Drinking in K-drama

Double standards: crinking vs smoking in k-drama:
I’ve read, in articles and statistics, that Koreans are heavy smokers. Still, we don’t see any smoking in dramas and very little in films. This, probably, so that viewers don’t get a bad example. So far so good, and I like this.
But… why don’t they do the same thing with drinking?
There is no k-drama without a drunk scene, male or female or both. And often it’s a way for the characters to show their true feelings and be more open, so it often leads to more closeness and eventually romance. A couple of times it leads… to bed, a drunken one-night stand which of course always results in pregnancy and later on a relationship.
I (and I know I’m not alone) find these drunk scenes cringe-worthy, male or female, not cute, not funny.
Alcohol is a drug just as much as nicotine, and a serious problem for many people. I’ve read that alcoholism is rampant in Korea - although they are not the biggest drinkers in the planet, still they are the country with the biggest drinking-related problems. Why? Because of East Asian low alcohol tolerance. Read below if you are interested, otherwise skip to the “Dramas” part.

The facts

The WHO publish periodically The Global Status Report on Alcohol. In this 2014 list, S.Koreans are placed at the 17th place, North East European countries being on top.

CAVEAT: It must be pointed out that this list takes into account PURE ALCOHOL consumption, not drink quantity.
Soju’s alcohol content varies from about 16.8% to 53% alcohol by volume (ABV), but usually 19%. and sake (rice wine) 15% to 18%.
Western liquors like vodka and brandy have around 40%, whisky and gin around 40%–50%. Info from here.
Therefore you need the double quantity of soju to get drunk than if you were drinking Western spirits.
Here is a more comprehensive and fun interactive map with charts and all, taken from 2011 data. Here South Korea is much lower, 35th out of 186 countries. They also break down by type of alcohol.
On the other hand, if you count “shots per week”, Korea seems to be much higher, drinking twice as much as Russians and more than four times as much as Americans:

In recent years drinking seems to be getting worse. A much more recent article, from February 2016 states that

In 2016, S. Korea was labelled as the country with the worst drinking problem in [this Al Jazeera article] (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/02/country-world-worst-drink-problem-160202120308308.html).
Here is [a chilling 2016 article by Tammy Cho in “The Monsoon Project”.] (https://themonsoonproject.org/2016/10/10/a-sobering-look-at-south-koreas-drinking-culture/)

[QUOTE]The Journal of Korean Medical Science reports that every night about 6 million South Koreans drink 9.53 million bottles of beer and 8.97 million bottles of soju (a distilled Korean liquor with about 20% alcohol). According to the same paper, the World Health Organisation found in 2010 that Korea has the highest prevalence of alcohol abuse and dependence at 6.76 per cent of the population.[/QUOTE] and

The documentary "South Korea’s Hangover." has many interviews with people who confirm this, saying drinking is a social bonding agent.

But why countries who drink more seem to have less of a problem?

East Asians physiological reactions to alcohol.
There is another aspect, not often talked about. Most East Asians have a lower tolerance to alcohol: they easily get drunk but also they get more easily addicted.

Read more about why East Asians cannot hold their liquor here, here, and here.

[QUOTE] Alcohol flush reaction is a condition in which an individual develops flushes or blotches associated with erythema on the face, neck, shoulders, and in some cases, the entire body after consuming alcoholic beverages. The reaction is the result of an accumulation of acetaldehyde, a metabolic byproduct of the catabolic metabolism of alcohol, and is caused by an acetaldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency. This syndrome has been associated with an increased risk of esophageal cancer in those who drink. (…)
Approximately 36% of East Asians (Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese) show characteristic physiological responses to drinking alcohol that includes facial flushing, nausea, headaches and tachycardia .
Around 80% of Asian people (less common in Thailand, Laos and the Indian subcontinent) have a variant of the gene coding for the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase called ADH1B, whereas almost all Japanese, Korean and Chinese peoples have a variant of the gene called ADH1C, both resulting in an alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme that converts alcohol to toxic acetaldehyde at a much higher efficiency than other gene variants (40- to 100-fold in case of ADH1B).
In about 50% of Asians, the increased acetaldehyde accumulation is worsened by another gene variant, the mitochondrial ALDH2 allele, which results in a less functional acetaldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme, responsible for the breakdown of acetaldehyde. The result is that affected people may be better at metabolizing alcohol, often not feeling the alcohol “buzz” to the same extent as others, but show far more acetaldehyde-based side effects while drinking.
They say that “alcoholism is less common in East Asian and Polynesian populations than in European populations, due to protective ADH and ALDH alleles.” Yeah, except for Korea! Koreans seem to ignore all that and drink anyway!

