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[Lee Jae-min] The $1 happiness that soju gives

Like the First Time, Genuine Dewdrop, Good Day, Dripping Leaves and Halla Mountain. The names sound so refreshing and lovely. The original Korean versions are even more tantalizing. If they conjure up images of a green bottle and bittersweet taste, you have lived in Korea long enough. These are the five best-selling brands of soju on the Korean market.

This traditional Korean hard liquor is truly a common man’s drink. It is very cheap -- about a dollar a bottle. By volume, it’s cheaper than milk. What else can provide a cheaper fix? It is also readily available -- ubiquitous convenience stores are open 24 hours, ensuring an endless supply. Literally one short walk away night and day. Soju ads are on every corner and in every restaurant -- the popularity has made the ads celebrities’ top choices.

And so formed the unwavering national loyalty for the green bottle. Soju is the world’s most popular hard liquor by volume. In 2016, people in Korea drank an average of 97 bottles of soju. This is one bottle for everyone every four days.

In a recent survey, the World Health Organization puts Korea at the top in the category of consumption of hard liquor -- spirits. While Korea is ranked (just?) No. 13 in overall alcohol consumption out of 188 countries surveyed, it secures a dominant first place in “spirits” consumption by drinking 9.57 liters per person per year. Russians, with their vodka, only consume 6.88 liters of hard spirits. Another statistic from an industry research organization: We drink 14 shots of hard liquor a week, while Russians drink six and Americans three. The unwavering loyalty to soju has made all this possible.

In 2004, in response to repeated petitions from Korean-Americans and residents, the state legislature of US State of Virginia amended its legislation to carve out soju from the hard liquor regulation, so that the Korean distilled spirit could be served in Korean restaurants “by the bottle.” Hard liquors are not supposed to be sold in restaurants by the bottle. Nobody orders a bottle of bourbon at TGI Friday. 

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board of Virginia distinguished soju by explaining the traditional way of drinking soju as part of the Korean culture, “(soju) is traditionally served by delivering a bottle to a group of consumers, who then proceed to pour (for) each other.” This by-the-bottle sale permission had an interesting condition, though. There should be at least two people at the table. It underscores the communal nature of soju drinking: Empty glasses are filled up by another person and bottles are passed around the table. It is indeed a part of our culture.

In a society with a high level of stress and the longest working hours, after-work drinking has long been condoned and even encouraged as the best way to blow off steam and strengthen bonds among colleagues. “Let’s have a shot of soju together soon” is perhaps the most frequently used greeting among close friends. Hard drinkers are hard workers is what people tend to say. Short bios in newspapers for newly appointed high ranking government officials proudly include references to drinking ability as if it were meant to connote strong leadership.

And so has emerged an alcohol-lenient society. One of the best excuses and apologies is to blame intoxication. “Give ’em a break, he was drunk” passes well in many instances. Police stations nationwide bustle with drunks all night long, but most of them go home the next morning with a minor warnings or citations. Even judges and prosecutors consider inebriation a mitigating factor for a crime. Toward the intoxicated, we are generous and tolerant -- a rare commodity in Korean society today.

As usual, this March is also full of press reports of injuries and accidents of college students indulging in binge drinking on and around university campuses. With welcoming parties and semester starting gatherings, the month of March is the most vibrant time of the year in terms of alcohol consumption. The other day, there was a traffic accident of a group of students heading to a freshmen orientation and it turns out that they were carrying 8,000 bottles of soju on board buses.

For just a dollar, we will have a Good Day enjoying Genuine Dewdrops every evening, savoring it Like the First Time.

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By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at jaemin@snu.ac.kr. -- Ed.
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