11 things disappearing from Korea

Written by on December 17, 2013 in Lifestyle

As we’ve covered before, Korean society is capable of very rapid changes. But while I’ve given attention to what’s new in Korea, I haven’t talked much about what’s being phased out, what’s disappearing from the country. Yes, many of these are disappearing in other countries too, but I tried to find things that are especially conspicuously absent in Korea, or are currently on their way out. I also tried to make this a list of things that are likeable or could at least inspire some nostalgia, rather than things everyone should be glad to see gone.

1. Arcades

If you’re old enough to remember the ’80s, you probably experienced video arcades at one time or another, dank dens of blinking lights and loud noises where kids would come to pump quarters into machines and control moustachioed plumbers saving princesses from gorillas. Yes, that was somehow the childhood of many a generation Xer. Korea used to be the land of arcades, but now these businesses are disappearing, with only enough remaining open that they seem conspicuously old-fashioned whenever you pass one.

I was surprised to notice this arcade once along the main strip of Insadong. Somehow I only noticed it night when most other businesses were closed.

I was surprised to notice this arcade once along the main strip of Insadong. Somehow I only noticed it night when most other businesses were closed.

2. Haggling

You can still find a lot of online guides to haggling in Korea, but the actual practice is less and less common. If you shop at traditional markets, it’s still possible to knock prices down a few thousand won, but I think everyone would agree that haggling discounts are becoming smaller and smaller. I still sometimes try to lower prices to the nearest 5 000 or 10 000, but it’s getting rarer that vendors want to offer a discount.

3. 1- and 5-won coins

Have you ever seen one of these? There still probably are a few in circulation here or there, but who would ever accept them? Most places where prices could have a number other than 0 in the ones column (gas stations, produce sections in supermarkets) tend to round down to the nearest ten. Keeping in mind that 1 won is worth less than 0.10 American cents, it‘s not even worth the volume in your wallet or purse to carry these things around.

Actually, the 1- and 5-won coins were discontinued as recently as 2006, and while there was the expected bit of angst at seeing these low-value denominations disappearing, they were done away with and we never looked back.

These coins first appeared in 1966, replacing the old 10 and 50 hwan coins. The 1-won coin was brass, and the 5-won coin was bronze, same as the original 10-won coin, and the three of those were the first Korean coins to use common-era dates rather than customary Korean dates. The 1-won coin went aluminum as early as 1968, and the 5-won coin converted to high brass in 1970 alongside the 10 won. The 1 won and 5 won both got a makeover in 1983, though their designs were maintained: mugunghwa (rose of Sharon) for the 1-won coin and geobukseun (turtle ship) for 5 won.


4. Punks

When I moved to Korea in 2003, finding live music was an adventure. A lot of people would go to Hongdae, spot someone with a brightly dyed mohawk and spiky leather jacket, and follow him to the nearest punk show. Nowadays, information about upcoming shows is all available online, which is a big improvement, but despite the huge growth of counterculture in Korea, punk has become a lot less conspicuous.

I’d say this is due to changing fashions, but punk was never fashionable in Korea. Korean punks used to dress brightly and spike their hair with gravity-defying hair products, but I guess due to factors like getting older, the hassle of having to spike a foot-tall mohawk, and not wanting to spend too much money on clothes, this has fallen by the wayside. Nowadays, most punks dress pretty well like everyone else, with the occasional pin, patch, or band shirt. If you see someone with a spiked leather jacket and spiky hair, they’re more likely a fan of Big Bang or 2NE1 than Rux or Crying Nut (or perhaps they’re visiting from Japan).

These guys are not fans of Big Bang, however.

Not fans of Big Bang.

5. Fast food statues

One of the draws of visiting a foreign fast-food franchise used to be the big 6+-foot statue out front, where you could marvel at giant Americans like Ronald McDonald or the Colonel, or maybe pose with your friends for a picture on your disposable camera (24 shots and then it goes to the developers). Maybe it’s because the height of Korean people is shooting up while the average American is shrinking, but you just don’t see these anymore. Unless it’s one of those animatronic robots boogieing in front of a Korean store or restaurant.

Ronald McDonald greeted you at the entrance to the Jongno McDonald's in 1996.

Ronald McDonald greeted you at the entrance to the Jongno McDonald’s in 1996.


6. Soju tents

The correct term for these is 포장마차 (pojang macha), but when I was new in Korea I would hear other foreigners talk with such reverence about “soju tents,” probably because that’s what they ordered there. Nowadays there are certain designated areas where you can find pojang macha tents serving mainly street food, which barely have room for the person making the food and a small number of plastic stools or even just standing room for a few customers, who will eat their odaeng or tteokbokki or whatever and scram.

