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Mildly/Wildly Interesting Things About South Korea ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ท

Dozens of observations about the future on a different planet - Korea.
Mildly/Wildly Interesting Things About South Korea ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ท

This piece is part of a travel series about East Asia.

Since, it's my first time in that part of the world, I wanted to document my fresh look at things. What's weird? What's interesting? What's notable?

These are mildly/wildly interesting things about South Korea ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ท

Let's start with something slightly embarrassing: I made a fool of myself in public.

So what happened?

We were shopping at one of the local convenience stores. On my way out, I wanted to disinfect my hands. I pump a full load of a transparent liquid into my hands and walk out the door.

I start rubbing my hands and spreading all of the goodness in between my fingers. It gets stick. Really sticky.

I turn to my girlfriend and say: "This is soooo sticky. I think it's motor oil."

She asked me - rightly so - why a convenience store would have motor oil. Anyway, this stuff had to go and so I ran into the next Starbucks to wash my hands.

End of story. Or so I thought.


A couple of days later, we walked into the same convenience store. I bee-lined straight to that ominous bottle and had a look.

It said: Sugar Syrup.

Why would you place a bottle that looks like this right at the door? ๐Ÿคทโ€โ™‚๏ธ

Am I an idiot? Most certainly.

Could this have happened to someone else? Honestly, I don't know... but I'm curious.

It was pure pattern recognition in my brain to go "oh, a pump bottle at the door, must be hand sanitizer" and I went for it.

The worst thing: The cashier probably watched the entire debacle ๐Ÿ™„


Oh, well. You live and you learn.

Now off to the Korea roundup ๐Ÿ‘‡

Culture, Hype, and the K-Wave

Korea is living through it's moment.

K-Beauty. K-Pop. K-Drama. K-[ANYTHING]

The K-Wave is real ๐ŸŒŠ

It feels like trend researchers would have a field day just walking through Seoul and taking note of what the youngsters are wearing, eating, and discussing.

  • K-Beauty: Cosmetics chains like Olive Young are on every corner. Ads for cosmetics are in all the metro stations. // People abroad are obsessed with K-Beauty products (face masks; creams; sun block; etc.)
  • K-Beauty+: Plastic surgery is huuuuuuuuuuuuge in South Korea. One of our local friends took us to get a facial. I have never had such white skin in my life ๐Ÿ’„
  • K-Drama: Never heard of this before but seems like it's like Asian telenovelas.
  • K-Pop: The musical output is a global phenomenon. Check Blackpink or any of the other bands. Their band members are called "idols" because that's what they are. // fun fact: there's a boy band called "Seventeen" but it's just thirteen dudes. The various dudes in the band make up smaller "units" (performance unit; hip hop unit; etc.)
How popular are they? Just have a look at the number of views this video has โ†’ Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHNzOHi8sJs

Korean Fashion

To my untrained eye, South Korea seems to have a distinct fashion style:

  • Colors: Muted/mono colors like black, white, navy.
  • Shapes: Classic cuts with a twist (e.g. slightly oversized; etc.)

It somehow reminds me of Denmark - standardized, simple, effortless ๐Ÿ‡ฉ๐Ÿ‡ฐ

Korean fashion in the wild.

One local friend said it might be because of "Korea's conformist culture. No one wants to stick out too much. If you look at the cars, you'll see the same basic colors over and over again."

I have to say that I'm a big fan of what they're cooking up over there.

High-margin products. But make them instagramable!

One of the more interesting observations was the business playbook of a company legally registered as IICOMBINED Co., Ltd

They own three super popular brands:

I first asked myself why a company would want to operate businesses in such different product verticals, but then I found a similarity: Consumer-sided products with high margins.

So why are these three brands everyone's favorite?

They know how to design store experiences that are noteworthy, very instagramable, and, on top of that, their products are cool too.

It is hard to put into words how artistic all of their stores are. You should check out this site for their flagship store "Haus Dosan" - a modern day temple of consumerism.

Ader Error is another hype brand that does crazy stuff with their physical experiences. Their space in the hip district of Dosan is a six-floor museum where they happen sell their products.

The in-store experiences in Seoul are on another level. Truly amazing.

This Language Slaps

Korean is notable for a variety of reasons:

  1. The Korean language has circles โญ•๏ธ ... not that it matters, but it looks very cool/different.
  2. Korean has a phonetic alphabet called Hangul โ†’ In it, (1) every letter has a symbol, (2) syllables are written as letter blocks, and (3) once you know the alphabet, you can read the language.
  3. There's a comic-style guide to Learning how to Read Korean in 15 Minutes by Ryan Estrada. Highly recommended.

Antagonism: A Truce with North Korea

The first time I pulled up Google Maps, I was floored by how close Seoul was to North Korea. 50 kilometers.

What the actual fuck?!

The North Korean border is closer than one might think.

So why does all of this matter?

  1. South Korea and North Korea are technically still at war. The conflict never ended but both parties agreed on a temporary armistice.
  2. Seoul is South Korea's capital. It houses the government, most of the countries important infrastructure, and is home to ~25 million people - which is half of the country's population.
  3. 50 kilometers is short enough to be within reach of North Korean artillery.

