wook and Woman is the Future of the Man by Hong Sang-soo, received invitations to the competition. The film by Park won the Grand Prix. The film The Lake House, a remake of the Korean movie Il Mare, was released in 2006. As of 2006, the Korean comedy/drama My Sassy Girl has enjoyed popularity in the United States. An American re-make directed by French director Yann Samuell has been announced.

Perhaps even more influential than films, Korean television and especially the short form dramatic mini-series colloquially called "dramas" by Koreans have taken the world by storm making especial inroads into Asian mainstream culture. Korean dramas enjoy success in Chinese speaking nations of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; South East Asia; and Japan and more recently have come to the attention of American (especially Asian-American) audiences.

"Dramas" showcase a wide range of stories which include romance, fantasy, intrigue, epics (political and historical), mystery, and other genres. Romance has been the most prominent among the export dramas, typically presenting love triangle and tragedy themes (notably Autumn Fairy Tale, Winter Sonata, All About Eve), but they has shifted especially with the explosive popularity of Korean historical and fantasy dramas in recent years ([examples include Dae Jang Geum or Jewel in the Palace and Goong or Palace). Dramas stood foremost among cultural exports driving the explosive Hallyu or Korean Wave fad in Asia. The trend has driven Korean stars to fame and has boosted the image and prestige of Korean popular culture.

New wave films

Daejeon Culture and Arts Center at Daejeon, South Korea.

Three important dates stand out in new wave Korean films: First in 1992, Marriage Story financed by Samsung, marking the first non-government funded film. In 1999, Shiri's release led to Korean films taking over 50 percent of the local market. Ultimately, My Sassy Girl (2001) became the most popular and exportable Korean film in history. Each has brought new strength to the unique creation of a Korean film industry that no longer copies Hollywood verbatim. Supporting the Korean film industry have been strong government controls against copying and bootlegging and piracy, which have allowed the film industry to bring out many films, and make a profit and still enjoy strong DVD and aftermarket sales. In addition, a government-enforced screen quota system since 1967 has limited the number of days per year non-domestic movies can be shown on any one movie screen in South Korea. Recently, that practice has come under fire from non-Korean film distributors as unfair. Fast, low cost films with likable stars, tied to current events, and at affordable prices that speak in a natural vernacular with state of the art cinematography and music have all pushed films ahead.

New wave Korean films resulted from competition in the film industry, directors trained outside of the U.S. (in France, Spain, the Netherlands, China, and Europe), and new models of scripts that included more Korean situations, spoken in contemporary vernacular, using younger actors, younger scriptwriters, and less formulaic Hollywood clichés or ninety minute frames. The impact of the Busan Film Festival and Jeonju Film Festival in screening year after year hundreds of new European, Canadian, South American, Chinese and even Japanese films rewrote the basic templates towards originality. The increase in competition created more films, faster and unpredictable unique, clever, and aggressive story-lines. Films in turn influenced rapidly traditional Korean network soap operas, and forced a quick new design in television story-lines, and that forced even greater innovation in Korean film-making with even stronger writing and higher definition of the art.

Korean animation

While The Simpsons enjoys the standing of the best known back-room product of Korea, the basic animation, in-betweening, and coloring for many other popular animation series (Futurama, King of the Hill, Avatar: The Last Airbender from the U.S., and also many Anime from Japan) has been created in Korea. That work, although usually generic and professional, has been normally non-Korean in tone or manner.

The animation studios have increasingly been given new contract work for Korean series. The most famous has been the animation of Korean folklore by KBS in a 150 part series. That series, using 2-D animation, suggestions for scripts and stories by local crew, has been produced "with the object to create a new "Hallyu (Korean:한류) animation" (han-ryoo/lieu) distinct from Disneymation."


Kyobo Bookstore in Daegu, South Korea.

Modern literature has linked with the development of hangul, increasing literacy among the common people, including women. Hangul came into common usage in Korean literature during the second half of the nineteenth century with the translation of the Bible. That resulted in an explosion of popular Korean literature including, for example, the novels Sinsoseol.

Translators have attempted to introduce modern poetry, introducing imagist and modern poetry methods, particularly in translations of early American moderns such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot in the early twentieth century. In the early Republic period, patriotic works enjoyed remarkable success. Lyric poetry dominated from the 1970s onwards. Poetry has become quite popular in contemporary South Korea, both in terms of number of works published and lay writing.