The dramas
Smoking is never shown in k-dramas and knives are blurred by law. Yet drinking is depicted as not only normal, but fully accepted and almost never negatively judged.

I’m not saying that they should have everybody drink orange juice in after-work dinners and such. It would probably be too unrealistic (absence of cigarettes is also unrealistic, though).
But they could show characters keeping their glass for a long time, drink less. Instead of consuming whole rows of bottles to the point of passing out. Or, they could show people getting drunk every now and then, but convey the message that this is a bad thing. Show more of the consequences. Our characters are perfectly okay after eating a hangover soup, and they are able to go to work the next day and function normally. We are never shown somebody get seriously sick, or have their work performance messed up and losing their job, home and partner, running into a speeding car and ending up in the hospital, die because of self-harm, illness or whatever. We never see other people looking at them and commenting in a disparaging way, instead everyone says mildly “oh, why do you drink so much if you can’t take it?” and then moves on to other subjects. They take it in their stride. And social norms of not being able to refuse peer pressure regarding drinking are never challenged.

A woman who overdrinks is present in many dramas. I’m thinking of “Another O Hae Young” and of “Tomorrow with you”. The heroine embarrasses herself every single time she drinks, and yet the next time she does it again!
A woman puking is seen not as a disgusting thing, but makes the man feels tenderly protective and give her a piggiback ride home - an occasion for more closeness and skinship that otherwise would never be possible. Sometimes he’s a stranger too (I suppose she’s protected from a potential rape because he’s too drunk to get into shape for sex anyway).
Excessive drinking is seen as mildly funny, cute, sweet; a way to break down politeness and propriety bareers, be brutally honest about one’s true feelings and come closer with others; a social bonding agent and a way to enable dating. That’s what we see in k-dramas.
Is it possible that drama makers don’t understand their immense social responsibility in doing this? Don’t they know what an example they are setting, and how they are helping perpetuate the situation?

What are your thoughts?


Smoking is shown yet only in the crime genre, you will not see a romance with a smoking “Romeo”.
In earlier days of drama it was still possible but it’s unacceptable now.
For liquor, you see how in drama, there are so called working dinner, and out of courtesy, they down glass after glass. It’s a social problem, that will not be easily “fixed”, not in a society that has a lot of pressure to succeed and alcohol is the cheapest way to get out of there, even if it’s only for a few hours.

I ment someone who went through alcohol withdrawel in a clinic, saying he was the one with the smallest professional carrrier, all the other patients were doctors and pilots. You need to work on the envirement, if you drink for fun once in a while that’s not really the problem. If you drink because you want to escape the pressure, tough days … Then the source of the problem needs to be approached. All the things like making the alcohol more expensive, educational work can only help a little. If one sees his only help in enduring life is with alcohol, the only one who change this is the person themself. You can’t demand from outside.

In German tv there is not that much alcohol shown as in South Korea but just looking at the tables you will see that the difference would not give it away. And if you think for everyone who drinks one doesn’t than that person drinking would have an even higher level of drinks per day.

Anyway, I know what harm alcohol can do, but I saw as well when people want to fight it, and when they are just giving in.

P.S. It may seem as drinking alcohol in front of your love interest is equal of letting your defence down, like showing your true self, well I could think of other ways, it doesn’t raise the appeal of a person. But then there is the saying only kids and drunks tell the truth.

And I do not make a difference in gender, drinking more than you should can hurt your body and your relationships with others.


Yes, I agree. I wasn’t saying that it’s worse if it’s a woman or anything.
I was only pointing out the case of women because in dramas it’s shown that drunk women are made to seem cute and endearing to others. Bringing out their vulnerable side, their pitiful family history and psychological problems, engendering closeness.

But generally… I understand that East Asian people are much more reserved than others, much more bound by strict social conventions of politeness, hierarchy and so on. They don’t “let their hair down” easily.
When I travelled all over India, I made acquaintances so quickly. People I met during train rides and waiting in queues were instantly friendly and after having long interesting conversations invited me to come home for a meal to meet the family, or even invited me to go to their village and stay as a guest. Some of these have remained as cherished friendships over almost 20 years and counting.
But when I went to Thailand, nobody ever spoke to me other than for official reasons (shop employees, hotel staff etc.). They were super-polite and didn’t stare as Indians do, but no warm human contact either. I’m sure they were warm with close friends and family members. But still the Mediterranean me felt much more at home in India.
Deep down, humans are humans, the same everywhere. So these bottled-up feelings need some escape valve, otherwise they will burst. And maybe alcohol is a socially acceptable way to be yourself for a while when there are not many other ways.


