Ice Cold Facts about Drinking in Korea

Category : Korean Cultures / Surviving in Korea
Nov 26, 2014

This week I am back to an age old topic: drinking in Korea.  It was inspired by this week’s poll post, “What is your favorite Korean alcohol?” on WorkNPlay’s weekly newsletter.  (To receive the newsletter send an email to )  You can view the results are the bottom of this post.  Once again this topic has been written about time and time again.  Even if you have only been in Korea one week, you’ll know that alcohol plays a big role in Korean culture.


By now, things should be pretty obvious.  Always pour alcohol with two hands and never for yourself.  Cheers often and drink together.  Never refuse the first drink, unless want to be a social outcast.  Follow the drinking pace, keep up and don’t stop.  Encourage your friends and coworkers to drink more.  Suggest drinking games!  Don’t worry if you get too hammered and puke or pass out in public.  If you follow those simple tips you should do just fine.  You’ll probably be invited to sign on for another year.  And remember to say ‘Geon-Bae!’ (건배-bottoms up!), ‘Jjan’ (짠- the noise glasses make when they clink together) or if you’re feeling rowdy, “one shot!” (in English) when you cheers!


Now that etiquette is out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the stats.  A quick browse of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website confirms that Korea is certainly a country that indulges.  In 2011 the WHO put out world alcohol consumption statistics for the years between 2003 and 2005.  In Korea the average per capita consumption rate per year is 14.8 liters.  In plain English, that means that each Korean drinks 14.8 liters of alcohol in a year.  There are only 12 countries that are higher than Korea and they are all in the former Eastern Bloc with Moldova (18.22L), Czech Republic (16.45L), and Russia (16.27L) leading the pack.


Japan and China, which based on proximity and common history with Korea, might be presumed to be heavy drinkers.  However assumptions can’t be made here.  Japan (8.03L) and China (5.91L) fair low on the world alcohol consumption scale.  The average in the Western Pacific region is 6.3L, 2.2L in the South East Asian region and 6.1L worldwide.  That means Koreans drink more than double everyone else and more than 6 times that of South East Asia!


The western countries that come close to Korea are Ireland (14.41L), France (13.66L) and England (13.37L), who all have robust drinking reputations.  Canada (9.77) and the USA (9.44) –GO Canada!- don’t even come close being an average of 5 liters per person behind Korea.  I don’t know whether to fear or applaud you Korea!  You are a POWERHOUSE!  I think I’ll go with applaud since I do like to hammer back some soju shots once in a while / every Saturday.


Regardless of whether we fear or applaud Korea there are health issues to be concerned about.  Korea’s heavy drinking culture is taking its toll.  The WHO also complied some data about the harmful effects drinking has on people.  The average death rate per 100,000 people categorized by gender caused by liver cirrhosis is 38.4 for males and 7.0 for females in Korea.  In other words, 38.4 men and 7 women (in 100,000 people) die each year from liver failure.  The figure for men is quite high in relation to other countries.  There wasn’t data for many countries that have low alcohol consumption rates like countries in the Middle East.  Kuwait which is 7th in the world for lowest consumption at 0.17L has a liver cirrhosis death rate of 4.0 for men and 5.2 for women.  In Canada the rate is 9.5 and 4.4 and in the USA it is 13.5 and 6.1.  Both countries are amateurs compared to drinking pros like Russia and Korea. 


Countries that drink more see a rise in liver problems.  In England the rate is 15.9 and 8.1 and in France it is 17.7 and 6.5.  Moldova, home to the heaviest drinkers in the world has a rate of 132.2 for men and 108.9 for women!  Ireland throws the stats for a loop.  Despite enjoying drink, the Irish aren’t feeling the adverse health effects.  Their death rate from liver cirrhosis is 7.3 for men and 4.2 for women.  Maybe there really is something in that Guinness! 


I am big a feminist and I was curious about who is doing all the drinking around the world.  I have a hunch that women are being majorly left out!  I am right.  I couldn’t find a single country where women drink more than men.  Let me know if you can!


We can look at the percentage of abstinence in a country among men and women to determine who is drinking (of course we know that men drink more than women, except in my case, so therefore liters consumed by gender won’t do us much good).  As well, the total percentage of abstinence in the population also could provide insight into culture.


Let’s look at France.  France is country with a low total abstinence level at 8.0%.  The percentage of women who don’t drink is 10.4% and for men it’s 5.3%.  This shows that most people in France do drink and the abstinence levels for men and women are almost the same.  This could be cultural as wine is a large part of French cuisine and most households drink wine with meals.


Ireland is similar in that 21.9% of men don’t drink while 29% of women don’t drink.  However, the total percentage of non drinkers is 25.5% which is much higher than France.  This could conclude that both men and women who do drink in Ireland, drink heavily while in France everyone enjoys alcohol, but not to the excess.


Korea has a high percentage of non drinkers at 25.6% of the total population, but a huge discrepancy between men and women.  The percentage of women who don’t drink is 38.9% while for men it’s 12%.  This means that the non drinkers contributing to the total stat are women.  As we know, alcohol is a large part of business in Korea.  Since Korea has a very high rate of alcohol consumption we can also conclude that men drink alcohol excessively, probably at the workplace and not at home, like in Ireland and France where both men and women drink.


Japan caught me off guard.  I thought Japan would be more sexist when it comes to drinking but 18.6% of women don’t drink and 11.9% of men don’t drink, which is fairly equal.  Their total percentage of non drinkers is only 15.4% which means that more people in Japan drink than in Korea but Koreans drink bottles more.


I realize that the numbers are getting tiresome but we have made headway.  Koreans drink much more compared to those from other countries and countries that drink a lot also have more deaths by liver cirrhosis.  Liver conditions are affecting Koreans, specifically males.  Males drink significantly more in Korea which means that it could be linked to business culture that encourages excessive alcohol consumption.  Women make up the majority of the group that does not drink in Korea.  Some other fun facts are that Korea’s alcohol consumption peaked in 1973 at around 17L.  In dipped in the 1990s to under 10L but has been rising slowly ever since. Spirits make up 81% of all alcohol drank in Korea, which means most people really do like soju.  There are 540 calories in one bottle of soju.


Picture Taken by Rebekah Hammond

Editor’s note: This article provides no insight into possible causes of excessive alcohol consumption in Korea aside from a brief reference to Korean business culture.


What do you think?? Why do Koreans drink so much more than other Asian nations and the world overall?  Does anyone have a good theory?

Tags : Consumption. Alcohol. Nightlife.

Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.