Every country has its favorite pastimes, and South Korea is no exception. From sports that promote spiritual and cultural values along with individual athletic excellence to that American national pastime that is so well-loved by Koreans and citizens of many other countries with US influence, you’ll find opportunities to be a spectator and in some cases maybe even a participant in athletic activities that mark Korean life.
Taekwondo is the most widely known export among sports that are native to Korea. This martial art is distinguished from Japanese karate and Chinese kung fu in that taekwondo is an Olympic event, it is fast-paced, and it is highly systematized (making it somewhat easier to judge in international contests). Swift, strong, and sometimes airborne kicks make taekwondo fun to watch, and since the sport dates back some two millennia, each match is also a lesson in a time-honored cultural tradition. When you’re watching top-notch taekwondo, you’re watching combat.
Not so with baseball, a sport that might not be native to Korea but one that sure found a following once it got there. Since the early 20th century when missionaries brought their bats, balls, and gloves to the Far East, Koreans have won international championships in the sport (including the 2008 Olympic gold medal, the final one awarded in that sport as it was booted from the games in 2012). Korea has also done well in the World Baseball Classic, a global showcase, and over a dozen players have departed the Korea Professional Baseball league for Major League Baseball in North America. Many more can be found through the ranks of the minor leagues in the U.S. and Canada. Some Koreans even play professionally in Japan.
Korean baseball is also a reflection of Korean industry. We know that sports can be big business, but in Korea you’ll find teams like the Samsung Lions, LG Twins, and Kia Tigers vying for the championship. If you’re in South Korea from the late spring to early fall, you’ll probably hear the crowds and the crack of the bat nearby, so try to catch a game!
South Korea is no slouch in soccer, either. One of the co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup, South Korea has appeared in eight World Cup finals (as the major part of the tournament is known, since technically the World Cup includes qualifying rounds). That’s an Asian record. In 2010, North Korea and South Korea both qualified, leading to some interesting reports of mutual cheering among fans of both countries, which are still technically locked in a state of war.
K League teams, as Korea’s professional sides are known, also carry the names of conglomerates and include many stars from Brazil and other countries. As with baseball, South Korea’s soccer season takes place during the warmer months in the northern hemisphere, so if you’re in the country from spring to early autumn, try to catch a game wherever you’re staying.
Last, but not least, golf has gotten huge in Korea in recent decades. Especially on the women’s professional stage, the LPGA, Korean women lead the ranks. Inbee Park, Jiyai Shin, and Na Yeon Choi are three of the top winners in recent years, and Koreans Se Yeon Ryu and Hee Kyung Seo were LPGA Rookies of the Year two years in a row. If you’re a weekly golfer in the U.S., be aware that to play Korean courses will cost you significantly more than a round would cost in the States. Nevertheless, following Mark Twain who called golf “a good walk spoiled,” golf is a great way to spend a day outside in the Korean air with the grass beneath your feet.