Updated: Jun 27, 2020
By Ho Jin Jang
In South Korea, where the legal drinking age is 19, underage drinking is strictly prohibited by the law. Nevertheless, South Korea is reported to have one of the biggest underage drinking cultures among OECD countries, a coalition of countries dedicated to democracy and the free market. According to the International Alcohol Control Survey results from 2012, more than 56% of South Korean high schoolers who participated in the survey outlined that they had consumed alcohol at least once. Of this number, approximately 59% were males. Participants noted that parents and friends were the main suppliers and that the most prevalent setting for alcohol consumption was at special events.
Given that South Korean students spend their teenage years immersed in their country's immensely competitive educational system, their inclination to destress with alcohol comes as no surprise. For some, alcohol can relieve the pressure to succeed that many teens in South Korea face. On top of such cultural and social stress, the low price of alcohol at local grocery stores allows students easy access. For reference, a bottle of soju, a popular alcoholic beverage in Korea, costs less than 5,000 Korean won, translating to $4 — about a quarter of the price of vodka.
In a recent study by the Health Insurance Review & Assessment Service (HIRAS), South Korean teenagers were shown to have their first drinks at an average age of 13 years old. This is likely due to cheap and easy access, allowing the toxic underage drinking culture to thrive and grow.
Unhealthy underage drinking leads to an unhealthy relationship with alcohol in later years. It is estimated that 1.6 million South Koreans suffer from alcoholism. The South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare spends a sobering $21M combating the dangerous and often deadly consequences of alcoholism including neuropsychiatric conditions, cancers, and liver cirrhosis. Additionally, overconsumption of alcohol has lead to increased crime rates in South Korea, with the government spending $7.9B to combat alcohol-related violence and crime.
South Korean medical and health institutions have advocated for an immediate change in legislation to target the rising issue of underage drinking. Some organizations have even appealed to the Constitutional Court, or the Korean supreme court. Heo Min-Suk, the Legislative Investigator of the National Assembly, commented, "Foreign countries put direct sanctions on teenagers who have violated the regulation of underage drinking. I believe this is enhancing the effectiveness of the law and preventing the consequences of underage drinking. We are looking at ways to apply sanctions to teenagers who threaten the vendors or use fake identifications to get alcohols." These sanctions have the potential to make a marked difference in how teens grow up in Korea, helping to foster healthy relationships with alcohol that will continue into adulthood.