South Korean Culture and People

South Korean Culture - Contents


The Korean people are one of the main East Asian ethnic groups. Most Koreans live in the Korean Peninsula and speak the Korean language. Korea’s population is highly homogeneous both ethnically and linguistically, with only small minorities, such as Chinese and Japanese, present in North and South Korea.

Koreans are generally believed to be of Altaic linguistic lineage, linking them with Tungusics, Mongolians and other Central Asians. Archaeological evidence suggest proto-Koreans were Altaic language speaking migrants from south-central Siberia, who populated ancient Korea in successive waves from neolithic age to bronze age.

Studies of classical genetic polymorphisms generally place the Koreans in a tight cluster with the Mongols and Manchus to their west and north. However, recent advances in the study of polymorphisms in the human Y-chromosome have produced evidence to suggest that the Korean people have a very long history as a distinct, mostly endogamous ethnic group, as male Koreans display a high frequency of Y-chromosomes belonging to Haplogroup O2b1 that are more or less specific to Korean populations. At least several thousand years before present, a few of these proto-Korean Haplogroup O2b1 patrilines appear to have crossed from Korea into the Japanese Archipelago, where they now comprise a very significant fraction of the male lineages extant among the Japanese and Ryukyuan populations. These apparently proto-Korean descendants in Japan,
however, seem to have experienced extensive genetic admixture with the long-established Jomon Period populations of the Japanese Archipelago, which has resulted in modern Japanese populations’ displaying a somewhat different genetic profile from the Koreans on the continent.

Though they have interbred to some extent with other East Asian ethnic groups over the ages, Koreans have retained much of the physicalities of their Northern Mongoloid migration group, including tall stature, long bridged noses, higher cheekbones, and the Mongolian spot (monggo-banjeom), a genetic predisposition for a bluish birthmark on the lower body which remains until early childhood.

Although a variety of different Asian peoples had migrated to the Korean Peninsula in past centuries, very few have remained permanently, so by 1990 both South Korea and North Korea were among the world’s most ethnically homogeneous nations. The number of indigenous minorities was negligible. In South Korea, people of foreign origin, including Westerners, Chinese, and Japanese, were a small percentage of the population whose residence was generally temporary.

Koreans tend to equate nationality or citizenship with membership in a single, homogeneous ethnic group or “race” (minjok, in Korean). A common language and culture also are viewed as important elements in Korean identity. The idea of multiracial or multiethnic nations, like India or the United States, strikes many Koreans as odd or even contradictory. Consciousness of homogeneity is a major reason why Koreans on both sides of the DMZ viewed their country’s division as an unnatural and unnecessary tragedy.

Against the background of ethnic homogeneity, however, significant regional differences exist. Within South Korea, the most important regional difference is between the Gyeongsang region, embracing Gyeongsangbuk-do and Gyeongsangnam-do provinces in the southeast, and the Jeolla region, embracing Jeollabuk-do and Jeollanam-do provinces in the southwest. The two regions, separated by the Jiri Massif, nurture a rivalry said to reach back to the Three Kingdoms Period, which lasted from the fourth century to the seventh century A.D., when the kingdoms of Baekje and Silla struggled for control of the peninsula. Observers noted that interregional marriages are rare, and that as of 1990 a new fourlane highway completed in 1984 between Gwangju and Daegu, the capitals of Jeollanam-do and Gyeongsangbuk-do, completed in 1984, had not been successful in promoting travel between the two areas.

South Korea’s political elite, including presidents Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, and Roh Tae-woo, have come largely from the Gyeongsang region. As a result, Gyeongsang has been a special beneficiary of government development assistance.

By contrast, the Jeolla region has remained comparatively rural, undeveloped, and poor. Chronically disaffected, its people rightly or wrongly have a reputation for rebelliousness. Regional bitterness was intensified by the May 1980 Gwangju massacre, in which about 200 and perhaps many more inhabitants of the capital of Jeollanam-do were killed by Chun Doo-hwan’s troops sent to quell the citizens and student’s demonstration against military coup regime. The demonstration against military regime were occurred all over the country, but only Gwangju was chosen and heavily damaged. Many of the troops reportedly were from the Gyeongsang region.

Regional stereotypes, like regional dialects, have been breaking down under the influence of centralised education, nationwide media, and the several decades of population movement since the Korean War. Stereotypes remain important, however, in the eyes of many South Koreans. For example, the people of Gyeonggi-do, surrounding Seoul, are often described as being cultured, and Chungcheong people, inhabiting the region embracing Chungcheongbuk-do and Chungcheongnam-do provinces, are thought to be mild-mannered, manifesting true yangban virtues. The people of Gangwon-do in the northeast were viewed as poor and stolid, while Koreans from the northern provinces of P’yongang, Hwanghae, and Hamgyong, now in North Korea, are perceived as being diligent and aggressive. Jeju-do is famous for its strong-minded and independent women.


