Teen Life in South Korea

Eric Dwyer

Florida International University



1.         Introduction to Teen Life in South Korea


When teenagers in South Korea watch the news on TV, they might see two different maps of their country when the weather comes on. One map might show just South Korea, indicating temperatures and forecasts for various towns and cities located in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, roughly the section of land that comes below 38 degrees north latitude. Sometimes, though, a map comes on showing a combination the entire peninsula, thereby giving temperatures of towns and cities in what we usually think of as two countries: South Korea and North Korea.  But as the 21st century begins, this second map with both Koreas together has come to symbolize the bringing back together of two countries that at one time actually were one single country. The two Koreas have officially been at war since 1950, although there has rarely been any shooting since 1953. There still exist many tensions today. Nevertheless, as Korean teenagers enter this period in history, this map symbolizes perhaps the most optimistic time in Korean history in over 100 years.

In 1990, Koreans looked with tremendous interest when the Berlin Wall came down, and East and West Germany came together to re-form a nation divided for 45 years. The families on both sides of the North and South Korean border also have been dreaming of such an event, and the breaking of the Berlin Wall thus re-ignited these dreams held by families on both sides of the 38th parallel border that divides North and South Korea. Then in the year 2000, the President of South Korea, Kim Tae-Jung, affectionately known as T.J., met with the President of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il. Through their talks, a handful of families that had not had contact in over 50 years were finally able to meet, the North and South Korean Olympic teams walked together as one team under a flag that showed a map of the two countries together (though they competed separately) during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and President Kim Tae-Jung won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The teenagers of Korea have a life different from their parents in that they are now learning to live with the optimism and the reality of these dreams, although their relatives have been waiting through it for over 50 years. The situation at the beginning of the 21st century is still far from perfect. The border between South and North Korea is still closed, and North Korea remains one of the most isolated and secretive nations on Earth. Furthermore, due to the US military presence in South Korea, US citizens are rarely permitted into North Korea. As a result, while teenagers view the future of their country with optimism, it is a guarded and deliberate optimism. Most people in South Korea, including teenagers, will tell you that it is wiser to reunify slowly, as recommended by President Kim’s Sunshine Policy, rather than quickly, so that the two countries can get used to each other’s philosophies and so that the economic strain on the event isn’t so strenuous. Still, it is optimism. Some South Korean relatives of North Korean families may now travel to North Korea, a new North Korean mountain resort run by the South Korean Hyundai car company now operates regularly, and there are plans to develop a train between the capitals of the two countries—Seoul and Pyongyang. So, yes, the map of a unified Korea represents the bringing together of two countries, but many people in Korea see it as a reunion of members of one family.

Still, if one looks at a map of the Korean Peninsula, one can see that in spite of its openness to internationalism, South Korea is in some ways still very isolated.  South Korea is otherwise surrounded by water, and all access to the rest of the world must be by boat or airplane. As a result, Koreans haven’t left their country very often, nor have they been visited by people from other countries often. As a result, the country has been referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom.” Furthermore, the long history of Korea is marked by armies from China, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States, who have come to Korea in an effort to control this strategic landmark . As a result, Koreans historically have a suspicion regarding foreigners and their motivation for being in their land.

Nevertheless, as the 21st century, internationalism, the internet, and a new generation grow, the teenagers of today’s Korea are more able to comfortably share their heritage with their neighbors, China and Japan, as well as the rest of the world. As a result, we now see young Koreans expressing the warmth, kindness, and pride of their descendents from Manchuria and Mongolia.



Brief timeline of Korean History


700000 BC                 

Start of human habitation, according to Korean history records.        


7193-2333 BC            

Beginning records of Korean people—known as Dongyi—in the peninsula and extended territory extending well into modern day China and Russia. Dongyi people are ruled by 18 leaders known as Han-ung.


2333-75 BC

Choson period

Marked by continuous invasions and occupations by forces from modern day China, as well as power tugs-of-war among various Korean groups.


42-676 AD

Samguk Shidae (Three Kingdoms) period

Marked by additional influences from China and the importation of Buddhism


676-918 AD

Palhae-Unified Shilla (North-South Kingdoms) period

Marked by various battles over the Korean throne.


918-1392 AD

Koryo Dynasty

Marked by advances in pottery, literature, and Koryo Buddhism.


1392-1910 AD

Choson Dynasty

Known as the “last traditional kingdom before the onslaught of modern culture in the land of the morning calm.”


1910-1945 AD

Colonialism under Japan

Marked by the abdication of Korean emperor Sunjong and the taking over of power by the Japanese. Japanese authorities installed Japanese based educational and land-management reforms throughout the country, known as “forced assimilation.” Koreans suffered tremendous oppression and heavy death tolls under Japanese military rule. A famous uprising in 1919 is canonized as a holiday each March 1.


1945-1950 AD

Origins of the Korean War

Marked by Japan’s surrender due to the dropping of the US atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Forces from the Soviet Union then swept through Manchuria and North Korea, taking the territory north of the 38th parallel. The United States controlled the territory south of this parallel. The Soviets established Kim Il Sung as the leading Communist figure in North Korea. The North also had support of the Chinese military. The US military retained steadfast supporters of Democracy in South Korea. As a result, two countries with opposing non-reconciling governments were established.


