Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Smoking in Korea

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Jul 21 2012

Update: This article is dated, and changes in Korean smoking laws have significantly limited the number of places in which you can smoke in South Korea since I wrote this.

South Korean men smoke a lot. According to the OECD (pdf link) 40% of South Korean men smoke. Contrarily, there is strong social disaproval of women who smoke* and currently only 7% of Korean women smoke.

Cigarettes in Korea are cheap; they generally cost ₩2,700, or about $2.50. Western brands like Dunhill and Marlborough are common. Cigarettes can be bought at any mart, and a variety of other random stores.

*I’m a wanderer by nature, and have occasionally wandered around behind the back of a building or advertising billboard to discover a furtive coven of women smokers. It’s always a startling moment for everyone concerned.For an extensive discussion of gender and smoking in Korea, see this post on The Grand Narrative blog.

Stores selling cigarettes invariably display the distinctive 담배 (cigarettes) sign:

Korean cigarettes for sale sign

Occasionally you will come across small convenience stores that only sell Korean cigarettes – why, I don’t know. I’ve found this to be a particular problem in Jeollabuk-do province.

So, if you come to Korea as a man who smokes, you’re likely to think it a smokers’ paradise, compared to your own country. If you come as a woman who smokes, be prepared for glares from ajussis (older men), if they see you smoking. If you’re someone who reacts hysterically to the merest whiff of cigarette smoke, convinced that this microscopic exposure to tobacco smoke, unlike all the other potential carcinogens you encounter in a given day, is going to give you cancer, be prepared to adjust your social expectations.

In Korea, you can smoke in all bars, noraebangs, love motels, PC bangs, and DVD bangs. Frequently, you can smoke in coffee shops, public bathrooms, and restaurants. The distinction here, as is often the case, is between Old and New Korea. Places in New Korea – upmarket restaurants, Starbucks-style coffee chains, the KTX train – don’t allow smoking. The further you go into Old Korea, the more likely you are to find smoking happily embraced. If you ever stumble into one of the upstairs, old-style coffee shops, where the coffee is a dollar and instant, you will find an ashtray on every table, with a thimble of water in its base to damp the smell.

One reason that smoking is so common amongst Korean men is the period of compulsory army service. I’ve heard from many Korean men that they took up smoking in the army, out of social pressure and sheer boredom.

I’m a teacher, and a smoker, and I do what I can to hide my smoking from my students. But the reality is that smoking is tolerated to an extent that you can probably smoke in the grounds of public schools. It’s illegal, of course, but given that so many Korean men smoke, and older Korean men smoke more than younger Korean men, and the hierarchy of Korean schools, like most Korean institutions, is made up of older men, there is a good chance that there is some hidden part of the school where teachers smoke.

At my first elementary school there was a lovely spot behind the back of the cafeteria, overlooking a pond, where you could smoke. At my second school, it has been more difficult. Again, the smoking place is behind the back of the school. I sometimes smoke here, with a combination of the head of the sixth grade, a fifth grade teacher, and occasionally the principal for company, but it’s more exposed to students, and a couple of times, students have come past while I’ve been smoking there.

At these times I’ve seen the lovely courtesy of Korean children in action. Korean kids will always greet you with a friendly hello. Except, it turns out, when they catch you smoking. Then they will pass by, their eyes carefully averted. Once, a boy rode past me on a bicycle, and I swear, he saw us and closed his eyes. On a bicycle.

Currently, our school nurse is trying to stop the smoking. She got smoking banned from the roof of the school building, which is where the other teachers were previously going to smoke. Afterwards, they moved to the place behind the school that I had been using, and I had company. But last week she sent out a message on the school messenger system, saying that there had been reports of cigarette smoke from behind the building – and that anyone caught smoking back there would be fined. The warning has had little effect, and with the principal amongst the smokers, I don’t think she will get far.

No doubt some people will consider me evil for these anecdotes, but I do hide my smoking from my kids. I never smoke on the street in my town, where they might see me. The smartest among them tend to figure it out, but I deny it in the face of all evidence to the contrary. The denial, I rationalise, is enough to indicate that smoking is not something to be proud of. Once, some smart sixth graders tracked me to my smoking spot, and caught me. They were delighted, and told everybody. With a straight face, I insisted that they had merely caught me absentmindedly rolling a piece of white paper into a tight coil, and completely misinterpreted the situation.

My experience of smoking customs in different countries is that where it is and is not acceptable to smoke is largely a matter of custom, not health. In Japan, when I was there, you could smoke in restaurants, but the streets had prominent signs telling you not to smoke while walking. In Australia, by contrast, a public street is one of the few places where generally you can still smoke. In Korea, too, smoking while walking down the street seems to be frowned upon. The convention here in Daegu is to quietly adjourn yourself off to the side, somewhere out of the way. Smoking is banned in the center of Daegu’s downtown, and in a number of Seoul’s public squares, as well.

It is also worth noting that it is considered disrespectful to light up in front of your senior. So wait until your principal offers you a cigarette…


Waegukin wrote these 1055 words on July 21st, 2012 | Posted in Culture |


3 comments on “Smoking in Korea”

  1. Slackadasiy says:

    My husband (Korean) smokes, and he always, always, ALWAYS stops off and finds a corner to do it. When I mentioned this to some of my older male students, they smiled and said he is very polite. Like you said, it seems to be good manners to find a quiet spot, although plenty of men do still smoke and walk anyhow 🙂

  2. Craash says:

    smoking was OK in Public schools until 2006.

    I remember every day, smoking in front of the main door of the school with the Korean teachers, until it was banned in 2006.

    However, many teachers still do smoke in Public schools, just out of view of the students.


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