Working for the weekends: vacations hard work in Korea

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Working for the weekends: vacations hard work in Korea

Cho Chung-hyun, 27, a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, doesn’t have much enthusiasm for his work. He feels tired, he says, even though he sleeps enough at night, and he gets angry about everything. “I just want to go home as soon as possible. It’s only Wednesday and still I can’t wait for the weekend,” Mr. Cho said.
Is this the fault of an angry boss, sweaty weather, a medical problem or a bad relationship? Nope ― he’s recovering from a vacation. Earlier this month, Mr. Cho went with his parents and brother to Khao Yai in Thailand for a week. It was a tour package aimed at golfers, and he golfed with a passion. He played from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. for four straight days, and after that played golf in the mornings and went swimming in the evenings.
“My family isn’t crazy about golfing. But because we don’t have a long vacation and it’s cheap to play golf there, we kind of overdid things,” he said.
Mr. Cho is not the only Korean to return from vacation exhausted. There’s even a saying in Korea that the person most in need of a holiday is the one who is just back from vacation.
“Koreans spend as much energy on vacationing as much as they do at work, if not more,” said Yoon So-young, a senior researcher at the Korea Culture & Tourism Policy Institute. “It’s because they are obsessed with the idea that they should spend their vacation as effectively as possible in a very short period of time,” she said.
That’s a far cry from France, where people enjoy an average of five weeks of vacation time and where the whole nation seems to take a break over the summer.
“As they have enough time to enjoy themselves, their concept of a vacation is to relax and get relief, which is very different from that of Koreans,” Ms. Yoon said. “If you go to popular beaches in Europe, you’ll see people lying on the beach in a very relaxed atmosphere while tanning or drinking cocktails, unlike Koreans hectically swimming at Haeundae Beach in Busan.”
Although Koreans are now legally guaranteed at least 15 days of paid vacation a year, few take all of that allowance, and even fewer take it all at once. According to a recent survey of 1,130 people living in Seoul and six metropolitan cities by the Korea Culture & Tourism Policy Institute, the average Korean vacation lasts only 3.7 days.
“In the past, diligence and sincerity were the cardinal virtues for workers [in Korea]. Anyone who went on vacation got bad looks from their colleagues and bosses, who would consider the worker to have broken an unwritten rule,” said Hwang Jun-wook, a research fellow at the Korea Labor Institute. “That custom has continued up until today, so anyone who takes a long vacation, usually more than a week, is still treated as someone who doesn’t have the willpower to work for the company for a long time.”
In the United States, by contrast, paid vacations are part of the deal for every worker, and woe betide the company that tries to keep its workers from taking their allotted break.
Mr. Hwang also said that the vagueness of workers’ responsibilities is another obstacle to going on vacation. “In Europe, each person’s duties are clearly stated in their contract. [A worker] can plan his work for the year. It doesn’t matter whether he spends his, let’s say, three-week vacation all at once or uses it over several breaks, as long as he does what he’s supposed to do,” Mr. Hwang said. “However, in Korea, it’s usually collective work, and workers’ duties are not clearly stated. In short, no one knows what will happen when, making them feel uneasy when they leave the office for a while.”
The situation for blue-collar workers is even worse. “In a manufacturing company, if one person takes a break, the whole line can’t work, unless the company hires alternative workers to fill the gap,” said Choe Sok-ho, a professor of leisure management at the Seoul School of Integrated Sciences and Technologies. “That’s why workers in factories usually take their vacations at the same time for the same period of time.” That time typically starts in late July and runs until early August, when most Koreans flock to Haeundae Beach, Mount Seorak or beaches on the east coast.
“Even though Korea has made a great economic achievement over the last few decades, its society is not generous about vacation time,” Mr. Choe said.
Even the concept of a vacation is relatively new here.
The Labor Standard Act, enacted on May 10, 1953, stated that every worker should have a paid day off every month and eight days of paid vacation a year. Not that workers would have known what to do with those days; vacations were unheard of and the government was desperately trying to rebuild after the Korean War and to focus on economic development.
“Most Korean laws met international standards, and still do. Even during the 1970s and 1980s, when the working environment was terrible, the law itself was not that bad,” Mr. Choe said.
Things changed greatly after 1987, he said. Even though in the late 1970s and early 1980s, people could go for short trips to the east coast thanks to the new Gyeongbu and Yeongdong expressways and the boom in auto sales, it was far from the idea of enjoying their full vacation allowance.
That the notion of vacation time and the massive pro-democracy movement both started in mid-1987 is not a coincidence. Laborers around the nation stood up, demanded better working environments and staged strikes.
In 1989, the Labor Law was revised to strengthen the position of workers and the government removed most of the barriers preventing individuals from traveling abroad. Since then, workers have slowly gotten used to the concept of taking paid time off.
“I hope the five-day workweek and the government’s recent announcement that it would reduce the financial compensation it pays to public servants for unused vacation days contribute to greater cultural acceptance of vacations in Korea,” Ms. Yoon said.

Leisure locations ― favored destinations past and present


Vacation? What’s a vacation? Those with a day off might spend it at Changgyeongwon (now Changgyeong Palace). Men tried to relax while still wearing business suits and women walked around in hanbok (Korean traditional dress), or perhaps a Western-style dress and a parasol.


People began to clue into the concept of “taking a break.” In 1961, the government enacted a law to promote tourism and designated Mount Odae, Gangwon province, as Korea’s first national park. Beaches and hot springs were gussied up for tourists in the late 1960s, although more for U.S. soldiers stationed in Korea than for Koreans themselves. Two of the most popular destinations for summer vacationers were Daecheon and Taean on the west coast, which were linked to Seoul by train.



Vacations got groovy, as Koreans began to escape poverty and wanted to start partying. The opening of the Gyeongbu Expressway in 1970 and the Yeongdong Highway in 1975 made getting anywhere in the country a one-day affair and attracted vacationers from the west coast to the east coast.

1980s to recent
The “my car” boom in the 1980s changed vacation culture, allowing people to split their vacation days between summer and winter and start learning how to ski. Limits on going abroad were radically scaled back in 1989 and options for vacations suddenly became international.

by Park Sung-ha
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)