1950-1953 AD

Korean War

President Harry Truman send US troops to take part in what was called a “police action” in response to an surge by Russian and North Korean forces crossing south across the 38th parallel. Control of the largest city Seoul chaotically changed hands from North to South four times during this period.

The war is marked by the deaths of over million Koreans (10 percent of the population), one million Chinese, and 50,000 US troops.



Marked by the South’s recovery from the war and advance as a leading economic power in the world. Also marked by Seoul’s hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games and South Korean president Kim Tae-Jong’s winning of the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his policy on reunification.




2. Typical Day for Teen Life in South Korea


            First, it’s important to understand what the word “teen” means by Korean standards. The age system in Korea starts from conception of the child. As a result, when babies are born, they are automatically classified as “one year old.” They then turn “two years old” on January 1 of the following year. As a result, children born in the last week of December are considered by Korean tradition to be two years old only one week after their birth. As a result, Korean teenagers are actually a year or two younger than teenagers from other countries.

The focal point of a Korean’s young daily life is school. By law, all children are required to go to school through high school. The principal goal in a Korean teenager's life is to work toward their university entrance exam. This exam is central to all they do and the decisions they make. As the 21st century opens, over 70 percent of all South Korean teenagers matriculate in universities or junior colleges. (This is in comparison to just 30 percent in 1990.) As a result, Korean teenagers can spend up to 16 hours a day, Monday through Friday, and Saturday mornings, working on their coursework. The reason for putting their exam as their principal priority is that jobs and financial gain in the future is dependent almost exclusively on the name of the university one attends. As a result, from the earliest days of pre-school, parents and teachers push children toward studying so that they may enter the top universities in Seoul, namely Seoul National University, Yongsei University, and Korea University. Students who attend these universities can expect to be invited by top companies for employment, a lucrative job that could very well be their only job for their entire lives.

The day often begins with a light breakfast or cleaning of one’s room. For teenagers living in boarding schools, the dorm room cleaning is part of their grade. While students will be studying or in class for as many as 16 hours in a day, there is usually a short morning period and a long evening period when students study on their own. Students often have their own carrels in libraries where they may keep their textbooks and school supplies. These carrels also serve as their study areas during their self-study time. When students aren’t in their study carrels, they are taking one of seven or eight classes that stretch until around 4:00 pm. At that time, though, most students join a team to clean the school or participate in sporting activities. They may then have dinner at school, whereupon they either return to their study carrel or attend classes elsewhere in their town.

Due to the intensity of studying, teenagers rarely hold part-time jobs. Parents and teachers won't let them. From the time children start kindergarten, many parents are already pushing them into gaining scholastic advantages. Some parents will spend as much as $600/month to have their five-year-olds study English in private preschools. Even high schools have entrance exams, and students with the best scores therefore attend those schools known throughout the country as "the best schools," regardless of their parents’ income or ability to pay. There are several schools throughout the country that claim to be the best because their students have had the best entrance exam scores. A number of these are boarding schools, so the teenagers live away from their families. These boarding schools are also often in rural areas, so the students are limited to the temptation of outside city-borne activities off campus. As a result, many of the students in the top schools move from Seoul to the countryside to do their high school work.

            Parents pay fees to have their children go to school, but the amount of the general fee is essentially the same throughout the country, regardless of the classification of the school. However, it is worth noting that students not attending the top schools are still in full competition with those attending top high schools for those positions at Korea's top universities. As a result, many students at non-boarding schools will attend cram schools, known as haguan, in the evenings in order to update and help them compete with those in Korea's top schools. Parents actively support their children in the haguan, although it does put an extra financial burden on them to do so.

Teenagers are usually responsible for their own transportation to and from school. Most students take buses or the subway in larger cities. If one is running late, it is not unusual for teenagers to take a taxi to school because taxi fare is quite inexpensive. Parents rarely drive their children to school, and teenagers are unable to take their family car because the age for receiving a driver’s license in Korea is 20, the same as the drinking age. Furthermore, students generally enroll in expensive driving schools in order to receive their permits.





Example boarding school schedule for high schoolers


schedule #1:

Gyeongbuk Foreign Language High School

boarding school in Gumi




get up


exercise, including dancing, aerobics, and jogging


eat breakfast

typically rice, gimchi, soup, yogurt, apples


wash face and hands or take a shower


clean dorm room


take roll call



school officially begins

free study at carrel in student study room, known as a yaja



first of four classes, each between one hour to 90 minutes




typically rice, gimchi, soup, bibimbab, tomatoes

sometimes spaghetti with a topping of peas and/or fish



more classes



students clean the school with their team



one more class






roll call and free study at the yaja


often goes until 11:00 with a 30-minute break in the middle,

can go until 1:30 or later during examination periods.



Example schedule for junior higher


schedule #2:  Seongmyung Middle School, Seoul, girls' school



get up


transportation to school: 15 to 30 minutes by bus, subway, taxi (rarely the parents

take them)


try to be to school by 7:15

free study until first class



first of six classes for the day, though the subjects are different every day




school has a cafeteria, but many buy food at nearby restaurants and stores or bring

lunch boxes called toshira



classes resume



dinner at school



choice of studying at school at individual study carrels or going to a cram school,

known as a haguan


study until 10:00 or 11:00 pm, well past 1:00 am during examination preparation time





3. Family life for teens in South Korea


            In spite of the intensity of daily study, families do manage to show tremendous camaraderie. On weekends, parks and riversides are filled with picnickers. Families make regular outings with their children, often to bookstores, national parks, and beaches. It’s not uncommon to see families with sketchbooks, watercolors, and brushes, painting in parks on Saturdays. Some families with a lineage of artists have their children study the craft or trade of their family in order to carry on the family business. Such art includes ceramics, masks, knot tying known as maedup, patchwork cloths, paper design, and calligraphy. Such trade used to include fishing and farming, but has given way to Korean’s thirst for a degree from a top university and a job in industries dealing with semiconductors, communications[1], shipping, and automobiles.