Quite a few Kpop idols smoke and drink a lot. Some idols ar quite open about it and some end up in a scandal because OMG “my oppa/unnie drinks/smokes? No way!”. Some people are even proud about it. I don’t know which female idol proudly mentioned it but one once said she could drink one bottle of soju without getting wasted. I was like “And you are proud of it?!”. I have tried soju myself and the bottle contained 19,7% after one tiny glass I already felt it and after 2 I really had to stop because one more glass and I would be wasted. I find it a huge turn off when people don’t know their limit or do know but don’t care. I don’t find drunk people funny, I find them pathetic.


When I was in high school, my classmates used to meet at the house of one of us whose mother often travelled abroad because of work. And they drank.
I didn’t drink, so I was bored. I did have some knitting with me, and I also had a notebook where I recorded the notable things that they said and did and the next day they read it at school. They laughed about it but they also had a hard time believing that those things really happened.
As with a love confession I received from a classmate. The next day I approached him timidly and said “You know, Pasquale, I like you a lot but only as a friend. About what you said last night…” And he made big eyes "What did I say last night? No way! " He had completely forgotten.
Another one, supposedly an atheist in daytime, was in the bathroom, throwing up and screaming “Madonna mia save me!”
I mean, after all these experiences I swore to myself I’d never touch that stuff that made people look so pathetic and despicable. They say alcohol shows people’s true side, and in part it may be true, but it also shows their worst side as well.

As for idols, see here:



I once talked with a Korean woman about it when she mentioned they went out for dinner and drinks every friday after work. I asked if she could skip it… no unless you have a really really good reason. She told me she hated it that she had to drink soju but she couldn’t refuse as that was weak and rude towards her boss. She said that alcohol was used to lighten the mood, that everyone was more relaxed after a hard week at work.
So in a way being able to drink a lot gives you more status and shows you are a strong person or something.

Here is a good documentary about the issue:


It’s cultural. When you watch a kdrama for the first time, you’re pretty surprised, even shocked by that. I think it’s very reflective of the Korean society. Because there are many taboos and a lot of pressure (social and work pressures), Korean people can’t live, work and socialize with others without drinking alcohol. You see it in Kdramas and it’s a way to criticize society. They have to drink with their coworkers, superiors, clients,… You can’t refuse drinks… It’s a societal problem. It’s very noticeable in Misaeng for example. I don’t think censor this kind of scenes will change anything. As you said, even if you rarely see a smoker in a Kdrama, there are many smokers in South Korea… Why? Probably because they forget there are other media than TV. You can’t walk without seeing a picture of a model with a cigarette and it’s everywhere. Why? Because smoking and drinking are still viewed as “cool”, “rock”, “glamour”… and it’s around the world. Don’t forget there are financial interests. Showing a model with a cigarette as showing characters drinking soju is a way to promote it too… Obviously, there is an impact of image. But honestly, everybody knows smoking or drinking excessively is not healthy. People smoke and drink too much for some reason. The societal pressure is everywhere, but probably higher in South Korea, that’s why there are many suicides.


I had to work around people who were getting drunk for years and l can vouch 100% no exceptions a person’s true character surfaces when they are drunk. The smaller the difference from their everyday self, the better.

I agree with everyone saying it’s a cultural thing, but I’d also like to add the USA influence. After that huge anti-smoking campaign in America last century (OH MY GOD I’m old) cigarettes were deleted from everywhere, including hilarious instances of replacing Lucky Luke’s cigarette with a straw. The reason for that, for me, was equal parts social responsibility and tobacco companies losing the lobbying battle, in other words money.

Another important point is that drunk cute females and drunk disoriented males offer the perfect excuse for the justification of date rape, in a society not yet ready to condemn this serious crime.

Lastly, if you can stomach it, you should read the crazy fans’ reactions to famous k-pop idols caught DUI, either resulting in serious accidents or not. I call it denial at its best.


With such a drinking culture I think many people drive when they had alcohol. Yes there is a service where you can get someone to drive you home in your car but still I think lot’s of people just drive. The problem with famous people is that they are known so when they do it it’s big news and a scandal and they will be judged.
Even in Kdrama you see the characters who just had soju step into their cars with might give the idea it’s not a big deal but it is of course. Really Korea should stop having a double standard for drinking and smoking.

A lot has change about drunk driving, in the last century in Germany the amount legal limit came down in about 30 years from 1,5 °/oo to o,5 °/oo, that is a major step. There is a fine possible starting with 500 Euro but in several other countries in Europe the limit is zero and you can possibly end in jail.
You can even lose your license if you drunk drive a bike and there is no accident needed.