The Korean language is the official language of North and South Korea, It is spoken by more than 75 million people, including substantial communities of ethnic Koreans living elsewhere. Modern Korean language is descended from the language of the Silla Kingdom, which unified the peninsula in the seventh century. Korean is not closely related to any other language, though a distant genetic kinship to Japanese is now thought probable by some scholars, and an even more remote relationship to the Altaic languages is possible.

Both Korean and Japanese possess what is sometimes called “polite” or “honourific” language, the use of different levels of speech in addressing persons of superior, inferior, or equal rank. These distinctions depend both on the use of different vocabulary and upon basic structural differences in the words employed. For example, in Korean the imperative “go” can be rendered “kara” when speaking to an inferior or a child, “kage” when speaking to an adult inferior, “kaseyo” when speaking to a superior, and “kasipsio” when speaking to a person of still higher rank. The proper use of polite language, or levels of polite speech, is an extremely complex and subtle matter. The Korean language, like Japanese, is extremely sensitive to the nuances of hierarchical human relationships. Two persons who meet for the first time are expected to use the more distant or formal terms, but they will shift to more informal or “equal” terms if they become friends. Younger people invariably use formal language in addressing elders; the latter will use “inferior” terms in “talking down” to those who are younger.

Korean was written with Chinese characters to stand in various ways for Korean meanings and sounds as early as the 12th century, though substantial documentation is not evident until the invention of a unique phonetic script for it in 1443. This script, now called hangul, represents syllables by arranging simple symbols for each phoneme into a square form like that of a Chinese character. Grammatically, Korean has a basic subject-object-verb word order and places modifiers before the elements they modify.


South Korea shares its traditional culture with North Korea, but the two Koreas have developed distinct contemporary forms of culture since the peninsula was divided in 1945. The South Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism actively encourages the traditional arts, as well as modern forms, through funding and education programs.

Korean art and culture have absorbed influences from many countries; prior to the 19th century, these cultural infusions came primarily from China. Koreans adapted many Chinese art forms with innovation and skill, creating distinctively Korean forms. For many centuries, Korean forms of metalwork, sculpture, painting, and ceramics flourished throughout the Korean peninsula and were then passed on to neighbouring countries like Japan. In modern times, Western and particularly the US influences have been strongest. In the aftermath of Japanese occupation all Japanese cultural exported were banned from Korea until 1999.

Recently, any outside influences have been particularly controversial; the K-pop singer Hyori sparked a national controversy in 2006 when it was found that she may have copied a melody from Britney Spears. Since South Korea is the most digitally wired nation, copying of popular culture from other nations are easily and quickly identified by Korean netizens. In recent times, Korean pop culture has become popular in Asia and beyond, earning the name Hallyu or “Korean Wave.” Korean pop culture has also made its way into Japan, with Korean singers like BoA, and television dramas like Daejanggeum and Winter Sonata finding success. Recent Korean films such as Oldboy and Oasis have also received international acclaim. The contemporary culture of South Korea is heavily dominated by technology, including feature-rich cell phones and pervasive online gaming. South Korea today has the highest penetration of high-speed internet access to households in the world. Digital multimedia broadcasting now allows South Koreans to watch television on their cell phones.


Traditional Korean music is divided into court music and folk music. While court music has a longer history, much of the folk music as we know it today began developing full-scale during the later period of the Joseon Dynasty.

A-ak, a form of court music, is performed during Confucian rituals held in spring and autumn, while hyang-ak, court music of purely Korean origin, consists of ceremonial music, lyrical songs, narrative songs and military band music. The folk music that developed in the later period of Joseon Kingdom includes pansori, or narrative songs, geomungo (six-stringed zither) and gayageum (12-stringed zither) numbers as solo instruments or as accompaniment for singing. Traditional Korean music, however, met danger of extinction during Japan’s colonial rule as well as through the introduction of Western music later. In fact, Korean traditional music was studied and performed actively again only with the establishment of the National Korean Traditional Music Institute in 1952.

Arriving here in the 1880s along with Christianity, Western-style music, both classic and pop, has become very popular among the public. Today, all genres of pop music are played in Korea, from hard rock to dance music. Traditional Korean dance is divided into: Jeongjae (court dance), of which only a few pieces survive today; folk dances such as sword dance and hourglass-drum dance; and Jakbeop (Buddhist ceremonial dance) which includes the Buddhist drum dance.

Traditional Clothing

The traditional dress known as hanbok (known as choson-ot in North Korea) has been worn since ancient times. The hanbok consists of a shirt (jeogori) and pants (baji). The traditional hat is called gwanmo and special meaning is attached to this piece of clothing.

According to social status, Koreans used to dress differently, making clothing an important mark of social rank. Impressive, but sometimes cumbersome, costumes were worn by the ruling class and the royal family. Jewelry was also used to distance themselves from the ordinary people.

Common people were often restricted to un-dyed plain clothes. This everyday dress underwent relatively few changes during the Joseon period. The basic everyday dress was shared by everyone, but distinctions were drawn in official and ceremonial clothes. Also, different fabrics represent different areas of Korea. Hansan, South Chungchong Province, made white ramie – such good quality that it was sent to the Tang Chinese court for tribute during the Koryo period (918 – 1392). Andong hem was favoured by the yangban (upper class). The materials and manufacturing techniques strongly represent Korean culture and society.

Diverse weather conditions dictate what fabrics are used. Clothes have been made from hemp, ramie, cotton muslin, silk, and satin. In colder areas heavier fabric, lined with fur in the northern regions, are used while summer clothes used thinner materials. In fall, many women would wear clothes of gossamer silk because it gave a rustling sound while walking that is similar to walking through dry leaves. Because ordinary people normally wore undyed materials, the people were sometimes referred to as the white-clad folk.

In short, hanboks are classified according to their purposes: everyday dress, ceremonial dress and special dress. Ceremonial dresses are worn on formal occasions, including a child’s first birthday, a wedding or a funeral. Special dresses are made for purposes such as shamans, officials.

Today the hanbok is still sometimes worn during formal occasions. The everyday use of the dress, however, has been lost.


There are many different kinds of Korean masks. Masks are used for ceremonies, plays and drama. Korean masks are specific to occasion and region.

In daily life, the traditional South Koreaese styles are now replaced by Western styles. Traditional clothing or costume is worn instead on special occasions, with the exception of the Ao Dai for females.

Yangban: Yangban is used in the Hahoe Mask Play, a traditional play in Hahoe Village in Gyeongsangbuk Province. Designated National Treasure 121 in 1964, the Hahoe masks are preserved in the National Museum in Seoul. The chin moves down creating a big, open laughing mouth.

Nun Kkumjoggi: Nun Kkumjoggi wards off evil from local government offices on the Lunar New Year¡¯s Eve. The oval protruding large eyebrows and the oval lumps protruding on each side of the face characterise the mask.

Saja (Lion): Bukcheong Lion Mask Play is used in a traditional play in Bukcheong, North Korea. The players who came to South Korea revived it. This mask play was performed on the 15th day of the first lunar month of the year. The crimson mask has wrinkles on the forehead, the eyes were expressed with silver foil and colourful threads represented the hair and whiskers.

Chwibari (The Drunken Mask): Chwibari is used in the Songpa Sandae Mask Play, traditional in the Songpa area (now part of Seoul). It was performed during festive holidays and occasions. This gourd mask has two lumps, one on each cheek, and the eyes and eyebrows are slanted downward.

Yeongno: Yeongno is used in the Suyeong Yaryu Mask Play, which is a traditional play in the area of Suyeong (now a part of Busan). Protrusions, red-rimmed eyes and mouth, and hair protruding from the forehead characterise this dark brown mask.

Yeonggam: Yeonggam is used in the Pongsan Mask Play, performed to celebrate the arrivals of newly appointed local magistrates and to welcome Chinese envoys. Together with Gangryong Mask Play, it was one of the best-known mask plays in the northwestern region. This paper mask is painted red and has three lumps, one on each side and one under the chin.

Hongbaek Yangban (Red and White Faced Literati): Hongbaek Yangban is used in the Tongyong Ogwandoe Mask Play, native to Tongyang City in Gyeongsannam Province. The gourd mask is painted red and white

Mundong-I (The Leper): Mundong-I is used in the DongraeYaryu Mask Plays. The Mundong-I Mask is a beige gourd mask with a distorted mouth surrounded by wrinkles.

Chagun Yangban: Changun Yangban is used in the Kasan Ogwangdae Mask Plays in the Gyeongsangnam province area. The eyes, ears, mouth, whiskers and headgear are painted on in black. This mask is made of paper.

Traditional music has played an important role in the lives of the South Koreaese. Currently, music still occupies a considerable position in the spiritual lives of the South Koreaese. Some genres of music still exist in rural areas, while others were brought to the stage to meet the demands of the population.

Cheoyong Dance Mask: The Cheoyong dance was the main ritual dance of the royal court. This dance’s purpose was to ward off evil. During the Koryeo Kingdom, high-ranking officials and even kings performed this dancing ritual. Foreign envoys also performed this dance. Unique features of this mask include the peace branches in the headdress.

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