Korean Culture

Korean culture has blossomed during her long history. Though affected by other Asian cultures, its roots lie deep within the creative Korean psyche, and it has tended to spread rather than be encroached upon. Japan especially has adopted many Korean ideas and customs. The delicate styling and fine craftsmanship of celadon pottery well illustrates the refinement of the culture, even from as far back as the Three Kingdoms Period.

Korea has also spawned some great inventors; its first printing systems predate Gutenberg's, the famous "Turtle Ship" was the first ever iron-clad battleship, and the Korean alphabet, devised by a group of scholars in the 15th century, was so effective that it remains largely unchanged today. The reasons behind Korea's rapid economic development can be found in this innate creativity.

The Markets & Shopping

Nowhere in the world are there markets and shopping areas to rival those of Seoul. Itaewon, located just outside Yongsan Army Garrison, is probably the most famous of the Korean shopping meccas for foreigners. There you can find famous name outlets such as Nike and the Gap as well as sidewalk vendors, antique dealers and custom tailors. Itaewon also offers a wide variety of restaurants from original Korean cuisine to Kentucky Fried Chicken and Outback Steak Houses. The true Korean markets, however, are not as Western in style as Itaewon. In the traditional markets, like Dongdaemun, located next to the Far East District, Namdaemun, Insa-dong, and the Yongsan Electronics Market, products are grouped according to type. The many stalls and storefronts in these market places feature everything from designer buttons to the latest in electronic gadgets. When shopping be sure to have enough Korean currency with you or stop by one of the authorized currency exchanges which are clearly marked and conveniently located throughout the shopping areas.

Etiquette and dining

The Korean etiquette, affected by Confucian tradition, mainly values the respect for seniors, which is well reflected in most family rituals like wedding ceremonies and funerals. Although Koreans do not expect you to observe these etiquette forms, if you demonstrate traditional Korean etiquette, you will be lauded by them. Even though many of the Koreans with whom you come into contact with will be familiar with American habits and mannerisms, the traditional values are still strong.

Koreans will usually shake hands and bow at the same time. The depth of the bow depends on the relative seniority of the two people.

When passing a gift or any other object to someone, use both hands with a bow. The right hand is used to pass the object, while the left is used in support. If the person receiving the gift is younger or lower in stature, passing with one hand is acceptable.

Koreans believe that direct eye contact during conversation shows boldness, and out of politeness they concentrate on the conversation, usually avoiding eye-to-eye contact.

You will see young men walking in the street with their arms around each other's shoulders and women walking hand-in-hand. This means nothing more than intimacy. Touching close friends while talking to them is perfectly acceptable in Korea. Koreans will touch any children to show their warm affection. This is a compliment to let the child know how cute he is. Touching other people while passing is mostly understood unless you shove him offensively.

If you attend a wedding or funeral, it's customary to take a white envelope containing a sum of money. Handing cash to someone is considered rude except when paying a shopkeeper for merchandise.

Dinner in a traditional Korean home or restaurant is quite different from American-style dining. Guests traditionally sit on cushions around a low table. Many different foods are served, each cut into bite-sized pieces. Each person has his own bowl of rice, but helps himself to other foods directly from the serving dishes. Koreans traditionally use chopsticks and a large-bowled spoon, although today forks are also used.

During the meal, rest your chopsticks and spoon on top of a dish. When you have finished eating, lay the chopsticks or spoon on the table to indicate that you have completed the meal. Never stick chopsticks or spoons in a bowl of rice; this indicates a worship of the dead. Don't worry about reaching in front of others or asking for a dish to be passed.

It is always appropriate to bring a small gift when you are visiting a Korean home for dinner. A bottle of wine or a neatly wrapped package of bakery products serves to accommodate this unique aspect of Korean etiquette. Your host may put your gift aside without opening it until after you've departed.

At a restaurant, "Dutch treat" is not customary -Koreans usually take turns in paying the bill. However, it is becoming more common among the youth and throughout the workplace for each person to pay for their own meal.

Korean History

Archeological findings indicated that settlement on the Korean peninsula dates back 600,000 years.

According to legend, Korea was founded in 2333 B.C. by a mythical figure named Dangun. The earliest Korean people are believed to have been migrants and invaders from present-day Manchuria, northern China, and Mongolia. They are believed to have been divided into large, extended kin groups and most likely practiced shamanism, a belief system that centers on worship of nature and ancestral spirits that has persisted through the centuries.

From the fourth century A.D. to the mid-seventh century A.D., three kingdoms fought for control of Korea: Goguryo in the northern part of the peninsula and Manchuria, Baekje (18B.C.) in the southwest and Shilla (57B.C.) in the southeast. As they progressed into statehood, each developed institutions of centralized power and authority.

