The Not So Bright Side of South Korea

As much as I love Korea, living here has been showing me not so nice things about Korea. The more I study about Korea, the better I see how deep some of the issues are. I've learned things I didn't know when I came here. I've read and heard so many times how fans of Korea look up on Korean culture or admire everything about it. I have a free tip, don't or you will fall hard! There's no perfect culture in this world, and Korea surely has its issues too. I promise that I will write a post about the good sides of Korea too because there surely is many, but if you are planning to stay longer in here it's better to be realistic and know about some of the issues in this society and possible difficulties you might face. Korean younger generation call their country Hell Choseon and it must have a reason. I included few links to this post if you want to read more about a specific topic.

Recent History/Democracy
I've heard people saying that they admire Korea because of its history, and I guess they mean the history before 1900 when Korea was a kingdom. Indeed, that is pretty interesting time period. There's interesting deaths and fights of power too. Even though Korean historical dramas can be fascinating, I wish that people could see Korea the way it has been after 1900 too, because it has been bloody. Korea has been under colonial rule, it has faced inter-Korean wars and many of the Korean soldiers other Asian wars too, families have been separated and Korean women have been used by foreign soldiers. Korea has been really, really poor country. After the Korean war in 1950-1953 Korean citizens have literally fought for democracy. There's no Korean president without a scandal. There has been dictators, there has been military governments, there has been rigged elections, there has been money scandals. Some of the presidents have been assasinated, some have been prisoned, some have been sentenced to death, some have suicided. There's few presidents who have been working towards democracy, but people have different views of when Korea actually got democratized. Some think it happened as late as 1997. Some say that Korea got democratized 1980s. In Korea citizens have lost their lives while fighting for democracy. There has been not one, but many democratic protests that have ended as bloody massacres! These protests have been led by university students, and I think that too many students have lost their lives fighting against the government. Latest death of a protester happened this year. It's also normal in here that when political scandal occurs it will be tried to cover up with other news, like sudden idol dating revelation. I decided to write about this issue before the latest presidential scandal came to media and I'm kind of shocked that these kind of things happen still in 2016. Korea is lead now by its first female president, who happens to be a daughter of a previous president who was a true dictator removing citizens' freedoms and wanting presidential term to be unlimited. People had high hopes for his daughter, who has ended up trying to lead the country like her father. Now we heard that she has been a puppet lead by others. Fight for democracy continues and new mass protests are held.

Misuse of Confucianism/Rudeness
Korea used to be Buddhist country until around 1400s Confucianism took its place and tried to force Buddhism out of the country. That's why many temples are located on mountains. I won't explain the whole idea behind Confucianism, but in short you are supposed to sacrifice yourself for your parents/elder. Confucianism has its humble and good side too and I think it's really great that some politeness of it has continued until these days, but there's so many old people who use it totally wrong! Basically big part of older generation think that they can do whatever they want just because they are older than you. Many of my friends have complained about how rude Korean elder generation is. I'm usually fine with elder men, but I have the joy to enjoy of rude old female behavior almost everyday. If I'm waiting bus, or subway, or my turn to pay, I can be sure that some older woman will appear from somewhere and cut the line and push infront of me without thinking twice. If you are on older persons way, they can push you or just walk over you without saying anything. Old people can do whatever they want and they expect to be respected. It gets harder if you are a worker or know the older people personally because no matter how rude they behave you basically need to worship the ground under their feet. Of course I've met also some absolutely lovely elder people, but I'm sorry to say that they are minority in this country. If you visit a restaurant that has young workers they are expected to treat you really politely, but after living here a while you will barely notice that if the restaurant you visit is run by an old woman she might not greet you and can behave like she is pissed that you decided to bring your money to her restaurant. Or flowershop owner, like we experienced today.

Working culture
Koreans are paid badly, but they are expected to work hard. Extra payment of weekend work? In many cases no. Work ends when the shift should end? Not in every company. Koreans work many hours without being paid. In some companies you are supposed to stay until your boss leaves. Many companies require their workers to have dinners after work where they drink with the boss, and this can continue over night. It's rude to refuse a drink and I've heard from many Koreans that they don't even want to drink, but if boss asks there's no choice. If the worker refuses it can be hard to get promotions and to proceed in their career. These "bonding times" have even their own word in Korean called hweshik. This kind of habit can be really harmful for marriage when the other one stays out all day and comes home drunk in the middle of the night. Because of work many couples end up living kind of separate lives. Many Koreans don't take sick days of work, ever. And how about holidays? In my husband's previous work it was five days in a year. Koreans, like many other Asians too, tend to work long careers and after you turn 30 it can be hard to find a new job or change your career. Of course not all companies are bad, but it's better to be prepared that Korean working culture can be very different than what it is in Western countries.

