For the Korean chapter of our famous things across the globe series, we have invited our fellow blogger Max (who lived in Korea for 3 years) of “Dame Cacao” What is South Korea famous for? This is her extraordinary reply!
After three years of living in Korea, I think I’ve heard every reason under the sun as to why people visit South Korea. From cosmetics and k-pop to a childhood friend, Korea is known for a lot of things by people from all walks of life. Most of these things are cultural and intangible, like public figures or cultural practices. Hallyu or “Korean wave” is a term coined to refer to the increasing global popularity of such cultural intangibles.
These days, choosing where to stay in Seoul and beyond often comes down to the reason you came to Korea in the first place. From movie filming locations to upscale shopping, Korea is known for something different by every generation and nationality in the world. I’ve spent time in every corner of Seoul, explored Busan a half dozen times, and made several treks down to Jeju Island. Korea is beautiful, but nothing if not consistent & culturally connected with itself.
15 things South Korea is famous for
Korean Popular music, or Kpop, has been flooding Korean ears for decades now, but it’s only hit the mainstream in the last couple of years. The super-coordinated dancing, futuristic fashion, and polished looks have fans the world over-obsessed with their favorite band. In the Korean music industry, kids join various labels as trainees and spend many months or years training in singing, dancing, cultural practices, language, and more, until they eventually “debut” as a solo artist or part of a group.
There are whole vocabularies surrounding Kpop, but for the uninitiated, the industry can be overwhelming. Suffice it to say that the biggest bands can bring fans all the way to Seoul just to see where music videos were shot or to eat at a star’s branded cafe. Bands like BTS and BlackPink, in particular, have crossed cultural barriers, expanding out of Korea and even out of Asia over the last two years. Bonus: KHipHop, or Korean Hip Hop and Rap, is a huge influence from the Korean diaspora, with many famous KPop idols later switching to the hip hop genre.
While Korean Dramas have been popular throughout Asia for years, thanks to streaming services like Netflix they’re now hitting the global mainstream. Part of the appeal of Korean Dramas is that they’re specifically short-term, usually only 1 or 2 seasons, allowing actors to be involved in a variety of projects throughout the year. Korean movies are also on the rise, however, with the long-running Busan International Film Festival drawing increasingly large crowds every October. This is especially true now as these cinematic, internationally-appealing masterpieces like Okja and Parasite are released in theatres the world over.
PICTURE: Downtown Busan
Korean cosmetics have long been famous in neighboring China and Japan, but have now made their way beyond East Asia thanks to the infamous 12-step skincare routine. In Korea, cosmetics is a category that includes makeup and anything which prepares your face for makeup. Korean cosmetics take a simultaneously scientific and natural approach to skincare, selling you on face masks and toners and serums and sunscreens which purport to keep everything clean and glowing & smelling like organic green tea from Jeju. Warning: this joke has not been tested by the FDA.
#4 Cosmetic Surgery
Korea and Seoul, in particular, has become a hub for medical tourism throughout Asia. Known for affordability and professionalism, the hundreds of cosmetic surgery clinics in Seoul alone will all be accessible in a minimum of six languages, and often more. But plastic surgery isn’t only popular for foreigners; Koreans are infamous for being rather blasé regarding cosmetic procedures. Things like double eyelid surgery, breast surgery, facelifts, nose jobs, and jawline surgery are almost commonplace these days.
#5 Fashion trends
Seoul is indisputably the fashion capital of Asia. From modernizing the hanbok (Korean traditional outfit) and bringing back the 90’s (fanny packs & circle glasses, anyone?), Korea’s become the center for Asian fashion trends. Shanghai and Bangkok make good efforts to compete, but Seoul Fashion Week is the place to be every fall. Even just walking around the palaces of Seoul, you’ll see how seriously Koreans of all ages take their appearances, from clothing and accessories to makeup and hairstyles. Take a walk in the neighborhoods of Hongdae and Gangnam any evening of the week and you’ll get a sense of how much Korean fashion now influences not only the rest of Asia, but Los Angeles, New York, Paris, and beyond.
PICTURE: Downtown Busan
#6 Buddhist Temples
Korea’s Buddhist temples and ancient royal palaces have a style all their own. With a unique color scheme of red, teal, and blue, the sharp angles & gentle curves of these multi-tiered temples are unmistakable. Korea has temples literally all over the country, from downtown Seoul to remote mountain villages and seaside resorts.
#7 Samsung & Hyundai (삼성 & 현대)
These are two of the biggest companies in Korea and have even become household names across the world. While Samsung is known best as a TV or phone manufacturer outside of Korea, within the country it employs tens of thousands of people and manufactures many types of gadgets. Hyundai is a car manufacturer with numerous brands, but it’s also involved in steel, banking, oil, and department stores, among others. For a long time, both Samsung and Hyundai were two of the biggest & most powerful employers due to their manufacturing volume, and this hasn’t really changed much in recent years.
#8 The 2018 Winter Olympics
Held in the northeastern province of Gangwon, the 2018 Winter Olympics put Korea on the map for many people. But what you may not realize is that the influx of visitors helped out a lot of Koreans, as well. It forced the country to build a more efficient transportation system to the northeastern coast, and translate many of the most helpful apps into English, Chinese, and Japanese. In the coming years, the changes made during the Olympics will also make your own visit to Korea even easier, whether you realize it or not!
#9 Incredible internet
Korea and Japan supposedly tie on this one, but Korea’s internet connection is unbeatable. Unlike their eastern neighbors, they have free wifi all over; in cafes, movie theatres, public parks, and beaches. Koreans love staying connected, and this is made obvious by the reach and strength of their internet infrastructure.
This may seem like a small thing, but ask any Korean and they’ll most likely tell you that they took taekwondo lessons as a kid. It’s sort of a right of passage here, much more popular than golf or table tennis. Also, if you call taekwondo Japanese or Chinese, get ready for a flying kick to the face. Or at least the closest wooden board.
This is a bit out there, but socks are super cheap in Korea, and when I was younger a lot of Korean friends would joke that their Korean relatives had come to visit and all they brought them was socks & underwear. Well, and kimchi (see below).
This is the national food of Korea, and it is very pungent. The most basic kimchi recipe includes fermenting napa cabbage, salt, sugar, tiny shrimps, hot pepper paste, and a whole lot of other basic flavors, like garlic and onion, together for weeks or longer. The result is a mish-mash of complex flavors most strongly characterized by salt & spicy heat. While most kimchi is made with cabbage, popular alternatives include radish and onion greens. As I learned over 3 years of working in Korea, a meal isn’t a meal without kimchi & rice. Most of my students even had kimchi & rice with soup for breakfast every morning and with lunch every afternoon.
This clear liquor is traditionally distilled from rice and famously served in green bottles priced at less than $1USD each. Soju comes in an original flavor, as well as several fruit flavors made by over a dozen companies of varying sizes. The traditional flavor was actually the best-selling liquor in the world a few years back, topping vodka, rum, and tequila. There are even special glasses for taking shots of soju, and when you sit down for a group meal, you’re usually brought both a beer glass and a soju shot glass. Soju is especially popular with Korean barbeque.
#14 North Korea
Ironically, one of the things Korea is known for is its northern neighbor. The two actually used to be the same country up until World War II, when they were split apart and each half was left in the care of either the Axis or Allied powers. With the support of the US and other allied forces, South Korea has now developed to be lightyears ahead of North Korea, yet the two are inextricably linked. With a shared language and largely shared culture & cuisine, there are definite similarities. But I think it’ll be a long time before you’re asking Koreans ‘North or South?’
#15 Park Geun-Hye
If the name isn’t familiar, this is in part because Koreans would rather you forget she exists altogether. But you may better know Park Geun-Hye as the jailed ex-president of Korea, ousted by her own people in 2017 for taking the advice of a psychic she hired with government funds, among other illegal things. Warning: this is a cesspool of conspiracy theories, so set aside some time if you decide to jump down this rabbit hole. After many months of nationwide protests and petitions, former President Park was tried and found guilty in 2018. She’s now been fined over $16 million USD and spending 24 years in prison to pay for her crimes.
As you hopefully realize by now, Koreans rightfully take great pride in their food, natural beauty, and strength of community— especially when they feel it needs defending.
After three years of living in South Korea, Max Gandy now travels the world researching and recording stories about chocolate & cacao. She’s a certified chocolate maker, freelance writer, award-winning blogger, and host of the podcast ‘Chocolate On The Road.’ Follow her travels on her website at Dame Cacao.
Pin for later