So alwas be careful with medicine containing alcohol!!!

Interestingly I met more people recently (even teenagers) that decided to not drink at all in Germany.
Maybe if more influential/famous people, like Idols, would announce, they don’t drink, it would slowly change the attitude towards people, who don’t want to drink. Whether it is out of fear for scandals (sad reason >.<) or because they consider their health doesn’t matter too much in this case.
There are other countries having this forced drinking during buisness lunch as well, thought, I was told. (I think he was in Russia, but I’m not sure) If you are the only one not drinking it becomes a trust issue. Drunken people often talk more and even tell the truth more often, if you are not drinking it can be considered as if you have something to hide from your buisness partner.

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In China it’s quite common to drink beer with lunch and dinner. Sometimes I got weird looks when I didn’t want beer and covered my glass when they wanted to fill it and asked for a coke or plain water or just stick with the tea. It wasn’t a problem mostly except for one place that had no other option then serving beer. Not even water so a travelbuddy gave me her water bottle as my own was empty already and couldn’t refill it anywhere. I find beer disgusting so drinking it wasn’t an option. And then they don’t serve small bottles of beer but about 500ML ones per person.

Well, drinking with lunch or dinner (not beer but wine) is also customary in Italy. And in Greece as well, they do ask you if you want to drink some wine (or beer). But if you don’t, they don’t look at you in a weird way.


@irmar Thank you Irene for your detailed post on the subject of drinking in Kdrama. I too deplore the standard scenes in almost all dramas of the female getting wasted, vomiting, etc. We might like to delude ourselves and think it’s just for dramatic effect and that’s not reality but drinking with people from work is very much a part of the Korean culture. To show group solidarity, instead of the once a year MT meeting with lots of physical games, there are weekly or sometimes even daily after work outings and saying you can’t go or won’t go is strongly discouraged. And the problem is exacerbated by the genetic sensitivity to alcohol. In the past, young and new employees were readily introduced to the practice because the senior person in the group usually has to pay the bill. And it is impolite to decline something offered to you by someone who is your superior in age or position.
There is often direct pressure to drink a lot at these gatherings. And there is a lot of humor in the dramas about drunken behavior - but when we think about the humor, it’s really NOT funny!



When is enough… Well, enough ? Based on the whole 1000 cups remark, never apparently. What really irks me is that if you say something to someone, it’s considered rude. It’s taboo even. No, I’m not being rude; I’m trying to save your life. It’s alright to die a slow and painful death, but not so to talk about it. Aigoooo…


This all reminds of a masterpiece drama called Misaeng and manager Oh, who, as part of his work, must “entertain” his potential customers by drinking heavily and basically humiliating himself.

Not to mention that after a night like that the next evening he wants to drink some more by himself. If you look at the video below, at ca 3:15 mark he finds himself on the floor of his own bathroom and then breaks the 4th wall, asking us:

“Do you know the true taste of alcohol?”


The answer is: bitter.

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When I was in Busan for 3 days I saw a drunk Ahjusshi in a suit all the time. Early in the morning when I was about to explore Busan he was already drunk and screaming sometimes at the square in front of the KTX station (my hotel was next to that square) and at night when going back to my hotel he was sleeping on a bench there. One time I saw the police talking to him. I felt sad that he needed the alcohol and that he seemed to be there 24/7. I guess he was homeless or something.

There are people like that in all countries. Homeless and sometimes with psychological issues.
In my opinion, however, the big problem is when we are talking of regular people, the acceptance and even more, promoting of drunkenness as normal behaviour for everybody - as it seems to be the case in Korea.

Yeah I know… in my neighborhood there lives a man with a dog who’s drunk from early in the morning till midnight. During the summer it was always a issue because he let his dog bark late at night and he was bothering people here so the police stepped in and he’s not allowed to come in this area anymore. Now I only see him almost every morning when I go to work on his way to the supermarket with a can of beer to buy more beer.

“Why are you drinking? - the little prince asked.

  • In order to forget - replied the drunkard.
  • To forget what? - inquired the little prince, who was already feeling sorry for him.
  • To forget that I am ashamed - the drunkard confessed, hanging his head.
  • Ashamed of what? - asked the little prince who wanted to help him.
  • Ashamed of drinking! - concluded the drunkard, withdrawing into total silence.
    And the little prince went away, puzzled.
    ‘Grown-ups really are very, very odd’, he said to himself as he continued his journey.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince