Everything You Need to Know about Korean Gift Culture

8 minute read

Korean Gift Culture

Interested in Korean gifts?

Want to know what Koreans give each other on each holiday or occasion?

Look no further!

Here’s a complete guide to Korean gift culture.

When do Koreans give gifts?

1. January or February: Seollal

Seollal is Korean Lunar New Years. It’s one of the biggest holidays in Korea.

★What gifts do they give?

During this time, Koreans visit grandparents or parents and exchange small gifts like socks.

Normally, people get a big bonus or gift from their companies, such as amenity sets, packages of Spam or canned food.

As a kid, this is the perfect time to get pocket money in an envelope from relatives.

When you come of age, as in get a job, it’s time to repay this by giving gifts to elders and money to younger relatives.

Newlyweds need to buy more thoughtful gifts for parents like KGC red ginseng.

2. February 14: Valentine’s Day

Korean Valentine’s Day is a bit different from other countries.

★What gifts do they give?

It’s a day when women give chocolate to men (usually girlfriends to boyfriends).

If you’re hot, you’ll receive many boxes of chocolate and be asked out.

3. March 14: White Day

It began in Japan, but is very common in Korea.

★What gifts do they give?

On White Day, men give candy to women (usually boyfriends to girlfriends) in return.

Just like Valentine’s Day in Korea, pretty girls will get lots of candies.

4. May: Children’s Day on May 5, Parents’ Day on May 8, Teachers’ Day on May 15

May is also known as Family Month in Korea. It’s when Koreans can’t save much money.

★What gifts do they give?

As you can imagine, children receive toys or dolls on Children’s Day.

They also get to spend time with their parents, usually at the zoo or amusement park.

Instead of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Koreans celebrate Parents’ Day at the same time on May 8.

Most kids give carnations to their parents with a letter.

Adults usually give carnations and cash.

I once gave my parents carnations made of gold. I’m planning to buy them a massage chair as it’s a popular gift for parents.

This might be compensation for the stress we gave them.

5. September or October: Chuseok

Chuseok is like Korean Thanksgiving, except it’s celebrated during the harvest moon.

After Seollal, it’s the second biggest holiday in Korea.

★What gifts do they give?

Gifts are nearly identical to those given on Seollal.

6. November 11: Pepero Day

A huge marketing success for Lotte in Korea.

★What gifts do they give?

People exchange Pepero snacks on November 11 since the date looks like Pepero sticks (11/11).

Couples usually give each other Pepero, but anyone can exchange them regardless of gender or age.

7. December 25: Christmas

Unlike westerners who celebrate Christmas with family, most Koreans spend Christmas with their significant other.

And of course, they exchange gifts.

★What gifts do they give?

Men usually get leather gloves, watches or brand wallets like Mont Blanc or Gucci.

Women usually get accessories, watches or cosmetics like SK2.

Koreans always eat cake on Christmas too. As in western style cake, usually from bakery chains.

8. Miscellaneous: Birthday, Anniversary, Business Gifts

Koreans love giving gifts on birthdays.

★What gifts do they give?

Cosmetics, accessories, or coffee/dessert coupons can be great presents.

Also, Koreans celebrate anniversaries frequently.

Couples celebrate 100th day, every year, 1000th day, and so on.

Girls normally receive perfume, jewelry, brand purses; whereas guys get cologne, couple shoes, etc.

Also, Koreans love getting couple rings, even when they’re not married.

When Koreans open a new business, they give plants as a gift.

The Eternity Plant is 금전수 or 돈나무 in Korean, and is believed to bring luck (money).

What gifts do Koreans like?

Money!

No one will take offence if you give them money in Korea, as long as it’s in an envelope.

It’s a common gift for children or parents.

Even at weddings, Koreans give money at the entrance and then receive a meal coupon.

Only close friends give gifts like TVs or rice cookers to newlyweds.

Anything related to health

This includes:

  • Health supplements like vitamins, omega-3, red ginseng, probiotics
  • Healthy and delicious food ingredients like Korean beef (한우 or hanwoo), expensive mushrooms, wild ginseng
  • Massage devices and chairs that range from 30 dollars to thousands.

Alcohol

Ajeossi (아저씨 or middle-aged men) especially love this gift.

Their preferred brands include Chivas Regal 18 or Ballantine’s 21 Year Old.

Go for Chivas Regal 25 YO or Ballantine’s 30 YO if you really want to impress someone.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label is also a solid choice.

These gifts boost social standing and make the receiver feel important. Very useful when you want to gain favor.

Cosmetics

As the birthplace of K-Beauty, Koreans pay a lot of attention to grooming.

It’s common to give cosmetics as a present.

For women, L’OCCITANE hand cream or MAC lipstick are safe choices.

For men, all-in-one cosmetics DTRT or cologne work well.

Coffee and Dessert

Koreans drink 12.3 cups of coffee per week.

Whenever I meet someone in Korea, I end up going to a cafe whether they’re my friends, family or business associates.

It makes sense that coffee coupons are one of the most casual and common gifts.

Most Koreans send coffee coupons for Starbucks through KakaoTalk Gift.

Which app do Koreans use to send gifts?

Almost every Korean uses the KakaoTalk messenger app.

Even my 81-year-old grandmother has an account.

Since everyone uses the app, it naturally became a platform for giving gifts.

People can choose any gift, purchase it within the app, then send a barcode with a cute card message.

Once you receive the gift message, you can either use the barcode at stores like Starbucks, or order the item to be delivered to your address.

Popular gifts are Starbucks coffee, cakes, fried chicken delivery, and even YSL lipsticks.

A wide range of choices.

Interesting fact about gift culture in Korea

Unlike in western culture, Koreans don’t open a gift right away.

They usually take it home to open it when the giver isn’t around.

When Koreans want to open a gift right away, they politely ask, “may I open this? (열어봐도 괜찮아요?)”.

Another interesting situation is when Koreans get the first paycheck from their first job.

Koreans usually get their first job after graduating college.

And it’s common for Korean parents to pay for everything, including tuition, until they do.

So a tradition of buying thermal underwear (내복 or naebok) formed to show gratitude, even when it’s not winter.

30 years ago, the best gift was “red” thermal underwear due to nylon being developed in the 1960s.

Back then, the easiest color to dye nylon with was red.

Since it looked warm and symbolized health and wealth, it became a must-buy gift.

Now, red thermal underwear can be seen more in comedy shows, and most people buy plain colors like gray or beige.

Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed my article.

Leave a comment on what your favorite Korean gift is.


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Source: CJ ENM

Bored at home?

Looking for some new k-dramas to watch?

Check out these binge-worthy dramas on Netflix approved by a Korean!


1. HOSPITAL PLAYLIST (슬기로운 의사생활) + PRISON PLAYBOOK (슬기로운 감빵생활)

Source: CJ ENM

A TV series about 5 friends and how their lives intertwine since undergraduate medical school.

For the first time in 20 years, these 5 doctors work together, and restarted a band to relieve stress and have fun during their crazy busy schedule.

It also shows different stories of patients who spend ordinary, yet special moments in a hospital, which is a miniature version of life from cradle to grave.

I love this TV series because it’s all about empathy and good characters.

Unlike most Korean TV shows, it’s pretty calm and puts a smile on my face.

No, they don’t slap each other with Kimchi. (Although, there’s a little naughtiness involving filthy water and a rag thrown at someone’s face.)

It’s the second show in the “Wise Life (슬기로운 생활)” series, following Prison Playbook (슬기로운 감빵생활). (FYI, 슬기로운 생활 has been a textbook since the 80s.)

The official textbook for every Korean in elementary school

If you watch them both, you’ll find a lot of the same actors.

Expressions:

최선을 다하겠습니다. (choi-seon-eul da-ha-get-seub-ni-da) = I will do my best.

정신 차려 (jeong-sin cha-ryeo) = Wake up, Pull yourself together or Get ahold of yourself

실세 (sil-se) = Influential person or big shot

2. CRASH LANDING ON YOU (사랑의 불시착)

Source: CJ ENM

A romantic TV show that depicts the top-secret love story of a Jaebeol heiress.

She accidentally lands in North Korea after a paragliding mishap and meets a hot army officer.

Just like the quote, “sometimes the wrong train takes you to the right destination”.

As a Korean, I’ve never really cared too much about North Korea.

But it shows the life of North Koreans (I doubt that it’s realistic, but it was still interesting to watch.)

Another fun part was North Korean language and their slang.

After watching, I realized once again that Hyun Bin is so handsome and Son Ye-jin is so beautiful.

Expressions:

후라이까지 말라우 (hu-ra-i-kka-ji mal-la-u) = Don’t lie in North Korean slang. It’s 뻥치지마 (bbeong-chi-ji-ma) in South Korea.

에미나이 (eminai) = North Korean way to call a “girl or woman”.

3. SKY CASTLE (스카이캐슬)

Source: JTBC

Want to take a peek at how competitive and fierce student life is in Korea?

This show perfectly captures how passionate Korean parents are when it comes to their children’s education and success.

The story seems a bit exaggerated, but felt very realistic.

It made me glad I was born in the countryside.

It’s a lot more intense than the previous shows, so it’s a good idea to be in the right frame of mind.

Expressions:

저를 전적으로 믿으셔야 합니다. (jeo-reul jeon-jeok-eu-ro mid-eu-sheo-ya hab-ni-da) = You have to trust me completely.

4. KINGDOM (킹덤)

Source: NETFLIX

A historical Korean zombie show that features awesome hats.

It’s perfect viewing given the global situation.

I haven’t gotten into it much, because it’s a little too scary.

But people keep asking me what “bakkatyangban” means.

Expressions:

바깥양반 (bakkatyangban) = Husband

This word is derived from the traditional Korean house (Hanok).

Its structure is divided into Anchae (안채 or inside building) where women spent most of their time and Bakkatchae (바깥채 or outside building) where men spent more time.

So, “Ansaram (안사람 or inside person)” means a wife, and “Bakkatyangban (바깥양반 or outside yangban)” means a husband.

In this case, “yangban” doesn’t necessarily mean any class.

Just like when Koreans sometimes say “이 양반아! (ee-yangban-ah)” to call “you” in a slightly rude way or someone pathetic in a light, frustrated way.

It also refers to a traditional lifestyle where the wife was responsible for housework whereas the husband was responsible for outside work.

These terms aren’t relevant anymore, but you’re still judged in Korea by your job title.

5. REPLY series (응답하라 시리즈)

Source: CJ ENM

Reply 1997, 1994 and 1988

Looking for some sweet sweet nostalgia?

