Korea’s communal drinking culture has for centuries been characterised by elaborate hierarchal etiquette — and excess.
Glasses are clasped in two hands and, after declaring mashigo-jukja, “let’s drink and die”, younger members of the group deferentially turn away from their senior companions before knocking back their drinks.
As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, however, these distinctly collective customs are being abandoned for a new tendency: homsul, or drinking at home, alone.
The trend has caught the eye of both investors and social scientists.
Rising alcohol sales have been welcomed as rare bright spots in an economy battling to secure a sustained recovery in domestic consumption despite record government stimulus measures.
But widespread isolation is stoking concerns over the country’s already high rates of depression and suicide.
Hyun-joo Mo, a Seoul-based anthropologist, said while people were facing similar problems around the world, Seoul’s already extreme drinking culture had grown more “dangerous”.
“They don’t talk, they just drink. At least before they talked, they had some conversation,” she said.
South Korea this week instituted its toughest lockdown measures since the start of the pandemic, as health officials struggled to combat transmission of the highly infectious Delta variant.
Across the greater Seoul area, in which about half the country’s 52m people live, gatherings of more than two people have been prohibited after 6pm and schools and kindergartens have been shut.
As the restrictions have been extended, homsul, Mo added, had become pervasive among younger Koreans grappling with high unemployment and low wages, as well as working parents with young children under immense pressure because of rising costs for housing and education.
“They feel isolated, depressed, desperate,” she said.
For booze brands, homsul has been welcomed as the months-long curfews on social activities and mass gatherings have forced bars, restaurants and nightclubs and South Korea’s ubiquitous norae-bang, or karaoke rooms, to close — many permanently.
According to Fitch Solutions, spending on alcoholic drinks in the country will rise more than 8 per cent to about $6.8bn this year. That compares with modest sales growth in South Korea of 2 per cent last year while Asia-wide alcohol consumption declined 2 per cent.
South Korea’s home drinking trend is set to “remain in force for most of 2021”, said Ng Jun Ying, a food and beverage analyst at Fitch.
For alcohol distributors, a sharp increase in wine consumption is also helping to offset the damage wrought on the hospitality sector by bar and nightclub closures.
Sales of beer and spirits, including soju, the national liquor traditionally made from rice, still account for the majority of sales but wine imports jumped by more than 30 per cent in 2020, Ng noted.
South Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD members with 24.6 deaths per 100,000 people. Lithuania had the second highest with 21.6, followed by Slovenia with 16.5.
Health officials in Seoul said they had boosted resources to suicide prevention helplines after volunteers reported a 50 per cent increase in calls during the pandemic.
If you have been affected by anything in this story and need help, you can reach Lifeline Korea at 1588-9191. In the UK, the Samaritans are on 116 123. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US is on 1-800-273-8255.