Hierarchy/Behavioral rules
Korea is very hierarchical country. The behavior of how you act with your boss and how you act with your friends is totally different. You are supposed to treat your year older schoolmates in different way than how you can behave with the students same age with you. Younger students bow to older students when they see each other in class. And of course you also must use different formality of speech depending the age and status of the person you are talking with. Basically you can't bow too much while being in here. There's also huge amount of small behavioral rules that can come as a surprise no matter how much you have studied Korean culture. And some times it can be confusing how formally you should behave. In here it's normal to bow to your own parents in certain situations. In daily life it can be tiring to always need to think if you behaved formally enough. In my own culture I was really polite, in here I have made many mistakes and I feel really bad about it. There's un-spoken rules for everything! Of course many foreigners don't have the need to get totally integrated with Korean cultural norms because Koreans understand that you are not Korean, but if you have Korean family I think it's necessary. It's not easy to learn to be a "Korean".

A little thing that might not come to your mind but you will eventually face in Korea. Some days the level of pollution is in very dangerous levels. Korea is beautiful country surrounded by mountains, but sometimes you forget that the mountains are there because the pollution is so bad that you can't see any mountain in days because they are covered with grey cloud. You learn to appreciate blue sky when you can see it! Many Koreans think that all pollution comes from China, and even though China's pollution is a big deal, Korea pollutes too. There's days when breathing outside feels bad. I have had much more nose bleeds while staying in here and I'm sure that many people suffer of health issues caused by pollution.

School system/Competitiveness
Korean kids don't have time to play and to be kids because after their school day is done they will go to private academies to learn languages, math, music, anything. Parents spend lots of money on their kids private education. Some study until midnight and then wake up early for next school day. Most of the students continue to university after high school but there's so much university graduates and so much unemployment that it's not guaranteed that you will get a job even if you are a university graduate. That's why students try to get in to the top 3 universities like crazy because it can help them to get a job in the best companies. Many students end up studying something based on the working opportunities, not their own wants and interests. The pressure for students is so high that Korea stays on top of the suicide charts. Korean way of studying seems to be based on memorizing everything so many students are struggling to use their skills, like foreign languages, in practical way. In many schools (like my university) Korean students are also graded on a curve, which can be really unfair if there's many hard working students in a same class.

Appearance/Plastic surgery
Appearence is very important in Korea. Life will be a lot easier if you are pretty. It's normal to hear in a subway people casually planning what kind of plastic surgery they should get. There is areas in Korea full of plastic surgery clinics and it is advertised in public without any shame. Some teenagers have already had plastic surgery and some get plastic surgeries as their graduation gifts. Some girls are masters of using photo editing programs and edit all of their pictures so much that they become totally un-recognizable. I recommend to try google image search with commonly used term "Gangnam unnie" and you can see how far the plastic surgery can go here. I find it pretty shocking when I actually meet Koreans who have had that much surgery. Korean plastic surgery is so high quality that you can't always see it, but that kind of cases are just so obvious you start to wonder how their real faces look like, and why they wanted to do it. Getting plastic surgery is a must for some to succeed in this competitive society. It's normal. Many Korean clothes come only in one size and it's normal for Koreans to comment if you have gained weight or if they think that you should lose some weight. They think it's said only for the good of that persons health, but of course this kind of words can be extremely harmful especially for young girls.

Social welfare
Or should I say the lack of it? Korea is in the bottom of spending for welfare out of the OECD countries. There's grandma prostitution and very high rates of elderly suicides because people can't afford living. Many grandmas and grandpas collect paper and other trash pushing heavy carts full of trash to get some money. Unemployment rates are really high but there's no good system to take care of the people who can't get a job. Parents must invest on their childrens future because there's no support for young generation or students. That might be part of the reason why children might live with their parents for a really long time.

Korea is very homogeneous country and you will always be a foreigner here, no matter how long you stay. If you don't look Korean you will always pop out. Being a foreigner might make you to experience nice things because sometimes people treat you better way because you are from somewhere else, but it can also make you be excluded of things. Korea is still adapting to multiculturalism. For tourists and people who don't plan to stay here long it might be nice to get some attention, but it can get pretty tiring when you experience that every single day when you step out of your house. It's not nice when you are just trying to live your normal daily life and people treat and look you like a circus animal. Koreans don't go to talk to Koreans they don't know suddenly in public, but because you are foreigner some think that it's totally okay to disturb you. Some will want your number to have a date with you because you are pretty because you are foreigner, some will want you to join their church, some will want you to teach them languages. Sometimes you are interesting only until they get to know that you don't speak the language they want to learn, or they hear that you are married. People stare at me and sometimes people come to talk about me to my husband if we are out together. It's nice that these people have been very kind with their words, but it's also weird that someone stops you and wants to give a comment about you when you have been just doing casual daily things, like visiting a grocery store. They surely wouldn't do it to a Korean. People also want to try their few word English skills on you in very sudden situations, like in a bus or that grocery store. It can be tiring to be different. I try to be kind always because many people just don't have any experiences with foreigners, but I think that my husband thinks it's annoying and a bit rude too. In short, foreigners and Koreans are treated differently in many situations.

This is not of course only Korea's issue, but if you are from a small country (like Finland) traffic might surprise you. There's 10 million people in Seoul and when everyone needs to go to work/home at the same time it will be nasty. Korea has amazing public transportation but rush hour bus or subway is not a place for a claustrophobic person. I HATE morning bus! It's hard to understand how many people can fit in to one bus until you experience it by yourself. It's much more than what you would expect because people push themselves in from both doors. There's always room for one more person! And when people want to get out you don't want to be on their way or you will be pushed, badly. On the other hand because many Koreans have their own cars short distances by car can take really long time to drive. Distance that would take 30 minutes to drive in Finland can take three times longer in Seoul's traffic. Multiple this torture to get the feeling of a holiday traffic!


  1. Ei sais yleistää mut oon kyllä huomannut et kpop faneille Korea on kun joku maanpäällinen taivas ilman että on edes käynyt siellä. Kun asuin siellä 3kk paikassa jossa harvoin näki ulkomaalaisia niin voin sanoa että pääs kyllä hyvin lähelle korealaista kulttuuria eikä aina niin hyvällä. Tottakai kokemus oli hieno mutta sinne mahtu niitä ei-niin-kivoja juttuja mukaan. Välillä tekis joillekin mieli huutaa että ei se Korea ole mikään ihmemaa, sielläkin on omat vikansa. Yks mikä tossa "ulkomaalainen erottuu joukosta" jutussa häiritsee aina eniten on kuvaaminen! Salakuvaaminen ja sellainen että joku tulee vaan sun lähelle, kuuluu klik ja kuva on otettu ja häivytään samantien paikalta. Silleen jos oot ulkomaalainen niin sulla ei oo nähtävästi mitään yksityisyyttä ja kohdellaan just kun jotain sirkuseläintä =_=

    1. Juu k-pop fanit monesti kuuluu näihin, kuten mahdollisesti myös k-drama fanit ja joissain tapauksissa myös kielen ja kulttuurin fanit jotka ei oo kokeillut täällä asumista, tai eivät oo asuneet täällä pitkään. Oon aivan varma että moni vaihtari lähtee täältä pois vielä samoin ihmemaa-ajatuksin koska se on sellanen oma kuplansa eikä koululla asuvan välttämättä tuu integroiduttua yhteiskuntaan samoin kuin jos viettää täällä pitempään. Oonhan itsekin ollut ihan älytön fani (nykyään huomattavasti lievemmin) ja vaikka vieläkin rakastan Koreaa ja tää maa on mun koti ja asun täällä toistaiseksi mielelläni, mun mielikuvat on muuttunut aivan älyttömästi siitä kun tulin tänne verrattuna siihen mitä ne nyt on. Mäkin sentään tiesin suht paljon ennen kuin tulin tänne, mutta oon oppinut täällä niin paljon ja ihan hirveesti on vieläkin opittavaa. Siksi toivon että ees joku Koreaa ihannoiva löytäis tiensä tähän postaukseen. :) Ei oo pitkä aika kuin luin että yks tyttö oli tosi pettynyt miten häntä kohdeltiin yhdellä Korealaisella internet sivustolla huonosti koska hän on ulkomaalainen ja oli tosi pettynyt kun hän katsoo Korean kulttuuria ylöspäin. Tollasta en ymmärrä, ei tää oo mikään pelkästään hyvien asioiden ihmemaa. On ihan jees arvostaa ja ihailla tiettyjä juttuja, mutta kannattais pitää mielessä että joka maalla ja kulttuurilla on myös varjopuolensa.

      Mua ei oo täällä juurikaan onneks kuvattu varmaan siks kun en oo blondi, luulen että ois paljon vaikeempaa jos oisin jotenkin näyttävämmän näköinen. :D Ja selkeesti monet ulkkarit nauttii saamastaan huomiosta, mutta arkielämässä tollanen on aika rasittavaa jos oot vaikka ihan väsyneenä menossa kotiin pitkän päivän jälkeen tai yrität opiskella kahvilassa rauhassa. Ite kun oon kuitenkin niin kiltti etten pysty sanomaan että "voisitko poistua, en jaksa ja pysty nyt". Varsinkin kun ei kukaan tuu ikinä mitään oikeaa ystävyyssuhdetta hieromaan, aina on joku muu syy miks ne haluaa jutella ulkomaalaiselle. Tai sitten mulla on vaan törkeen huono tuuri. :D

    2. Mulla ei oo koskaan onneks käyny niin et ollaan tultu kysyy tyylillä voitko opettaa mulle sitä ja tätä kieltä mut kerran on sattunu tulee juttelee joku himouskovainen. Sitä vaan on että niin.. haluaisin kyllä jatkaa matkaani. Kuvattu on varmaan just sen takia että kun oon blondi ja silmät on vaaleet myös. On myös huudeltu kaupungilla ihan randomisti perään.
      Oon huomannu myöskin ton et monet ulkomaalaiset näyttää nauttivan huomiosta mut ite en hirveesti välittäis siitä kun muutenkin pikkasen introvertti. Sillon kun asuin Samcheokissa niin joskus oli suorastaan ärsyttävää kun vapaapäivänä menit viettämään kaupungille aikaa niin kaikki tuijotti ja kohteli erilailla kun muita. Mä vieläkin kaikesta huolimatta pidän korean kulttuurista mut en oo myöskään ikinä ollu sen kanssa niin fanaattinen että oma kokemus koreas asumisesta olis ollu jotenkin super pettyny kaiken jälkeen. Yks mikä ärsytti eniten oli korealaisten tapa lakasta ongelmat maton alle ja leikkiä kun niitä ei oliskaan olemassa ja sen jälkeen leikittiin äiti aurinkoista.
      Mutjuu, tykkään kaiken jälkeenkin Koreasta ja eniten niistä maisemista ja ystävällisistä ihmisistä, vaihtelua tänne harmaaseen suomeen :D

  2. I'm sorry but I can't agree with you on confucianism part, at least you can't blame the confucianism as the reason for rudeness of elderlies. For example in Taiwan culture and philosophy are even more based on confucianism and you can hardly see rude elder people and that was one of the differences I realised when I lived in Korea. And as you said people who admire Korean history usually refers to their unique and old history that already began half a million years ago and those incidents you mentioned only covers the recent 100 years, which is only a really tiny part of Korean history.

    1. I didn't mean to blame confucianism, maybe I didn't mention that clearly enough, but I think that in Korea some people use it as an excuse to behave rudely towards younger generation. I know that rudeness is not part of confucianism itself and that's why I wrote that some people here use it wrongly. Confucianism has it's great humble side too, but I think we can't see it that much in daily life anymore. I understand if you don't agree with my view about it, but I have few older Korean professors who have taught me that part of the behavior of the elder generation here is justified because of confucianism, so it's not only from my own head. I've also lived only in Korea so I can't compare my experiences to other Asian countries where the good sides and importance of it might be seen more clearly. Like I also mentioned, I wanted to write about more recent history of Korea and especially about the politics because it's my own personal interest and I can't see foreigners speaking much about it, so some might have no idea what's been going on in here. I wanted to tell about the side that came to me as a shock and that can't be seen in dramas because this post wast meant to be about the things I personally view as negative sides of this country. Thanks for reading!

    2. Yeah I totally understand that it wasn't your intention :) I guess I just wanted you to see things from another perspective and maybe the subheadings were a little bit misleading and weren't completely related to the content. However I really do enjoy reading your blog about your life there!

    3. Thank you for your feedback! I see now that I could have worded my thoughts more carefully and I edited that part a bit so hopefully it will show my intentions better. I feel that my writings in English aren't unfortunately always told in the most logical way, but I try to get better! Hope you can find something you find interesting from my blog in the future. :)


Please let me know your thoughts! :)