If you’re curious about Korean life in the 80s and 90s, this might be the perfect TV series for you.

While airing, Korean viewers were so focused on finding out who the main female character marries.

They even created a competition between “어남류 VS. 어남택 (eo-nam-ryu VS. eo-nam-taek)”.

They’re abbreviations for 어차피 남편은 류준열 (eo-cha-pi nam-pyeon-eun Ryu Jun-yeol, meaning “in any case, husband is Ryu Jun-yeol”), and 어쩌면 남편은 택이 (eo-jjeo-myeon nam-pyeon-eun Taek-ee, meaning “perhaps, her husband is Taek”).

And yes, we love abbreviations.

Even the show titles were abbreviated from 응답하라 1997, 응답하라 1994 and 응답하라 1988 to 응칠(R7), 응사(R4), 응팔(R8).

Expressions:

추억 여행 (chu-eok yeo-haeng) = A trip down memory lane, literally a memory trip

쓰레기 (sseuregi) = Trash or jerk


Thanks for reading!

Let us know which drama you like the most in the comments.


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What are some basics facts about South Korea?

Official Name: Republic of Korea (ROK)

Government: Presidential Republic

Population51.3 million people live in South Korea (2019).

Over half the population lives in the northwest area surrounding Seoul.

South Korea makes up 0.67% of the total world population.

Capital: Seoul has around 10 million inhabitants with a density of roughly 17,000 people per square kilometer (45,000/square mile).

There are 25.6 million people living in the surrounding metropolitan area.

It is by far the largest city in Korea.

Other notable cities:

Busan: population 3,678,555

Incheon: population 2,628,000

Daegu: population 2,566,540

Daejeon: population 1,475,221

There has been an effort to move the capital to a new city called Sejong City, starting with government offices.

There are numerous planned cities around Seoul, known as “bed towns”, or places you simply sleep after work.

These include Bundang, Ilsan and Pangyo.

An interesting case of a planned city gone awry is Songdo, which was an ambitious project to create a place where cars aren’t necessary.

It was largely empty for a few years and would have been a great place to film a post-apocalyptic movie.

What is the origin of the Korean language?

Official Language: Korean

Korean is spoken by nearly 80 million people around the world.

This includes North and South Korea as well as expatriate communities in numerous countries.

84.5% of overseas Koreans actually live in only five countries (China, U.S.A, Japan, Canada and Australia).

The language family that Korean belongs to is disputed.

The Northern theory places Korean in the Altaic language family, making it related to Japanese, Mongolian, Finnish and Turkish.

The Southern theory claims it is a member of the Austronesian language family.

Some linguists believe it exists in a family of its own.

There is no definite answer to this question, given Korea’s long history of contact with China and Japan.

Korean has been heavily influenced by Chinese.

A large proportion of Korean words were either coined using Chinese characters or adopted directly.

In addition, there are many loanwords borrowed from English, Japanese and even German.

Koreans tend to be very gracious when it comes to non-Koreans speaking their language and are generally impressed if you can say “안녕하세요” (hello).

This can seem patronizing to some, especially after hearing “한국말 잘해요” (you speak Korean well) for the hundredth time.

What are some fun facts about Korea?

Literacy: More than 97.9% of Koreans can read and write, which is one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

The median age in South Korea is 41.8 years.

Currency: 1,119 South Korean Won equals 1 USD (Feb 2019)

Rough Childhood: All Korean males are required to perform a minimum of 18 months of military service.

They pay an entry-level Private 306,100 KRW (less than 300 USD) per month.

This can be avoided by winning a gold medal in the Olympics or having a preexisting health condition allowing one to perform public service in a government office.

Tremendous Growth: Korea went from receiving the highest international aid per capita to one of the richest in the world in 50 years.

It’s not uncommon for the average Korean person to have a passcode lock on their front door with a security camera and a 100 Mbit/s internet connection.

Vast Resources: Korea does not have many valuable natural resources.

It has achieved growth through intensive education, long work hours and rapid industrialization.

Korea’s most valuable resource is its human resources.

Tough Job: For such a modernized country, Korea is relatively new to the whole democracy thing.

There have been a total of 12 presidents.

5 out of the last 7 former presidents have either been to prison or have committed suicide.

Big Business: Samsung comprises roughly 20% of Korea’s GDP.

They are known as a “문어발식 기업” or “Octopus Company” since they operate in numerous industries from hospitals to electronics to funeral homes.

They have a “cradle to grave” philosophy where they can deliver a baby and handle its every need until death.

Royal Family: Members of the last Korean royal family died out a few decades ago.

Jaebeol are the closest thing to Korea’s nobility.

They arrange marriages between notable families such as Hyundai and LG to strengthen alliances just like in feudal times.

They are both hated by the populace for “갑질” or “master actions” and envied for their wealth and power.

This is reflected in many K-dramas where a pretty, yet common girl will meet a 3rd generation Jaebeol man and fall in love.

The potential mother in law will promptly appear to slap the girl and/or offer her an envelope full of cash to get rid of her.

This is because the matriarch intended to marry her son off to a typically ill-mannered Jaebeol girl.

Spectator Sport: South Korea has been dominating eSports for the last two decades.

It is not common for a star “athlete” to earn a six figure income and have numerous fans.

The games are quite popular to watch and sell-out whole stadiums.

