South Koreans

PRONUNCIATION: sowth kaw-REE-uns

LOCATION: Republic of Korea (South Korea)

POPULATION: 40 million


RELIGION: Mahayana Buddhism; Christianity (Protestantism and Roman Catholicism); Ch'ondogyo (combination of Christianity and native pre-Christian beliefs)


The Korean peninsula is located between China, Japan, and Russia. It has been subject to foreign invasions throughout recorded history. Korea was ruled by the Chinese for several hundred years in the early centuries AD . During this time, China established a lasting influence on Korean culture, especially through its language.

In 1876 the Kanghwa Treaty opened Korea to Japan and to the West. After many wars, Korea was taken over by Japan, which brutally ruled it from 1910 to 1945. During this period, Koreans were treated terribly by the Japanese. Women were kidnapped and used as sex slaves, and many innocent people were horribly murdered. Many Koreans still mistrust the Japanese because of this.

After World War II (1939–45), the peninsula was divided by the Soviets and the Americans. The thirty-eighth parallel became the line separating the zones. Eventually, the line separated two distinct countries: North Korea and South Korea. They have fought one war (1950–53) and have been preparing for another ever since. The border is one of the most heavily armed borders in the world. The United States has maintained troops in South Korea for about fifty years in case of an attack by North Korea. The two countries are still technically at war with each other. South Korea's government has an elected legislature and a strong executive branch.


South Korea is one of the most densely populated countries both in Asia and in the world. The population is over forty million people, roughly twice that of North Korea. Over ten million people—nearly a quarter of the total population—live in Seoul, the capital and South Korea's largest city.

The Korean people are one of the world's most ethnically homogeneous nationalities. This means that almost all the people in the country are of the same ethnicity. They are almost exclusively descendents of the Han, a people believed to be related to the Mongols of Central Asia. There are no numerically significant ethnic minorities in South Korea.


Korean is generally thought to belong to the Altaic language family, along with Turkish, Mongolian, Japanese, and other languages. Until the fifteenth century, Korean was written using Chinese characters. Then, in 1446, a Korean alphabet, called Han'gul, was developed. It has been used ever since.

Some common Korean words and expressions are:


English Korean
how are you? anahasiyo?
hello yoboseyo
goodbye aniyong ikeseyo
yes ye
no anio
thank you kamsa kamnida


English Korean
one il
two ee
three sam
four sa
five o
six yuk
seven chill
eight pal
nine ku
ten sip
one hundred paek
one thousand chon


Korean folklore celebrates human longevity and the survival of the Korean people. A number of folktales involve either animals or heavenly beings who either become human or want to do so. Others celebrate the figure of the wise hermit living a simple, secluded existence on a mountaintop. One tale tells how the locust, ant and kingfisher came to have their unique physical characteristics. The three got together to have a picnic. For lunch, the locust and kingfisher were to supply some fish and the ant was to provide the rice. The ant got the rice by biting a woman carrying a basket of rice on her head. When she dropped the basket, the ant carried it off. The locust sat on a leaf floating in the pond, and soon a fish came along and gobbled both the locust and leaf right up. The kingfisher swooped down and caught the fish and carried it back to the picnic site. The locust popped out of the fish's mouth and began congratulating himself on catching the fish. The kingfisher flew into a great fury, arguing that HE had caught the fish. The ant laughed so hard that his middle became quite thin, just as it is today. The locust grabbed the kingfisher's bill and wouldn't let go, so that the kingfisher's bill grew long, just as it is today. And the kingfisher crunched his long bill down onto the locust's head, forever giving it the flattened shape that it has today.

Koreans have traditionally used special drawings called pujok as charms in and around their houses to bring them luck and ward off evil.


There is a great deal of diversity in South Korean religious life. Koreans have traditionally combined elements from different belief systems, such as Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Today, the majority of South Korea's religious population are either Buddhist (over 11 million followers) or Christian (more than 6 million Protestants and almost 2 million Roman Catholics).

The South Koreans also have many newer religions that combine Christianity with native pre-Christian beliefs. The most widespread is Ch'ondogyo (the Heavenly Way), founded in 1860.


The New Year is one of South Korea's most important holidays. Three days are set aside for family celebrations. These include honoring parents and grandparents, shooting off firecrackers to frighten away evil spirits, and eating holiday foods. Although New Year's Day legally occurs on January 1, many Koreans still celebrate the traditional lunar New Year, which usually occurs in February.

The birthday of the Buddha (usually early in May) is an important holiday for Korean Buddhists. They hang lanterns in the courtyards of Buddhist temples throughout the country. These lanterns are then carried through the streets in nighttime processions.

Tano, held in early June, is a major holiday in rural areas. It is the traditional time to pray for a good harvest. It is celebrated with a variety of games and competitions, including wrestling matches for men and swinging contests for women. The holiday is also called Swing Day.

Other national holidays include Independence Movement Day (March 1), Arbor Day (April 5), Children's Day (May 5), Memorial Day (June 6), Constitution Day (July 17), Liberation Day (August 15), National Foundation Day (October 3), and Christmas (December 25).


Traditionally, Korean marriages were arranged, especially among the rich and powerful. Today, however, the popularity of arranged marriages, particularly in urban areas, has declined, although many Koreans still follow the practice in a modified form. Parents and other relatives locate prospective marriage partners, but the young people have the final say in approving their choices. Among the urban upper classes, the services of highly paid semiprofessional matchmakers are also becoming increasingly popular.

Ancestor worship plays a prominent role in Korean folk belief. This system regards death as a rite of passage to a new state rather than an ending. Christian, Buddhist, and Confucian concepts also affect Korean attitudes toward death.


Respect for parents, and for elders in general, is a central value for Koreans. There are detailed and elaborate rules governing one's speech and actions in the presence of older persons. These rules, however, are less rigidly observed now than in the past.

Even when not in the presence of their elders, Koreans are generally very courteous and emotionally reserved. Proper etiquette forbids strong displays of either happiness, distress, or anger.

When at home, Koreans traditionally sit on the floor, although today chairs are common. The most formal and polite posture when seated on the floor is to kneel with one's back kept straight and one's weight on the balls of both feet.


Most South Koreans in urban areas live in high-rise, multistory dwellings. Most homes are built of concrete. Houses are generally built low, with small rooms. In order to keep out the cold, there are few doors and windows.

The Koreans have a unique heating system called ondal . Heat is carried through pipes installed beneath the floors. This is geared toward the traditional Korean custom of sitting and sleeping on mats or cushions on the floor.

Health care in Korea has improved substantially since the 1950s. Average life expectancy has risen from fifty-three to seventy-one years. Traditional causes of death, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia, have been replaced by conditions more typical of industrialized societies, such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke.


The typical South Korean household consists of a nuclear family with two children. Young children are nurtured and indulged. Respect for one's parents—and one's elders, generally—is a central value in Korean life. Fathers in particular exercise a great degree of authority over their sons. Although divorce was not tolerated in the past, today it has become quite common.


The majority of South Koreans wear modern Western-style clothing most of the time. Historically, people wore clothes in colors that reflected their social class. Kings and other royalty wore yellow, but common people indicated their modesty by wearing mainly white.

The traditional costume or hanbok is a two-piece outfit for both men and women. Women wore a chogori, or short top, with long, rectangular sleeves. This was accompanied by a ch'ima, or wrap skirt, made from a large, rectangular piece of fabric with long sashes attached to the skirt to form a waistband. The skirt was traditionally tied high around the chest, just under the arms. Women would carry babies and small children in a cho'ne, a large rectangle of quilted fabric with two long sashes. The ch'one is wrapped around the baby on the mother's back and the sashes are tied securely around the mother's body.

The traditional costume for Korean men was a chogori top similar to the one worn by women. Loose-fitting pants, known as paji, accompany the chogori. Men who rode horses for hunting preferred paji with narrow legs, but looser paji were preferred for sitting on the floor at home.



Kimchi must ferment for at least two days to develop its full flavor.


  • 1 cup coarsely chopped cabbage
  • 1 cup finely sliced carrots
  • 1 cup cauliflower florets, separated
  • 2 Tablespoons salt
  • 2 green onions, finely sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped, or 1 teaspoon garlic granules
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger or ½ teaspoon ground ginger


  1. Combine cabbage, carrots, and cauliflower in colander and sprinkle with salt. Toss lightly and set in sink for about one hour and allow to drain.
  2. Rinse with cold water, drain well, and place in a medium-sized bowl.
  3. Add onions, garlic, red pepper, and ginger. Mix thoroughly.
  4. Cover and refrigerate for at least two days, stirring frequently.

Yields about four cups.

On their first birthday, Korean children are dressed in bright clothing. Their outfit often includes quilted socks with bright red pompons on the toes.

12 • FOOD

The Korean national dish is kimchi, a spicy, fermented pickled vegetable mixture whose primary ingredient is cabbage. It is prepared in large quantities in the fall by families throughout Korea and left to ferment for several weeks in large jars buried in the ground.

A typical Korean meal includes soup, rice served with grains or beans, and kimchi served as a side dish. (A recipe for kimchi follows.) Other common dishes include bulgogi (strips of marinated beef), kalbi (marinated beef short ribs), and sinsollo (a meal of meat, fish, vegetables, eggs, nuts, and bean curd cooked together in broth).

Koreans eat with chopsticks and a spoon, often at small, collapsible tables that can be moved to any room of the house.


Koreans have a great reverence for education and 90 percent of South Koreans are literate. Education is free and required between the ages of six and twelve. The great majority of students go on to six more years of middle school and high school. Discipline is strict, and children attend school five-and-a-half days per week.

South Korea has over 200 institutions of higher education, including both two-and four-year colleges and universities. Ewha University is one of the world's largest women's universities. The leading public university in South Korea is Seoul National University.


Chinese art, Confucianism, and Buddhism have all had a major influence on the arts in Korea. About 80,000 art objects are collected in the National Museum. Outstanding examples of Korean architecture can be seen in historic palaces and Buddhist temples and pagodas.

The National Classic Music Institute trains its graduates in traditional Korean music. Korean folk painting (min'hwa) is still popular. Western art forms have been very influential in South Korea. The Korean National Symphony Orchestra and the Seoul Symphony Orchestra perform in Seoul and Pusan. Western-style drama, dance, and motion pictures have also become very popular among South Koreans.


About 15 percent of South Korea's labor force are employed in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, and 25 percent in manufacturing. Various types of government employment supply most of the nation's remaining jobs.

South Koreans have traditionally expected to have jobs for life. In 1997, however, the economy suffered a drastic collapse. For the first time in a generation workers are facing massive layoffs.


Koreans enjoy a variety of internationally popular sports, including baseball, volleyball, soccer, basketball, tennis, skating, golf, skiing, boxing, and swimming. Baseball is especially popular. South Korea has a professional baseball league. Its games are broadcast on television, as are competitions at the college and high school levels.

The best-known traditional Korean sport is the martial art of tae kwon do, taught by Koreans to people throughout the world as a popular form of self-defense.

The 1988 Summer Olympic Games were held in Seoul.


Both traditional Korean forms of recreation and modern Western pastimes are enjoyed in South Korea. Age-old games and ceremonial dances are still performed at festivals and other special occasions. These include mask dances (Kanggangsuwollae) and the Chajon Nori (juggernaut) game, in which participants ride in wooden vehicles. Also popular are mass tug-of-war games involving as many as a hundred people.

Make a Shield Kite


  • five 2-foot bamboo sticks
  • butcher paper or other strong paper at least 18 inches wide
  • kite string
  • strong packing tape
  • crepe paper or plastic grocery bags for streamers


  1. Cross two of the bamboo sticks at the center to make an X and tie with string.
  2. Connect two sides of the X with two more of the sticks and tie the four corners. (Shape will resemble an hourglass.)
  3. Tie the fifth stick across the top of the shield and fasten at the corners.
  4. Cut a piece of paper at least 2 inches larger than the frame. (Two pieces may be required to cover the frame completely.)
  5. Mark a circle in the center of the paper to allow the air to pass through. The circle must be one-half the total width of the kite. (Twelve-inch circle for a 24-inch wide kite, for example.) Cut the circle out.
  6. Decorate the kite paper with your name, birth date, and a good-luck wish.
  7. Attach the paper to the frame by wrapping the paper neatly around the frame and fastening it securely. Strong packing tape works best.
  8. Cut streamers of crepe paper or plastic grocery bags and attach to the lower edge of the kite using tape or glue.
  9. The kite may be launched or hung on the wall. (To prepare for launching, cut four 18-inch lengths of string. Tie one to each corner of the kit. Tie the four ends together, and attach them to the flying string.)

Children and adults enjoy kite-flying. On the first full moon of the year, home-made kites were launched to bring good luck for the new year. Each kite-maker would write his or her name, birthdate, and good luck wishes on his or her kite, and launch it into the air.

Among modern forms of entertainment, television is enjoyed throughout the country. Outside the home, South Koreans enjoy gathering in the country's numerous coffeehouses and bars.

