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Posted : 2007-10-18 22:09
Updated : 2007-10-18 22:09

10 Unique Korean Customs & Practices (1950-2007)

The Korea Times, the nation’s first English daily, turns 57 on Nov. 1. The TOP 10 Series will feature the biggest news stories, scandals, events, figures, surprises and memorable moments in the coming weeks, in celebration of the anniversary. The series will allow our readers to revisit these moments of the past. Current and former staff members of the oldest English daily selected the Top 10s through internal meetings, online surveys and advice from outside experts. If you have differing opinions, let us know by email (chizpizza@koreatimes.co.kr).



A Jimjilbang is a kind of huge dry sauna facility, but it is different from typical saunas in that people absorb directly-radiated heat from rocks such as elvan, germanium, jade or yellow mud there, which is supposed to be good for their health.

People wear cotton shorts and T-shirts, and enter one room after another, and each room is filled with different radiating rocks. There are large and luxurious jimjilbangs with diverse facilities including cafeterias, massage rooms, nail salons, Internet facilities and health clubs, and open round the clock.

These facilities have made jimjilbangs popular among all groups of people, from senior citizens, housewives and families to couples on a date and office workers. Some male and female customers spend all night there, sleeping on open floors together. Of course, bathrooms are separate for males and females.



The Ondol is a Korean traditional heating system in which a big stone constituting the room floor is heated by hot air circulating underneath it.

This unique heating system dating back to the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C-A.D. 668) made Koreans adopt a “sitting culture.” They would take their shoes off and sit on the floor and sleep on the floor, instead of using chairs or beds.

Wood or holed briquettes were used to heat the room. The modern version of Ondol uses pipes embedded in the floor of the room, through which heated water circulates and warms the floor. Korean construction companies now export the system to other Asian countries.



Korea has a unique housing rental system called Jeonse, which is very unusual for most foreigners. Instead of paying a monthly rent, the tenant hands over a large sum of deposit money, sometimes as much as 50 percent of the housing price, to the homeowner. The owner puts the money into a bank account to earn interest, invest in stocks, or do whatever he or she wants. The tenants get back the full amount of the deposited money when the contract ends.

This system has been popular as the high interest rate guaranteed the homeowner an income equivalent to monthly rent, without worrying about the delayed payments by the tenants, who were happy to get the full deposit money back when the contract expires.

An increasing number of people, however, are turning to monthly rent these days due to falling interest rates.



Korea is one of the few countries that legally prohibit extramarital sexual relations. Those committing adultery can face up to two years imprisonment upon complaint from the spouse along with a divorce suit.

It was introduced to protect women, who often were left unprotected in the male-oriented Confucian society that overlooked misconduct by men.

However, an increasing number of people are calling for abolishment of the law, saying it is an outdated intervention in private affairs. The debate is heating up again recently, as a judge solicited the Constitutional Court to rule it unconstitutional.



Koreans would help each other in joys and sorrows of life, preparing food together for wedding ceremonies or helping serving mourners. The busy modern society, however, made more people make do with “an envelope of cash.”

From weddings and funerals to baby’s first birthday party and grandpa’s 60th birthday, guests are expected to share the financial burden of the party or funeral with cash, placed in a clean, white envelope with one’s name written on it. This has become quite a burden to many, especially in the “wedding season.”



Korea is definitely the land of private tutoring. Other countries also have cram schools that help get a high score in tests, but Korea boasts a wide variety of private institutes. Children not only learn English and math or violin, but also philosophy, storytelling, debating, chess, or drawing through private tutoring.

Parents can find just about anything they want. Each English institute, for example, has specialties, such as conversation, listening, grammar, reading, essay writing, or TOEFL studies.

The private tutoring isn’t over even when one goes to college. College students often rely on these private institutes to learn English, computer use, make-up, skills for a job interview or make a presentation. Private tutoring is estimated to be a 20 trillion won business here.



After the wedding ceremony, friends of the groom take off his socks, tie a rope around the ankles, and beat his soles with dried yellow corvina.

There are various explanations regarding why this custom started, but the most convincing one is that it helps strengthen stamina of the groom, so that the newlyweds could have a wonderful honeymoon night.



The first birthday party is special for any baby around the world, but Korea has a unique tradition of putting various things on the table in front of the baby and letting the baby pick one of these to tell the future of the baby.

On the table are usually money, thread, rice and pencil. The baby will be rich if it picks money, will live long with thread, and be a scholar by picking a pencil, which reflects Confucian tradition. Rice means that the baby will have enough food throughout his or her life, which was a huge blessing when people often suffered from famines.

The tradition is changing. Now some parents put a microphone on the table, which means the baby will become an entertainer, or a golf ball, wishing that the baby will be a famous golf player.



Koreans don’t like waiting. They want everything ready right away. This “hurry up” temperament has made Korea boast of a widely available delivery service that includes not only pizza, Chinese meals and fried chicken, but virtually any menu one can think of.

One can get DVDs delivered to the house within 30 minutes, and there’s no need to visit a laundry to get back dry-cleaned clothes. Not only are milk and yogurt delivered in the morning these days, but some businesses get salads and breakfasts at the door every morning.

With the introduction of cell phones, Koreans often order food to eat in the park, and the Korean deliveryman never misses.



Koreans have a unique custom of sharing a glass when drinking. After drinking up one’s glass, he or she fills it with the beer or whatever liquor is being drunk and passes it to a colleague, who does the same thing after drinking it.

This was regarded as the symbol of friendship and close ties between the two, but it also involves hygiene problem. A number of companies and organizations have started a campaign to get rid of this drinking custom.

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