And while many parents choose careers for their children, there is seldom disagreement from the children. Most students will proudly salute the support they get from their parents and state the extent to which they look forward to outings with their families.

            There exists hierarchy in Korean families. Like most families in East Asia, the eldest child is held in highest esteem and holds greater responsibility than the other siblings, especially if the eldest is male. When you state that you have a brother or a sister, the first question a Korean might ask you is, “Is he/she older or younger than you?” Traditionally, the extended family of aunts and uncles was important, but in modern times, such practice has given way to an emphasis on the nuclear family.

            Korea is a very crowded country. As a result, most families live in apartments. Often the apartments are in high-rise buildings provided by major businesses in the country. Even in the countryside, it is common to see a ten-story high rise next door to a rice field. As a result, families and teens carry out family activities and meet friends outside of the home. Rarely are guests invited over. There simply isn’t enough room. In fact, in some houses, living rooms and bedrooms are often the same room, with the mattress and pillows kept in closets, only to be taken out for sleeping time. Nevertheless, if you are invited over, you can expect to take your shoes off at the front door, sleep on a heated floor known as an ondol, and eat from a central set of plates and bowls, from which everyone chooses what they want to eat.




4. Traditional and non-traditional food dishes in South Korea


            The heart of any Korean meal is gimchi. That’s pickled cabbage with red peppers and red bean paste. Most Koreans are addicted to it and include it in every single meal. Many Korean dishes are spicy in that red pepper, garlic, and onions are essential ingredients in almost every Korean recipe. Other components to regular Korean meals are rice, soup, soy beans, seaweed, and other side dishes. Everything is served at the same time. Meat is also integral to lunch and dinner. Common examples include galbi--a set of barbecued short ribs brazed in soy sauce, honey, ginger, and garlic; bulgogi—grilled beef marinated in mixture of bean paste, grated pear, soy sauce, sesame oil, cooking wine, and sugar; and fish or squid—both in raw, cooked, and dried forms. The typical meal has one big plate, a bowl for soup, and several little side dishes. The side dishes usually entail vegetables of some sort, particularly seaweed, soy beans, cucumbers, eggplant, bean sprouts, tomatoes, and of course gimchi. For special plates, there is also usually a stack of lettuce and persimmon leaves. Here, people often use the leaf the same way one would use a slice of bread. They take the leaf in their hand; then they take metal chopsticks and place the meat in the center of the leaf, add a condiment or two, usually raw garlic and hot red pepper sauce, and fold the leaf around the meat and condiments to make a sort of leaf-based sandwich. They then pop the entire concoction in their mouth. To make noise in doing so is considered a means of telling the preparer or host that the food is good. Noodles, served both hot and cold, are also popular items. Slurping these noodles and letting them hang from the chopsticks is also considered good manners. Bibimbap is the combination of stewed vegetables and rice with red pepper sauce. It’s found almost anywhere, and is often accompanied by a raw or fried egg. All the ingredients of bibimbap are served in a large bowl, and it’s considered good manners to stir all the ingredients with a large metal spoon for a long time before digging in. Finally, in addition to cold noodles, another summertime treat is boshingtang, also known as dog soup.

            Cafeterias at Korean schools often serve both lunch and dinner. A typical school lunch consists of rice, gimchi, soup, tomatoes, spaghetti, peas, and fish. Some teenagers will bring their own lunch in the form of a special box, known as a toshira. Parents often prepare toshira so that their children can experience some variety in their meals they otherwise wouldn’t get if they ate cafeteria food every day.

            Korean teens also enjoy fast food. In fact, some parents complain that Korean youngsters’ penchant for hamburgers and pizza is making their children fat. However, the most popular hamburgers and pizza have a Korean twist to them. Hamburgers often have bulgogi grilled beef, shrimp, or squid as its main meat. Sometimes, the bread is replaced by two “buns” made of compacted and sculpted sticky rice. Popular pizza toppings include bulgogi, squid, potatoes, peas, gimchi, and corn. Furthermore, pizzas in Korea typically have only just a touch of tomato sauce. Japanese fast foods have also become more popular. It’s now easy to find restaurants that serve chicken, fish, and pork cutlets, made in the Japanese style, complete with miso soup and pickled daikon radish.

            Koreans rarely eat dessert. Nevertheless, Korean junk food has gained tremendous popularity throughout Asia and Australia, and has become an integral part of Korean desserts. Ice cream, doughnuts, and red bean parfait with crushed ice, fruit cocktail, milk and ice cream, known as patbingsu, are common sweets eaten as in-between-meal snacks.

            Chinese medicine is integral part of Korean life. Pharmacies comfortably sell both Western prescription drugs as well as Chinese herbs. Among these is ginseng, a root that has been revered for thousands of years as a miracle food. Ginseng cannot be cultivated in any other country than Korea. As a result, markets are full of shops that carry ginseng, both in its fresh form, as well as in candy.