What are some Korean inventions?

Jikji simgyeong (1337) 

Printing with metal movable type – predates Guttenberg bible (1455) by 118 years.

Source: CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION

Hwacha (1409) 

Multiple rocket launcher – Joseon Dynasty and used during the Imjin War

Source: Ancient Origins


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How Korean is Becoming Two Languages

Want to know the differences between North and South Korean languages?

Koreans used to speak a common tongue, but decades of separation have led to some interesting divergences.

Find out how and why the Korean language is changing.

Introduction

An interesting thing happened between North and South Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

After being divided for 70 years by a war that’s still ongoing, their respective Women’s Ice Hockey teams were combined less than a month before the games. 

Since South Koreans use English hockey terms and North Koreans developed Korean equivalents, communication was difficult at first.

One major difference is that South Koreans use the word “Pass”, while North Koreans use “yeol lak” (연락) or “contact” instead.

The head coach of the joint team actually had to create an English to South Korean to North Korean dictionary for hockey terms, so the two groups could communicate. 

Fortunately, they managed to get along and do better than expected.

Origin of South and North Korean Languages

It wasn’t always like this.

Before they became two countries, a Korean Language Society was formed to define the National Orthography(spelling system) in 1933.

This was called Hangeul Matchumbeop Tong-iran (한글 맞춤법 통일안), and was used until 1945.

After the establishment of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) in 1948, their policies regarding language started to diverge.

From the 1960s until 2003, the leadership of North Korea created their own language system based on the soviet model.

South Korea continued to follow the 1933 rules and any subsequent amendments.

After over 70 years of separation, it’s estimated that about a third of everyday words used in North and South Korea are different.

This is a similar rate of divergence to that of U.S. and British English, which have been separated by an ocean for nearly 250 years.

Part of this has to do with a centralized effort by North Korea to regulate the language and the fact that people are prohibited from viewing South Korean media; whereas American T.V. is popular in the U.K. and vice versa.

Some of these differences exist due to factors such as adoption of Japanese and English Loanwords in the South and Russian Loanwords in the North.

Since the languages are becoming increasingly different, a joint association of linguists from both countries was formed to compile a South to North Korean dictionary in the event reunification occurs.

This project is called Gyeoremal-keunsajeon (겨레말 큰사전).

Although it’s roughly 75% complete, the effort was suspended due to increased tensions from nuclear testing and the closing of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North.

Although we don’t get many requests for North Korean translation, it’s fun to learn about their unique words and grammar.

Here are some interesting differences between the two versions of Korean.

Background Info

  • In South Korea, they refer to their language as Hangul whereas in North Korea, it’s known as Joseon-gul. 
    North Koreans use the word “Joseon” as a not-so-subtle way to claim authority over both the north and south, since it was the historical name of the first kingdom of Korea, and the name of the last dynasty that controlled the entire peninsula.
  • There have been different dialects in Korea for thousands of years.
    Currently in South Korea, there are the Seoul and Gyeonggi-do dialect, Gangwon-do in the east, Chungcheong-do in the central west, Gyeongsang-do in the southeast, Jeolla-do in the southwest, and even Jeju-do on the southern island.
  • Pyeongyang in North Korea was the original capital of Korea according to legend of Dangun, the Korean foundation myth.
    It was also the capital of numerous dynasties spanning centuries, including Gojoseon (2,333 BC??? to 108 BC) and Goguryeo (37 BC to 668 AD) during the three kingdoms period.
    The dialect of Korean in the North was initially different from what was spoken in the South when the country split.
  • South Korea adopted Japanese and English Loanwords, while the North creates Korean versions and uses Russian Loanwords when necessary.
    This is to keep the language purely Korean and to follow the dialect of Pyong’an.
  • The tendencies of North Korea often leave westerners baffled.
    Many of these idiosyncrasies can be explained by its history and culture.
  • The founders of North Korea were considered freedom fighters against Japanese occupation.
    They consider themselves the “true Korea”, while they view South Korea as a puppet of the U.S. and Japan.
  • North Koreans strongly reject anything related to capitalism, including goods, which they think are inferior, and even words.
    Therefore, they reject Japanese and American influence and created Koreanized versions of words.
  • The majority of South Koreans aren’t worried about the North invading.
    They are more concerned with their hectic daily lives and the effect on the KOSPI and KOSDAQ stock markets when North Korea does something provocative.
  • North Korea’s weapons, especially their artillery aimed at Seoul, are mostly from the Korean War period, so they aren’t guaranteed to work.
    Militarily, their main chance is to bombard Seoul with these weapons and send their million troops who are malnourished and poorly equipped across the border to overwhelm South Korea numerically.
  • North Korea’s playbook is similar to the “carrot and the stick” method.
    They’ll threaten military action then give the South hope of reconciliation only to break it off when things are looking up.
    They have done this numerous times in the past 70 years and it’s largely to gain aid and maintain power over the populace.
    It’s also highly unlikely that they’ll denuclearize, given how Ukraine and Libya have fared after doing so.
  • As with most things, the truth is far more nuanced and complicated than what’s condensed and passed off as news.
    North Korea is a media black hole that makes reliable news hard to come by.
    Also, there’s a wide gulf in cultures between the west and east, so understanding events in context is difficult.
    Therefore, a lot of information on North Korea is inaccurate and sensationalized to increase views (no, North Korea didn’t claim to have discovered unicorns).
    It’s important to check sources when reading about the country.

There are some differences since the concepts of words have change due to socio-political factors in North Korea.

Divergent meanings due to socio-political factors

The Korean Peninsula is called Hanbando(한반도) in the South, while it’s referred to as Joseonbando (조선반도) in the North.

As mentioned above, North Koreans use the name “Joseon” to claim legitimacy over both the North and South.

Hanguk jeonjaeng (한국 전쟁) is what South Koreans call the Korean War, but North Koreans call it Choguk’aepangjŏnjaeng(조국해방전쟁) or “Liberation of the Fatherland War”.

Again, another reference to the fact that Northerners think that the South is occupied by capitalist forces.

South Koreans call elementary school, chodeunghakkyo(초등학교), while North Koreans call it sohakkyo(소학교).

Sohakkyo was actually used before the Japanese occupation(1910-1945), when it was changed to 보통학교, which were basically colonial slave training facilities.

Then in 1938, it switched to 심상소학교, and in 1941, 국민학교.

After the Korean war, North Korea changed it to 인민학교, or “people’s school”.

South Korea wanted to use the same name too, but 국민학교, or “national school”, sounded better to the anti-communist government.

The R.O.K. kept using 국민학교 until 1995, when they changed it to 초등학교.

North Korea changed the name to 소학교 (small school) in 2002, following the trend of other east Asian countries.

In South Korea, the word for friend is chingu (친구), but in the North it’s dongmu, (동무) or “comrade”, which is a soviet concept.

Eobeoi (어버이) for instance means “parents” in South Korea, but has been altered to mean the “symbolic title of Kim Il Sung” in the North, which implies that he’s the father to everyone in Korea.

Agassi means “girl” or “miss” in the South, but it means “slave of feudalism” to Northerners.

Another interesting example is “gungjeon” or “palace” in the South, which means “large palace-like building for social activities” in the North.

This is where mass rallies are held by North Koreans.

Differences in Hangul Usage in South and North Korea

Character Order

In South Korea, vowels are in this order:

ㅏ ㅐ ㅑ ㅒ ㅓ ㅔ ㅕ ㅖ ㅗ ㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅛ ㅜ ㅝ ㅞ ㅟ ㅠ ㅡ ㅢ ㅣ

with consonants in this order:

ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

In North Korea, vowels are ordered like this:

ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅣ ㅐ ㅒ ㅔ ㅖ ㅚ ㅟ ㅢ ㅘ ㅝ ㅙ ㅞ

with consonants in this sequence:

ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅆ ㅉ ㅇ

Character Names

Some characters and digraphs have different names in the South and North.

LetterSouth Korean NameNorth Korean Name
기역 기윽 
디귿 디읃
시옷시읏 
쌍기역 된기윽 
쌍디귿 된디읃 
쌍비읍 된비읍 
쌍시옷 된시읏 
쌍지읒 된지읒 

Character Usage

Both countries use the same characters, however, in North Korea, the letter ㅌ that represents the letter T is written as ㄷ with a separate horizontal stroke on top.

Character organization is different as well.

Additionally, the digraphs and trigraphs in South Korean vowels,ㅔ, ㅖ, ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟ, ㅢ  and the consonant digraphs ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, ㅉ aren’t used separately and require a ㅇ for vowels and a vowel for consonants respectively.

In North Korea, they’re used as separate letters.

Some letters and digraphs have different names in the South and North.

Pronunciation

As we touched on earlier, the North Korean language is based on the Pyong’an dialect, while South Korean is based on the Seoul dialect.

This leads to some notable differences.

It’s difficult to make generalizations regarding how both languages sound, since there’s a large amount of variation within each dialect.

Some generalizations are that North Korean sounds more old-fashioned and militant to South Koreans.

This is exacerbated by state news announcers in North Korea who sound like they’re declaring war, even when they’re reading the weather forecast.

Not surprisingly, North Koreans will often lose this accent when living in South Korea.

On the other hand, South Korean sounds smoother and weaker to North Koreans.

Consonants

In the Seoul dialect, ㅈ, ㅊ and ㅉ are usually pronounced with alveolo-palatal affricates [tɕ], [tɕʰ], [tɕ͈].

This means they will sound more like a “ch” sound in English.

In the Pyongyang dialect, they’re predominantly pronounced with alveolar affricates [ts], [tsʰ], [ts͈].

This means that they sound more like an “s” sound.

Also, 지 and 시 can be pronounced without palatalisation as [tsi] in the Pyongyang dialect, which sound more like a “sh” sound.

In Sino-Korean words, sometimes ㄴ and ㄹ letters that come at the beginning of a word aren’t pronounced or written in the South, but all beginning ㄴ and ㄹ are written in the North.

For example, South Koreans typically don’t pronounce and write the initial ㄹ(r/l) and some of the initial ㄴ (n) while they’re written and pronounced in North Korea.

For example, the surname “Lee” is written as 이 and pronounced as “ee” with a short ”i” sound.

In North Korea however, it’s written as 리 and pronounced as”Ri.”

Also, the South Korean word 여자, meaning woman, is written as 녀자 in North Korea.

But since this pronunciation was mandated in the North during the 1960s, it’s common for older speakers to be unable to pronounce initial ㄴ and ㄹ properly, so they pronounce them the same way they do in the South.

Vocabulary Differences Between South and North Korea

EnglishSouth KoreanNorth Korean
airport공항 gonghang항공역 hanggongyeok
become되어 (돼) doe-eo (dwae)되여 doe-yeo
bloom피어 (펴) pieo (pyeo)피여piyeo
boat배 bae젓기배 jeotgibae
border (be close to)국경 (인접하다) gookgyung (injeophada)(린)접(하다) (rin)jeop(hada)
central area중심부 joongsimbu중앙부 joongangbu
cold water냉수 naengsu랭수 raengsu
corn옥수수 oksusu강냉이 gangnaeng-i
count세어 se-eo세여 se-yeo
cow cart수레 su-re달구지 dalguji
crosswalk횡단보도 hwengdanbodo건늠길 gunnumgil
doughnut도넛 do-neot가락지빵 garakjibbang
dream꿈 ggoom잠나라 jamnara
elementary school초등학교 chodeunghakkyo소학교 sohakkyo
entrance입구 ibgu나들문 nadulmun
fall낙하 nakha락하 rakha
friend친구 chingu동무 dongmu
goalkeeper골키퍼 golkipeo문지기 munjigi (literally ‘gatekeeper’)
goose거위 geowi게사니 gesani
hammer망치 mangchi마치 machi 
handbag핸드백 haen-deu-baeg손 가방 son-ga-bang
homeland본국 bon-gook조국 jo-gook
ice cream아이스크림 aisukuream에스키모/얼음과자 esukimo/eoreumgwaja
jump뛰어 ttui-eo뛰여 ttui-yeo
Korean Peninsula한반도 Hanbando조선반도 Choseonbando
Korean War한국 전쟁 Hanguk jeonjaeng조국해방전쟁 Choguk haebangjeonjaeng
lettuce상추 sangchu부루 buru
mask마스크 masuku얼굴가리개 eolgulgarigae
milk우유 ooyu소젖 sojeot
multi-national다국적 da-gook-jeok다민족 da-min-jok
near가까워 gakkawo가까와 gakkawa
past과거 gwageo어제날 eojaenal
Poland폴란드 Pollandeu뽈스까 Ppolsukka
practice연습 yeonseup련습 ryeonseup
rainbow무지개 mujigae색동다리 saekdongdari
restroom (lavatory)화장실 hwajangsil위생실 wisaengsil
sausage소시지 sosiji칼파스, 고기순대 kalpasu, gogisundae
scarf목도리 mokdori목수건 moksugeon
stairs계단 gyedan디대 didae
stocking스타킹 seutaking스토킹 sutoking
store가게 gagae가가 gaga
take out내어 nae-eo내여 nae-yeo
territory영토 yeongto령토 ryeongto
thankful고마워 gomawo고마와 gomawa
tractor트랙터 teuraekteo뜨락또르 tturakttoru
vegetable야채 yachae남새 namsae
white희어 hieo희여 hiyeo
woman여자 yeoja녀자 nyeoja

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21 Korean Drinking Games for an Epic Night

15 minute read

Interested in Korean drinking games?

Want to make Korean friends fast?

Or looking to make a big splash at your next business meeting?

In Korea they say, “someone who eats lunch alone will never get ahead”. The same can be said for those who don’t drink socially.

In the interest of helping you be successful, here are some must-know Korean drinking games.

Introduction

South Korean drinking culture originates from the Goryeo Dynasty (936–943) and is a large part of adult life.

The Korean drinking age is 19, or 18 in international age (you are one year old at birth in Korea).

Koreans usually begin drinking when they enter uni during a 3-day long OT(orientation), a large tented welcome event.

Needless to say, no one remembers much from those three days, except that they had a blast.

Strong bonds are formed at night that are awkwardly forgotten the next day.

After graduation, things just pick up steam. It’s socially acceptable to show up to work hungover after a hweshik(회식) or office gathering, because your boss is doing the same.

I’ve never met an alcoholic in Korea, but I sure met a lot of “heavy drinkers”.

This focus on social imbibing combined with the high-spirited nature of Koreans make their drinking games the most fun you can have while destroying your liver.

Quick Notes:

Koreans spend a good portion of their youth becoming human calculators, while other countries play Nintendo and watch Yo MTV Raps. I strongly advise against any game involving numbers.

Koreans also play rock paper scissors(가위, 바위, 보) as a sport from a young age and will most likely beat you.

If you’d like to simulate the experience, simply stay up late and play an online game against someone with Hangeul in their username. Except make sure to drink every time you lose.

Let’s just hope that they don’t turn e-sports into a drinking game, because they would eventually conquer the world.


Korean Drinking Game_Makgeolli
Some delicious Jeon(savory pancake) that is paired with bam makgeolli(chestnut rice wine)

Vinyl Game(레코드판 게임)

Why wait for the Noraebang? Now you can embarrass yourself in a more socially awkward situation while the night is young.

One person starts by calling out a singer’s name.

Then, everyone takes turns singing one verse from any of their songs. The first person to mess up drinks!

A great way to break the ice by ramming into it head first.

Attendance Game(출석부 게임)

What’s more fun than taking attendance? Doing it with alcohol and some shenanigans, that’s what.

One person points at another but says someone else’s name. Whoever gets called has to yell, “here” and raise their hand. Then do the same thing next.

Whoever misses their cue, drinks.

Things get really fun when the speed increases until it’s hard to keep up.

Hunminjeongeum(훈민정음게임)

This one’s for the dozens of people who want a vocabulary lesson while drinking. Think scrabble with alcohol consumption and awkward physical contact.

Hunminjeongeum is not just a ridiculously long word, it’s also the document that King Sejong created to introduce Hangeul to the masses.

In this game, one person calls out two random consonants while giving the thumbs up in the center of the group.

Then, players jump in calling out words that contain the two consonants, while grabbing the previous person’s thumb with theirs up, forming a chain.

For example:

One person says ㄱ ㅅ

Then calls out a word that contains both consonants like 고수, 감사, etc.

The last person to participate or anyone who messes up drinks.

This sounds easier than it is and we recommend a dumbed-down version in English using just one consonant.

Spoon Game(숟가락뒤집기)

This one is perfect for slower groups (you know who you are).

There are many variations of this game. The object is to flip a spoon while ending up in the majority of flipped or non-flipped.

Everyone sits in a circle with a spoon in front of them.

Then, they either flip their spoon or leave it the way it is after counting down from 3. The person who is in the minority group has to drink.

Another way to play is with rock paper scissors for three rounds with the losers having to flip their spoons.

Needless to say, there will be a whole lot of drinking going on.

The Commie Game(공산당 게임)

This one’s perfect for those unsophisticated types who want less thinking and more drinking.

The rules couldn’t be simpler. One person chooses a comrade, and that person points to the person they want to drink.

Very un-PC but gets the night going quickly.

Koreans take their drinking seriously

Babo Game

Babo (바보) is a friendly way to say “fool” in Korean. Children often refer to each other this way, and it’s usually not intended to offend.

It makes sense that a game based on this common slang word would emerge.  

One player begins by saying a number from 1 to 5 while showing a different number with their hand.

For example: The first player says 1 but has 3 fingers up making him/her safe. Then the next person has to say the number of fingers the previous player has up, while having a different amount in their hand and so on.

You lose if you say the same number as fingers you have or you don’t say the number of fingers the previous player had up.

This may sound easy, but in the heat of the moment with alcohol involved, it’s not hard to mess up.

Noonchi

Noonchi (눈치) is a very useful term in Korean that means the subtle ability to listen and gauge others’ moods. An English equivalent would be emotional intelligence.

The point of this game is to not be the last person to shout a number.

If there are five players, then each person must call out a number from 1 to 5.

Whoever shouts doesn’t matter, but the numbers must be said in order.

If two people shout the same number at the same time, they both drink and the game restarts. Or the last person who shouts a number must drink and the game starts over.

This requires you to read body language and see if someone is about to speak.

Pro Tip:

As the games heat up and people get a few drinks in them, it’s not uncommon for the group to start chanting, “random game”, followed by someone’s name to let them choose the game they want.

For example it would go:

“Random Game ♪ Random Game~ ______(이)가 좋아하는 랜덤 게임” (___’s favorite random game~)”

It’s possible to cheat a bit by calling out “noonchi game” followed by 1 quickly.

This will save you from drinking, for a moment.

3-6-9

This game is simple to learn, but lots of fun.

The object is to say the numbers out loud starting from 1 but you must clap instead of saying a number that has a 3, 6, or 9.

So if the person before you says 8, you would clap once for 9. But, if it’s my turn and the number is 39, I would have to clap twice.

Whoever ends up saying 3, 6, or 9 must drink! Then it goes back to 1 and starts over again.

Don’t worry though, numbers rarely go that high given the amount of alcohol involved.

To make things more interesting, there is a version where even numbers divisible by 3, 6, or 9 cannot be said either.

Drunk division is never a pretty sight, and I strongly recommend not trying this version with a group of Koreans.

Baskin Robbins 31

This game is pretty straightforward, and no, it wasn’t created by the brand.

However, it often works on a subliminal level to make Koreans crave Baskin Robbins after playing, so chalk this up as a win for their marketing department.

Basically, all you have to do is take turns saying up to 3 numbers in succession until you get to 31.

Whoever says 31 has to do a shot. It requires a little forethought, especially the closer you get to 31.

It’s also possible to coordinate with the group to choose who drinks.

You can even form a secret alliance and take someone down.

Korean Drinking Game_Beer
Some delicious abalone porridge(jeonbok-juk) that is perfect with beer(maekju).

The Black Knight

Not a game per se, but a special move in the sophisticated art of Korean drinking.

After a few of these games, it becomes quite clear who can hang in terms of alcohol tolerance, i.e. who will get ahead in Korean society.

If you are a team player (or like the person who just lost) you can take a bullet for someone with a lower tolerance by being the 흑기사 (black knight). This simply means you drink in their stead.

In return, the black knight gets a wish from the person. This usually is something light like, “let’s get Baskin Robbins together” or “go buy us some soft drinks”. So get your mind out of the gutter!

Titanic/The submarine

This one has less to do with the movie and more to do with physics.

It’s kind of like a game of chicken with alcohol and gravity.

Sit with your friends in a circle around a table.

Fill a glass halfway with beer.

Carefully drop an empty soju glass in the beer, making sure it floats!

Take turns pouring alcohol into the shot glass.

The amount you pour depends on you, but whoever sinks the “Titanic” needs to drink the whole glass.

DongdongJu, a traditional rice wine that goes great with jeon, or savory pancake

Love You

This one doesn’t involve math thankfully, and is great fun.

Sit in a circle of friends with drinks in hand.

The object of the game is simply not to laugh.

Anyone who does has to drink.

The first person turns to the person on the left and says “I love you” followed by any word they can think of.

If they don’t laugh, you turn to the person on your right and try again.

As you can imagine, this one can go from playful to dirty very quickly as the night goes on.

Napkin, Beer, Cigarette

This one involves pyrotechnics and might be frowned upon in some countries.

You start by placing a napkin over a beer mug.

Then put a 100 or 500 won coin(feel free to substitute with whatever currency is available) on top.

Players take turns burning holes into the napkin with a lit cigarette.

Whoever drops the coin into the mug must drink.

I personally have never played this one, since it seems like things would get out of hand quickly.

The Bottle Cap(병뚜껑 게임)

My personal favorite, because it’s the one I had the best chance at winning.

This is probably because it was the simplest one. It’s also a two-parter, which just adds to the drama.

Take a soju cap, stuff it with a napkin (more on this later) and twist the loose metal part until it’s straight (without pulling it off the cap).

Then you flick the dangling piece with your finger.

Pass the cap around until someone breaks it.

Whoever flicks it off makes everyone else drink.

Up and Down

After you finish flicking around the bottle cap, there’s a brand-new game you can play with that same cap!

Who knew that one bottle cap could be so much fun?

Remember the napkin you stuffed into the cap? This is where it comes into play.

The sequel is started by the person who won the first game (the one who didn’t have to drink).

They remove the napkin in the bottle cap and look at the number inside.

He/she announces two numbers, the range in which the number in the bottle cap lies.

For example, if the number is 35, they would say 1-50.

The other players start guessing the number, while the one with the cap hints if it’s higher or lower.

Whoever guesses right is safe (so no shots for them), but the players to the left and right have to drink!

Gyeongma Game(경마게임)/ Horse track game

This one involves some sound effects and intense concentration.

The entire game is played with everyone drumming on the table with their hands to simulate the sound of horses racing on a track.

First, everyone around the table calls out their “horse number.”

Horse number 1 (일번말), horse number 2 (이번말), horse number 3 (삼번말), etc.

After each person gets a horse number, the game starts.

You take turns calling out your number and then the number of the person you want to “attack”.

Horse 1 starts it off and let’s say they attack 3 by saying, “일번에 삼번”, or 1 attacks 3.

Then number 3 would call out their number first and “attack” someone else by calling out their number. “삼번에 오번”, 3 attacks 5.

It’s important to really listen carefully for your number to be called. If you slip up and miss your turn, you drink.

Like most games in Korea, this game is meant to be played FAST.

It gets really chaotic because everyone is banging on the table.

It’s also not uncommon for the same two people to go back and forth attacking each other.

Bunny Bunny(바니바니)

This one is a bit childish, but is fun at a certain age.

It involves some cute hand gestures and a massive amount of coordination.

You also need a minimum of 4 people to play.

Everyone puts both hands up like they’re eating while one person chants “Bunny Bunny” once.

Then without stopping, they “pass the bunny” to a random player by chanting “Bunny Bunny” and gesturing with both hands.

At the same time the players to the left and right of the selected person chant “Dang-geun Dang-geun(당근)” (carrot in Korean). The selected person immediately starts chanting “Bunny Bunny” and passes to another player to try to disrupt the chant.

Whoever messes up, drinks. This gets confusing real quick and probably should be played early in the night.

Pro Tip:

You can even pass the bunny to yourself as a wild card. This all but guarantees victory.

Soju, the drink of choice for most Koreans

Image Game

The Image Game is a reverse “Never Have I” game with voting.

Except in this case, if you get the most votes you lose (or win, if you enjoy taking shots!).

The first player starts by saying something descriptive, like: “Had most girlfriends/boyfriends”.

Everyone then points at the person they think best fits the description.

The player who receives the most votes has to drink, then gets to ask the next question.

This one can make you reevaluate your life choices by showing what people really think of you.

Chopsticks

While sitting in a circle, one person starts by asking a question that refers to someone in the group.

The people playing must point their chopsticks at the person who they think best fits the answer.

The person with the most chopsticks pointed at him or her must drink and then gets to ask the next question.

So, basically the same as Image Game but with utensils.

Tap

This one is a simplified version of Simon with alcohol.

As the name implies, this game involves a lot of tapping with your drink on the table.

The first player starts by tapping their drink once, which passes the turn on to the player to their right.

The next player must then decide whether to tap their drink once, twice, or three times.

Tapping the drink once will pass the turn on to the person on the right.

Twice will pass the turn back to the sender to the left.

Three times will pass the turn to the second person the right, skipping the adjacent player.

Whoever messes up the tapping order, by tapping when they’re not supposed to, must drink.

It may sound easy, but each player must pay close attention to how many times the last drink was tapped on the table.

Olympic Torch

This game seems like something one would play in prison, but with pruno instead of soju.

Most Korean males pick up smoking during their mandatory military service.

A player passes around a lit cigarette with his head back and the cigarette up like a torch.

He passes the “torch” to the next player who takes a drag while trying not to topple the ash.

Whoever does must take a shot.

Pretty simple compared to the other games, but most likely won’t be popular in polite society.


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