Contemporary culture of South Korea

From Academic Kids

Since Korea's division into two separate states, South Korea has developed a distinct contemporary culture with some different characteristics than the traditional culture of Korea.

The industrialisation and urbanisation of South Korea have brought many changes to the way people live. In the past, most people lived in small rural areas. Changes to peoples' lifestyles have led to many young people leaving country areas to find new opportunities in the cities (particularly Seoul). In the past, it was not uncommon for several generations to live under one roof; today South Koreans are moving more towards the standard nuclear family.




See main article: K-pop


Karaoke is called Noraebang (노래방) in Korea, but the Japanese word Karaoke (가라오케) is used, too. It is a popular way to spend an evening. Noraebang can be found at many corners in the cities and are popular with young and older generations alike.

See also: Chin2

Film and visual media

Since the success of the Korean film Shiri in 1999 Korean film has become much more popular, both in South Korea and abroad. Today South Korea is one of the few countries where Hollywood productions do not enjoy a dominant share of the domestic market.

Shiri was a film about a North Korean spy preparing a coup in Seoul. The film was the first in Korean history to sell more than 2 million tickets in Seoul alone. This helped Shiri to surpass box office hits such as The Matrix or Star Wars. The success of Shiri motivated other Korean films with large budgets for Korean circumstances.

In 2000 the film JSA (Joint Security Area) was a huge success and even surpassed the benchmark set by Shiri. One year later, the film Friend managed the same. 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 are more popular than Hollywood films. Both Silmido and Taegukgi Hwinalrimyeo (The Brotherhood) were watched by over 10 million people, which is a quarter of the Korean population. Silmido is a film based on a true story about a secret special force. The other is a blockbuster movie about Korean War directed by the director of Shiri.

This success attracted the attention of Hollywood. Films such as Shiri are now distributed in the USA. In 2001, Miramax even 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) was successful as well, leading Dreamworks to pay $2 million (US) for the rights to a remake, topping the $1 million (US) paid for the Japanese movie The Ring.

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, which causes Korean films to be likened to French films. The Korean film industry, however, now produces all kinds of films.

In February 2004, the controversial director, Kim Ki Duk won the award for best director at the 54th annual Berlin Film Festival. He was awarded for the film Samaria which is about a teenage prostitute.

In Cannes, two korean films Oldboy by Park Chan-wook and The Woman is the Future of the Man by Hong Sang-soo were invited in the competition. The film by Park won the Grand Prix.

See also: Ha Jiwon (actress), Im Kwontaek (director), Lee Changdong (director) Cho Seung Woo(조승우,actor,

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New wave films

There are three important dates in new wave Korean films: first in 1992, "Marriage Story was financed by Samsung, marking the first non-government funded film. In 1999, Shiri was released and led to Korean films taking over 50% of the local market. Ultimately, My Sassy Girl 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 have very 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, this practice has come under fire from non-Korean film distributors as unfair.[1] ( Fast low cost films with likeable 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 came as a result of competition in the film industry, directors trained outside of the USA (in France, Spain, the Netherlands, China and Europe), and new models of scripts that included more Korean situations, and spoke in contemporary vernacular, and used younger actors, younger scriptwriters, and less formulaic Hollywood cliches or 90 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 story-lines that were clever and aggressive. Films in turn influenced very quickly traditional Korean network soap operas, and forced a very fast new design in television story-lines, and this then forced even greater innovation in Korean film-making with even stronger writing and higher definition of the art.

Hallyu, the new Korean animation

While The Simpsons is the best known back-room product of Korea, many other popular foreign animation series (Futurama, King of the Hill) have had the basic animation, in-betweening, and colouring done in Korea. This work is usually generic, and professional; but not necessarily 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. This series uses 2-D animation, suggestions for scripts and stories by local crew, and was produced "with the object to create a new "Hallyu (Korean:한류) animation" that is distinct from Disneymation or Japanimation".


See also: Kim Jong-chul (poet)


See also: Education in South Korea

South Korea is a very competitive academic environment (getting into a prestigious university is considered a prerequisite to any kind of success); for this reason, high school students often spend a huge amount of their time studying. Many South Korean parents consider it to be essential that their sons and daughters attend private institutes (Korean: 학원) to learn a variety of subjects, ranging from the study of Chinese characters to music, art and English.

Foreign influences

South Korea has been highly influenced in recent years by foreign countries; Initially the primarily influence was by the United States. Many people enjoyed watching American films and cartoons. Until 1998 when restrictions were eased, importation of all Japanese movies, music and comics had been technically illegal due to the negative feelings of many Korean people towards Japan as a result of its occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Today, however, many people believe that this ban is outdated.

The influence of foreign countries has changed people's eating habits as well; many people now enjoy Western food in addition to traditional Korean and Asian foods. Pizza is one of the more favorite foreign foods among South Koreans.

South Korean dress is also being more heavily influenced by foreign styles; young people in Korea dress much as their Western counterparts do.

Recently, the Korean language has had a huge influx of English words and one of the results is Konglish. Konglish is the use of English words in the Korean language, whether the words are used properly or not, and it is the spoken and written English by Koreans.

Two examples of Konglish:

  • Eye shopping: Koreans say 'eye shopping' when native speakers of English would say 'window shopping'.
  • Service: Generally, 'service' as westerners know it, is different in Korea. According to, service is: "An act or a variety of work done for others, especially for pay". The term 'service' in korea means 'free'.

Modern Korean culture

Dramatic changes in culture in the Republic of Korea after the 1990s with startling changes in politics, post-Shiri films, and an opening of a Korean cyber-culture are discussed here. A central shift is a reinvention of Korean culture that ceased blindly copying American culture and values, to bring in a new Korean original creative perspective merging technology and tradition.

This involves a new generation of Korean products: comics, novels, animation, a resurgence of Korean opera and Korean old-style classical music with new age percussion influences; conceptual art, performance art, and the rediscovery of Korean art traditions through the Insadong art gallery area in Seoul. It also includes new attempts at breaking the rules in film, longer more complex stories with ensemble acting, and a new aesthetic of originality and cultural honesty.

It also chose different venues for creative activity: instead of the WW2 machine age era of nightclubs and traditional social culture around heavy drinking, the post-modern generation moved on to pc-bangs, a Korean word for cyber-cafes, where bubble tea and coffee and high energy drinks were served. Alcohol has never driven the computer world, and a generational shift from the machine age post WW2 culture to fast-thinking videoscreens happened quickly in Korea; and has also been more inclusive of women's contributions especially as unique individuals.

To some extent as well, the post-modern generation in Korea are the first generation raised without fear of impending war; and this has resulted in a more open optimistic cultural liberty. As well this is the first generation to have explored the world by back-packing, internet chat rooms, and learning by their own experience on their own terms rather than following the rote procedures of Korean educational training that shifted uneasily between imitating 1940s hard machine-age unworkable American models and the intense demands for technological sophistication forced by the powerhouses of asia. Sophistication won.

Cellular phones

Koreans are also prolific mobile phone users (Korean: 핸드폰; lit. handphone). South Koreans of all ages have mobile phones, and use them for viewing websites and for sending text and picture messages. Only a few years ago, most people only had "beepers" (pagers); today, it would be a struggle to find someone without a mobile phone.

Cellphones are in use by almost 90 percent of Koreans and used very heavily for constant contact. Cellphones ares used next most for text-messaging and making purchases. A distinctive cultural feature unique to Korea is custom ring-back tunes. Ring-back tunes are "on-hold music" chosen by the cellphone user to entertain those waiting for the phone to be answered, and are basically short music clips of popular Korean and American poptunes. Almost all phones used by young people also have digi-cameras as well. 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 60% of South Korean homes are equipped with high-speed internet connections, making Korea the most Internet wired nation in the world. Koreans are such enthusiastic internet users that many popular South Korean web portals such as Daum and Naver, have some of the highest traffic ratings in the world, despite the fact that their content is only accessible to those who understand the Korean language. Koreans use the internet for sending e-mails and instant messages, for research, but most commonly for entertainment, such as watching Flash animations, videos or for playing multiplayer games such as Starcraft.

People often access the internet through cyber cafes (Korean: PC방; PC bang). Korean gamers are famous for their devotion to their hobby, and many gaming sessions last hours; in a few extreme cases, days. One man was found dead in a PC room after gaming for four straight days without sleep, food, or water [2] (

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. This makes The Republic of Korea third in the world for net use.

Korean bloggers are well known and have inspired the legendary My Sassy Girl movie. Rough estimates are over 5 million homepages or blogs on the net. The bloggers draw on diverse world influences, showing extensive travels, and intense discussions.

There is a one year prison sentence for putting pornographic material on the net.

Online Video Gaming

The Republic of Korea has at any time over 4 million on-line gamers.

In the over 25,000 pc-bangs (high speed 24 hour internet cafes) there are Korean on-line games such as Lineage. While on-line gaming is part of Korean culture, foreign games such Halo are played with Korean captioning.

Since Korea is the most heavily wired broadband nation in the world, the main reason for the pc-bangs for young people is to get out of their houses, play games, keep in constant messenger contact with friends, and surf the net for new ideas.

There is no government initiative presently to encourage Korean video games for the huge domestic market.


Ohmynews is a Korean invention and was established in 2000 by a dedicated group of reporters who believed that ordinary people throughout the Republic of Korea could report in by phone or by email and have their many views on stories edited by volunteer and professional editors. The idea of a "citizen reporter" is the invention of Oh Yeon Ho, CEO and founder of a new journalism.

OhmyNews has over 35 dedicated staff reporters but uniquely ol any given day, more than 30,000 citizen reporters post their stories on regular basis. And are paid according to popularity of the story. The impact of having every citizen have the chance using new technology - cell-phone cameras, the internet - has dramatically changed the perception of journalists in Korea.


A team led by professor Oh Jun-ho of the Mechanical Engineering department at KAIST held its first public demonstration of a walking human type robot called HUBO in March of 2005. HUBO measures 125cm and weighs 55kg, and can walk 30cm at a time (left and right strides: 15cm), and can turn itself at an angle of 45 degrees. It has 41 joints and motors all over its body allowing it various body movements; and cost $300,000. It marks the entry of Korean into humanoid robots.

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