                     Gimchi recipe courtesy of Curtis Aikens


                     1 small head Napa cabbage

                     1 small head Romaine lettuce

                     8 spring onions, thinly chopped on the bias

                     1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste

                     1 teaspoon grated ginger

                     1 clove garlic, crushed into a paste

                     3 tablespoons sesame oil

                     4 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

                     3 tablespoons soy sauce

                     2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted


                     Tear Napa cabbage into bite size pieces. Cut Romaine lettuce into 1/3

                     inch strips. Toss in large bowl with spring onions. In a small bowl

                     combine red pepper flakes, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, vinegar and soy

                     sauce. Pour over greens and toss well to coat. Sprinkle with sesame



                     Prep Time: 10 minutes

                     Cooking Time: 0 minutes

                     Difficulty: Easy






The Seven Components of Gimchi:


     1.The chili taste, hot or sweet





     6.Astringency (as found in an unripe persimmon, though often accomplished with sesame oil)

     7.Ingredient for intensifying or enhancing flavor





Chart of foods:


Barbecued Short Ribs

Bean sprout Rice


Chap Jae

Chap Chye

Chicken Soup

Chicken Soup With Clams

CrockPot Beef Stew

Dumpling Soup

Fried Kelp

Grilled Beef

Gimchi Poke In Rice Paper Taco

Marinated Skirt Steak

Mussel Bisque

Pine Nut Gruel

Rice-Cake Soup

Spareribs Braised with Sesame Sauce

Roast Garlic Soup With Thyme

Vegetables  Mix with Rice

Beuseus Denjang Jeege (Spiced Mushroom Stew)

 Bori Cha (Roasted, Unhulled Barley Water Tea)

 Bosam Gimchi (Stuffed Cabbage Pickle)

 Chong Kak Kimchi (Young Bachelor Radish Pickle)

 Dak Gochu Jang Boekum (Chicken in a Hot Chili Sauce)

 Dak Kalgusku (Chicken Shreds in Noodle Soup)

 Ehoba Pak Jon (Fried Young Squash)

 Gaji Gimchi (Eggplant Pickle)

 Gaji Namul (Steamed Eggplant Salad)

 Gaktugi Kimchi (Pickled Radish)

 Gimchi Jiege (Kimchi and Pork Soup)

 Gimchi Jigae (Cabbage Kimchi Soup)

 Gongnamul Gook (Soybean Sprout Soup)

 Gonghamul Kuk Bap (Korean Rice Breakfast)

 Maewoon Ojingau Bokum (Chili-Hot Squid with Vegetables)

 Rice Cake Soup (Ttokkuk)

 Sliced Korean Radish (Muu Namul)

 Traditional Red Beans and Rice (Pat Baap)

 Wizard's Barbecue (Shinsullo or Jungol)

5-Grain Rice (O Kok)

Grilled Spiced Fish (Sen Saen Yang Jung Chang Kui)

Marun Panchan (Sweet Dried Anchovy Korean Condiment)

Miyuk (Seaweed Soup)

Mu saengch'ae (White Korean Radish Strips)

Myulchi Boekum (Dried Anchovy Condiment)

Oee Namul Muchim (Cucumber Salad)

Oie Sobaegi (Stuffed Cucumber Pickle)

On Myon (Hot Noodle Soup)

Sae Me Duk (Steamed Buckwheat Cake)

Soe Gan Jon (Beef or Veal Liver Fritter)

Soo Jeung Kwa (Persimmon Punch)

Wanja Tang (Meatball Soup)

Yang Yeum Kanjang (Seasoned Dipping Sauce)

Yoel Mu Mul Kimchi (Pickled Young Radish Leaves)

Yul Mu Kimchi (White Radish Pickle)

Skewered Chicken (Dak Sanjuk)

Steamed Chili with Sesame (Gochu Muchim)

Yachae Chigae (Hot Vegetable Soup)

Yonggyebaeksuk (Spring Chicken Soup)

Baechu Daenchang Kuk (Chinese Cabbage Soup

with Brown Sauce)

Barbecued Chicken (Dak Bulgogi)

Barbecued Spiced Fish (Seng Sun Bulgogi)

Barbecued Squid Rectangles (Ojingau Bulgogi)

Beefsteak Barbecue (Bulgogi)

Barbecued Beef #2 (Bulgogi)

Beef and Mushroom Barbecue on a Skewer

(Nutari Beuseus Gochengi Bulgogi)

Blanched Zucchini Strips (Hobak Namul)

Broiled Todok (Todokkui)

Chicken Stew (Dak Jchim)

Clear Spinach Soup (Malgun Sigumchi Kuk)

Dubu Daenchang Chigae (Bean Curd Soup

(Tofu) with Brown Sauce)

Highly Seasoned Raw Crab (Gye Muchim)

Malgun Chang Kuk (Clear Turnip Soup)

Oxtail Stew (Sokkori Jchim)

Potato and Onion Soup

Rice Porridge (Hun Chuk)




5. Schooling for Teen Life in South Korea


Junior high school students may take up to 14 of 15 subjects in a single school year while senior high students may take as many as 18, though never all in a single day. Each subject has at least one standardized exam within the school year, and often there are as many as four, often falling in May, July, October, and November. Additionally, most teachers will give mock tests once or twice each month to help students prepare for the major exams. Subjects include Korean literature, mathematics, English, Mandarin Chinese, music, art, chemistry, physical education, earth science and biology, geography, and ethics.

