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People and Culture

South Korea - People and Culture


South Korea is a very homogeneous country, with nearly all inhabitants identifying themselves as ethnically Korean and speaking the Korean language. However, there are a significant number of foreign workers from Mongolia, China and Southeast Asia, and about 30,000 American military personnel stationed throughout the country, especially near the DMZ.

Although it is the 12th most densely populated country, South Korea now has the world's lowest birthrate (1.16 children per woman nationwide and even less in Seoul), and dealing with this will be one of the major problems of the 21st century. The sex ratio is skewed strongly male, with about 112 men for every 100 women. About 85% of South Koreans live in urban areas.


During the Joseon dynasty Korea's dominant philosophy was a strict form of Confucianism. People were separated into a rigid hierarchy, with the king at the apex, an elite of officials and warriors below him, a small middle class of merchants below them, then a vast population of peasants and a hereditary class of slaves. Men were superior to women, educated were superior to the uneducated and everybody stuck to his defined role or faced the severe consequences. Buddhism and its supposedly dangerous notions of equality and individual spiritual pursuit were suppressed.

While the Joseon Dynasty ceased to exist in 1910, its legacy lives on in Korean culture: education and hard work are valued above all else, and women still struggle for equal treatment.

Koreans believe that the things that sets them the most apart from other Asian cultures is their cuisine, their language and their hangeul script. Outsiders will note their extreme modernity, tempered by a well-developed artistic and architectural joyfulness. Nothing goes undecorated if it can be helped, and they have a knack for stylish interior design. They have a vibrant film industry.

Korea has a significant number of Christians (26%) and Buddhists (26%). Some 46% of the country profess to follow no particular religion.

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