No bueno.

This short video gives a good overview of the Korean war:

A couple of thoughts:

  • I never knew that - at some point during the war - North Korea controlled Seoul and pushed the South Korean government back to the city of Busan. South Korea was effectively reduced to a single coastal city in the south.
  • Practically speaking, South Korea is an island. No land route through friendly territory.
  • Military service is compulsory (2 years of mandatory conscription) and you see young men in uniforms everywhere.

I have the impression that some of Koreas particularities - culture; infrastructure; etc. - are a result of this constellation.

Google Maps Doesn't Work

Oh, the bliss of a 21st-century traveller to travel to far away lands and have all the maps in your pocket.

Yes... but... Google Maps doesn't properly work in South Korea.

Don't believe me? Go ahead, try to route from any point in South Korea to another point and see what happens.*

*hint: nothing happens

Why is that?

South Korea has a set of legal restrictions for geographic data.

My interpretation is that South Korea wants to have exclusive access and control over geospatial data in case of an armed conflict with its neighbor.

If that were to happen, South Korea doesn't have control over Google. But it has control over Kakao and Naver - two of the countries largest internet companies.

It would go something like this:

  1. Conflict
  2. Remove access to geospatial data for everyone
  3. Provision access to domestic entities, which need it.
Naver Maps is good in principle but I don't know how to read Korean and we couldn't find the English setting ๐Ÿคทโ€โ™‚๏ธ

Practically speaking, you can still use Google to mark certain spots and eye ball your route but it's a clunkier process than in most other countries.

Vertical Underground Infrastructure

One of the first things you'll notice about Seoul is the verticality of the city.

Seoul (Central) Station is incredibly deep. My guess, it doubles as an underground bunker in case of emergency.

Additionally, if you pay attention, you can see "Emergency Bunker" signs at regular intervals. The same applies to Taiwan by the way.

Seoul Subway Station Map | Station and Emergency Evacuation โ€ฆ | Flickr
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pixelhut/18298447252

Seoul: Cityscape, Infrastructure, and More

Seoul is surprisingly hilly. Kind of an Istanbul situation.

A few other things that were notable:

  • ๐Ÿš Commuter Busses: There are endless commuter bus fleets for people living in the suburbs. Think of an endless train of tour busses. They have an express lane for themselves.
  • ๐Ÿ—บ๏ธ Cities on a Similar Latitude: Seoul is on the same latitude as San Francisco, Washington D.C., Sevilla, and Athens. Who knew?
  • ๐Ÿšฎ No Trash Cans: There are virtually no trash cans in public.

A few more notable things:

  • Different Payment Infrastructure: ApplePay doesn't work. Everything is done either via physical Credit Card or T-Money (their metro ticket equivalent - you can also use it to pay at convenience stores).
  • Korean Apps: Everyone uses Kakao (quasi local Facebook/Meta) and Naver (quasi local Google/Alphabet).
  • Red Means "Available": If you try to hail a cab, look for the red sign. Red means "free." Green means "taken/reserved."
  • Korean OEMs: All cars are Korean (Hyundai; Kia; etc.) // All phones are Korean (Samsung).

I once read a tweet that said something along the lines of "Whatever they are smoking over at Hyunday, it seems to work."

And, oh boy, work it does.

All in all, Seoul feels like the future - but on a different planet.


A couple of interesting things:

  • Religion: 60% w/o belief; 23% Christian; 16% Buddhist; 1% other.
  • "Kyopo" is the term for Koreans born in US & living in Korea (or other way round) โ†’ Kyopo culture in the US was built by Christian emigres.
  • Koreans use the Japanese concept of "Otaku" - someone obsessive about a niche - as a way to describe their own obsessions. A coffee nerd is a "Coffee-ota." A train nerd is a "Train-ota."
  • The act of "eating out - i.e. getting social - for corporate reasons" is called Huesik.
  • Korea has the world's lowest fertility rates ๐Ÿ“‰
  • Matchmaking happens everywhere (once during a cab ride the driver asked our friend if she was single, since he wanted to match her with one of his sons).
  • There's a concept "Korean Age." The moment a baby is born, it is 1 year old. Then, on January 1st, the entire Korean population gets one year older. That's Korean Age. // as far as I understand, they updated the law back in December 2022 to phase out Korean Age.

Korean Weddings ๐Ÿ‘ฐ

Korean weddings are short. Like ridiculously short (by European standards).

We attended our friend's wedding and start-to-finish it took 2 hours:

  • Pre-Ceremony (t-30 minutes): Arrival and photos with the couple
  • Ceremony (30 minutes): Includes the reading of vows, the exchange of rings, the kiss, the cutting of the cake, clearing of the chairs, and various group photos (all family; his family; her family; friends).
  • Meal (60 minutes): Six course meal in sixty minutes. Talk about efficiency.
  • After-meal drinks (30 minutes): Most people already went home by that time and only the "foreign friends" remained for one or two drinks.
Cake cutting a la Formula 1 pit stop. In-done-out.

Other Observations

  • Asians count differently with their hands. With this method you can count to 10 with only one hand.
  • Overall the level of English felt significantly lower as compared to Taiwan.
  • There are restaurant robots that help serving dishes and transporting dirty dishes to the kitchen. Restaurants even give these robots separate names like "Kyo-Dong-I A", "Kyo-Dong-I B", and "Kyo-Dong-I C."
  • Clubs in Korea are incredibly loud. It feels like each sound system is cranked up to the max with poor trim control. It's buzzing but in a bad way.
  • Each club floor has a hype man - a person shouting random things into the microphone while the DJ is spinning the decks.
  • Self-serve photo studios are everywhere. In the past, people went to studios where they could get their picture taken, filter/edit it, and create their own set of physical stickers. // Now, natural photography is all the rage. You walk in, drop a coin, and get your picture taken with self-release.
  • I've seen multiple older Koreans walk barefoot in the park. Grounding?
  • Viennese Einspรคnner coffee has made it to Seoul. It's everywhere. As a Viennese dude, this is the most random thing ever ๐Ÿ˜…
  • They refer to sprite as "cider"
  • Every larger metro station has their own custom jingle when trains arrive (heard on the station platform and in the metro trains).
  • My first impression of Koreans was that they are very formal - almost military-like.
  • Koreans are said to be "hot blooded" โ†’ That's where the telenovelas probably come from.
  • Koreans have a big drinking culture โ†’ favorite drink is Some (beer + soju) ๐Ÿธ

MBTI Is Surprisingly Huge

Heard of the Myers-Briggs Test with the 16 personality types?

Once upon a time I took one of those tests with my co-founders at our start-up. Of course, it's not a perfect description of one's personality but it's a shot in a direction. It's a starting point for discussion.

Turns out that, in Korea, the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) is comparable to the New Testament. Enough people are obsessed with it and companies use it in interviews - even rejecting people based on their unfit personality.

In a book store we found an entire section full with MBTI books. Each of the 16 vertical "columns" had a curated section of books for each personality type ๐Ÿคฏ

Completely Random Things

  • In 1997, as a result of the Asian financial crisis, Korea went bankrupt. They needed a bail out from the IMF.
  • The clothing style before the 1997 crisis was very colorful and wild. Think of US late-80s/early-90s outfits. // Nowadays, when youngsters dress like that it's called "Newtro" (New + Retro). The pre-97s are coming back.
  • Samsung is the largest employer of the country. ~300k people work for them.
  • Lotte is another massive conglomerate. I had never heard of them. Next to their business lines, they operate a theme park called "Lotte World", own a major baseball team in Japan, and have created a YouTube star that is actually a bear. Wild!

Traditional Stuff

  • Hanbok rentals are a thing. It was cool to see locals and tourists dress up in the traditional attire for a day and walk around the large palaces. I'd love to see other people walk around in Lederhosen and Dirndls.
  • When it rains, people apparently eat Korean pancakes and drink rice wine. Business idea?
  • Koreans traditionally don't have pets. Traditionally, they don't like cats. But that's changing quickly

Food & Beverage

The Sake Toad ๐Ÿธ

My favorite guy is the "Sake Toad" - the "Jinro geh-gu-ri" (์ง„๋กœ ๋‘๊บผ๋น„).

It's the mascot of the traditional Soju manufacturer Jinro. The mascot is everywhere. Amazing move. I love him.


One of Korea's favorite foods is Korean BBQ.

As our friend said:

Back in the day, when Korea was less eco-conscious and safety rules were a bit more relaxed, we used to grill samgyeopsal right on the sandy shores! Every weekend, my parents would load up the car with all the beach BBQ gear โ€“ veggies, kimchi, rice, and meat โ€“ and throw a samgyeopsal party. Somehow, the flavor of samgyeopsal with that ocean breeze is unforgettable, and itโ€™s the best! 

More than 20 years ago, it sadly became illegal, and we canโ€™t have the same experience again. :( 

Read more in the full interview ๐Ÿ‘‡

A full-fat flavor profile with Hyewon Hwang on the favorite Korean BBQ dish.

Food Innovation

  • Vitamin sticks are a thing. Feeling down? down a stick!
  • Korea has a variety of different food formats: Pre-cut nigiri rolls; packaged sausages on a stick; and so on...

Areas to Explore

I can highly recommend going to Korea.

Korea - in general - and Seoul - specifically - gave me the biggest culture shock during our trip. In a good way.


  • Myeongdong - Commercial district with lots of shops (K-Beauty; street food; general department stores).
  • Itaewon - Favorite nightlife district for expats. Also, where the horrible 2022 Itaewon Halloween tragedy happened.
  • Gangnam - Business district that feels like Manhattan.
  • Dosan - Upscale shopping area with tons of cocktail bars.
  • Seongsu - Former industrial area, which has become super hip.
Seoul ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ท ยท Art Lapinsch
45 places -

์ฝ์–ด ์ฃผ์…”์„œ ๊ฐ์‚ฌํ•ฉ๋‹ˆ๋‹ค ๐Ÿ™

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