Back in the day, these tent restaurants used to be everywhere, and they used to be even larger, with their locations more permanent than their smaller descendants. Hongdae was filled with them, and they gradually folded (that was probably a pun) until there were none left. Around 2005, my friends always dragged me to one by Hongdae Playground that specialised in soju mix drinks — yogurt soju, green tea soju, strawberry soju, and so on. The last proper one that I’m aware of in Hongdae was at the three-way intersection halfway between Hongdae’s front gate and Sangsu Station, and although the prominent red tent is gone, the business managed to move into the new building constructed in its place.

I’m sure these sorts of businesses will be around for a long time, but it seems the emphasis now is on small, portable street food stands, rather than cheap restaurants sheltered by canvas in lieu of bricks-and-mortar buildings.


This image courtesy of Map.Daum.net.

7. Video rental stores

Yes, Blockbuster has filed for bankruptcy and is closing branch after branch, but it’s in Korea that the video rental business went from being pretty ubiquitous to nearly nonexistent the earliest and the quickest. Nowadays, VHS is seen as absurd, in the same way we might now view cassette tapes for your home computer. They’re just hunks of plastic that aren’t worth holding onto, even if they store your favourite movies.

Korean movie rental stores were different from their western equivalent, more often resembling a mad professor’s library stocked from floor to ceiling with buckling shelves holding Korean films and foreign films with sometimes absurd Korean titles. There was little room between shelves, especially if there were other customers in the store.

8. CRT televisions

When you came back from the video store, you plugged it into your VCR, perhaps had to rewind it, and then watched it on your oddly bulky television that was too ungainly to even hang on your wall. These antiques transmitted images from inside an ungainly vacuum tube, which if shattered made quite a noise (you’ll have to trust me on this).

These days, with old-timey TVs being some of the heaviest possessions in someone’s home, and also the least valuable, more and more people are choosing not to bring their old TVs with them when they move. w

Moving day's coming, and this thing's getting left at the curb. You can't even find people willing to come pick up a free television anymore.

Moving day’s coming, and this thing’s getting left at the curb. You can’t even find people willing to come pick up a free television anymore.

I confess, I actually still have a CRT television, but I can’t remember the last time I used it (oh yeah, it was to try to watch the Korean episode of I Wouldn’t Go in There, which I gave up on when I discovered I could just watch it online instead).

9. Microvans

On my first visit to Korea, I was entertained by some of the unusual cars I saw on the road. Along with the usual bland black and white Korean-made cars, there were the blue Bongo trucks, the various motorcycles and scooters, and last but not least, the microvans. I coined that term for the Daewoo Damas, a compact version of a minivan that can nonetheless still seat seven. It came in a variety of unchic colours including blue, purple, maroon, and teal.

I was so enamored of the Daewoo Damas, I went to a Daewoo dealership to get more information on them. They even sent an English-language pamphlet on the Damas by express mail to my address back in Canada.

Nowadays, there are fewer and fewer microvans on the road, for obvious reasons: they’re cramped, underpowered, unsafe, unattractive little boxes. And recently, it was announced the Damas won’t be manufactured any longer. My Korean friends on Facebook signed their condolences, with one calling the Damas the “Korean Volkswagen Beetle.”

On the bright side, I hear they are the predominant form of public transportation in Uzbekistan, so perhaps my next port of call has to be Tashkent.

I used to have fantasies about being the first person in Canada to drive one of these.

I used to have fantasies about being the first person in Canada to drive one of these.

10. Jaywalking

When I first visited Korea in 1996, I was surprised at how bold Korean people were at jaywalking. Eight lanes of traffic? Wait for the first lane to be empty, walk out to the next lane, wait for that lane to clear, proceed, repeat. There were even vendors who would walk between cars, selling snacks to people trapped in heavy traffic. I believe they may still ply their trade on some of Korea’s bigger, more congested road, but this is one vocation I’d like to see disappear along with the awful traffic that birthed it.

I’m told that shortly after my visit, the police cracked down on jaywalking for a time. I even heard from a high school girl who says she was caught jaywalking on her lunch break, and the police officer made her and her friends stand on the center line for a period of time while cars zipped past them on both sides.

Jaywalking laws don’t seem as strictly enforced now, but believe me, the amount of jaywalking going on never returned to what it was like in its heyday.

11. Toilet paper at your table

Back in the day, it was very common when going to a Korean restaurant to see a roll of toilet paper right on the table, or sometimes hanging from a string above your head. It served as a convenient, easy-to-dispense stand-in for napkins, until more recently this practice was discouraged by some unlucky agency in the government (I’m told it was in preparation for the World Cup in 2002).

I mean, toilet paper belongs in the washroom, right? Isn’t having it on a table where people are eating, you know, unsanitary? Well, it’s taken me years to come to this conclusion, but no it isn’t unsanitary — there’s nothing wrong with having a roll of toilet paper next to your food.


What else is disappearing from Korea? Add your ideas in the comments below!

About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats