Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Are Koreans…? Part 1: history, genetics, and physiology

Asian people lithographDetail of an antique lithograph of Asian peoples. Original here
blue dot
Oct 09 2012

I spent some time playing with Google’s auto-suggest for the phrase, “Are Koreans…?”. As usually happens when you play around with auto-suggest, it revealed that most people searching the internet are breathtakingly ignorant, and preoccupied with sex. Which means, I suppose, that people generally are breathtakingly ignorant and preoccupied with sex.

But the questions did seem to cluster around certain topics, and I found those clusters interesting. Assuming that these are really the questions people have about Koreans, I will attempt to answer them from my perspective as a foreigner living in Korea.

Despite the jaw-dropping ignorance of many of the questions, I will try to answer them seriously. A warning, though – the nature of questions beginning with “Are Koreans…” calls for racial generalizations. Some people are uncomfortable with any suggestion that any group of people, even as a generalization, are intrinsically different from any other group. For some people this is an ideological position so strong that they are uncomfortable even with self-evidently true statements such as “People from Europe have, on average, lighter skin than people from Africa.” If that statement, indisputably true, makes you nervous, you should stop reading now. It will get a lot worse than that.

I will try to draw reasoned conclusions from evidence, but some questions can only be answered with a personal opinion, and where I do that, I’ll make it clear that it my opinion, and no more than that. Secondly, I should note that the idea of “race” is dubious at best – when I use the word “Koreans” here, I am talking about people living in the Republic of Korea, and in some cases the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, who are not immigrants or recent descendants of immigrants.

Finally, a blanket disclaimer: Koreans, individually, are short and tall, beautiful and ugly, brilliant and incredibly stupid, kind-tempered and ornery, fat and thin. Generalizations are just that, and may or may not be true for any individual.

Almost half of the questions relate to Korean genetics and physiology, so I’ll deal with those in Part 1, because this has turned out much longer than I expected. Part 2, dealing with Korean sexuality, culture, and other random queries, will follow.

Racial origins

 Are Koreans Asian?  Considered Asian? Are Koreans Chinese? Are Koreans and Japanese related?  Are Koreans and Vietnamese, Han Chinese, Indonesians, etc, related? Are Koreans descendants of Mongolians? Descendants of Japanese? Who are Koreans descended from? Are Koreans pure?

As can be seen from the above questions, a lot of people want to know where the Korean people came from. Either that, or people are hopelessly geographically confused. Yes: Korea is in Asia.

To deal with the last question first – the idea of racial “purity” is dangerous and non-sensical. There is no Crufts or American Kennel Club for human beings. Genetic studies of various populations consistently show two things about human beings: we (men more than women) like to travel, and like to have sex with the natives when we do so. (You can ask MBC about that one.) There is no such thing as a “pure” race.

There is, however, a valid related concept called a genetically homogeneous population, which  is a population of comparatively limited genetic diversity, caused by a small founder group and a relative lack of outbreeding. Iceland, for instance, is often given as an example of a genetically homogeneous population.

The genetic evidence for Korea is unsurprising – yes, it is a relatively homogeneous population. According to this study, which looked at Korean diversity on the Y chromosome (which is what those wandering males leave behind), all of Korea is pretty homogeneous, with the exception of Jeju-do.* *Thinking about Korean Y chromosomes, I wondered if there was any correlation between Korean family names and Y chromosome haplotypes. Turns out somebody did a study on this, to see if it would be useful for forensic work. “Hmm, this is definitely Kim blood. Sergeant – release all the Parks and Lees.” Turns out it is completely useless – apparently Koreans have been screwing around for so long that family names and Y chromosomes are hopelessly mixed up. Not surprising, as it is an island quite some distance from the mainland.

So, where did Koreans come from? The genetic, linguistic and archaeological evidence is pretty consistent. Koreans came to the peninsular in several waves, starting in paleolithic times, from Altaic or proto-Altaic speaking tribes of the Altai Mountains and Baikal lake – in other words, Mongolia and Siberia. The origins of the Japanese are somewhat more diverse, but it seems likely that a substantial number of early migrants to Japan came via the same route, and also directly via Korea. So, the Japanese are descended partly from Koreans, which probably irritates them no end.

Koreans are, however, quite genetically distinct from Southern Chinese, and related to Northern Chinese only due to some population movements of Altaic peoples into Northern China. Koreans are very distinct from Austronesian people, a population originating (probably) in Taiwan in pre-historic times that spread to much of South-East Asia.

So – Koreans are related to Mongolians (most closely)(or not – see this comment), Manchurians, and the Japanese. They are not very related to Southern Chinese, Vietnamese, or any other population in South-West Asia.

Appearance (hotness)

 Are Koreans prettier than Japanese?  Are Koreans the best looking Asians? Are Koreans beautiful? Cute? Ugly? (My favourite): Are Koreans really that good looking?

This is a tough one to answer objectively. People like different things. There are some universal standards of human beauty, but unsurprisingly there doesn’t seem to be a lot of research into different races’ conformity to those universal standards. Thus I am in the strange position of trying to give a subjective opinion on whether or not Koreans conform to universal standards of beauty. That said – I’ll give it a shot.

First, the sex-independent universal standards of human beauty. To my eyes, Koreans seem to have a high degree of facial symmetry. Other universal characteristics include youthfulness, skin clarity and smoothness, and “vivid color” in eyes and hair. Well – they vary among Koreans, as they do among most people. Many Koreans have beautiful skin; on the other hand, adult acne is also pretty common.

I did actually find some studies measuring proportionate leg length amongst different races – who researches these things? – unfortunately, none of them specifically looked at Koreans. My observation is that compared to other Asians, Koreans have relatively long legs, but not so long as some African peoples.

Regarding attributes of female beauty, Koreans, like other Asians, are distinctly neotenous – a retention of child-like physical qualities into adulthood – which is generally regarded as attractive in women. Less so in men.

As for guys, in their prime a lot of them seem to have V-shaped mesomorphic torsos with narrow waists, considered a universal sign of male attractiveness, and they’re taller than any other Asian people by an inch-and-a-half, on average. On the other hand, they don’t generally have the high-testosterone facial qualities that are supposedly universally attractive to women – “broad forehead, relatively longer lower face, prominent chin and brow”. That Asian neoteny…

Writing this, it feels absolutely ridiculous. OK – in a bar debate, I would argue for Korean women as the best-looking women in Asia. I like their cheekbones, and legs, and I like their eyes when they haven’t been sprung open by double-eyelid surgery. Compared to Japanese women, they have longer noses; compared to South-East Asian women, they tend to have more prominent cheekbones and more defined noses. It’s only a personal opinion. I know other people who find Koreans’ faces too flat and who prefer South-East Asian women. I’ve never met a foreign guy who found Korean women unattractive. By limiting the comparisons to Asian women, I’m not being struck by yellow fever, but trying to say whether Korean women are more attractive than Brazilian or Russian, or whatever nationality you think has the hottest women, seems to take this even further into absurdity than it already is.

Foreign women, on the other hand, seem more divided on Korean men – some like them, others find them too feminine. Not being personally inclined that way, I don’t really have an opinion.

Really, these questions are unanswerable, except for the somewhat plaintive final one: “Are Koreans really that good looking?” I presume that whoever is googling this has watched too many Korean dramas and K-pop groups. The answer: of course not. Some are beautiful, some are plain. I like this quote from the recent New Yorker article on K-pop, on this point:

Where K-pop stars excel is in sheer physical beauty. Their faces, chiselled, sculpted, and tapering to a sharp point at the chin, Na’vi style, look strikingly different from the flat, round faces of most Koreans. Some were born with this bone structure, no doubt, but many can look this way only with the help of plastic surgery.

Appearance (other aspects)

Are Koreans naturally skinny? Are Koreans anorexic?

From what I’ve seen of Korean-Australians and Korean-Americans, Koreans are not “naturally” skinny. The Korean diet is inherently balanced and low in meat; also, the social pressure to be thin is extreme. For one thing, the Western cultural restriction on commenting negatively on another person’s physical appearance doesn’t exist here – people will happily tell their friends and work colleagues that they look fat.