            Students must select their university or college major in their second year of high school. The kind of university they choose to go to, and in effect the kind of university entrance exam they take, will be determined by this important decision. As a result, it is not uncommon for high schoolers to have clear opinions regarding what they want to be when they grow up. The most popular profession mentioned by teenagers is education. Yes, a tremendous number of teenagers say they want to become teachers. Other commonly mentioned professions include journalists, diplomats, engineers, architects, designers, doctors, and flight attendants. Many parents will decide the career choices for their children, often asking their children to continue family businesses, although this practice has diminished slightly in the recent years.

            Traditionally, schools have been divided by gender, though this changed dramatically in the 1990s. Now there are more schools that are coed. Often there are as many as 50 students in a single homeroom class. The teachers of homeroom classes not only serve as the teachers of the subject for which they have expertise, but they also serve as guidance counselors for the students in the homeroom. This is particularly important for teenagers who have just moved to boarding schools, who are spending their first days away from their families, and are living with strangers in narrow dormitory rooms for the first time.

            The classroom is often set up with individual desks, aligned in rows and columns in front of a blackboard or whiteboard. The teacher usually stands behind a podium and lectures. Students are not encouraged to ask questions too often in that mistakes may be punished.

            For each subject, a specific textbook is required. Textbooks are not provided by the schools, so families must buy books for their children. As a result, one may find many bookstores throughout the country. In some bookstores, entire floors are devoted to the selling of textbooks, not only for teenagers’ regular schooling, but also for their participation in the haguan. The bookstores are extremely popular. They are always full of people, and bookstores generally allow customers to freely read and look at any book. Many parents will take their children on regular outings to bookstores.

The school year starts at the beginning of March and goes through mid to late July. Students then have 40 days of vacation. Students return in September for a second term and go to mid to late February. There is, however, a brief winter vacation for Christmas and New Year’s. The spring vacation usually lasts no more than ten days and is the vacation that leads students from one grade to the next.


6. Social Life for Teen Life in South Korea


            In spite of the intense studying, Korean teenagers do find time to have fun. Often they meet in school at club meetings. Usually these gatherings occur on campus on Friday afternoons, and many schools will sponsor as many as 20 clubs, ranging from drama, radio broadcasting, filming, conversation in foreign languages, newspapers, astronomy, and cartoon animation.

            Off campus, many teenagers list sleeping as their favorite hobby, although listening to music, swimming, soccer, baseball, tennis, and Korean billiards are popular, as well. As for the best places to meet, many teenagers will meet at fast-food restaurants, libraries, karaoke parlors (known as noreibang), and computer game rooms (known as PC bang)[2]. Recently, Korean-made movies such as Jingu have gained international notoriety, so theaters have become more popular.

            Teenagers do date one another, though to do so is the exception rather than the rule. In some schools, the event of two teenagers going out regularly is to be labeled as a CC, or “campus couple.”  However, discussing dating is not something teens in Korea regularly do. In fact, to do so is a little tricky. Many teenagers will tell adults that they’re too busy to be interested in dating. Some people suggest that silence regarding the discussion of love and dating is founded in the Korean proverb, Nam yeo chisae bu tungseop,  or “seven-year-old boys and girls don’t sit together in the same room.” Hence, there may be pressure to either not date or at least keep quiet about it. While this in itself may be true, the first questions teenagers ask of older friends are almost immediately, 1) How old are you? 2) Are you married?, and 3) If not, why not? So there is an inherent interest.

Teenagers expect to get married, though generally, most Koreans don’t get married until they’re well out of college or university. Women try to marry before they’re 26. Men have more time because they are required to spend 26 months in the military. Still there is generally significant pressure placed upon any single person to get married. Traditional Korean weddings and church weddings are common, but there also exists a large number of “wedding plazas”—large buildings built in the shape of castles where couples may have ceremonies representing both Western and Korean imagery, and have post-wedding parties. It is also common to see newlywed couples taking wedding photographs in the city parks on Sunday afternoons. Pre-arranged weddings are certainly part of Korean history, but that practice has diminished significantly over the recent years.

Teenagers, and most Koreans in general, feel very uncomfortable regarding sexual topics. In fact, it is practically a forbidden subject between parents and their children. As a result, the Ministry of Education has given opportunities for nurses, teachers, and counselors to give sex education in the schools. Many students are directed to additional information resources, principally the internet and magazines, thereby keeping the topics quiet and personal while not discouraging access to the information. Nevertheless, teenage pregnancies are on the rise in Korea, and adoption of Korean children by foreigners from other countries has become more and more prominent.

While drug and alcohol abuse is rarely reported in Korea, or even considered a major social problem, a type of gang violence known as wang-ta has received recent attention and given some cause for concern. In wang-ta, groups of students find physically weak or passive students to beat up. Such a practice is found in Japanese mafia groups in an activity known as “Easy man,” and some Korean teenagers have picked up on the practice.

