Chapter 15 Korean Culture



  • Sean N. Bennett, RN, MSN - Assistant Professor - Utah Valley University - Orem, Utah
  • She Chavez, - Nursing Student, Utah Valley University - Orem, Utah
  • Yvonne Ellison, RN, CRRN, - BSN Student - Utah Valley University - Orem, Utah








Korea is mainly composed of one race which is Asian (Northeast). It has its unique one culture, character, cloth, and food that separate from the countries nearby Korea. Diligent and hard work, filial piety, and humbleness are characteristics respected by Koreans. They are proud of their unique traditional culture and their economic success within short period of time. Education is very important to Koreans. It is the way of becoming successful (Ma, 2012).

Korean culture is very unique and full of interesting traditions. Korean language uses Hangul characters instead of Chinese characters. Korea is located between China and Japan. It is connected to China in the North. Korea is a divided country. The north part is a communist country which is known as North Korea. South Korea is democratic country.

North Korea and South Korea use same language. The language Hangul is considered as a very well planned language. It is easy to write in Korean because of its well-planned structure. Nowadays, many of Koreans learn English. It is almost considered as a second language in Korea.

Korean is modernizing very fast. The economic growth is exponential. However, the rural area is still relatively poor compare to the cities.

Education is very important in Korean society. Education is considered as a way to a successful life. It is norm to see little children spend all day at school and have multiple tutors. Junior high school and high school students stay at school more than 12 hours is also norm in Korea.

Family is the most important part of Korean society. Traditionally, the father is the head of the family, but it is changing since many of Korean women are working outside too. Koreans value family’s welfare more than individual’s welfare. This culture is heavily influenced by Confucianism. Since Korea is becoming westernized, traditional value and costumes are changing too. For example, it used to be very important to celebrate ancestor’s birthday and the day they passed away. However, these days many Koreans refuse to celebrate their ancestor’s birthday.

Values and Norms


Korea is mainly composed of one race which is Asian (Northeast). It has its unique one culture, character, cloth, and food that separate from the countries nearby Korea. Diligent and hard work, filial piety, and humbleness are characteristics respected by Koreans. They are proud of their unique traditional culture and their economic success within short period of time. Education is very important to Koreans. It is the way of becoming successful (Ma, 2012).

National pride


Koreans are very proud of their nationality because they value their rich achievements. It was a valuable result of their hard work. This pride gives Koreans a powerful and positive identity. It is norm that Koreans regularly criticize and discuss of their society, but it is not acceptable for them to hear critiques from other foreign people.



This is related to feeling, emotion, and state of mind. It is hurting someone’s ego or dignity when someone’s Gibun is hurt. It is difficult to describe Gibun in English. It is very complicated. Having harmonious atmosphere is more valuable than achieving immediate goals. Koreans are not pleased with telling absolute truth if that is going to hurt someone’s Gibun. Koreans think that achievement without hurting someone’s Gibun is true achievement. That is why it is very important to Koreans to develop interpersonal skills that can avoid hurting someone’s Gibun, and keeping their Gibun pleasantly.



This is very important in Korean society. This is the way of assessing somebody’s Gibun. This can be done by observing body language, sight, listening to the tone of voice, and the connotation. Most of the time, Koreans speak indirectly, so it is very important to notice the real meaning.

Gender roles


Housework is mostly done by women in Korea. It is changing because Korean women are working these days, but it is still considered as a woman’s job in Korea. Modern industrialization and democratization gave opportunities to women in Korea to work outside of home. However, the basic gender role exists (Soh,1993).

Traditions, Beliefs and Attitudes


A status is very important to Koreans. Their speech reflects the hierarchical relationship between people. It doesn’t show much when a conversation is made between close friends. It is considered childish act when a person use his/her first name to call him/herself. It is taboo to call a social superior by its first name instead of position title.

It is norm to be very careful and humble when a Koreans interact with social superiors. However, they are very friendly and outgoing when they are with their friends or equal social status. Koreans in a big city tend to be rude to strangers because they are too busy and self-centered. It is norm to not to apologize when they accidently push or jostle other people in public places (Koo, 1992).