The question “Are Koreans anorexic” is interesting to me. My observation of Korean culture is that it encourages a relentless perfectionism, which is a personality trait associated with obsessive-compulsive disorders such as anorexia. I’ve had a few students who showed definite OCD symptoms, but what is the actual prevalence of anorexia in Korea? It is also interesting because it speaks to the much-debated question of whether anorexia nervosa is a disease of cultural hysteria brought about by media attention to the disease, or whether it is culture-independent.

It’s hard to find journal articles on the incidence of anorexia nervosa in Korea, but fortunately for me Eating in Asia blog has done the work for me, properly sourced and everything: incidence of anorexia in Korea is about the same as Western countries, and seems to be culture independent. The data is, however, pretty slim, at least in English.

Are Koreans naturally tan? Naturally pale?

Koreans range from as pale as a red-headed Scottish girl to a milk coffee colour. Face-whitening creams and makeup are extremely common for Korean women.

Are Koreans getting taller?

Yes. The height gap between Koreans who grew up in the post-war period and twenty-something Koreans is incredible.

Are Koreans lactose intolerant?

Lactose tolerance is interesting. It’s a recent emergence in human evolution, strongly correlated with the spread of dairying cultures. So if you come from a culture that liked to drink milk 5-10,000 years ago, you can probably tolerate lactose. If you don’t, you probably can’t.

Lactose intolerance amongst Chinese is about 95%, and about the same for Japanese people. But hey, remember those Mongolians that begat the Koreans? Apparently the Mongolians liked to drink mare’s milk. And so – as best I can tell – Koreans are more lactose tolerant than their neighbours. I found it hard to find reliable statistics on lactose intolerance amongst Koreans, apart from this paper on lactose intolerance in Korean school children, which shows a moderate but comparatively low incidence of intolerance. As lactose intolerance increases with age, it would be wrong to extrapolate from this that Koreans are generally lactose tolerant, but what information I could find did suggest that Koreans were on average more lactose tolerant than other East Asians – not including the Mongolians, with their wacky horse-milk drinking ways.

Are all Koreans single eyelid?

No. The best reference I could find, unfortunately unsourced and not too reliable, is this plastic surgery clinic which puts the percentage of single eyelids for Koreans at 80%, compared to about 50% for Chinese people. Based on my informal survey of my elementary school students, I think this is a bit high. I’d guess it more about 60/40.

Of course, in some places in Korea, such as Gangnam, the incidence of of double eyelids amongst Korean women is much higher.

Part 2 – Sexuality, abilities, and random queries

Waegukin wrote these 2041 words on October 9th, 2012 | Posted in Culture |


19 comments on “Are Koreans…? Part 1: history, genetics, and physiology”

  1. yoo says:

    AS Korean female, i agree with you in most part of wrting but disagree with you in some part.

    you seemed that you have alot of interest in Korea and Koreans. how did you search bulk of information about those subjects?

    i think there are not too many differences between americans(foreinger) and koreans.
    (skin corlor and the way of thinking are pretty much different though. )

    when i was young i thought all american guys might look like brad pitt or will smith(they are my favorit actors and have very nice manner! but it was not true…

    everyday i meet american guys in my office. and
    only a few of them are handsome. it makes me dissapointed. (haha , it’s a joke)

    you know the old saying ‘beauty is the eyes of the beholder.’ (is it correct? i am not sure);;

    i am not tall and have bit flat and round face.
    eh~ its kind of a typical korean looking.
    (i don’t like the quote of the article..-0- cus i am not a kpopstar. )

    most foreign people around me don’t have interest in Korea. so i am glad to meet you here.

    if you need any information about Korea i will help your searching.

    *i like writing too. i have my own blog. but you can’t read it..cus it’s in Korean. ^^; sorry for that!

  2. yoo says:

    i just found a lot of wrong grammer in my comments…but i can’t amend them…. -_-


  3. The Waegukin says:

    Hi Yoo,

    Nice to have a Korean reader. You can correct all my mistakes about Korea. I am sure I make many.

