The legal drinking age in South Korea is 19 years old for most alcoholic beverages. However, there are some nuances and exceptions to the law that are important to understand.
Legal Drinking Age in Korea
The National Health Promotion Act of South Korea sets the legal drinking age at 19 years old. This means that you must be 19 or older to legally purchase and consume most alcoholic beverages in Korea, including:
- Spirits (soju, whiskey, vodka, etc.)
- Cocktails and mixed drinks
It is illegal to sell or provide alcohol to minors under the age of 19. Licensed establishments like bars, clubs, and restaurants are prohibited from serving alcohol to patrons under 19.
Exceptions for 18 Year Olds
There are a few exceptions to the 19 year old drinking age in Korea. Individuals who are 18 years old are legally permitted to consume:
- Makgeolli – A traditional Korean rice wine.
- Cheongju – A Korean rice-based spirit.
So while 19 is the general legal age to drink alcohol in Korea, 18 year olds can legally consume those two specific traditional Korean alcoholic beverages.
Despite the legal drinking age, underage drinking still occurs in Korea, especially among high school students. A 2019 survey found that:
- 25.4% of middle school students reported having tried alcohol.
- 56.6% of high school students reported having tried alcohol.
Reasons for underage drinking include peer pressure, lack of parental supervision, easy access to alcohol, and the drinking culture in Korea. Underage drinking is a public health concern as it can interfere with development and lead to issues like alcohol abuse and addiction later in life.
Penalties for Underage Drinking
There are legal penalties for underage drinking in Korea for both minors and establishments that provide alcohol to minors, including:
- Minors caught drinking alcohol may be sentenced to up to 3 years in prison or fined up to 7 million won.
- Establishments providing alcohol to minors face fines up to 3 million won.
- Police can require minors to take urine tests if suspected of drinking.
- Drunk minors may be detained at hygiene management facilities.
Despite these laws, underage drinking remains common due to lax enforcement. However, there are efforts to crack down on establishments serving alcohol to minors in recent years.
Drinking Culture in Korea
Drinking is an important part of the culture and social life in South Korea. Some aspects of the drinking culture include:
- Social drinking – Drinking often occurs in social group settings and with coworkers.
- Drinking games – Fun games that involve drinking are popular.
- Peer pressure – Heavy peer pressure to drink, especially for younger males.
- Binge drinking – High rates of binge drinking and public intoxication.
Heavy drinking is often associated with masculinity and fitting in. Saying “no” to drinks can be difficult in Korean drinking culture. intoxication and hangovers are considered normal consequences of social drinking.
Underage Drinking Concerns
Underage drinking is concerning in Korea for a few key reasons:
- May lead to alcohol abuse disorders later in life
- Impacts brain development
- Increases risky behaviors like crime, unsafe sex, and drunk driving
- Leads to poor academic performance
- Increases risk of suicide and self-harm
Early alcohol use, especially binge drinking, is linked to the development of alcoholism. It can disrupt normal brain functioning during critical development phases.
Efforts to Reduce Underage Drinking
Korea is making efforts to reduce underage drinking and its impacts by:
- Increasing penalties for providing alcohol to minors
- Conducting sting operations to catch establishments serving underage drinkers
- Raising taxes on alcohol
- Banning alcohol sales to minors under the Health Promotion Act
- Providing youth education programs on resisting peer pressure and avoiding alcohol
- Running media campaigns on the dangers of underage drinking
However, social acceptance of drinking and lax enforcement remain issues. Some advocate for stricter penalties and greater enforcement as deterrents.
Providing Alcohol to Minors
It is illegal for anyone to provide alcohol to minors under the legal drinking age in Korea. This includes:
- Parents and family members
- Friends over 19 years old
- Bars, clubs, restaurants
- Grocery and convenience stores
- Any other non-family member
Fines up to 3 million won can be imposed on anyone caught providing alcohol to minors. However, many minors still obtain alcohol from social contacts or establishments that fail to check identification.
Drinking Age Verification
To verify age for the purchase of alcohol, valid photo identification must be shown in Korea. Acceptable IDs include:
- Korean resident registration card
- Korean driver’s license
Establishments that serve alcohol are required by law to verify that patrons are of legal drinking age before providing them alcohol. However, not all businesses are diligent about checking IDs, leading to underage sales.
Should the Drinking Age Be Lowered?
Some people argue that lowering the legal drinking age could help curb underage drinking problems in Korea. Reasons given include:
- 18-19 year olds would drink openly rather than binge drink in secret.
- Lower age would remove the allure of “forbidden fruit.”
- Younger teens would have less access to alcohol.
However, others argue that a lower drinking age would lead to more alcohol abuse among youth. The majority of public health experts advise keeping the drinking age at 19 or higher.
Is Binge Drinking Common in Korea?
Binge drinking is very common among Korean adults and youths. A 2019 OECD report found that:
- South Korea had the highest rate of heavy episodic drinking among all OECD countries at 27.5% of the adult population.
- 27.9% of Korean men reported heavy episodic drinking each month.
- 27.1% of Korean women reported heavy episodic drinking each month.
Heavy episodic drinking is defined as consuming 60+ grams of pure alcohol in one sitting. Reasons for the high rates include the Korean heavy drinking culture and alcohol tolerance.
Tips for Drinking Responsibly in Korea
Here are some tips for enjoying alcohol safely and responsibly in Korea:
- Always drink in moderation and avoid binge drinking.
- Eat food before and while consuming alcohol.
- Set a firm limit on the number of drinks you will have.
- Pace yourself – sip drinks slowly rather than gulping them.
- Drink water between alcoholic beverages.
- Choose lower alcohol drinks like beer and wine over hard liquor.
- Say no if pressured to drink more than you want.
- Make sure to get home safely by public transit, taxi, or designated driver.
Following these tips can help ensure you avoid alcohol poisoning, injuries, drunk driving, and other consequences of excessive alcohol intake.
The legal drinking age in Korea is 19 years old. However, those who are 18 can legally consume some traditional alcohols like makgeolli and cheongju. Underage drinking remains an issue, with 25-50% of teens reporting alcohol use. Consequences include risky behavior and development issues. Korea has high rates of binge drinking among adults as well due to the drinking culture. Following safe drinking tips and moderating intake can help prevent issues. Understanding the nuances of the drinking age laws and culture in Korea is important for residents and visitors.