After the Korean War, South Korea went from being one of the poorest countries to one of the richest in a matter of 50 years. Many millennials and youngsters of today’s world are familiar with the hallyu movement or the Korean Wave which saw an unprecedented increase in popularity of K-drama and K-pop across the world which has a lot to do with the rise of social-networking sites and video-sharing platforms. In addition to that is the global success of companies like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai as well as the widespread popularity of Korean food and culture. Having said that, here are some strange facts about South Korea that will seem amusing or interesting to someone on the outside.
1. In South Korea, newly born babies are considered to be one year old. Their age is traditionally incremented on every New Year’s Day rather than on their birthday.
Often referred to as “nominal age,” “lunar age,” or simply “East Asian” age reckoning, a Korean’s age is calculated quite differently from countries in the West. The unit of the age of a person is called a “sal,” so during the first calendar year of life, the age is one sal, and during the fifth calendar year, it is five sal. Everyone born in the same calendar year would have the same Korean age. An interesting outcome of this system is, if a baby is born at the end of December, they would be two years old in just a few days time.
Nowadays, Koreans are also using the international age system, referred to as “man-nai” (full or actual age), as well as the traditional system. The international system is used for official and legal matters as well as age limits for beginning school and age of consent. (1, 2)
2. On April 14 every year, single South Koreans observe something called the “Black Day” in opposition to Valentine’s Day and White Day. They gather wearing black and commiserate over noodles.
In South Korea, while women give chocolate gifts to men on Valentine’s Day, men give them to women on White Day which is celebrated on the 14th of March. White Day was first started in 1978 in Japan by the National Confectionery Industry Association as an answer to Valentine’s Day. Black Day, celebrated on the same day the next month, is for those who did not receive any gifts on either of the holidays.
People observing Black Day would gather wearing black and share their plight over various black-colored foods, especially jajangmyeon, a Chinese-Korean noodle dish with black sweet bean sauce. To continue the trend, the government of South Korea assigned a holiday on the 14th of the rest of the months: Diary Day in January, Yellow or Rose Day in May, Kiss Day in June, Silver Day in July, Green Day in August, Photo Day in September, Wine Day in October, Movie Day in November, and Hug Day in December.
All these holidays gave rise to day-marketing, a marketing strategy in which businesses advertise their products based on the specific holiday. They also hold events such as speed dating, jajangmyeon-eating competitions, and discount sales. (1, 2)
3. BTS, a seven-member boy band from South Korea, brings in more than $3.6 billion each year. In 2018, it was the reason one in every 13 foreign tourists visited the country.
BTS, or Bangtan Boys, is a band of seven artists that was formed in 2013 in Seoul. Initially producing hip hop music, they expanded to other genres and produced many hit albums including The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 2 (2015), The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever (2016), and Wings (2016) that made it to the US Billboard 200, a first ever by a Korean group. With Love Yourself: Tear (2018), Love Yourself: Answer (2018), and Map of the Soul: Persona (2019), BTS became the only group other than The Beatles to have three albums at number one on the charts in less than a year.
The band became so influential that they were asked to address the United Nations at the 73rd General Assembly and perform at the Korea-France Friendship Concert in Paris to 400 officials. They are also the youngest ever to receive the Order of Cultural Merit by the South Korean president for their contributions in spreading Korean culture and language. Between 2016 and 2018, the exponential rise in online purchases of K-pop is largely attributed to BTS.
Now called the “BTS effect,” the commercial effects of their popularity created new jobs for several idols as well as for them. In one example, after BTS signed a contract with KB Kookmin Bank, the number of savings accounts at the bank increased by a factor of six. When the band topped the US Billboard 200, the stock prices of South Korean entertainment, especially the ones tied with BTS like Netmarble, Soribada, GMP, and Mattel, shot up. (source)
4. There are some South Koreans who suffer from tetraphobia – the fear of the number four. It is avoided when numbering floors, especially in hospitals and public buildings, elevator buttons, and apartment numbers.
The Sino-Korean word for the number four is “sa” (사) which sounds the same as the Korean word for “deceased” or “died.” This has caused some to be wary of the number. The number is almost always skipped when floors and rooms are numbered, especially in hospitals, funeral halls, and some public buildings. At some places, instead of the number four, the label “F” for “fourth floor” can be seen on the elevators.
If there are multiple occurrences of the number in an apartment number, it’s real estate value is significantly affected. Some of the number combinations with four have particularly bad sounding meanings are the Korean term for “14” which sounds like “time to be deceased,” and “44” which sounds like “died and deceased.” (source)
5. Children under the age of 16 are blocked from playing online games from midnight to six in the morning in South Korea.
Also known as the “Shutdown Law,” the “Youth Protection Revision Act,” or the “Cinderella Law,” this law began to take shape following requests by civic groups in October 2004. The next year, Kim Jae Gyeong and Kim Hi Jeong of the Grand National Party proposed bills that were early versions of the Shutdown Law, but, they failed to see the light.
Amendments to the Juvenile Protection Act were proposed twice again in 2008 and 2009 by Gyeong and Cho Yeong Hi of the United Democratic Party respectively. Though later, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family wanted to work on the amendments separately, they decided to do it together and completed their version in 2010.
According to a study conducted by National Information Society Agency, about 8% of the country’s population between the ages nine and 39 and 14% of those between ages nine to 12 suffered from Internet addiction. The bill by the two ministries was passed on April 29, 2011 and came into effect in November that year. (1, 2)
6. There are more fried chicken restaurants in South Korea than McDonald’s restaurants in the whole world.
Traditionally, Koreans cook chicken by steaming or in soups and broths. The idea of frying it dates back to the Korean War when Americans placed fried chicken stalls in Seoul, Busan, Pyeongtaek, and Songtan in the 40s and 50s. In 1975, when a man named Yu Seok-ho went to study in the US, he started a fried chicken business and is credited for creating “ginseng chicken.” In 1977, he started the first franchise called Lims Chicken.
In 1982, another man named Yang Hee-Kwon, the owner of Pelicana Chicken, began coating the fried chicken in sweet and spicy sauces to soften the outer crust to appeal to Korean customers. According to Jeong Eun-jeong, the author of The Tale of Chicken in the Republic of Korea, many people began opening fried chicken restaurants following Asian financial crisis and still continue to do so because of the low investment required.
Since then, fried chicken has become one of the widely consumed appetizers and snacks there with over 50,000 restaurants as of 2017, at least half of them part of franchises. It is common to find several of them on one street. In comparison, McDonald’s has 37,855 restaurants worldwide as of 2018. (1, 2)
7. Google Maps does not give driving directions in South Korea as there is a law restricting the use of maps.
This is probably ironic since South Korea has one of the fastest Internet connections in the world, faster than that in the US. Yet, it is the only country that doesn’t provide driving or walking directions on Google Maps. Interestingly, it is also something that North Korea has but South Korea doesn’t.
The reason for these restrictions is that following the Korean War in the early 50s, the Spatial Data Industry Promotion Act and the Promotion of Military Bases and Installations Act have been put in place. These restrict access to map data outside South Korea and prevents the data from falling into the wrong hands across the DMZ (demilitarized zone).
Though in 2016, the Korean government offered the map data on the condition that important locations, military outposts, and government offices be shown at low resolution, Google refused. Apple Maps also has to follow the same restrictions. There are, however, South Korea’s own map services like Naver and Kakao that provide directions for navigation in the country. (source)
8. Samsung’s revenue accounts for over 17% of South Korea’s GDP. It’s possible for an average citizen there to be born at, live in, study at, work at, and even leave the world at Samsung-owned facilities.
Founded in 1938 as a trading company by Lee Byung-chul, Samsung is the largest chaebol (conglomerate) in South Korea. In the following decades, the company expanded into food processing, textiles, insurance, securities, and retail, and entered electronics in the 60s as well as shipbuilding and construction in the 70s. After Lee’s death in 1987, the company was divided into four independent and unaffiliated groups – Samsung Group, Shinsegae Group, CJ Group, and Hansol Group.
In the 90s, Samsung Group began to increase its global presence and received many construction contracts such as the building of one of the two Petronas Towers in Malaysia, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, and the Burj Khalifa in UAE. It also became the world’s largest memory chip and LCD screen manufacturer. By 2012, it became the world’s largest mobile phone maker by unit sales beating Nokia.
Though most people might know it as a technological company, it is in almost all areas of business. It has been described as the major driving force behind the “Miracle on the Han River,” the period during which South Korea transformed from a developing country to a developed country, just like Germany after WWII. Around one-fifth of the country’s total exports are from Samsung’s affiliate companies making its revenue more than 17% of South Korea’s GDP. (1, 2)
9. Only people with visual disabilities are allowed to work as licensed masseurs in South Korea. The law dates over 100 years back when Japanese colonialists made it up to ensure livelihood to the blind.
According to South Korea’s Health and Ministry department, there are 9,742 licensed blind masseurs in 1,300 legal parlors as of 2018. But this is only a small percentage of all the masseurs, the majority being those hired from China and Thailand working in illegal parlors to meet the growing demand for massage in the country.
The law, introduced in 1913, has been repeatedly upheld by the Constitutional Court despite numerous appeals challenging the restriction of the profession to only the blind. The court stated that, since “the massage business is virtually the only occupation that visually impaired people can normally enjoy,” the current system ensures their right to survival. Anyone who violates the law could receive five years in prison and a fine of up to 50 million won (43,109 USD). (source)
10. Among the top 10 surnames of South Koreans, 44.6% are either Kim, Lee, or Park, while the rest are Choi, Jeong, Kang, Jo, Yoon, Jang, and Lim.
Korean family names are the names of the clan to which the family belongs. In 2000, there were around 280 family names in use, and the family name of nearly half the population is either Kim, Lee, or Park. Between 2000 and 2015, there was an influx of more than 4,800 new surnames due to foreign-origin families and naturalization of citizens. In total, there are 5,582 different surnames, though not all of them have the corresponding characters.
Despite all these new surnames, a majority of the Korean population has the same ones. Kim is used by almost 21% of the population, Lee by 14.8%, Park by 8.5%, Choi by 4.7%, and Jung by 4.4% of the Koreans. (source)