Diversity in Seoul
CIEE wants all our students to feel welcomed, supported, and empowered to succeed while studying abroad. On this page, local CIEE staff have provided details about conditions and cultural attitudes that students with specific identities might encounter at their location.
The information below is just a broad overview so if you have specific questions or concerns not covered here, please email email@example.com. We would be glad to have local staff share their perspectives, talk with you about accommodations, connect you with resources, and/or put you in touch with a program alum who could speak about their experiences navigating a program in this location.
No matter where you choose to study abroad with CIEE, our staff—all of whom receive regular and comprehensive training in diversity, equity, and inclusion—will be on hand throughout your program to provide advice, resources, and support regarding these issues.
In South Korea, which is considered one of the leanest countries, only 4% of the adult population is estimated to be obese or overweight. The traditional societal view of body weight and image, particularly for women, goes something like this: when you’re slim, you can marry the person of your dreams, start a family, be happy, and thereby fulfil your destiny as a woman.
In South Korea, being beautiful means being very thin, pale, and looking a specific way. When you watch K-dramas or look at K-pop videos you see that everyone looks very similar. It’s the same when you walk down the street. Everyone has similar-looking clothes and almost identical haircuts.
South Korea is obsessed with being beautiful. The country has the highest rates of cosmetic plastic surgery in the world and an expectation to be very slim. In fact, Korea has the lowest obesity rate in the world. And anything above a US size 6 is considered a plus size.
Korean views and attitudes toward disabled people are generally negative. However, recently, due to the efforts of people with disabilities and their families, many people have begun to call attention to people with disabilities, telling the public what the real life of people with disabilities is, and showing them that people with disabilities can contribute to society. Nonetheless, people with disabilities still face discrimination. To address discrimination – although rare – CIEE Seoul staff are available to provide support and resources to help all CIEE college and high school students enjoy and learn from their study abroad experience, irrespective of – indeed, celebrating – our different abilities.
Facilities for travelers with disabilities are far from perfect but are improving. Luckily, the Seoul subway stations are generally accessible to people with disabilities as they have stair lifts, elevators, and toilets with wheelchair access and handrails. The challenge is figuring out where the elevators are and then getting there. They are sometimes at extreme ends of the platform, and some stations have 12 exits. More than half of Seoul's buses have ramps to facilitate wheelchair access. However, it is difficult to find out in advance where the buses with wheelchair access are in circulation. Also, there are taxis designed to accommodate wheelchairs, but reservations must be made a day in advance.
Students are encouraged to provide as much information as they can related to their specific disabilities (or related needs) prior to arrival so CIEE staff can assess potential challenges and arrange for appropriate accommodations.
Gender and Gender Identity
Three key words to describe South Korea and its gender norms: Homogeneous, Confucian, and Binary. Confucianism was, and still is, deeply rooted in South Korean society. One particular theme is patriarchy where each gender has its own role in society. Although the patriarchal culture has undergone changes as South Korea continues to develop in the modern world, the mentality of gender specific roles seems to remain strong within the society, inherently extending gender discrimination over many aspects of society. Women and men typically convey certain characteristics, and they are expected to behave in certain ways to be labelled as women or men. These stereotypes are projected to the public in South Korea and reflected in the social construction of different gender roles.
The quest for information about their heritage can provide heritage seekers with a first-hand account of their ancestry and new insights into their family’s language and culture. It can be an emotional experience. Some students will be able to meet with relatives, while others will just be learning more about their ancestral history or learning the language of their families.
Heritage students preparing to go abroad should be aware that many of the ideas and presumptions that they have about their host country will be challenged, so it is important to go to the country with an open mind and minimal expectations. Heritage students should be prepared to be seen as an outsider, although often a welcome one, in the local community. While heritage seekers can gain rewarding insight into their heritage and family, they should be modest in their expectations about fitting in or having an instinctive understanding of their host country.
Racial and Ethnic Identity
South Korea is a relatively homogeneous society with people of Korean ethnicity accounting for approximately 96% of the total population. Racist attitudes are more commonly expressed toward immigrants from other Asian countries and Africa, and less so toward Europeans, white North Americans as well as white Latin American immigrants. Most Koreans are welcoming of foreigners and show a positive attitude towards foreigners.
South Koreans have historically lived under the religious influences of Shamanism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. South Korea’s major religions are Protestantism, Buddhism, and Catholicism. South Korea is a country where religions peacefully coexist.
Islam in South Korea is represented by a community of roughly 40,000 Muslims, mainly composed of people who converted during the Korean War and their descendants and migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia.
Freedom of religion in South Korea is provided for in the constitution. The South Korean government has generally respected this right in practice, although it provides no exemption or alternative civilian service for those who have a religious objection to serve in the armed forces.
Korea is not a LGTBQ+ friendly society. For this reason, LGTBQ+ individuals and community in Korea often stay very discreet. Gay and lesbian Koreans still face difficulties at home and work, and many prefer not to reveal their sexual orientation to family, friends, or co-workers. While male and female same-sex sexual activity is legal in South Korea, marriage or other forms of legal partnership are not available to same-sex partners.
LGBTQ+ students coming to Korea should be aware that they don't have to hide who they are but at the same time they should try to understand why Korean LGBTQ+ individuals have often decided to stay discreet and what it really means to be blended into normality. Heteronormativity is and has been a part of Korea's history and culture. On top of that, Koreans in general share very strong sense of homogeneity so being different can make one stand out a lot more than one would expect.
There are many memorable opportunities provided as part of the CIEE college and high school programs at no additional cost. The CIEE activities are planned to increase students’ cultural immersion and engagement with the local environment, which doesn’t necessarily increase their out-of-pocket expenses on-site. During orientation, students are introduced to inexpensive places to eat and shop. Plus, the student handbook contains suggestions for restaurants affordable for students. The cafeterias on campus are the best for getting the best value for one’s money.
Programs in Seoul
Live from Seoul
Packed with people, it’s no wonder Seoul is the capital and largest city in South Korea. A vibrant business and financial hub, Seoul also brims with culture, with more than 100 museums, numerous religious monuments, parks, markets, festivals, sports teams, and the Gyeongbok and Changdeok palaces. The mighty Han River runs through the city, and rugged mountains loom in the distance. Learn more about programs in Seoul