Cellular phones

Korean cutting edge video hand phone

Almost every Korean has a mobile phone, using them almost obsessively (Korean: 휴대 전화, "Hyoo-dae Jun-hwa," lit. "portable phone;" colloquially 핸드폰, "handphone"). An estimated 90 percent of South Koreans own a handphone and use them not only for constant calling and messaging but also for watching live TV, viewing websites, and keeping track of their online gaming status. Korean corporations Samsung and LG have become world-leaders in handset technology, and Koreans usually experience innovative features first. Samsung and LG stands as the 3rd and 4th largest cell phone companies in the world, behind Nokia and Motorola. New phones cost dearly in Korea, still Korean consumers change their phones on the average of every 21 months.

Middle aged Korean man on hand phone.

Korean phones from companies such as Samsung and LG provide the newest form of TV cell-phone broadcasting, Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB). Over one million DMB phones have been sold and providers like KTF and SK Telecom have provided coverage throughout many parts of Seoul as well as some parts of Busan, Daegu, and many other cities. The DMB channels now have more than seven different TV channels including major Korean broadcasting stations such as KBS, MBC, and SBS. Korean consumers prefer its own nations products due to cutting edge advanced features. Nokia, the world's largest cellphone company, discontinued selling phones in Korea due to decreasing sales. Motorola holds a 4 percent shares of cellphone sales in Korea, respectively.

Custom ring-back tunes constitute a distinctive feature common with Korean phones. The cellphone user chooses ring-back tunes, usually short music clips of popular Korean and American poptunes. Almost all phones used by young people also have integral digital cameras ("디카" or "di-ka," the first syllables of digital and camera) as well, that hold up to six full mega-pixels. In addition, the digital journalism of OhmyNews has put immediate news stories on cellphone video access over the past two years.

The Internet

Computers and the Internet play an important role in the life of young South Koreans today. Around 70 percent of South Korean homes have high-speed Internet connections, making Korea the most Internet wired nation in the world. Koreans, enthusiastic Internet users, frequently visit many popular South Korean web portals such as Daum and Naver driving the traffic to the highest traffic ratings in the world, despite having content only in Korean language. Koreans use the Internet for sending e-mails and instant messages, for research, but most commonly for entertainment, such as watching videos or playing massively multiplayer online games.

Star Craft II

People often access the Internet through cyber cafes (Korean: PC방; PC bang). Korean gamers enjoy fame for their devotion to the hobby, and many gaming sessions last hours, days or in a few extreme cases, weeks. Korea's Internet users exceeded the 30-million-mark in the first half of 2004, with the penetration rate exceeding 68 percent in less than ten years since the net's wide introduction. That makes the Republic of Korea third in the world for net use (after the United States and Germany).

Korea also has the fastest internet connections readily available. Using fiber-optic technology, a home user living in an urban area can enjoy gigabit connections for around the cost that slow DSL connections cost in the U.S. Many new home appliances connect to the internet and take advantage of the resources available on it. Refrigerators with computers display RSS feeds, email also provide basic web surfing and information such as recipes. Devices such as microwave ovens with bar code scanners use the code scanned to determine the time and the power needed to heat the product being microwaved.

Korean bloggers have achieved renown, inspiring the legendary My Sassy Girl movie. Rough estimates put the number of Korea homepages or blogs on the net at five million. Bloggers draw on diverse world influences, showing extensive travels, and intense discussions. Pornography has been a social affliction in Korea, leading the South Korean government to mandate a one year prison sentence for putting pornographic material on the net.

Online video gaming

Emerald Dream video game

The country has several television channels dedicated to broadcasting video games on TV as spectator sport. Players win contracts from large companies, much like in baseball or basketball. The fanbases, resembling those of some major sports, fill grand stadiums for the grand finals of tournaments. At any given time, over 4.5 million South Korean gamers play on-line. In the over 25,000 PC bangs Korean on-line games such as Lineage and foreign games such as Halo with Korean captioning may been seen on many computer screens. StarCraft (by Blizzard Entertainment) stands among the first and most popular video games to win popularity in South Korea. Ragnarok Online, a multiplayer online game created in Korea, has become popular in recent years. Other online games include games such as GunZ, an online RPG shooting game; MapleStory, an interactive character game; and Audition Online, similar to DDR by using the keyboard to keys.

As a result, some non-Korean gamers have resisted the trend, accusing Korean gamers of taking over international gaming sites, tournaments, and so on. Some tournaments even have a separate ranking system for non-Koreans.


High School students in Seoul

Students experience an extremely competitive academic environment in South Korea. Korean society regards getting into a prestigious university as a prerequisite to success. Most student labor through high school focused on gaining admission to such universities, although that attitude has shifted in recent years. With almost all of the nation's top schools (both high school and university) located in Seoul, criticism has been leveled that rural areas face structural disadvantages. Rural students undergo hours of daily commute if admitted to a Seoul school.

