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Heavy Drinking Creates Personal Bonds, But Also Problems, in South Korea 


More so than in many countries, alcohol tends to be the glue of close business and personal relationships in South Korea. Heavy drinking is practically a requirement for melting the social ice among South Koreans, who otherwise tend to be very reserved. But some South Koreans warn that the culture of heavy imbibing does damage beyond the morning hangover.

Stop any weekday evening into a drinking establishment in Seoul, and you are likely to hear the sound of bombs.

The "bomb shot," or "poktanju" in Korean, is an after-hours favorite among South Korea's suit-and-tie set. A shot glass filled with soju - a vodka-like Korean liquor - or, more often, whiskey, is plunged into a larger glass filled with beer. The mix is then consumed in one or two gulps, often to the cheers of colleagues.

The ritual plays itself out over and over, usually until at least one person at the table is carried to a taxi on the shoulders of a drinking mate.

An executive named Lee, in his early thirties, says he goes out for poktanju two or three times a week.

"So how many poktanju in a night will you have?" I ask him.

"Just one or two - and the maximum is 20 or 30," he says.

" Per person?" I ask.

"Yeah, per person. It's a crazy thing. Til three o'clock in the morning or four o'clock," he says.

And as for getting up for work the next day:

"It's hard. It's very hard," Lee says.

Chang Kihwun and his supervisor, Cho Surnggie, manage the prevention and research division at the Korea Alcohol Research Foundation, or KARF. Chang says the corporate drinking culture is a by-product of the country's economic success.

Chang says South Korea accomplished its transformation into an industrial economy in a short 50 years - creating enormous stress among the commercial classes. In the relative absence of other outlets for stress relief, he says South Koreans turned to alcohol as a way to relax cheaply and quickly.

Nowadays, there is still no quicker way to cement a working relationship among South Koreans than to drink heavily together. Chang says that means a person's career prospects can be linked to his ability to imbibe.

He says many South Korean managers and executives manage their organizations with drinking outings. Executives who do not come out to drink, he says, can find themselves left out of the corporate communication loop.

But KARF says those big nights are creating a hangover for business. Director Cho says research indicates that in 2003, South Korean companies suffered $12 billion in productivity losses due to heavy drinking.

Cho says employees who drank heavily the night before often show up late, leave early, or call in sick. When they are on the job, their concentration is low. Despite that, Cho says South Korean businesses tend to tolerate sluggish performance from hung-over employees because they put effort into building good relationships at the previous night's drinking outing.

KARF estimates the total social cost of heavy drinking, including the treatment of alcohol-related health problems, is about $24 billion. A separate report from South Korea's National Statistics office indicates more than a thousand South Koreans die each year in drink-related driving accidents.

Cho says his foundation, which has its own hospital, is a relatively rare resource in South Korea, where alcohol consumption is more often seen as a cultural necessity than a problem. He says South Koreans do not have access to the kind of addiction treatment infrastructure that exists in the United States or Europe - where, for example, many large companies have in-house substance abuse counseling.

Much of the foundation's work is in the arena of public awareness.

This KARF announcement urges South Koreans to respect their colleagues' alcohol limits, and not to pressure them to drink when they are reluctant.

Some high-profile politicians are beginning to criticize the drinking culture. Park Jin, a conservative lawmaker who is running for mayor of Seoul, created a club last year called "Pok-so", meaning "Sweep away poktanju."

Park grabbed headlines earlier this year when he smashed poktanju-type glasses with a hammer at South Korea's National Assembly. He blames the country's heavy drinking culture for embarrassing behavior and political scandals.

For example, lawmaker Choi Yeon-hee, Park's colleague in the Grand National Party, was accused of making inappropriate advances to a female journalist after an evening of heavy drinking. Choi was stripped of his party leadership posts and faced heavy pressure to resign.

Despite that, and the slow spread of alcoholism awareness, South Korea's drinking culture is going strong. An entire layer of the economy caters to those rough mornings-after, from saunas and massage spas to restaurants specializing in what Koreans call "feel-better soup."

What may eventually put a dent in the drinking rate is the rising wealth of South Korean consumers, whose taste is slowly evolving toward drinks such as fine wines, which are sipped slowly. A tighter job market may also create pressure on younger South Koreans to put more of their energy into performance - not poktanju.

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