Koreans believe ancestors are protecting their family’s welfare. It is very important to keep their ancestor memorial day. Ancestors are based on the male family line. It is common when parents teach their children that they cannot repay their debt to their parents. It is so important to worship their ancestors. Several times a year, especially on Chusoek and New Year’s Day, they have ancestral ceremonies for the previous generations. It used to be three generations, but it is norm to celebrate just one previous generation. On Chuseok and New Year’s Day, Koreans cook and bring the food to ancestor’s grave to celebrate their ancestors. However, this is mostly done by Korean women, especially daughter in laws. Traditionally, men are not allowed in a kitchen. Generally, Korean mothers are not pleased when their son helps their wife to cook and to wash dishes (Ma, 2012).



100 years ago, Koreans had no freedom of religion. However, these days they are free to join any types of religion. There are many types of religion in Korea: shamanism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, and other religions. Even though their religion is different, most of Koreans believe in a myriad of gods, spirits of dead, and fortune telling.

Korean Buddhism has both doctrinal and meditative traditions. They believe that human desire cause suffering, so they try to detach themselves from human desire (Busswell, 1992).

Very few Koreans are Muslim. Many of Koreans have Muslim phobia.

Christianity became a main religion in Korea. It used to be Buddhism. It is mostly catholic and protestant. It is not difficult to find protestant churches in Korea because their neon red-cross on the top of the church.

Lots of Koreans believe that there are ancestral spirits even though their religions are different. It is also very important for Koreans to select good site according to geomantic principle. They believe that wrong grave site can cause harm to their family. Despite the diversity of religion, most of Koreans practice Confucianism in funeral. They also observe the Confucianism when they honor the dead ancestors on Chuseok, New Year’s Day, and some other special days.

Shamanism is not an organized religion is Korea. However, Shamanism can be observed in many aspect of Korean culture. A mudang is the one who interact with spirits and resolve the problem between humans and ghosts. The ceremony is made of songs and dances. They also write many kinds of charms to protect people from harmful spirits. It cost is from few dollars to millions depends on how strong the spirit is (Ma,2012).

Sense of Self and Space


Personal space is considered very important in Korean culture, and Koreans don’t break each other’s personal space unless they are very intimate. Around 1 miter length is considered to be a norm. The distance can be bigger when interaction is between strangers. Business conversation can make the distance bigger than casual conversation (Soh, 1993).

It is not appropriate to touch during conversation unless it is among close friends. It is recommended not to touch during conversation. It is also norm not to hug when greet people. Koreans just have hand shaking or bow. Most of the times, greeting involves hugging is allowed only between families, spouses, a couple in a relationship, or very close friends. Hugging is not norm in Korea.

Korean way of greeting has some rules. Most of Koreans shake hands after they bow to each other. It is also important to shake hands with both hands. Usually, person with low status bows. It is also norm that low status wait until the superior status person to start the conversation.

Traditionally, direct eye contact considered vey inappropriate. It was rude to have eye contact with social superiors. However, these days direct eye contact is norm in Korea. The younger generation is comfortable with it. However, staring is usually considered as inappropriate. It is recommended to not to have direct eye contact in a public places.

Koreans use ‘we’ terms a lot. Instead of ‘my parents’, ‘my school’, ‘my sister’, or ‘my home’, it is ‘our parents’, ‘our school’, ‘our sister’, or ‘our home’. It is considered awkward when a person use ‘my’ term to describe its possession. This reflects Koreans’ strong community sentiment. They believe that each individual belongs to the community, and it is impossible to break the bondage. Koreans value community’s welfare more than individual welfare.

Communication Style and Language


Nearly 70 million people speak Korean. Most people that speak Korean live in Korea, but there are another five million people around the world that also speak Korean. The Korean language is considered part of the Tungusic branch of the Altaic group of the Ural-Altaic language family. The Korean language is closely related to the Japanese language. The standard form of Korean is spoken around Seoul, but there are other dialects that mainly differ in accent and intonation.

Up until the mid-15th century, the upper class Koreans used Chinese character to write. At the same time, the government and everyday people used a writing system called “idu”. Idu was a writing system invented in the 8th century by Silla scholars using Korean words put to Chinese characters. Unfortunately for the commoners, they did not have time to master Chinese, since you need a basic knowledge of thousands of characters. This difficulty between the spoken and written language lead to mass illiteracy.

In 1443, King Sejong of the Choson Dynasty commissioned scholars to invent a phonetic writing system for the Korean language that would by easy for everyone to learn. The new written language is commonly known as “Han’gul”. Han’gul was originally called Hunmin Chong’um or the correct sounds to teach the people. It was widely taught in 1446 and the Korean people still honor King Sejong today on October 9th, known as Han’gul Day.

What makes Hang’gul so easy to learn is that each letter corresponds to a phoneme (any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another, for example p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat). Now Korea has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. In 1988, UNESCO designed a literacy prize named in King Sejong’s honor for people that help get rid of illiteracy around the world (Everyculture, 2014)

Food and Feeding Habits


Rice is very important in Korean diet. Even though many Koreans prefer western-style diet, rice is still the main dish in Korean meal. Rice is usually accompanied by many side dishes. Mostly Kimchi, vegetable, and soup are the side dishes.

Kimchi is the most important food in Korea. It is a fermented cabbage with mixture of various vegetables and spicy pepper powder. Most of Kimchi is very spicy. It is an acquired taste.

In November or December, most of Koreans make Kimchi to last few months. They used to store kimchi underground to maintain the temperature and the flavor. Nowadays, Koreans have a Kimchi-refrigerator which is specialized to store Kimchi for long period of time.

Most of the time, making Kimchi is done by women. However, many of Korean women are working these days, and don’t have time to cook. It is common to buy Kimchi from grocery store. It used to be considered as very bad to buy Kimchi instead of make them.

Addition to Kimchi and rice, Doenjang and Gochujang is very important part of Korean diet. It is made of soybean paste. It takes time to make these sauces because they need to be fermented for few months or years. It usually takes six months to a year.

Beef and pork are expensive in Korea. Korean diet is usually made of vegetables. Fishes are large part of Korean diet since Korea is surrounded by ocean.

Koreans love drinking alcohol. It is very common to drink alcohol when they have meal. The alcohol name ‘Soju’ is Korean’s favorite alcohol to drink.

Time Consciousness


Western civilizations generally think of time as being linear. Westerners think of time as starting around 3000 BC and moving up to the present 2014 AD. Eastern civilizations generally think of time cyclical. This idea of cycles may have come from the agricultural based society who depended on the seasons to plant and harvest their crops. To the Easterner, time is like a big spiral or circle without beginning or end. If you are going through a hard time, just wait long enough and you will soon have good times. And on the other hand, if you are having a good time, just watch out, sooner or later you will have hard times too. That goes for individuals as well as the society as a whole. Nations rise and fall. Nations have times of peace and prosperity and times of war and famine. With western time being linear, the newer is valued over the older. We think of old being outdated and unsophisticated, whereas the new is innovative and exciting. We value youth and technology, whereas, Eastern cultures value their elders and wisdom. Since Korean’s traditionally respect their elders, when people meet for the first time, they will want to establish who is older. In the Korean culture, the grandfather is given the utmost respect.

Americans are very schedule driven. Much of American’s verbal and nonverbal communication is based on time. This is not true of traditional Koreans, but has become truer as Korea has become westernized. Modern Korea has time schedules in their schools, classrooms and businesses. Westerns have been taught that time is money; whereas traditional Koreans know that time is life. Traditional Koreans see the value of taking time to medicate or as Steven R. Covey says “to sharpen the saw”.

Koreans are more past-oriented verse Americans being more present and future-oriented. Traditionally, Koreans use past events or history to evaluate current events. The youth will listen to their elders to get their perspective from life events. Past-oriented people cherish history which in turn brings more wisdom. Americans tend to focus on the here and now, Carpe diem, “seize the day.” Americans are more likely to think, we only live once so make the most of it (Lee, 2007)

Relationships and Social Organization


South Korean Relationships


The family is a very important part of Korean life. Family needs are more important than the individual’s needs. The Korean culture is highly patriarchal. Fathers are responsible for their families and must be honored, obeyed and respected. Fathers must approve the marriages of family members. Even ancestral fathers are honored. The custom is called filiopiety and even today elements of it remain among Koreans. The eldest male sits down and eats and drinks before anyone else starts. The eldest son has special duties: first to his parents, then to his brothers from older to younger, then to his sons, then to his wife, and lastly to his daughters.

Traditional roles for women required them to stay home, prepare the meals, raise the children and maintain the home. Now, women are found in the work force holding government positions, professional offices and are even professors.

When women marry, they move to their husband’s home but always kept their own family name. The women obey the eldest male in the home and also follow the directions from the eldest female. The grandmother has the most power next to the grandfather.

