Korean Culture

Driven by cutting-edge technologies and trends, Seoul is one of the most fast-paced and high-tech cities in the world. However, as progressive as Koreans are, many still retain traditional and Confucian values. Korean culture and customs are deeply rooted in family values, respect, and obedience toward people perceived as having higher status, rank, or age. This includes parents, teachers, older siblings, or even senior co-workers. People who are treated as having “seniority” in return, are expected to have more responsibilities and obligations towards their juniors. In addition to valuing family above anything else, Koreans also place high importance on status and dignity, and every action of an individual is said to reflect on one’s family, company, and country.

Greetings and Body Language

The bow is the traditional Korean greeting, although it is often accompanied by a handshake among men. To show respect when shaking hands, support your right forearm with your left hand. South Korean women usually nod slightly. Western women may offer their hand to a Korean man. Everyone, regardless of gender, bows when departing. Koreans consider it a personal violation to be touched by someone who is not a relative or close friend. Touching, patting, or back slapping someone who is not a close friend or relative is best avoided during interactions.

Korean Pop Culture

Often referred to as “hallyu” or the Korean Wave, Korean popular culture is now widespread across the globe. The Korean Wave includes Korean pop music, dramas, and movies. Although K-Pop, like BTS, is a hot topic these days, it was originally K-Dramas that put Korean pop culture on the international map.


Kimchi is a traditional Korean fermented dish made from seasoned vegetables and mixed with a variety of seasonings including chili pepper, garlic, ginger, and scallions. This iconic Korean staple comes in many varieties and has a rich history dating back to ancient times, playing a significant role in Korean cuisine and culture. Its fermentation process is believed to promote the growth of beneficial probiotics and is valued for its health benefits, including improving digestion and boosting the immune system.

Common kimchi varieties include Baechu Kimchi, which is the most common and made with Napa cabbage fermented with a mix of chili pepper, garlic, ginger, and fish sauce. Another similar variety is Kkakdugi, made similarly but using Korean radishes. Oi Sobagi is a cucumber kimchi filled with seasonings, more common during the summer. Pa Kimchi is made with green onions and is slightly sweeter. Yeolmu Kimchi is a type of “water kimchi” made with radishes and a thin clear broth. Chonggak Kimchi (Ponytail Radish Kimchi) is named after the ponytail-like appearance of the radish leaves and includes very small, sweet radishes, noted for their crunchy texture and robust flavor. Baek Kimchi (White Kimchi) is a non-spicy kimchi that lacks red chili peppers, making it mild and sweet, commonly served to children and suitable for those who prefer less heat.

National Holidays

There are two major national holidays in South Korea every year: Lunar New Year (설날, Seollal) in January-February and Korean Thanksgiving (추석, Chuseok) in September-October. Both holidays are celebrated with family. The majority of the holiday is dedicated to showing respect for ancestors, enjoying holiday foods, and playing with family. Many stores and restaurants are closed during these holidays and traffic just before and during these holiday weekends can be prohibitively delayed.

  • Seollal occurs on the first day of the Korean Lunar Calendar. The whole family, dressed in Korean traditional dress (한복, hanbok), performs a traditional deep bow while wishing for the year to bring in lots of luck (세배, sebae). Typically, families eat rice cake soup, savory pancakes, and stir-fried glass noodles with vegetables. One of the most popular games is 윷놀이 (yut-nori), a traditional board game
  • Chuseok falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, with the days before and after creating a 3-day national holiday. Koreans gather with their families to perform ancestral rites, visit the graves of their ancestors, and eat a traditional feast, including half-moon-shaped rice cakes called “Songpyeon.” Traditional games such as ssireum (wrestling) and dances such as the ganggangsullae can be seen at folk festivals, and cultural sites such as palaces and museums hold special events

Common Korean Etiquette

While most Koreans understand that foreigners may commit minor social faux pas and do not intend any disrespect, learning and following basic Korean etiquette can help you make a better impression and have more positive interactions with the local community.

  • Take your shoes off at the door when entering any residence, temple, or guesthouse.
  • A short bow—essentially a nod—is the most respectful greeting.
  • Give and receive any object using both hands.
  • Tipping is not a Korean custom and is not expected at hotels, restaurants, taxis, or other establishments. Refusal to accept a tip is not intended as disrespect.
  • Do not use red ink. This is a symbol of death and is reserved only for writing the names of the deceased. It is considered unlucky and suggests you wish death to the recipient.
  • Do not use the number four if possible – if giving gifts, do not give four of something. It is considered unlucky due to the similarity between the Korean word for death and the pronunciation of the word “four.”

Dining Etiquette

  • Wait until the eldest guest at the table begins eating before you start your meal.
  • Use utensils for your food and only use your fingers when wrapping ssam (lettuce wraps) or eating western cuisine like pizza or hamburgers.
  • Standing your chopsticks into your bowl of rice is offensive and similar to an offering to deceased ancestors. Place chopsticks and spoon back in their original position at the end of the meal.
  • Spoons are used for soup and rice. Often, Koreans take a spoonful of rice and eat it with their soup.
  • Blowing your nose at the dinner table is disrespectful and considered bad manners.


  • Hold the glass with both hands or hold it with the right hand, supporting it with the left hand under the right arm. There is a saying that the latter gesture originated from the act of protecting the large sleeves of traditional Korean clothes (hanboks).
  • If someone is offering to pour you a drink by holding the bottle and gesturing, raise your glass from the table with both hands; Koreans don’t pour drinks into glasses placed on the table.
  • If someone else’s glass is empty, hold the bottle and propose drinks. But wait until they raise the glass.
  • Don’t pour your own drink; wait for someone else to pour it for you. If your glass is empty, Koreans will feel apologetic.
  • If someone is pouring their own drink, quickly apologize, take the bottle, and pour the drink for them.
  • While waiting for someone else to pour their drink, you may be asked, “Are you busy?” This is a way to convey the message that “My glass is empty. Are you too busy to pour me a drink?”
  • If you hear “Gunbae” or “Oneshot,” that means “bottoms up!”
  • Refrain from refilling someone’s glass until it is completely empty. If someone is holding a bottle to pour more drinks while there is still some left in your glass, finish your drink and extend your empty glass for a refill.
  • If drinking with someone older or holding a higher status, show respect by turning your head slightly to the side while drinking. Avoid making direct eye contact or drinking straight ahead.

Note: For years, Jinro Soju has been the world’s best-selling alcohol! It might not be surprising, given that with 11.2 shots on average, Koreans are also the world’s biggest consumers of hard liquor. Haven’t been able to try it yet? Try it in Korea!

Personal Space

Most westerners are used to having a bubble of personal space, and often feel uncomfortable when others get too close. Korea, like many other Asian countries, is so densely populated that Koreans are more accustomed to living life in closer proximity to each other. Whether taking the subway, lining up for groceries, or simply walking around town, expect to be doing it up close and personal with complete strangers.

Korea & Your Children

Children are seen as a treasure in Korea, and you’ll soon notice how friendly many people are when you are out and about with yours. It’s not unusual for Koreans, especially older ones, to offer sweets to your child, or pat their hair or cheeks, or even offer to hold them when they are fussy. Respect for elders and authority figures is deeply ingrained in Korean culture, so teaching your children how to say “thank you” (감사합니다 – kamsahamnida) and do a little bow will usually impress local nationals and may occasionally result in an extra treat. From a young age, children are encouraged to be responsible members of society. This includes participating in community service and being mindful of social etiquette.

South Korea is a very safe country for children. There is a strong sense of community and collective responsibility where neighbors often look out for each other and dote on their children. Public spaces and transportation are typically child-friendly, and it isn’t unusual to see young children using public services independently.

You can embrace traditional celebrations and customs with your child, such as the first birthday (Doljanchi) and Children’s Day (celebrated on May 5th), to share the importance of children in Korean culture with them. These events are marked with family gatherings, gifts, and special activities for children, and children are often given sweets when visiting others.

Holding Hands Isn’t Restricted to Couples

It’s a common sight to see friends holding hands or putting their arms around each other in Korea regardless of gender. Don’t be alarmed if a same-sex friend puts their arm around you or is overly touchy. Despite maintaining a “no-touching” social standard with acquaintances and strangers, this display of affection is simply their way of showing they think of you as a good friend and are comfortable.

The Subway System

The transportation system in Korea is clean, safe, and remarkably efficient. With the average price of an adult ticket around KRW 1,400 (about 1 USD), it’s also extremely affordable. Trains are so reliable, down to the minute, that you could set your watch according to their schedule. The closest train station to Osan Air Base is Songtan Station, about a ten-minute walk from the Osan AB Main Gate. There are also bullet-trains called the KTX and SRT connecting the two biggest cities: Busan and Seoul. They are more expensive, but in just over 2 hours you can be on the completely opposite end of South Korea.

Brushing Teeth

Koreans typically brush their teeth after every meal, even when out with friends or co-workers, which can take a minute to get used to. People often carry their toothbrushes with them when they go to work, a business meeting, or even lunch with friends. Bathrooms in public spaces such as work, shopping centers, and subway stations often have people queuing for the sinks to brush their teeth.

Country Facts

  • Official name: Republic of Korea
  • Official language: Korean
  • Capital: Seoul
  • Population: 51 million
  • Currency: Won (KRW or ₩)

Things to Remember:

  • Weights & Measurements: The Republic of Korea uses the metric system. Temperature is measured in Celsius, weight is measured in grams, and length is measured in meters.
  • Alcohol: The legal drinking age in Korea is 19 years old. Although it is legal to drink alcohol in public, disorderly conduct under the influence of alcohol can result in hefty fines and a visit to the police station.
  • Electricity: The standard voltage in Korea is 220 V and the standard frequency is 60 Hz. The types of sockets or outlets used are the C and F types, which have two round holes.
  • Smoking: It’s not permitted at bus stops, city plazas, and many other outdoor public locations. If caught smoking in these areas, you may be fined up to KRW 100,000. Non-smoking areas are clearly marked with signs. Smoking is also not permitted inside restaurants, bars, or cafés with an area larger than 150 square meters. Designated smoking areas can be found around the city and at major transportation hubs. Cigarettes can be purchased at just about every convenience store. The legal smoking age in Korea is 19 years old.
  • Water: Korean tap water is safe to drink and used for hygiene purposes such as brushing your teeth and washing your face. Water coolers are installed in just about every home, office building, hotel, hospital, and restaurant, so finding purified water isn’t difficult. Bottled water is also very easy to come by and can be found at any convenience store or market.

Language References