This cultural event of course has a deep cultural context that should never be ignored. I encourage those seeking to understand the Korean mindset to venture into the past. Either way, in the present, soju is plentiful, cheap, and widely available.
Soju has been around for a while and there’s no sign of it stopping - however it is getting weaker in alcohol content as the years pass. Soju is typically drunk at such company diners but certainly other spirits are involved, too. However, I get the impression that beer is not exactly a masculine choice for alcohol. I’ve been told that although drinking beer is perfectly acceptable, it’s typically drunk by Korean women because of its lower alcohol content. That’s too bad, too - I’m probably one of the only foreigners that actually likes Korean beer. Sorry America.
Korean people don’t just hang around their boss to drink and eat just because they have nothing better to do. Quite the opposite. Any expatriate can tell you that there are plenty of times the last thing on their mind is hanging with their coworkers with the expressed intent to get drunk and eat food that they might not exactly dig. Oh and go singing.
Rule #2) There will be fun and games in addition to food. If it’s a great night out, then you’ll still be on the third or fourth 차 or place by the time everyone is ready to go home.
What I’m trying to say is that 회식 is one facet of Korean drinking culture (which we looked at a while back). Even though you are considered a guest in the country there are a set of courtesy rules that are expected to be followed. However, as with most things Korea-related, foreigners are allowed to pull the “Foreigner” card at times and politely refuse a drink or two in favor of keeping your wits (for reasons that you are allowed not to explain - be it religious, philosophical, etc). However, it is generally still expected to attend at least the first and second place that the company visits for the night - at the end of the second place (be it a 노래방 or a bar) you can politely excuse yourself with little to be sorry about - you came, didn’t you?
People who refuse or make excuses or otherwise weasel out of these company dinners are not cruising for a bruising per se but they definitely are putting on a subtle “Does Not Play Well With Others” shirt on. Again, as a foreigner, you can weasel out but I would recommend that in order to maintain a well-oiled work environment, plan on going out with your boss and coworkers. Remember, Korean business hours do not function the same way as in America - a 회식 is considered to be an extension of normal working hours.
Of course, as with all things in life, too much of anything is a bad thing. I’m certainly an advocate for moderation in anything that has the potential to be habit forming - to include food, alcohol, or 이효리 music videos. yowza.
Having said that, drinking with your coworkers is one of many ways to improve your relationships with your coworkers and will make or break the ideal working environment. In a group-centered society like Korea, you don’t want to be “that guy” who doesn’t want to get to know his or her coworkers.