The government has structured secondary school systems both single-sex or co-ed, with some specialized by academic field. While public schools typically specialize in a particular technical skill (for example, engineering), many private schools specialize in the arts. The SKY schools: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University stand at the top of the list of prestigious universities in Korea. Student's compete fiercely for admission to those schools, as well as to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology in Daejeon, Pohang University of Science and Technology, Hanyang University, Sungkyunkwan University, and Ewha Womans University. In more specialized fields, Kyunghee University and Hongik University have won recognition for their oriental medicine and art schools, respectively.

Although the Korean universities have achieved fame within Korea, they have failed to measure up to the universities in the United States, Britain, and Europe [1] although their standing has been rising in Asian ratings. The lack of emphasis upon creative thinking and dependency upon lecture style learning has put Korean students at a disadvantage in the Knowledge age. That has led to a passion on the part of Korean students and their parents to attend top universities abroad. Korean students number among the top national group studying in the United States.[2]

Most parents send their children to private academies, hagwons(학원), as early on as kindergarten. Those institutes teach a variety of subjects, ranging from the study of Chinese characters to music, art and English. A typical high school student attends two or three different types of these academies. Many parents, concern both about the competitiveness of Korean universities and the inferior education they receive, have resorted to sending their children to countries like the United States and Canada for education. Although that imposes huge sacrifices upon the family, a growing number of Koreans have been choosing that option. When students enter college, they often relax and enjoy social relationships, rather than study hard, after their grueling ordeal of preparation.


A dedicated group of reporters established the website Ohmynews in 2000. Ordinary people throughout the Republic of Korea report by phone or by email, their stories edited by volunteer and professional editors. CEO Oh Yeon Ho conceived the idea of a "citizen reporter." OhmyNews has over 35 dedicated staff reporters. On any given day more than 30,000 citizen reporters post their stories. They receive pay according to the popularity of the story. The impact of every citizen having the chance to use new technology (cell-phone cameras, the internet) to report has dramatically changed the perception of journalists in Korea.

International influences

Korean couple wearing matching clothing.

South Korea has been highly influenced in recent years by other countries; initially the primary influence came from the United States. Many people enjoyed watching American films and cartoons. Until 1998, when Japan issued a formal apology to Korea for previous human rights abuses, importation of all Japanese movies, music, and comics had been illegal due to government restrictions. Beginning in 1998, the South Korean government began easing restrictions on the importation of Japanese entertainment. Today the government bans only a few Japanese entertainment movies or songs.

The influence of other countries has changed peoples' eating habits; many people now enjoy Western and other Asian foods in addition to traditional Korean food. Pizza has become a favorite international food among South Koreans, though the Pizza has a unique Korean twist, often featuring corn, sweet potato, mayonnaise, bulgogi, and various other ingredients.

South Korean dress also has been heavily influenced by international styles; young people in Korea dress much as their Western counterparts do, though again with a slightly different twist. For example, couples will often wear matching clothes.

Krispy Kreme Donut Shop in Korea

Recently, the Korean language has experienced a significant influx of English words, resulting in Konglish. Konglish, the use of English words in the Korean language, whether used properly or not, takes both spoken and written forms.

Three examples of Konglish:

  • Eye shopping: Koreans say "eye shopping" when native speakers of English would say "window shopping."
  • Service: Generally, "service" means "an act or a variety of work done for others, especially for pay," as defined by In Korea the term "service" also means "goods provided for free." For example, "Service coffee" means "Complimentary coffee."
  • Hand phone: Koreans use "hand phone" to describe what a native English speaker would call a "cell phone" or a "mobile phone."

See also

  • List of Korea-related topics
  • Korean web culture


  1. MSNBC, Universities. Retrieved September 17, 2008.
  2. AIEF-USA, Korea Report. Retrieved September 17, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chʻoe, Chin-bong. Korean Mass Media and Popular Culture. Jung-Gu, South Korea: Woojinadcom, Inc., 2003. ISBN 978-8995482803.
  • Hoffman, Diane M. Lanterns on the River: Essays on Life and Culture in Contemporary South Korea. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0739100745
  • Korean Cultural Service. The Korean Wave: As Viewed Through the Pages of the New York Times in 2006. New York: Korean Cultural Service, 2007. OCLC 141238141
  • Lee, Sang-Dawn. Big Brother, Little Brother: The American Influence on Korean Culture in the Lyndon B. Johnson Years. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2002. ISBN 978-0739104354

External links

All links retrieved January 7, 2024.


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