Customs forbid intermarrying within their own clan, no matter how distant cousins they are. Family and clan genealogies are recorded back for hundreds of years. Even westernized Korean families are proud to recite their family history with pride.

Korean values include obedience to family, hard work, protection of the family, and proper decorum among family members and is still important, even in the modern world.

Social Organization

It is important to wait to be introduced at social gatherings. Bowing is a traditional way of greeting. The person of lower status bows to the person of higher status, yet it is the most senior person who initiates the handshake. The person who initiates the bow says, "man-na-suh pan-gop-sumnida", which means "pleased to meet you."

It is inconsiderate to give someone an expensive gift if you know that they cannot afford to reciprocate accordingly. South Koreans prefer to do business with people with whom they have a personal connection.

Dining out tips: • Never point your chopsticks.

• Do not pierce your food with chopsticks.

• Chopsticks should be returned to the table after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak.

• Do not cross your chopsticks when putting them on the chopstick rest.

• Do not pick up food with your hands. Fruit should be speared with a toothpick.

• Bones and shells should be put on the table or an extra plate.

• Try a little bit of everything. It is acceptable to ask what something is.

• Refuse the first offer of second helpings.

• Finish everything on your plate.

• Indicate you are finished eating by placing your chopsticks on the chopstick rest or on the table. Never place them parallel across your rice bowl.

When you leave a social gathering, say good-bye and bow to each person individually. They hold ancestral ceremonies for the previous three generations (parents, grandparents, and great grandparents) several times a year, particularly on Chusok and New Year's Day.

Education and Learning


Parents work very hard to provide the very best education possible for their children. One reason for this is because parents usually rely on their children for support after retirement. In Korea, traditional gender roles are socialized into the children starting at an early age. Therefore, the parents feel that it is more important to see that their sons get the best education before their daughters. The parents usually have sons depend on them more while going through the teenage years and sometimes even after he is married. In the Korean society, these gender differences usually allow the women to be more of a free spirit than the men.

Higher education is seen as a way to improve one’s socioeconomic status in Korea. In order to get into one of the over nine hundred and fifty higher education institutions prospective students must take one of the annual college entrance exams. The annual entrance exams are extremely competitive and some prospective students take them multiple times in order to get into the most prestigious universities in Korea. Over twenty-five percent of the men get higher education and over ten percent of the women get high education(Everyculture).

Korean spend long days at school. Many students wake up at 6:30am to be at school by 8am. Schools let out at 4pm or later if they have extracurricular activities. The student will go home for dinner then to a private tutor for another three hours. Then they spend another couple of hours doing self-study to finally get to bed anywhere from 11am to 2pm depending on school assignments and upcoming tests. Then they start their day over again at 6:30am. This goes on day in and day out. It is the job of the student to overcome this lack of sleep and prepare for their college entrance exam. Parents and grandparent pray for their children while they take their college entrance exams. Those students that do very well bring honor to their families while those that do not do well disgrace their families (BBC).

Work Habits and Practices


In the past, the South Korean people were expected to work their entire life. Sometime in the late 1990’s there was a huge economic downturn that caused a lot of people to be out of work. Around fifteen percent of Korea’s work force is in fishing, forestry, and/or agriculture. Another twenty-five percent of Koreans are in manufacturing. A majority of the rest of the population is employed by the Korean government (, 2014).

South Korea has shown an economic boom in the last half of a century rivaling Taiwan. Taiwan and South Korea are the only two countries’ to show economic growth over five percent for the last fifty years. Because of Japan’s stagflation, Korea might surpass Japan in economic success. It is interesting that Japan and South Korea have intensely conformist societies. Unfortunately, Japan has regressed or moved backwards in their economic planning. Whereas, Korea has been able to move forward, embrace change and rebuild their economy. South Korea has revamped its entertainment industry and it now exporting its new popular music and films through Asia. South Korea has a very different approach to business that most westerners are familiar with. South Korea’s businesses are still very regimented and traditional in values. South Koreans feel it extremely important to save “face”. Even if it might hurt the company, South Korean business men must preserve their image or save “face” in every interaction. Westerners who want to succeed in the South Korean business world must do their homework and know South Korean business culture and business etiquette if they want to succeed (, 2014).

Some of the business etiquette that business people have to be aware of is the following: it is best to be introduced by someone else that to introduce yourself. Whereas bowing used to be the norm, shaking hands has now become common throughout Korea. Always exchange business cards and identify your position or level of authority in the company. Korean businessmen only like to deal with other business people on the same level of authority. It is best to use both hands when exchanging your business cards. Treat their business card as if it were that person himself. Show the card a lot of respect by handling it properly.