However, wang-ta is the extreme and certainly not the norm. Korea enjoys tremendously low crime, and the streets are safe to walk at any time of day—even in Seoul, a city of over 10 million people. Nevertheless, teenagers do find ways to get into trouble. The most popular way for boys is to smoke. However, it is not uncommon to see the computer game room PC bangs filled with young boys smoking. Furthermore, many schools have smoking rooms for their male teachers. Apart from smoking, students are often reprimanded for coming to class late, having hair that’s too long, not eating the food they take at lunch and dinner cafeterias, fighting, breaking windows, or, the worst one, talking back to the teacher. The principal means of punishment is to have students do extra cleaning at the school. Suspensions and expulsions are very rare. Corporal punishment used to be a major form of discipline in Korea, but has been recently outlawed to the extent that teachers can be put in jail for hitting any student.




            Korean teenagers wear Western style clothes. In fact, buying clothes is one of the principal evening pastimes for teenagers, when they’re not studying. As a result, in almost any town, central business districts are dedicated to clothing shops. Shopping malls and department stores are also popular.  One thing noticeable among Korean teens is that they strictly follow a color scheme. A palette of clothing colors that teens choose from may be limited to navy blue, white, denim blue, gray, ochre, lavender, brown, mild pink, laurel green, olive, rust, silver blue, mustard yellow, and black. Very few teens, or people of any age for that matter, will choose colors that are not among these. However, this is not to say that the clothes are boring. Combinations of these colors may exist in the form of pinstripes and plaid. Most teens wear comfortable, slightly loose fitting clothes including skirts, shirts, and slacks. Most teens wear black slip on shoes or sandals. Baseball caps, even some worn backwards, are common. Shorts, earrings (even on boys), and sunglasses are just becoming popular, though primarily in Seoul.








            Brighter colors are reserved for traditional events such as weddings and people representing Korea as a country. In these cases, the same colors as found on temples may be found in Korean formal dresses—known as hanbok—and business uniforms, such as those for flight attendants. (See palette of colors for traditional Korean events below.)

            The same colors, especially gray, navy blue, white, black, and olive green, are often integral parts of student uniforms. Though many schools are discontinuing the use of school uniforms, they are still the rule rather than the exception. Students are generally required to wear uniforms every day, but are usually not permitted earrings or other piercings, tinted hair, tattoos, or make up, although these features are certainly gaining popularity among college-age students. Students are also required to wear a badge with their own photo and their name printed[3]. They also generally wear sandals with white socks as part of their uniform.



7. Recreation for Teens in South Korea


            Sports also play a major role in Korean teenage life. There are professional leagues for soccer, baseball, and basketball, and all are popular. Korea was named joint host with Japan for the 2002 World Cup Soccer Championships, for which 10 soccer stadiums and a new international airport were built.

            Many teens have been inspired by the success of Koreans in the Olympics. In 1988, Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics, and South Korean athletes performed well. Athletes from North Korea, however, were not permitted to participate in the Seoul games due to a boycott by its government. Nevertheless, team sports such as team handball and team hockey and individual sports such as speed skating and cycling have become popular because of the success of Koreans in these events. School gyms often provide team handball goals, almost every school has a soccer field, and many schools sport roller blading clubs. Many schools now also have rooms where students may play Korean billiards, a game similar to pool known as danggu that was outlawed to teenagers until the early 1990s. Skiing and speed skating are popular, as the winter months are quite cold and yield tremendous amounts of snow.

Most notable has been the increase in popularity in the marathon. The first Korean marathon hero was actually Sohn Kee-jung, who won a gold medal in the1936 Olympics in Berlin when he ran under the Japanese flag for political reasons (Korea was under Japanese rule at the time). Two more marathon heroes have emerged since. In 1992, Hwang Young-jo became the second Korean to win the gold medal in 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, and I Bong-Ju won the 2001 Boston Marathon. As a result, it is now quite common to see people, including teenagers, jogging and running for daily exercise, and competitive marathons are being developed throughout the country, even one called the “Nude Marathon.”



from http://violet.berkeley.edu/~korea/jhmenu9.html



            Koreans also have idols in individuals with success in popular sports in foreign countries. Women look up to Bak Se Ri, who has had tremendous success in the United States on the Ladies Professional Golf Tour. Bak Chan-Ho is a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. As a result, both TV and radio stations present Dodger games whenever he is pitching.



8. Entertainment for Teen Life in South Korea


            Korean teenagers jokingly list sleep as their favorite pastime. However, they also list an abundance of activities that occupy their spare time, among them entertainment. Korean teens list music and sports as their greatest forms of entertainment.

            When Korean teens aren’t studying, they are often listening to music. There are a number of teenage boy bands and girl bands that have gained popularity recently, and their photographs are often for sale in bookstores. Teen magazines are also popular. However, when asked about their favorite music, most Korean teens will answer in terms of style rather than artist. Current forms of rock, pop, and even traditional Korean music are popular with teens.

Korean hip hop, a very popular style, often includes a melodic introduction with a rap in Korean in the middle. This style is noteworthy in that it is the base for modern Korean dancing. On weekend evenings, young people often congregate outside large department stores where a stage is set up. Here, local school groups can perform a dance routine they’ve been practicing before a large audience and with bright colorful lights behind them. Some stages are so popular that entire street blocks are closed to traffic because so many people have gathered to watch the hip hop dancing.The importance of English as an international language and the prevalence of Western record store chains have helped Western music maintain popularity. MTV Asia provides time slots devoted to Korean music each day. As a result, Korean music has become more popular throughout Asia. Likewise, music from other Asian countries also has gained tremendous popularity in Korea. In this respect, karaoke rooms, known as noreibang, are extremely popular with teenagers. The influence comes from the Japanese invention of “empty orchestra” in which people may publicly sing popular songs in bars or special karaoke rooms. Additionally, almost every Chinese video will have the lyrics of any song subtitled across the bottom of the screen so that people may sing along with the song. As a result, these traditions have passed into Korean society, and teenagers are regular customers at noreibang. In fact, noreibang have become so popular that some karaoke buildings are several stories tall.


9. Religious Practices and Cultural Ceremonies for Teen Life in Korea


            Surveys of teenagers show that they comfortably exist amidst a variety of religions. However, unlike some of Korea’s neighbors, Koreans, teenagers included, practice whatever religion they follow very seriously. While a third of teenagers may mention that they don’t follow a particular religion, even these students usually have a sense of interest and respect for those who do practice.

As for Christianity and Buddhism, the intense dedication in which Koreans practice these may be in part due to their observation that religion is not permitted in North Korea at all. As a result, South Korea is the second most Christian nation in Asia following the Philippines.

The emphasis on religion in Korea is easily observed by the plethora of churches and temples which pepper the nation. Large Christian churches may be found in any city or town. At night, one may look into a skyline and see numerous neon crosses lighting the night sky in a single vista. Additionally, it is not unusual to see teenagers wearing teeshirts that say “Jesus” or a reference to a church outing. Buddhist temples are also abundant. Most neighborhoods have at least one small temple; however, ancient temples, dating as far back as the ninth century, may be found in many prefectural and national parks.

As with clothing, Buddhist temples follow a specific palette of color. If one goes to a Buddhst shrine, the following color scheme will be evident. First, one sees the paint color of the bark-color base of the temple. Then the foundational color of Oriental blue which supports all decorative design. These designs include images of dragons, tigers, and Buddhist symbols, drawn in bright purple, blue, green, orange, and yellow. Often these decorations are separated by black and white outlines. Finally, most temples add rose pink, scarlet, and black paintings of decorative flowers, most notably the national flower of Korea, known as the Rose of Sharon, or mugunghwa. (The mugunghwa is so revered that it is also the name of one of Korea’s national railway lines.) All these colors are also often displayed in formal hanbok (the traditional and formal woman’s dress) and in uniforms in which the display of Korean culture is considered important.












            Other religions also thrive in Korea. A form of traditional Korean shamanism is practiced, often for purposes of solace and meditation. Confucianism used to be popular, mostly due to its views towards ethics and respectful politics. However, it has lost popularity recently as it has become viewed by young people as overly patriarchal and conservative. Islam and Judaism are growing religions in Korea as foreigners with those religions have immigrated. Nevertheless, the tradition of Asia philosophies is still abundantly apparent, as is evidenced in the South Korean flag. The flag for South Korea, known as ttagukki, has its roots in Eastern philosophy and religion. The circle indicates balance and harmony, known as yin and yang. The circle is cut into two parts: the red being the positive yang, and the blue the negative yin. Surrounding the circle are four different trigrams, representing the four elements which make up the universe: heaven, earth, fire, and water. No matter what religion one practices in Korea, these elements are at the forefront of religious thought throughout the country.

            Holidays are important in Korea. Many are rooted in customs related to traditional Korean religion and to farming, but new holidays now honor milestones in Korean history. There are two kinds: those set to the solar calendar, such as New Year’s Day, Memorial Day (June 6), Constitution Day (July 17), and Christmas, and those set to the lunar calendar, such as Lunar New Year (the first day of the first moon), Buddha’s Birthday (eighth day of the fourth moon), and Moon Festival Day, known as Chuseok (15th day of the eighth moon), when teenagers can pay homage to their ancestors. During Chuseok, teenagers celebrate their own version of Thanksgiving, a day full of food consisting of wine, cakes, jujube berries, chestnuts, pears, and persimmons; however, many of these foods are then taken to their family shrines and are offered to their ancestors. Teenagers also often participate in Children’s Day—May 5—by spending the day at the zoo, amusement park, department store, or ball game with their families. Furthermore, teenagers in Korea take Valentine’s Day through various stages throughout the year: Only girls give chocolate gifts on Valentine’s Day (February 14), and only to boys. On March 14, roles are reversed when boys give white cookies to the girls who gave them chocolate on February 14. Korean teenagers also play with the 14th day of each month throughout the year. May 14 is Rose Day when couples give each other roses, and November 11 is Pocky Day, when couples can give each other chocolate covered pretzel sticks, called Pocky. The day was moved to the 11th from the 14th  because the shape of five pretzel sticks looks like II/II.



New Year’s Day                                  January 1 and 2


Independence Movement Day March 1

            To commemorate the uprising against Japanese oppression in 1919.


Arbor Day                                           April 5

            To celebrate Korea’s effort to re-establishing forests.


Children’s Day                                   May 5

            A day for families to go to the zoo, amusement park, department store, or ballgame.


Memorial Day                                     June 6

            To honor those who died in war.


Constitution Day                                 July 17

            To honor the founding of the Republic of Korea in 1948.


Liberation Day                        August 15

            To remember the day the Japanese surrendered in 1945.


National Foundation Day                    October 3

            In memory of Tan-gun, supposedly the first Korean, born in 2333 BC.


Christmas Day                                    December 25


Often schools and official offices are closed for these holidays. However, other fun holidays are also observed, even when school is in session. These include


Valentine’s Day                                  February 14

            When girls give chocolate to the boys they are interested in.


