The culture that dreamed up K-pop, kimchi and taekwondo has a lot to share with the rest of the world about prioritizing the mind and body. In fact, South Korea is home to some of the best health care, entertainment and wellness wisdom in the world.
One word: kimchi
Kimchi — fermented cabbage with garlic, vinegar and spices — is a staple of Korean cuisine. Labeled one of the “world’s healthiest foods” by Health.com, kimchi is a condiment served with most meals in Korea. (And, they report, it’s so abundant that Koreans even say “kimchi” instead of “cheese” when snapping photos!) It’s filled with vitamins A, B and C, but perhaps more importantly, kimchi is loaded with probiotics, which can support healthy digestion. What’s more, lactobacilli, one probiotic found in kimchi, is thought to possibly be an anticancer agent.
They take internet dependency seriously
South Korea is one of the most plugged-in countries on the globe, with the majority of its people having access to broadband internet and smartphones. Surveys suggest an estimated 10 percent of teens in the region are addicted to the internet, according to The Washington Post.
South Korea has been confronting this internet attachment head-on for more than a decade. There are camps and treatment centers for people who are dealing with addictive behaviors around online gaming and internet browsing, and the government enacted measures like the “Shutdown Law,” which prevents access to individuals under the age of 16 after midnight.
They make entertainment a priority
South Korean arts and pop culture have been exported around the world ― and for good reason. South Koreans put a high value on arts and entertainment, and it’s resulted in a culture with a rich film, theater, music and visual arts scene. Pop music (also known as K-pop) is a multibillion-dollar industry in Korea.
“K-pop is known for its high cuteness factor, fast-paced choreography and seductive winks, smiles and double takes, as well as lyrics that tend toward frothy fun or breakup boohoo,” Patrick Healy wrote in The New York Times in 2013.
It’s a phenomenon that may even have health and well-being payoffs. A number of studies have demonstrated the mood-boosting power of music, including a 2013 University of Missouri study that showed listening to happy music (and trying to feel happy during it) might elevate mood.
A popular professional sport focuses on the body AND the mind
The traditional Korean martial art of taekwondo fuses self-defense and combat. But taekwondo is more than a physical activity: It’s also a philosophy of using the strength of the body and the power of the mind to create greater peace in the world.
According to World Taekwondo, the sport is a “discipline that shows ways of enhancing our spirit and life through training our body and mind.” As the international federation governing the sport explained:
Taekwondo can be characterized by unity: the unity of body, mind, and life, and the unity of the pose [“poomsae”] and confrontation, and cracking down. When you do Taekwondo, you should make your mind peaceful and synchronize your mind with your movements, and extend this harmony to your life and society. This is how in Taekwondo the principle of physical movements, the principle of mind training, and the principle of life become one and the same.
They enjoy the great outdoors
Camping is becoming an increasingly popular trend in South Korea — and many campers there are seeking refuge from the urban hustle without ever leaving the city. Seoul-based international news outlet Arirang News reported in 2013 that stressed-out urbanites flock to campgrounds within the city to enjoy some relaxing time in nature.
“We live in an extremely fierce and competitive world,” one Seoul resident told Arirang News. “Coming out here in nature, I feel a sense of healing, so I keep coming back.”
Research shows that camping can have mental and physical health perks, from getting better sleep to improving mood to increasing exercise.
They’re happy with their health care
A 2016 study found that the quality of care offered in Korea had the largest effect on satisfaction within its health care system. And out of 15 countries surveyed in a 2013 Ipsos poll, South Koreans were most satisfied with their medical care. In fact, they scored the highest across all categories in the poll.
“National health insurance in Korea has been successful in mobilizing resources for health care, rapidly extending population coverage, effectively pooling public and private resources to purchase health care for the entire population, and containing health care expenditure,” Soonman Kwon, professor of public health at Seoul National University, wrote in the Oxford Journals’ Health Policy And Planning.
This is an updated version of an article by Carolyn Gregoire that was originally published in February 2014.