Mobile Communications

Perspective: An expat in South Korea

Living in Korea has a lot of ups and downs. Literally. After more than a year here I’m willing to bet I’ve travelled more vertical distance in elevators than in airplanes. When you’ve got the entire population of the US west coast in about 10% of the space, building skyward is the way to go. Though it can feel cramped, it’s pretty nice to have the option of living a comfortable life without leaving the immediate vicinity of your city block.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, population density is one reason why Korean internet is so fast (yes, it lives up to the hype). And now that Netflix is also in Korea (an event that had some expats dancing in the streets) we finally have something to use that speed on.

It’s not just the internet, though; Korea’s packed-in population makes most technological solutions a little easier to implement. If there’s something I can’t do with a smartphone in Korea, I have to seriously consider whether or not it’s worth doing. Don’t have a smartphone? No excuse—I have a theory that no matter where you are in a Korean city, you are always less than five blocks from a phone store. Don’t like paying for data? Enjoy the (almost) omnipresent free wi-fi. If you can’t see at least a secured network at any given time, you’re probably in the wrong Korea.

Another thing that is faster in Korea is its collective heart rate. According to the International Business Times, Koreans now drink more coffee than they eat kimchi—and some will even eat less food in order to afford more coffee. Is it true? Well, I’ve counted how many coffee shops I can walk to in under ten minutes from my apartment. At last count it was at least thirty, but I keep seeing new ones.

And as much as they love their uppers, though, the downers are even more popular. Korea’s intense relationship with coffee is dwarfed by its torrid affair with alcohol. Believe it or not, Korea has the highest per capita liquor consumption in the world. Yes, Russians nip at the vodka now and then, and even the Irish have been known to turn to whiskey when they’re feeling under the weather, but there’s a literal river’s worth of soju being downed every night in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Like their coffee consumption, this is certainly somewhat due to the high-stress nature of work here in Korea, where the hours tend to be long and the pressure to perform can become overwhelming. As compensation for this, however, your Korean boss is socially expected to take you out for barbecued meat and soju—and you are socially expected not to refuse.

Fortunately for the drinkers of either beverage, though, eating out is far more affordable than it is back in the US, so even when things do get crazy and you don’t have time for the shopping you can still get a good meal without adding too much to your already coffee-filled credit card statement.  A nutritious and decently enticing roll of kimbap, (a seaweed, rice, veggie, and meat kind of sushi-roll) will usually run you under 4 USD, and that’s not mentioning the free kimchi and other side dishes you’re free to pig out on in most restaurants.

If you’re more of a carnivore (with a slightly more expansive attitude towards spending) there are fried chicken and barbecue places literally everywhere. Even the American south, homeland of KFC, does not love fried chicken as much as Korea does. While KFC has 19-20,000 locations spread all over the world (4,270 in America); Portugal-sized Korea, all by itself, has anywhere from 23,000 to 36,000 restaurants devoted to fried chicken and beer (chimaek, as the combination is called). If you believe the higher number, that’s more fried chicken in Korea than McDonald’s (~35,000) in the world. Just to seal the deal, alongside the numerous cherry blossom festivals, lantern festivals, and historical culture festivals, you can also find an entire festival, every year, dedicated exclusively to, you guessed it: fried chicken and beer.

Of course, it was inevitable that some of Korea’s best aspects, food and technology, would combine somehow—and thanks to the internet, they have formed a very convenient partnership. Want that chicken, or maybe some McDonald’s delivered to your door? There’s an app. Want kimbap instead? Same app. A four-course Korean meal? App. Live octopus? Never tried it, but there’s probably an app for it. You can get food from phone to door (courtesy of the many motorbikes constantly zipping about) in what seems like a dangerously short time. Actually, as a frequent pedestrian I can personally testify to the hazards of the system. But it’s worth it. 

App-based food delivery may be the darling of the tech start-up scene here in Korea, but the undisputed king of all apps is, believe it or not, Kakao. It’s not just a messenger—it’s an app-based company that is essentially Facebook, Instagram, a texting service, an app store, a blog platform, a taxi hailer, a money transfer tool, and an ever-evolving malevolent cyborg intelligence all in one.

While many people worldwide are familiar with the KakaoTalk mobile application - that is only the surface of a vast empire of social media, games, and emoji (there’s a whole subculture around the Kakao Friends [Korean]). That coffee shop down the street? You can connect with it on Kakao. Want updates on the package you’re shipping home? Like it or not, the Korean Postal Service found you on Kakao and is telling you all about how it’s being held in US customs for a really long time (I apologize for my poor handwriting on the customs form, America). The ubiquity makes sense, though, when you learn that 93% of smartphone owners in Korea use Kakao.

Because the technology revolution hit the country so quickly and completely, there isn’t much of an observable digital divide in Korea. People of any age, education level, and income are more likely to have a smartphone than in any other country—and the difference in ownership between old/young and high/low-income is, according to Pew Research Center, the smallest of any developed country in the world. Someone who fought in the Korean War is less likely to have a smartphone than someone who grew up listening to K-Pop, but not by as much as you’d think.

This is not counting, of course, the digital divide between North Korea and South Korea—which is stark. For those of you who have not yet seen it, this picture of the two countries at night, taken from the ISS, demonstrates the situation fairly well. Living in South Korea, near one of the most hostile borders in the world, sounds a little scarier than it really is, however. People here mention the North’s nuclear exploits or missile tests in passing for a day or two after they happen, but they would prefer to talk about the latest Korean drama.

So if your only obstacle to paying Korea a visit, or even coming to live here, has been a vague fear of Kim Jong-un, rest assured, you are clear to proceed. The internet is fast, the streets are safe, the food is good, and though the work environment can be stressful here, you’ll find a smile and a welcome almost anywhere you go. And if you can’t find that, there’s always soju.


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Why does South Korea have the fastest internet?


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Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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