In 668 A.D., Korea emerged as a unified political entity under the Shilla Kingdom.

The century that followed is usually described as a golden age of artistic and cultural development, as the diminished threat of invasion from the north permitted Korean scholars to travel to China and bring back advanced Chinese culture.

In the mid-eighth century, however, central authority began to decline. The Shilla Kingdom was overturned in 935 A.D. by the dynasty of Goryo, from which the name "Korea" was derived.

In 1390-91 a group of dynasty officials, allied with the newly established Ming Dynasty of China, broke the economic backbone of leading Goryo families by instituting a new land-holding system. This led to the overthrow of Goryo by the Joseon Dynasty in 1392.

The Joseon Dynasty adopted the ancient name of Joseon to claim antiquity for the Korean people, and moved the capital from Gaesong to Seoul.

The most notable intellectual achievement of the dynasty was the development in 1443 of a phonetic writing system known as Hangul. The Joseon Dynasty is regarded as the golden age of Confucianism in Korea, and Confucian political and social ideals became firmly embedded in the country. Rampant factional strife, however, also became deeply rooted in Korean society especially after the 15th century.

This factionalism persisted in the Korean culture well into the mid-20th century. It divided the Joseon Dynasty's leadership and demoralized its military forces, leaving Korea defenseless against Japanese invasions in the late-16th century.

In 1910 Korea became an unwilling Japanese colony until 1945. Korea was ruled directly from Tokyo through a governor general appointed by the Japanese emperor. Under Japanese rule all civil liberties were revoked. The Japanese closed many private schools and established their own public school system, obliterating the Korean language, to assimilate Korean youth into Japanese culture.

Nationalist sentiments were strong among Koreans, and resistance movements were formed among students, factory workers, and urban intellectuals. In 1919 the Japanese police crushed nation-wide demonstrations, in which about 370,000 Koreans participated and about 6,670 were killed.

Korea re-entered the limelight during World War II when its struggle for independence was recognized in the Cairo Declaration issued in December 1943, by the leaders of the United States, Great Britain and China.

On August 24, 1945, President Truman authorized a line of demarcation in Korea to ease the surrender of Japanese forces on the peninsula. Soviet forces accepted the surrender of Japanese troops north of the 38th parallel; and U.S. forces received those located in the south. This area soon became a hardened barrier.

In November 1947, the U.N. adopted a resolution stipulating that elected representatives of the Korea people should establish the conditions for unification and determine their own form of government. The Soviets refused to admit a U.N. commission to observe free elections in the northern half, so elections were held in May 1948, only in the southern half.

Following adoption of a new constitution, Syngman Rhee was elected president on July 20 and the Republic of Korea was established on August 15, 1948. By June 1949, the U.S. withdrew all American troops except for a 500-man military advisory group. The north's leader, Kim Ill-sung, seized the opportunity to unite the peninsula under his rule. Kim undertook a direct attack, sending his army south across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950.

On June 27, 1950, the U.N. Security Council requested members of the U.N. to assist South Korea. The United States, initially responding with air and naval support, had ground forces committed by the end of the month. Eventually, 15 other nations fought under the flag of the U.N. The signing of the Armistice on July 27, 1953 stopped the fighting but it did not end the military threat against the Republic of Korea.                                   

Today South Korea is a vibrant, modern country of over 47 million, hard-working prosperous people. It's economic growth since the Korea War has often been called "The Miracle on the Han." Korea is number one in shipbuilding, number 3 in D-Ram chips and semi conductor production and is the fifth largest builder of automobiles.

The development of South Korea is truly one of the greatest stories of the post World-War II era. From a country once dependent on foreign aid, Korea has transformend itself into an economic powerhouse; a rich, uxtra-modern nation, ready and able to host major world events to include the Summer Olympics in 1988 and most recently the 2002 World Cup games.

Korean Names

Koreans place the family name first, and the given personal name second. Family names are traditional clan names and each has a village from which it comes. Thus, there is a difference between Kim who comes from Gyeongju and Kim who from Gimhae.

The five most frequent names are Kim, Pa(r)k, Yi, Choi (Choe) and Oh. Because of the inconsistencies of translating names from Hangul to Roman characters, spellings of these names vary. For instance, Yi is also spelled in English as Lee and Rhee.

If at all possible, Koreans avoid calling a person directly by his name. Instead they use his title, position, trade, profession, scholastic rank or some honorific form such as "teacher." Parents often are addressed as the equivalent of "Jimmy's mommy" or "Susie's daddy," rather than "Mrs. Kim."