    Actually it is difficult to research many things about Korea, because most of the information is in Korean. So if you see mistakes, I’m sorry.

    Don’t worry about your grammar, I think you write English very well. Thank you for reading.

    “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. It is true ^^

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. Hanna says:

    People always tend to say that koreans are very tall compared to other Asians and I have been to Japan and China. But how tall are the korean women in the younger generation usually? and how tall are the men in the younger generation? Hope you can answer 🙂

  5. Slee says:

    Hello Waegukin,

    What a nice read that was! I enjoyed reading your article so much I’m planning on sharing it with some of my friends. I was born in South Korea but my family moved a lot (to Northern Europe and now to America) and I have always told myself that I won’t let myself lose my Korean identity although I don’t think I ever will appearance-wise 😉 So I was researching around just to get a glimpse of where Koreans could have come from. Thanks for the neat article!

  6. Marielle says:

    I and my brother are both adopted from Korea. We live in a Western European country. When I grew up I was always the one who ate the most and I have never cared about my weight. I have always been very skinny and I never gain weight. Even though I eat a lot of junk food and basically whatever I want. My brother is also very skinny and he also eat a lot of food like me. I can see there is a big difference between us, other Asians and Europeans.

  7. a Korean says:

    Hi. This is the most neutral and informing article I have ever seen in English. So I want to thank your enthusiasm to write fairly about Korean, because there are too much misunderstandings and lack of information of Korean on the internet.

    But I found out one mistake, which I don’t want to blame about because even most Koreans don’t know exactly about that. Recent studies about the origin of Korean indicates that Koreans have relatively weak tie to Mongolians than people first thought. On the other hands, It’s turned out that Koreans have the strongest tie to “Manchurians.” Recent genetic and phonological studies shows that among the East Asians, like Northern/Southern Chinese, Japanese, Mongolians, Manchurians, and so on, Manchurians are the closest ethnic group to Koreans. It’s too close that even it can be said they are same ethnic group with some exaggeration. Of course, their languages are definitely different from Korean (I’m not talking about Mandarin but about the Manchurian language that has almost disappeared these days.), so it can’t be said like that. However, as we are talking about the origin of Korean by blood, we can say Koreans are closer to Manchurians other than Mongolians.

    * note 1 : Mongolian language is also quite different from Korean as Manchurian language is.
    * note 2 : The closeness between Korean and Manchurian is widely adopted by archeologists and Historians of Korea and China these days.
    * note 3 : Historically Goguryeo and Balhae, ancient Korean kingdoms, ruled Korean and the ancestors of Manchurian (Malgal). So, that can be the reason why they are so close, but there are no prominent theory yet that properly explains their closeness.

  8. a Korean says:

    There are many grammatical mistakes, but I can’t fix it. Pardon me.

  9. Waegukin says:

    Thank you for the well-informed comment, and don’t worry about your grammar, I can understand you easily.

    Looking at a world map, it makes sense that Koreans would, in fact, be most closely related to Manchurians. I’ve added a reference in the article drawing attention to your comment.

    More broadly, though, as far as I know what I said about the origins of Koreans is mostly correct. Sure, they come from Manchuria, but where did the Manchurians come come from? The Altai Mountains and Baikal Lake, as far as I know – i.e, Siberia and Mongolia. Manchuria was just a stopping point for some of them. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about that, you’re obviously well-informed on the subject.

    Thanks for the comment!

  10. a Korean says:

    Thank you for your kind response.

    As far as I know, Koreans are mostly close to Manchurians and Japanese, and it would be correct to say that they(Koreans, Manchurians and Japanese) are close to Mongolians. If you imagine evolution tree, it might be easy to understand. According to my knowledge, you are roughly right, but not precisely.

    If you want to know more deeply about this issue, you can find more informations about ongoing researches about this issue by googling haplogroup O2b. My knowledge is based on those articles and researches, so I think you could judge for yourself by googling haplogroup O2b.

