Over the last decades, South Korea has emerged as one of the wealthiest countries in all of Asia. Currently the OECD country is roughly on the same material and economic level as other affluent East Asian nations such as Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, it appears now as perhaps the most potentially strong among them. South Korea seems more dynamic and willful than its larger neighbor and economic main rival, Japan, which perhaps has entered the path of a more long-term decline.
In this article I do briefly describe the main characteristics of contemporary South Korea, and also reflect upon various cultural sub-topics which are of importance for any male who is interested in to obtain more sophisticated knowledge about non-Western cultures and what they might and might not offer.
The emergence of modern South Korea
Culturally, politically, technologically and economically, South Korean development during the 20th century onward cannot be understood without to mention the strong ties to Japan and the United States. As much as Japan suppressed Korea between 1910-1945, the material progression is nevertheless a direct and indirect consequence of the traumatic colonial period. Korean leaders were also inspired by the Japanese military dictatorship (which in turn was influenced by European militarism). After South Korea—which was formed in 1945 after the divide of the country—stopped relying on American aid and focused on its own potential, the economy grew rapidly due to an effective export-oriented industrialization.
Democracy was gradually introduced in 1987 but some of these authoritarian residues are still visible in today’s society, the military in particular, but also with regard to how many companies are run.
Presently the economic-political relationships between South Korea and Japan remain flexible and pragmatic, for the sake of both countries. The ties to the U.S. seems less problematic, although Koreans negotiate between on one hand a more distinguished Korean culture and on the other further Western influences.
Additional ambivalence might also be a result of that some Koreans regard American relations as a hinder in the process of a future reunification between the two Korean nations. Generally, though, the political, military and economic cooperation between South Korea and the U.S. appears fruitful and to the benefit of both sides.
The Korean wave and the rising appeal of South Korea
For quite a long time, modern South Korea may be regarded as not much more than a smaller version of Japan, although with a unique language and some other differentiating characteristics. In post-millennial times, however, this picture has gradually shifted—both among other Asians, Westerners, and people in other continents too—towards a more appealing national image.
The reason for this is mainly material, related to a refined development of technology (Samsung), pop music (K-pop), TV dramas (K-drama), cosmetic products (K-beauty), and perhaps also a more exciting metropolitan nightlife and a better ranked top university (Seoul National University). The Korean wave, Hallyu, covers a whole plethora of different expressions of the rising popularity of South Korean products and celebrities and it has had spill-over effects for other sectors such as academia and tourism. For instance, more people are interested in learning Korean than 10 or 20 years ago.
The nightlife in the capital, Seoul, is unhesitatingly of very high standard. For instance, this year Dj Mag ranks Club Octagon in Gangnam as the fifth best nightclub in the entire world. In the city regions Gangnam, Hongdae and Itaewon in particular, both foreigners and locals can easily find bars and clubs of various sizes that offer high-quality entertainment and which conform to a relatively broad spectrum of tastes in music and dress style.
Contempory South Korean culture can be described as a hybrid of Korean, East Asian and Western culture. As I have stated above, South Korea has been influenced by Japan and the U.S. in particular to a significant extent. This means that the similar, real or quasi-hierarchical structures as in for instance China and Japan are visible in South Korea too. One is expected to speak and behave in different ways, depending on a person’s age or social rank (which are more or less explicitly stated).
This does largely overlap a meritocratic social structure, rather than status being a primarily inherited factor. A doctor is looked upon as socially more valuable than a regular office worker, regardless of family background. It is thus not much left of the old Confucian system.
The Korean language—even though about 60% of the words are based on Chinese words, and its grammar being partly similar to Japanese—is unique with all its different suffixes that in turn conform to different speech and writing levels. These can be more or less formal, plain and polite but are always related to the social relations and contexts of either speaking or writing. People who know each other well tend to use an intimate speech style (Hae-che), but in some contexts, such as the workplace, they might change to a more formal and polite level (Haeyo-che) when they walk to other people. Many who learn Korean at a beginner’s level start with Haeyo-che and then gradually broaden the scope to include other levels of speaking and writing.
Apart from the Korean language, a foreigner may find many things in South Korea that are either similar to places such as Japan and Hong Kong, or to the Western world. South Korea, especially Seoul, is largely the product of globalization and as a wealthy country this goes along with high standards of infrastructure and general quality of life. As a high-tech nation it appears as being in the forefront of material development, often outshining its Western counterparts, at least in some ways.