White Day                                           March 14

            When boys give white cookies to the girls who gave them chocolate on February 14. Korean teenagers also play with the 14th day of each month throughout the year. May 14 is Rose Day when couples give each other roses, and November 11 is Pocky Day, when couples can give each other chocolate covered pretzel sticks, called Pocky. The day was moved to the 11th from the 14th  because the shape of five pocky sticks looks like II/II.


Hangeul Day                                       October 9

            In commemoration of the man who invented the Korean alphabet.


Korea follows the solar calendar, so offical holidays concerning the lunar calendar are different each year. Nevertheless, school is dismissed on these days, as well:


Lunar New Year                                  first day of the first moon

            Usually occurs at the end of January or beginning of February


Buddha’s Birthday                              eighth day of the fourth moon

            Also known as Feast of the lanterns


Chuseok                                              15th day of the eighth moon

            Commemorated in honor of family ancestry




10. Conclusion for Teen Life in Korea


            The teenagers of South Korea in the early 21st century may be the happiest and most prosperous in Korean history. As one of the most isolated peoples on Earth, they are growing up in an industrialized information center for the world. They aspire to high educational standards, study like crazy, and value both sleep and intense play during their rare spare time. The stresses of their lives are shaped by exams and pressures to enter top educational institutions, but they are supported lovingly and financially by their teachers and their parents. They feel they will see a unified Korea within their lifetime, but they’re not in a hurry to achieve it. It’s not a surprise since they are taught to avoid mistakes at all cost. They are perhaps the first generation ever to demonstrate pride for their roots and comfortably coexist with people traditionally known as their invaders and enemies. They sing rock music and dance at department stores. They love their traditional foods, but they sculpt them in the forms of hamburgers and pizza. They live in constricted space, but have learned to deal with responsibility and live with a large number of people. They exude pride for their culture, but yearn to express it outside the limiting confines of their geography. 


File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0


            The flag for South Korea, known as ttagukki, has its roots in Eastern philosophy and religion. The circle indicates balance and harmony, known as yin and yang. The circle is cut into two parts: the red being the positive yang, and the blue the negative yin. Surrounding the circle are four different trigrams, representing the four elements which make up the universe.












11. Resources for Teen Life in Korea


List of Articles about Korea



List of Factual Books about Korea


Adams, Edward B. (1983). Korea Guide: A Glimpse of Korea’s Cultural Legacy. Seoul: Seoul International Tourist Publishing Company.


Halliday, John and Bruce Cumings. (1988).  Korea: The Unknown War. Pantheon Books.


National Statistical Office Republic of Korea (2000). Statistical handook of Korea, 2000. Daejon: National Statistical Office.


Nelson, Laura C. (2000). Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea. New York: Columbia University Press.


Storey, Robert, and Alex English. (2001). Korea. Melbourne: Lonely Planet Publications.




List of Fictional Books about Korea


Long Long Time Ago: Korean Folk Tales.

 Traditional, illustrated by Dong-sung Kim (Hollym, 1997)


Dear Juno

by Soyung Pak, illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung (Viking, 1999).


F is for Fabuloso

by Marie G. Lee (Avon, 1999).


Peacebound Trains

by Haemi Balgassi, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet (Clarion,1996).


Necessary Roughness

by Marie G. Lee (Harper Collins 1996).


Sees aw Girl

by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng (Clarion,1999).


A Single Shard

by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, 2001).


A Step from Heaven

by An Na (Front Street 2001). 


Yunmi and Halmoni’s Trip

by Sook Nyul Choi, illustrated by Karen Dugan (Houghton-Mifflin, 1997).



List of Movies from Korea


Jingu (“Friend”)

Director: Kwak Kyung-taek, distributed by CineLine



Director: Im Sang-soo, distributed by CineLine


Bungee Jumping of Their Own

Director: Kim Dae-seung, distributed by CineLine



Director: Song Hae-sung, distributed by CineLine


Kick the Moon

Director: Kim Sang-jin, distributed by Cinema Service




Websites with information about Korea


a.         Facts and figures regarding Korea:


King, Patrick (1999). Granite School District, Utah.










b.              general information regarding Korea


Life in Korea



            Yellow Pages






c.         reference to the Olympics:









d.         fashion for teens in Korea (South Korea TeenBeat):






e.         reference to Korean history:






f.          references to Korean food:












g.         references to Korean entertainment:







            books on line:



            culture, language, art, religion






h.         List of Places where students can locate more information about Korea

            (embassies, travel bureaus, etc.)


Embassies of South Korea:








Consular information sheet for North Korea:





            travel agencies:


Korean Airlines



Asiana Airlines



            youth hostels



            foreign chambers of commerce






i.          News agencies







j.          List of Places to secure Pen Pal information


            You may write to a number of junior and senior high schools, requesting pen pals with their English students. Some schools include


            Gyeongbuk Foreign Language High School

            1716-24 Daemyeong-dong

            Nam-gu, Daegu 705-031

            Republic of Korea


            Geochang High School

            387 Choong-ang Ri

            Geochang, Gyungnam

            Republic of Korea




[1] Cellular and mobile telephones are now Korea’s most popular form of communication.

[2] The average Korean spends 17 hours each week in front of a computer.

[3] This contrasts with North Korean teenagers who allegedly wear badges with pictures of President Kim Jong Il.