South Korean Culture

Core Concepts

Primary Author
Nina Evason,
  • Tenacity
  • Face (chaemyoun)
  • Toughness
  • Hahn
  • Adaptability
  • Nationalism
  • Education

Korea was divided into North and South Korea in 1945. The erratic and often openly hostile North Korean regime remains an ongoing source of stress and uncertainty for South Korea. Both nations have endured an immense amount of adversity since the war, and South Koreans have been significantly toughened by years of instability. Their experiences introduced new values into Korean culture. The need for adaptability, tenacity and education increased, and  nationalism was revived. These contemporary attitudes have intermingled with older Asian traditions. The new cultural combination has worked in favour of the country’s development, seeing the nation rebound and thrive economically, and begin to heal psychologically.

Koreans have come to understand the longstanding agony, hardship and oppression they have experienced as ‘hahn’. Hahn is the collective feeling of frustration that has built up in the Korean psyche from suffering so much. The release of this energy (or manifestation of hahn) is seen in the rise of extreme nationalism, an incredible work ethic and an intense focus on Korean prosperity. However, some have argued that hahn has also made Koreans less generous and more resistant to compromise. Indeed, Korean sociologists believe hahn has been a source behind much of the resentment and divisions within society. Nevertheless – tensions aside – the Korean sense of national belonging and pride remains strong. The country is overwhelmingly ethnically with over 96% of all South Koreans sharing the same Korean . This common identity provides societal unity and also supports the orientations of the culture.

Face (Chaemyoun)

The concept of face (known as chaemyoun in Korea) is central in influencing Korean behaviour and thinking. This is the quality embedded in most Asian cultures that indicates a person's reputation, influence, dignity and honour. In South Korea, the perceptual lens of chaemyoun is taken especially seriously. It gained new importance during the hardships of the 20th century as people had to learn to control their rage and frustration under a mask of stoicism. However today, though great effort is still made to disguise one’s true feelings, many Koreans today are less concerned about appearing completely stoic and are often unable to hide or control their temperament. Facial expressions and gestures often reveal their true feelings very quickly.

As such, chaemyoun () holds more importance as “the appearance people want to present to others, in regard to their status and roles, especially gender roles, in family and society”.1 Koreans often go to great lengths to disguise their social, financial and academic status if they are in a ‘shameful’ situation (i.e. divorce, unemployment, poverty, bad grades). By complimenting a person, showing them respect or doing something to increase their self-esteem, you give them . Similarly, people can lose and save or build . Therefore, individuals in Korea usually act deliberately to protect their self-worth and perception among peers. 


Confucianism has also been a powerful influence on Korean culture. This way of thinking puts emphasis on the importance of healthy human interactions. It promotes the idea that relationships between people are unequal with defined hierarchical roles (for example, ruler and subject, husband and wife, father and son). When this natural inequality is accepted and respected, it becomes easier to maintain harmonious, stable relations among individuals and, therefore, in the society as a whole. However, this in relationships does not equate to limitless benefits for the dominant person. Everyone has a role to fill, and the role of a ‘superior’ is to protect and be compassionate to subordinates. 

The Confucian logic of obedience, responsibility and adherence translates into a variety of Korean behaviours and attitudes. One will notice that within Korean society, interactions are tiered, requiring a level of deference and respect from one party – particularly in business. In the social , one’s position, occupation and level of education is an indicator of status. However, age is often an overriding factor that determines the level of deference and respect one should be shown. The importance of age is referred to in Confucianism as ‘filial piety’. This concept requires people to give their elders/ancestors utter respect, devotion and reverence. Nowadays, the importance of one's parents is usually stressed more than ancestors.

Modern Day Korea

Though Confucian and traditional values constitute the roots of societal expectations, their influence is weakening in the age of technology. In fact, the younger generations of Koreans are extremely Westernised and . A 2007 study revealed more than half of Korea’s youths now consider the judgement and opinion of peers from their age and status group more important than the views of those older and superior to them.2 Bolder communication patterns are also becoming more prevalent, as shyness is now considered less of a virtue and more of a limitation. Furthermore, the majority of young Koreans reject the traditional notions of gender roles (a heavy tenet of Confucianism) and consider all genders and sexual orientations equal.

However, despite the influx of new Westernised values into South Korean culture, the society remains more and conservative in comparison to English-speaking western cultures. Korea’s success has largely been fuelled by their educational system that produces an incredibly diligent and competent workforce. Thus, society tends to put extreme emphasis on the importance of one’s schooling to their quality of life. Children feel pressured to excel from very early on in their education in order to secure a good future for themselves. Perhaps as a result of this early introduction to pressure and high standards, being busy throughout one’s life is strongly valued. In Korea, a person who is in stressful circumstances is viewed positively as someone who is industrious and tenacious.

1 Yang Sun Geun, 2002
2 Kim, 2007

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