The present culture, especially the more youth-oriented culture, is safe and relaxed. Only slight modifications in dress and behavior (towards more politeness and moderation) makes any Westerner fit in well, at least short term-wise, and to only speak English is seldom a real obstacle.
If a person digs deeper into Korean history and culture—and geographically move outside the Seoul metropolitan area—one may find many differentiating and even somewhat unique characteristics (although these do often have China as its root or point of departure), but apart from Buddhism—which is separated rather than integrated into the larger society—these elements are rarely manifested in present time. There are obviously many real Buddhists and Christians in present South Korea, but the traditional layers of culture tend to be mere relics of the past. With that said, the country as a whole is overall more socially conservative than many Western nations.
Whether or not the trend towards increased westernization will continue remains an open question, but in terms of technology and popular culture it is unlikely that South Korea will look in other directions in the near future. After all, much of its present infrastructure and popular culture makes it into pretty much a local version of the Western-global society.
Lastly, two other things that have direct implications for any foreign person who reflects upon the option to stay longer in South Korea than as a tourist, temporary employee or exchange student, is that 1) the population is very homogeneous, and 2) it has no explicit will to change this fact.
This means that it is difficult, although not totally impossible, to obtain a citizenship if you are not of Korean descent. South Korea uses a type of partial jas sanguinis, citizenship by the blood. It is not very uncommon these days that Korean men get married to and have children with for instance Southeast Asian women, such as Filipinas, and South Korea is gradually shifting towards a more multi-ethnic society. However, compared to many Western countries the levels of ethnic and genetic heterogeneity are much, much smaller.
Due to the legal difficulties and cultural differences, especially language-wise, it is definitely not a smooth process to become naturalized as a Korean citizen or resident. Permanent and temporary living are generally two very different things and South Korea is yet another palpable manifestation of that.
Women in South Korea
Phenotypically, South Korean women are similar to those of other East Asian populations. As a result of drastically improved nutrition, younger South Koreans are relatively tall, seemingly not much shorter on average than their Western counterparts. The levels of obesity are slightly rising but still very low compared to the U.S., Canada and even thinner European countries such as Italy and Sweden. Overall, Korean females—especially girls—can be characterized as moderately tall and slim.
Additionally, a significant share cares a lot about their appearances. Fashion, diet, hair style and make-up are all very important in everyday life, and although these things change rapidly due to new trends and seasonal shifts, many will ride along the same wave wherever it goes. Collectivism is quite striking in that respect, and sub-cultures are not as widespread and visible as in Japan. Many look about the same.
As with many phenomena in life, the extent to which a person likes or dislikes how a population generally appears is related to individual taste. With that said, I think that more objectively speaking the two main strengths of Korean girls and younger women are that they are relatively thin and well-groomed. They do everything they can to optimize their beauty potentials, sometimes even with the help of plastic surgery (which will make them look somewhat more European, which partly is an ideal among East Asian populations).
Additionally—even if this stems more from observations and anecdotes than general facts—they tend to be more polite and well-educated, in a positive sense, than Western females. This is something they also have in common with other well off Asians, such as Japanese, Taiwanese, and Singaporeans. In the more exciting locations of Seoul, one will find quite many pretty and decent Korean girls, and even though hook-up culture has for good and for bad penetrated the south of the Korean peninsula, a significant share of these females may be looked upon as serious girlfriend material.
Western guys do have a comparative advantage in terms of looks and even sometimes behavior (Korean guys tend to lack the cockiness of Westerners), but these automatic benefits should not be over-emphasized. Many of the things that girls are attracted to, such as confidence, extroversion and good looks are general, close to universal traits. If one is a loser in the West then one will probably be that in the East as well. Conversely, the more alpha males will magnify their results if they have the proper time and opportunity to do so.
Overall South Korea is a rather impressive modern society that shares many of the good features with its equally rich neighbors. However, recently it has seemingly surpassed places like Japan and Hong Kong in terms of material development, nightlife and popular culture. For some Western males, between the ages of 20-35, South Korea might offer a valuable opportunity for temporary—ranging from weeks to even years— and circular migration. Because eventually it is most likely time to go home, regardless of one wishes it or not.
Read More: How To Get Laid In South Korea