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Liquid status on the Korean peninsula

Sure, college kids drink. But in South Korea, the rituals can be a little bit different. Dangerous, too.

South Korean customers walk past Jinro soju displayed at a supermarket in Seoul, Aug. 13, 2004. In South Korea, there is a particular, and sometimes dangerous, cultural element in college-aged drinking. (You Sung-Ho/Reuters)

SEOUL — A seedy pub in the heart of Seoul wasn't exactly booming on a recent Thursday night. But that made no difference to one rowdy group.

Amid the pink sofas, dusty framed photographs hanging from the walls and a menu featuring three dishes for 10,000 won ($7), a dozen college students sat down for a long night of drinking.

“Don’t eat the food and drink more,” one of the sophomores shouted to his friends, who were busily slurping hot stew and other spicy dishes.

“Come on guys, why don’t we all have a drink,” the leader interjected every few minutes, prompting all present to refill their glasses before clinking them with a loud cheer.

Gatherings like these are rituals carried out by freshmen and sophomores at the beginning of the academic year in March, widely considered a month of endless drinking. These "welcome ceremony" outings create a sense of group identity and order among Korean students.

Of course, college-aged drinking is common throughout the world. But in South Korea there is a particular, and sometimes dangerous, cultural element at work. And this phenomenon exists not only in colleges, but prevails throughout Korean society.

Members of a group are pressured to drink when others do, instead of at their own individual pace, especially in the presence of older members with higher status.

“Let’s all have a drink,” coming from a senior member most often means “bottoms up.” Those who are good at drinking empty their glasses, indirectly forcing others to cave in to the pressure.

But there is a dark side to these rituals: they can produce alcohol-related accidents and deaths.

So far this year, two freshmen fell to their deaths from balconies after drinking at a welcoming ceremony. Almost every year, one or two deaths occur.