The country with the world’s worst drink problem
South Korea has more alcoholics than any other country, but it seems unlikely to quit the drink any time soon.
It is just one of many alcohol-fuelled incidents the police see during a typical night on the streets of Seoul, the South Korean capital, where people can be seen staggering about precariously and veering dangerously into traffic.
Here, alcohol is an essential part of daily life for many, with South Koreans drinking more hard liquor than anyone else in the world, according to the research firm Euromonitor.
It is cheap, considered a must if you want to get ahead in business and viewed as a way to relieve stress in a society with some of the world’s longest working hours.
But South Korea is also home to more alcoholics than any other country, and alcohol-related social costs amount to more than $20bn a year, Ministry of Health and Welfare estimates show.
Every few days, Suh Seung-Beom, a banker in Seoul, gets business contacts and friends together for drinking sessions.
Like most Koreans, their drink of choice is soju, a spirit made from rice.
On a recent night out, it was not long before Suh and his associates were feeling the effects of the potent liquor.
But he denies that getting drunk is the goal of these marathon drinking sessions. “It’s just a means to build bonds in business and with people. At work we can’t be so open. But here we can make memories,” he tells Al Jazeera.
One of Suh’s drinking partners, Brent Lee, does not believe that he and his friends drink too much.
He says drinking alcohol is beneficial to society because it helps people relieve stress. The police officers who patrol Seoul’s busiest entertainment district disagree.
‘I think drinking is a problem’
Their beat is the busiest in the country, and almost every call they get involves someone who has drunk too much.
Officer Chang, a former schoolteacher, has been shocked by the level of drinking she has encountered since joining the force two months ago.
“I think drinking is a problem … a big problem,” she says.
Officer Chang’s partner, Choi Kyung-reol, says in recent years there has been an increase in the number of calls police receive involving people who have drunk too much.
“We’re especially seeing more women taking to the bottle heavily. It’s really heartbreaking,” says Officer Choi.
“I don’t see us making much difference out here. People are drinking and partying harder. And often in cases when we intervene to help, they get violent.”
Public health experts say part of the problem is that there are no laws restricting binge drinking.
On average, South Koreans consume 14 shots of hard liquor a week, while Americans drink about three and Russians about six, according to Euromonitor statistics.
“It leads to all kinds of illnesses including liver disease, yet there are no government guidelines to say how much is too much,” says Chun Sung-soo, from the Korea Public Health Association.
Chun says there is a lack of awareness about the health risks of drinking heavily.
He says the government invests only a small fraction of what it makes in taxes from the sale of alcohol in public awareness campaigns.
“For 20 years, we’ve been proposing policies that can drastically reduce alcohol consumption – like increasing the price, regulating how much is sold, limiting ads … but they never pass in the national assembly,” he says.
Chun believes politicians are under pressure from liquor companies not to take action. One man taking on the big liquor firms is Kim Jin.
Kim is the first in Korea to launch a class-action lawsuit against firms using celebrities in advertisements to promote alcohol.
“People obviously look at these advertisements and see celebrities downing liquor. Because they’re so famous, naturally this encourages consumers to drink more. It leads to overdrinking and people getting knocked out.”
‘A culture of drinking to excess’
Kim knows better than most the consequences of drinking too much.
He has been an alcoholic for decades, spent all his earnings on liquor and lost his marriage. “Whenever I started drinking, I wouldn’t eat or drink anything else. I’d just keep downing liquor for 40 days straight. I often ended up in hospital and couldn’t work. In the end … I lost my wife,” he says.
He now suffers from cirrhosis of the liver, a chronic condition caused by overdrinking. But he admits that he is still drinking.
While Kim offers a cautionary tale, Korea’s younger generation shows no sign of letting go of the culture of drinking to excess.
Jiyeon Shin, a university student, says she usually goes out drinking five times a week with friends.
She often studies 18 hours a day and says stress is what drives her and her friends to drink.
“I think maybe now I’ve become a bit of an alcoholic,” she says. “It’s usually me who initiates the drinking and it often ends up with throwing up and hangovers.”
Asked whether she could ever imagine a day when South Koreans drink less, Jiyeon is adamant.
“Absolutely not. Liquor is something that’s naturally shared between friends and family. I think Korean drinking culture is very uplifting. So I don’t think the day we have less will ever come … nor should it.”
From the documentary “South Korea’s Hangover.” Watch the full film here