  11. YOYOYO says:

    Hey, nice article there!
    I would say the closest relatives of Koreans are probably Siberian natives, which The Siberians spilt up into two races, the Mongols and the Koreans. Also, Koreans and the Japanese are actually quite distinct from each other, as far as I know, as the Japanese has a large amount of Austroneisian blood, while the Koreans don’t .And for the ‘double eyelid” thing, some koreans have natural double eyelids, which is a very small percent. But my mom, for example, has them (without surgery) while I don’t. I actually dislike the “popular pretty face” that almost every Korean wants, because it just looks unnatural, to me. So many kids in my class, want that little pretty face, but to me, the face doesn’t look like it belongs to any race at all. They say they want to look like white people, but it doesn’t look anything like them! I don’t get people these days…lol

  12. Christy Park says:

    Haha, this is nasty. You’re obsessd with Korean women. And guess what? You’ll never get one:) white people are so ugly. Go die please…. This is whybwebdon’g like you. Searching us like this? The fuck is wrong with u? European history is so boring you had to search us to this extent? Ee….racist

  13. An observer says:

    What a crime to be interested in a culture other than your own. People should definitely only be interested in their own culture, its the only way to spread global acceptance and celebrate diversity. 😉

    Also if you take the “y” out of Christy Park’s name, she becomes the Korean Jesus…

    Good day!

  14. splooge says:

    what about build wise? Many korean guys though do produce some large frame men, many of them seem to be slim ectomorphs like slim shoulders and small less then 6.5inch wrists

  15. Eun Chul Choi says:

    lol your statement proves you are ignorant. Have you try to search in Korean? If you search in Korean, you will have different Are Korea? related question. and Korean is Altai family is a dead hypothesis in 20th century due to lexical difference. Don’t trust Wiki pedia too much you shallow googler

  16. Wanggi says:

    Y chromosome haplogroups make it pretty clear that Korean men are quite different from mongolians. Many mongolian men carry haplogroup C which is like 55 percent or plus in mongolia while its like 15 percent slightly plus or minus in Korea. Most koreans are haplogroup O type found throughout China and southeast asia (70percent plus in korea). Notably koreans and japanese share a sublineage called O2b. O2b is common in koreans and very rare in other parts of asia. O2b can represent a lineage that is almost unique to korea and mongolians have barely any. When it comes to O2b its Korea-japan. Also, i think it can be called genome wide snp.. in terms of that Koreans lie in between mainland japan and beijing and dont tend to cluster with mongol-siberian. In another similar study the writer constantly mentioned that it was hard to clearly distinguish koreans and japanese. In an earlier study that was dealing with dna extracted from ancient bones it stated in the abstract that koreans and mongolians were nam nam from the neolithic period.nam nam can be a way of saying you and i are different in korean.i personally thought that koreans came from mongolia in the past. What i sometimes wonder is that despite the location of korean peninsula, why dont koreans have high percentage of haplogroup c like mongol-siberian…? Infact barely if any seems to have crossed the sea and reached japan about 2300 years ago. That may likely mean that c was absent in certain ancient korean populations that gave rise to yayoi culture in japan.

  17. Revivor says:


  18. Anonymous says:

    Addressing the above comments, “Manchurian” is a vague word, and the Manchu people have recent multiple origins, from Northern China, southeastern Siberia, Mongolia, and the Korean peninsula. Not all Manchus are genetically close to Koreans. Some Manchus cluster closely with Koreans, while others don’t.

    If you equate the Jurchen with Manchu, genetic evidence shows the original Jurchen population is quite distant from Korean and closer to Mongolian, if you use the Xibo/Xibe/Sibe samples and Hezhen/Nanai samples, since these two groups are directly descended from Jurchen tribes that did not assimilate completely into the Manchu banner populations.

    But, due to migrations of Jurchens for centuries southward, the Jurchen blood in Manchus have been heavily mixed with Chinese, Mongolian, and Korean.

  19. 한국 하라버지 says:

    Interesting article with the readers’ comments. Surmise plenty of speculations in this article with some science data entries. I’m 100% Korean and my DNA ethnicity doesn’t have the “Korean” category.

    East Asia
    Chinese and Vietnamese

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