For some, a picnic in Seoul is synonymous with “chicken and beer by the Han River.”
The combination of fried chicken and beer is so popular in Korea that it even has its own term -- "chimaek," a combination of "chicken" and "maekju (beer)." And relaxing on picnic mats or in pop-up tents along the river while enjoying chimaek has long been a cherished summer ritual for many.
Hungry Seoulites can order chicken to be delivered to their location at any of the Han River parks, while canned beer is well stocked at riverside convenience stores.
But these beloved chimaek picnics are a subject of debate, with authorities contemplating a ban on drinking in public spaces.
Ban drinking by the Han?
On June 7, the Seoul Metropolitan Government submitted an ordinance bill with the aim of establishing a legal framework to designate alcohol-free zones in public places. This could include parks, playgrounds for children, government offices, child care facilities and kindergartens.
Once the bill is passed by city council, it is expected to take effect after a period of 12 months.
If individuals are caught by district officials while consuming alcohol within the designated alcohol-free zones, they could be fined 100,000 won ($76).
Exactly which public areas or facilities would fall under the proposed drinking ban has not yet been decided, officials said.
“The designation of no-alcohol zones will take place only after collecting opinions from citizens and experts. We aim to avoid excessive restrictions by designating only certain areas or regulating outdoor drinking at specific times to reduce the inconvenience of citizens,” said a city official who wished to remain anonymous.
But the city government recently decided to put the plan on hold, largely due to rising complaints from citizens who love the carefree atmosphere of Han River parks as they are now.
"There is not enough consensus over the issue. We will closely monitor the trend of public opinion and discuss the matter at a later time," the official said.
Alcohol-free zones on the rise
Seoul’s initiative to limit alfresco drinking in public aligns with revisions to the National Health Promotion Act in June 2021, authorizing the designation of no-drinking zones by local authorities.
There are many regions that already introduced liquor control zones in accordance with the revised bill.
At Millak Waterside Park, a popular tourist spot in Suyeong, Busan, where more than 900,000 people visited last year, picnicgoers will be banned from drinking outdoors from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. beginning July 1. A fine of 50,000 won will be imposed on violators.
“With the increased number of tourists coming to the park for drinking, residents have been suffering from noise, the stink of food waste and litter on the street. We have tried various methods such as free distribution of trash bags and clean-up activities, but the problems have continued. Banning drinking is our last resort,” a city official said.
Earlier in January, the county of Okcheon in North Chungcheong Province started to prohibit drinking in 103 designated public locations, including parks, schools and youth facilities.
Goyang in Gyeonggi Province also designated 344 parks, playgrounds for children, and public cultural facilities for families as controlled drinking zones in the same month. The new rules took effect in May.
Wonju in Gangwon Province will restrict public drinking in 89 playgrounds next year.
Some Koreans do not welcome the proposed ordinance, saying there is a cultural value associated with drinking in public places, shared and enjoyed by many. It is only the extreme and unruly behavior of a few individuals that causes public nuisance, they stress.
Nam Ji-hwan, a 29-year-old office worker living in Seoul's Seodaemun-gu said, “The chimaek picnic has become an iconic cultural activity not only among locals, but also foreign tourists, as it has been introduced in many Korean films and dramas. It has made Han River parks a must-visit tourist attraction.”
He added that for him, enjoying food and drinks outside with friends is one of the small delights that life in Seoul gives.
Meanwhile, some residents near city parks welcomed the implementation of no-alcohol zones, citing safety concerns.
Choi Do-yeon, a housewife in her 40s living in an apartment behind Jamwon Hangang Park, said, “I have seen many drunken people who kicked up a fuss in the park. Violent situations involving drinkers can threaten the safety of young children.”
A 28-year-old female office worker surnamed Lee living in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province voiced concerns over litter in children’s playgrounds in her neighborhood.
“When I walk my dogs in the morning, I often see trash scattered over the playground left by people who drank alcohol the night before. Sometimes benches are stained with vomit, which is so disgusting. Security guards struggle to clean up the mess,” she said.
Outdoor drinking in public places is prohibited in many countries.
In 46 states in the US, including New York and California, possessing an open container of alcohol is banned outright under the so-called “open container laws.”
Most Canadian provinces with the exception of Quebec also regulate drinking alcohol, or just having an open container of alcohol, in public places.
In Singapore, it is illegal to drink in all public areas, including parks and streets, from 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. Shops are also not allowed to sell takeaway alcohol during these hours.
Some experts say people’s awareness of the importance of moderate drinking in public should go hand in hand with regulatory measures.
“In major countries, drinking in public has been prohibited by law for a long time, so it is perceived as inappropriate behavior by many citizens. But it has not been long since Korea started to regulate public intoxication through local ordinances,” said Sohn Aae-ri, a professor of public health at Sahmyook University.
“It is necessary for cities to implement various campaigns along with regulations to improve the perception of public safety and security and to raise the importance of a healthy drinking culture. Improved public awareness should come before expanding non-alcohol zones in public.”