A traditional Korean instrument, the kayagum, is played by a musician sitting on the floor. The strings are made of twisted silk, and pass through the bridges on the body of the instrument. Modern Koreans enjoy Western music—especially classical music—and their country has produced many fine performers. They are especially fond of singing. It is common for Koreans to sing for each other at dinners and other social occasions.


Fine Korean furniture is valued by collectors worldwide. Korean craftspeople are also known for their celadon ceramics, a term that refers to a type of greenish glaze that originated in China.


The most pressing social concern today is the collapse of the South Korean economy that occurred in 1997. It is expected that the huge companies that dominate the economy will have to lay off hundreds of thousands of workers.

In the 1980s, growing numbers of Koreans began to use the illegal substance crystalline methamphetamine, known as "speed" in the United States. By the end of the decade there were thought to be as many as 300,000 using the drug. This included many ordinary working people attempting to cope with high-pressure jobs and long work hours.


Faurot, Jeannette, ed. Asian Pacific Folktales and Legends. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Gall, Timothy, and Susan Gall, eds. Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1995.

Hoare, James. Korea: An Introduction. New York: Kegan Paul International, 1988.

McNair, Sylvia. Korea. Chicago, Ill.: Children's Press, 1994.

Oliver, Robert Tarbell. A History of the Korean People in Modern Times: 1800 to the Present. Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 1993.


Embassy of Korea, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available , 1998.

Samsung SDS Co., Ltd. Korean Insights Kidsight. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

Menasbo Gberu
So far I read about south Korea in breif and it is interesting. I wuold like to seek one very important issue. I am living in one of the developing country in Africa in which society is suffering at low living standard. By now I am a Univeristy instructor of economics and demanding for further education to serve my nation and society to my effort. So would you help me in finding of scholarships in post grdaute study in the host country of south korea

I am looking forward to hear from you

Menasbo Gebru, ethiopia
Menasbo Gberu
So far I read about south Korea in breif and it is interesting. I wuold like to seek one very important issue. I am living in one of the developing country in Africa in which society is suffering at low living standard. By now I am a Univeristy instructor of economics and demanding for further education to serve my nation and society to my effort. So would you help me in finding of scholarships in post grdaute study in the host country of south korea

I am looking forward to hear from you

Menasbo Gebru, ethiopia
Zach Mackay
This looks like a really good website if you want to search information for a project or an assignment.
Good website!
You're article is informative and correct. However, the section on Kimchi is not entirely correct. Kimchi is not really fermented. Many people believe it is fermented because of the "smell", the strong smell is associated with the garlic and in some families the small amount of fish added to the cabbage. Only in the summer was kimchi ever buried. It was not buried to ferment or pickle, it was buried because that was the only access to refrigeration they had at the time. The earth is much cooler than the outside, especially in the summer, and the people did not want thier kimchi to spoil. Again, thank you for your article on the korean culture, it assisted in my son for his research project.
The pronunciation and some of the expressions themselves are incorrect.
nice i want to learn how to speak korean language and i want to do it in a right pronunciation.
Tae K. Kim
Thanks for your effort to introduce Korea.
But much of the information in this web page are incorrect.
It is mostly biased in the standpoint that is based on Western civilization, Sinology and Japanology.
Sometimes, such postings have carried biased or inaccurate information.
Dr. Cathine G. Scott
The website about South Korea was very interesting. I am using some of the information for a presentation on South Korea that I am presenting to a group of the members of the National Association of University Women. Each year in April, we celebrate our National and International Affairs Program, and we select a country to learn more about in terms of its geography, culture, education, health, customs, technology, and politics.
Esther Kang
I love how you introduced our country so thoroughly. Thank you. However there are a bit of mistakes that were made.First of all, how are you is actually annyeonghaseyo, and thank you is kamsahabneeda. Also, the IMF problem was already solved in two years time after the crisis. Korean citizens held many campaigns like 'geummoeugi undong' which means 'collecting gold at home movement,' and saemaul movement(new community movement). Also the government worked hard to increase workplaces for the unemployed. Thus, Korea was able to pay all their debt off, and become one of the most prosperous countries in Asia. People usually call this development 'the miracle of the Han River,' because there were not many countries that were able to get back up after such a huge crisis
Eric Dier
The information here are mostly biased, inaccurate, or outdated. People who are looking for more accurate, up-to-date information about Korea should go somewhere else.
This really helped on my essay for school! Thank you for helping me with this outstanding article!

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