Asia's heaviest drinking country fights to get on the wagon

December 13, 2012

By AKIRA NAKANO/ Correspondent

SEOUL--In Asia's No. 1 drinking nation, the nightlife on the narrow streets lined with eateries in the Seoul city center was starting to wind down after midnight.

Some drunken men were sleeping with their heads down, while a woman was being carried on a colleague’s shoulder due to unsteady legs.

Overhead, a police banner swung in the wind.

“Stop drunken violence,” it read.

Like many South Koreans, Park Seon-guk, a 34-year-old employee at a major company, takes no notice of the governmental and private campaigns aimed at cutting down on drinking. He said he drinks with his business partners or colleagues several times a week.

Park likes a “poktanju” (bomb shot), a mix of beer and other alcoholic beverages, including “soju” distilled liquor.

He can easily get drunk on poktanju, but often ends up drinking too much and occasionally suffers a memory blackout, which happens a few times a year, he said.

Still he promotes the merits of drinking.

“Drinking together, people can get to know each other better and get invigorated,” he said.

SOUTH KOREA LEADS ALL ASIA IN DRINKING

Although the streets of Seoul late at night may not reflect it, a change is taking place, as South Korea starts to move toward temperance. Companies such as Samsung Group have launched a campaign to curb employees' "chug-a-lug" binge drinking, and the government has started anti-drinking efforts.

According to the World Health Organization, South Korea stood at 13th in the world in per capita alcoholic beverage consumption in 2005, at 14.8 liters, far exceeding Japan’s 8 liters and China’s 5.9 liters.

South Korea earned the dubious distinction of being the world leader in the consumption of distilled liquor, which has a higher alcohol content, in the same year.

According to Chang Ki-hwun, a senior researcher at the Korean Alcohol Research Foundation, Koreans have been heavy drinkers since ancient times, being mentioned in a section of the people of the Far East in the Chinese historical writing "Book of Wei," compiled in the sixth century.

South Koreans’ drinking habits began to escalate in the 1970s, Chang said.

“Under the times of rapid economic growth, people were forced to work hard. Stress just built up but they found no outlet other than drinking,” Chang said. “Liquor was also used to strengthen the sense of unity and solidarity of an organization.”

The practice of mixing different kinds of alcoholic beverages and of “one shot,” in which shots of liquor are passed around so every member of a group has to down them in one gulp, spread quickly.

Consequently, problems caused by heavy drinking have begun to surface.

According to a government report, South Koreans have spent a total of 1.28 trillion won (about 90 billion yen, or $1.1 billion) in medications and for the treatment of diseases associated with drinking, such as alcoholic liver disease, in the five and a half years since 2007.

Another source said that South Korea loses an estimated 20 trillion won a year in deteriorated workers’ productivity and destruction of property, caused by excessive drinking.

COMPANIES, GOVERNMENT START ANTI-DRINKING CAMPAIGNS

The Ministry of Health and Welfare launched a campaign last year to have people restrain from heavy drinking.

The ministry has been running a public service advertisement on television and in other media.

“Don’t mix two or more kinds of liquor. Don’t go bar-hopping, and go home by 9 p.m.,” the advertisement urges.

Samsung is not the only company to join the government push against drinking.

Kumho Asiana Group, whose members including Asiana Airlines Inc., has prohibited employees from drinking during the day.

Posco, South Korea’s major steelmaker, checks if its workers follow the company rule of limiting after-hour business entertainment to “a major party, which should be ended by 10 p.m.,” by examining settlement records on corporate cards.

Business wining and dining has decreased at a Hyundai Group company, said Noh Chi-hwan, a 40-year-old company official.

“We have fewer business dinners now,” he said. “Superiors have become careful (about inviting subordinates to go drinking). We, too, do not encourage colleagues or juniors to drink.”

However, the South Korean media hasn't joined in on the campaign. Films and dramas in the country often show actors drinking soju at street stands.

Critics wonder if cutting alcohol consumption can ever take root in a society where it is so deeply embedded.

By AKIRA NAKANO/ Correspondent
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Business partners make a toast with "poktanju" (bomb), a mix of "soju" distilled liquor and beer, at a dinner at a restaurant in Seoul. (Akira Nakano)

Business partners make a toast with "poktanju" (bomb), a mix of "soju" distilled liquor and beer, at a dinner at a restaurant in Seoul. (Akira Nakano)

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  • Business partners make a toast with "poktanju" (bomb), a mix of "soju" distilled liquor and beer, at a dinner at a restaurant in Seoul. (Akira Nakano)

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