Korea is threatening to outdo Russia in its reputation for hard drinking. But the reason many Koreans drink is not so much pleasure as social pressure, especially in a work culture where obedience and conformity still play a vital role. And the pressure is on, not to drink a glass of wine or a few beers, but to match each other shot for shot of hard liquor.
Every Friday night, the streets are full of people lurching from lamppost to lamppost, or whole groups trying to prop each other up as they shamble to the nearest subway station.
Some of these revelers, whether well-dressed white-collar workers or girl students, can be found sitting or lying down right on the street or subway stairs. This may be shocking to first-time visitors to the country, but for Koreans these scenes are the norm in the commercial and entertainment areas of Seoul.
According to WHO statistics, Koreans consume the most alcohol in Asia. Korea's pure alcohol consumption among adults over 15 is 12.3 liters per capita per year. Furthermore, more than twice as much of Korea's most popular alcoholic beverage soju, which takes 97 percent of the market here, is sold than of any other spirit in the world.
Koreans often ask each other peculiar questions like, "Are you good at drinking alcohol?" as if it were a vital skill or proof of physical prowess. Such questions are hard to answer, especially for foreigners. In my own country, Uzbekistan, it is largely frowned on for women to drink a lot of alcohol, still less to admit it. But in Korea, answering these questions in the negative is likely to alienate people.
This is partly due to Koreans' strong sense of social cohesion, where it is seen as fatal to differ from the rest of collective. If everybody eats noodle soup, you eat the same. If everyone drinks beer, you will be considered criminal ordering something else. That same quality, on the other hand, has allowed Koreans to bring their country to unprecedented prosperity in a short time.
The story would not be so sad if everyone loved liquor. But if questioned, Koreans often admit that they do not, and blame society for forcing them to drink. In the collective, the non-drinker stands out and can come in for ostracism and bullying. At work gatherings, it is considered unthinkable not to match the boss drink for drink.
But if drinking is to be pleasurable, surely it should be an individual choice, just as it should be an individual choice not to, or to drink in moderation, or to drink half a pint of lager shandy. Using authority to force or coerce others to drink, especially when it becomes entrenched in the culture, can have pernicious consequences.
I hope that the young generation of Koreans will gradually change the situation, and that the government will pay it a little more attention.
By Elena Kan at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies