Chinese culture has had a strong influence on Asian culture over the many centuries, and this is reflected in the writing systems. For example, when Korean society moved to use the Hangeul alphabet, Chinese characters or hanja (한자) were still used for special terms, or to help make something less ambiguous. Hanja retain their Chinese pronunciation, but with a more “Korean” sound.
These days, the use of hanja is rapidly decreasing in Korean society, and the average adult Korean may only know 50-300 characters which is small compared usage in China, Taiwan or Japan. However, if you look around you can still see it used daily in marketing and other places.
Recently, after my wife and I did some shopping at the local Asian super-market, we picked up a few Korean goods. This is the famous Korean ramen (ramyeon 라면) brand by Nong Shim:
Right on the front, you can see the character 辛 for “spicy”. Since I familiar with Japanese, which uses Chinese characters regularly, I can recognize this as karai, though in Korean its sin which sounds like “sheen” not “sin” in English. Shin ramyeon is a spicy kind of noodle soup popular in Korea (and college students like I was) so it makes sense to put the Hanja there.
Another example is this one:
This is a package of roasted chestnuts which my wife enjoys a lot. The hanja here is 無 which is pronounced “mu” in both Korean and Japanese. Since I see it used a lot in Japanese, I am pretty familiar with it, and could recognize immediately that it meant “no” something (artificial flavors, etc). Using “mu” here isn’t strictly necessary, but it definitely grabs your attention more since hanja are so visual in nature.
Also, I noticed that Koreans like to use Hanja in their names as well. Not on a day-to-day basis, but because Korean names tend to sound similar to one another, the Hanja helps distinguish them. Also, as parents, it’s probably fun to pick hanja for their children that sounds positive. Hopefully they don’t pick names that are too weird though. 😉
Although Korean language and society functions just fine without Chinese characters, it’s also interesting to see that they’re still part of Korean popular culture. Porbably like using Roman Numerals in English. 😉
P.S. Seoulistic has a nice article on the bare minimum hanja you should know if going to Korea.