Korean health care is rated high on patient satisfaction for access to diagnostic tests, hospitals, drugs and specialists and patient experiences. Majority of doctors received their training in-country and abroad. English is better spoken by the doctor then the staff. It is recommended to write concerns and questions down since English is better understood in a written form. Hospitals are generally equipped with the latest technologies, although sanitation and infection control is not always up to international standards. Families are expected to care for the patient’s non-medical needs. Patients are expected to pay a deposit when first admitted and the remaining balance is to be paid before discharging (Huffingpost, 2013).

Most elderly Koreans prefer Oriental medicine. Practitioners of traditional oriental medicine are called Hanui. Hanbang is derived from Chinese medicine and is based on balance between um (the same as yin) and yang, and balance of fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. Diagnostic methods used in hanbang are observing the patients, obtaining histories of the illness, listening to patients' voices, and taking their pulse. The four most common treatment methods are acupuncture, herbs, moxibustion, and cupping. Korean patients may alternate between practitioners of Western and traditional Korean medicine (Stanford, 2014).

Ch’I or Ki is the practice of conceptualization of illness. It is believed that illness is the result of the interruption of the flow of life energy and blood. Some examples include: Arthritis, high blood pressure and other pain is considered caused by lack of regularity and control of daily patterns of living from physical exertion; a lack of control of food intake, can cause diabetes or fainting spells; neuralgia or cramps is caused by a lack of blood caused by “drying blood”. Indigestion, abdominal pain or neuralgia can be caused by coldness, dampness, and/or wind (Pung), which may come from inside the body, also can interfere with the flow of Ki (Stanford, 2014).

Traditionally, men predominated over women in Korea, so emphasis is more likely to be placed on illnesses that occur more frequently in men than in women.

Because of strong family traditions, nursing homes are scarce in Korean. Family is expected to take care of the needs of the sick individual. Most Koreans believe in natural ways of improving health including eating uncooked or natural foods, walking around their home and in the fresh air. Saunas and formation baths are encouraged since they are believed to improve circulation. Most Koreans prefer to die at home. The eldest son is likely to be present. Burial is preferred to cremation since frequent visiting of grave site is considered a sign of respect. It is believed that the spirit remains close to the family to protect and watch over their love ones.

As a Registered Nurse (RN), it would be important to recognize:

  1. Families prefer to be directly involved in patient care of a family member. As a nurse, it important to incorporated the family in tasks such as encouraging the patient to complete assigned exercises.
  2. Because of the strong patriarchal influence, ensure the eldest male is consulted prior to major medical decisions.


External Links








  1. Buswell, R. E. (1992). The Zen monastic experience: Buddhist practice in contemporary Korea. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press
  2. Jeong, H. (2011). Story of alcoholic drink by Professor Jeong Hun Bae [정헌배 교수의 술나라 이야기]. Seoul: Yedam.ISBN 978-89-5913-611-7
  3. Koo, J. The Term of Address 'You' in South Korea Today.. Korea Journal, 32, 27-42.
  4. Ma, J. (2012, January 1). Every Culture website - Countries and Their Cultures. . Retrieved July 2, 2014, from
  5. Soh, C. Compartmentalized Gender Schema: A Model of Changing Male-Female Relations in Korean Society. , Korea Journal, 34-48




  1. Buswell, Robert E., Jr. The Zen Monastic Experience: Buddhist Practice in Contemporary Korea , 1992.
  2. Janelli, Roger L., and Dawnhee Yim Janelli. Ancestor Worship and Korean Society , 1982.
  3. Jeong, H. (2011). Story of alcoholic drink by Professor Jeong Hun Bae [정헌배 교수의 술나라 이야기]. Seoul: Yedam.ISBN 978-89-5913-611-7
  4. Koo, John. "The Term of Address 'You' in South Korea Today." Korea Journal 32: (1), 1992.
  5. "Compartmentalized Gender Schema: A Model of Changing Male-Female Relations in Korean Society." Korea Journal 33 (4): 34–48, 1993.
  6. Lee, Y.O. Perceptions of Time in Korean and English. Human Communication. A Publication of the Pacific and Asian Communication Association. 2007. Vol. 12, No. 1, pp.119 - 138.