SEOUL, April 19 (Yonhap) -- Psy, a Korean rapper-turned-world star, doesn't have to wait for phone calls offering him advertisement deals. He can pick and choose his endorsements, and one of his picks was "Condition," a bottled drink sold at pharmacies and convenience stores to help people recover from a bad hangover.
There are many versions of homemade concoctions worldwide said to provide the same kind of relief, but in Korea, drinks like Condition are a steady staple with many variants available.
Dawn 808 claims to be the first-ever patented hangover cure. The 808 is said to represent the number of times it took its inventor to come up with the right concoction. This drink is advertised as being based on "traditional medicine," made from natural ingredients taken from the leaves and roots of alder and mountain ash trees, with a photo of the creator smiling at you on each can.
Condition advertises as being made for "heavy-drinking business men" and is usually recommended to be ingested prior to drinking alcohol. "Morning Care" is a variation that combines milk thistles, soy beans, guarana, onions and xylitol. Though it does not sound too appetizing, it claims to reverse the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
A street promotion of a sobriety drink brand in downtown Seoul (Yonhap file photo)
Then there is Heotgae Tree Project Coopers, a yogurt-based drink that is meant to be consumed the morning after a night of heavy alcohol consumption as a breakfast meal replacement for those who wake up with a hangover and feel unable to eat solid food.
The effectiveness of these drinks is up for debate, but obviously there is a certain niche of people that often consume them, and this raises questions about Korea's drinking habits.
Korean workers are on OECD record for putting in some of the longest hours at the office, and it is this work ethic that is lauded for propelling the war-ravaged nation to an economic powerhouse in just decades. It has also fostered a culture of conformity and community at the office.
"Drinking with co-workers unifies everyone," said Lee Jung-eun, a 26-year-old teacher in Seoul. "The boss will never actually force anyone to drink, but it's basically assumed by everyone. If you don't join in, you don't get that bonding experience."
Lee is pregnant, and she feels awkward at these evening get-togethers because she will be the only one not partaking in the drinking.
"My boss poured water into my shot glass at our last dinner so that I could feel included," she said.
The price of alcohol is relatively lower in Korea compared to other countries. For instance, a bottle of 40-proof liquor in America ranges from US$20 to $40, whereas a bottle of soju, a rice-based distilled alcoholic beverage, costs $1 to $3 in Korea. Accordingly, soju is referred to as a workers' drink. But the cheaper the liquor, the less purified the alcohol, and the less purified the alcohol, the worse the hangover.
Then there is the unspoken rule that even if you drank the night before, you still have to show up on time the next morning. "As a computer engineer, I work overtime in the office on a regular basis. As gratitude, my boss will take us out for drinks after a long day of working. But whether I'm hung over or not, my boss expects me to show up and do my job the next morning," says Park Yo-han, a 32-year-old Seoul resident.
"I drink Dawn 808 after a night of heavy drinking with my co-workers," Park continues. "I literally can't show up to work without chugging at least one of them in the morning."
Pharmacists and convenience store owners say the sobriety drinks are selling more and more.
"I have people at every hour of the night stumbling into my store buying the drinks," says Han Young-soo, a convenience store owner. "Ever since Psy became popular, his ads have been everywhere. I think it (Condition) is becoming even more popular now than before."
Alcoholic beverages are often a major part of get-togethers among friends and office colleagues in Korea. (Courtesy of Yenny van Andel)
But people do want to see changes in the country's drinking culture.
"I hope Korean drinking habits can be changed. I would like to see it reduced," said Kim Koo-young, a pharmacist in Seoul. He has people of every age, especially 20 to 40 years old, coming into his pharmacy for sobriety drinks on a regular basis. "I would like to see changes... perhaps stricter drinking laws," he said.
"It disgusts me to think about how many people need to drink hangover drinks now," said Hwang Hee-youn, a 25-year-old student. "I have been working at a convenience store for two years, and I will see the most unlikely people come in to buy Dawn 808 or Condition. I try not to judge people's lifestyle choices, but it's difficult. I have sold up to 30 bottles in one night."
Some people are learning to break away from the pressure.
"I personally feel no pressure to drink," says Park Soo-jin, an English teacher in Seoul. "My boyfriend and I are both religious, so there is no pressure from our circle of friends. It's all about who you choose to hang out with and what you want to do in your free time."