Sunbae Meaning – What Does Sunbae 선배 Mean In Korean!


Sunbae, Sonbae, Seonbae, Sunbaenim! have you ever heard someone call others with these words? Do you know what Sunbae means in Korean? After some research, I finally understand and want to share what I learned about the meaning of Sunbae in Korean, so you will know how to use this word unmistakably!

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Sunbae Meaning - What Does Sunbae Mean in Korean?

In short, Sunbae 선배 meaning senior. It’s a term that implies respect and is used to politely call someone who are positioned above us institutionally. Sunbae refers to someone with longer experiences in the company or have been in the same field for an extended period of time.

When we call someone Sunbae, it is often seen as the way we revered and respected other individuals in Korean culture, most likely due to the expertise and authority they possess in their fields.

However, do note this word Sunbae a.k.a senior can be use even in a smaller institutional levels like School or College University.

Exploring the Context of Sunbae in Korean

Traditionally, in Korea, the concept of sunbae has been used to defer to those who are senior in rank or authority. It’s also expressed between friends and colleagues as both a sign of respect and admiration. Those with greater life experience or field experience carry more authority than those without. 

Sunbae are therefore seen as people you can look up to for advice, guidance, and even blessings—although sunbae meaning differ depending on the context. Here are some context and situations where korean call their seniors with ‘Sunbae’.

1. Social Clubs / High School Sunbae


Credit to Fromis

Most of korean students use casual friendly words like noona, oppa, unnie or hyung to their senior classmates during their elementary school. However, once they become a middle or high school student, koreans will start join a social clubs! This is where sunbae-hoobae relationship come to play. Some social clubs require the newcomers to do sebae 세배, which is bow down to them as seniors (Sunbae).

2. Academy Sunbae


Credit to Asianwiki

If you’re not join any social club during your high school, then you will most likely start using word ‘Sunbae’ at academy / university. Once you enter korean college and start orientation, you will start calling your senior with ‘Sunbae’-nim before drop the honorifics and just simply say ‘Sunbae’. 

I dont know whether western and other country have orientation in college, but in korea, it is the way for junior or new comer to know their seniors by sent them somewhere to spent 4 day together.

While your senior is your ‘Sunbae’, your juniors is known as ‘Hoobae’. In addition to that, anyone with the same entrance year is known as ‘Donggi’. Some genius people can enter college a lot earlier than most of us, so even though age-wise they are our ‘dongsaeng’, yet in college, they are our ‘Sunbae’.

Most korean also spent one year off in order to have vacation or study hard even more to enter a national university, so you can find a lot of junior might be older than their senior, yet they are still known as ‘hoobae’.

3. Workplace Sunbae

sunbae meaning

Credit to Asianwiki

Once you graduated and get your first job, then you will enter a company filled with a ‘seniors’, those who already work there before you came. The common way you can call them is by using ‘Sunbae’ + suffix -nim right after their name.

4. KPOP Sunbae


Credit to SBS

The fresh new comer boy group or girl group in Kpop industry directly become hoobae (juniors) to those who get in earlier. That’s why all fans usually expect them to be polite and respectful to their Sunbae (those who debut earlier). You will find a lot of kpop fans fight as they see a newcomer act recklessly towards their Sunbae.

Sunbae, Sonbae, Seonbae

Sunbae and Seonbae are both one same word with different spellings. According to National Institute of Korean language, the right spelling is ‘Seonbae’. However, it is much easier to write Sunbae as it more similar to how it sounds.

Sunbae and Hoobae

On the other hand, Hoobae is simply means ‘juniors’, the opposite of Sunbae. Same like Sunbae, Hoobae is also a word that is used on institutional levels, such as company, college or academy.

While Sunbae 선배 refers to seniors or someone with more experience at institutional levels, Hoobae 후배 refers to juniors or someone with less experience.

Practically, hoobae have to use honorifics as they talk to sunbaes, which means they need to be very respectful, polite and hold them in high regard.

Benefits and Disadvantage of Having Sunbae

There are some benefits and disadvantages to have a good relationship with Sunbae at college, company and academy. 


Some advantage of having sunbae including.

  • They can teach you and share to you what’s ahead of you, such as their previous exam!
  • Sunbae can also help you during your hard times, exam or homework. 
  • They also can treat you some food and beverages.
  • Some good sunbae can be your mentor and even help you get internship opportunity!


Some disadvantage of having sunbae including.

  • Some of bad Sunbae can be bully to their hoobae!
  • They might force you to do something you don’t want to do.
  • During orientation, they might even do something forceful just for fun.

Implications of Sunbae in Korean Culture

Sunbae has long been part of the code of behavior between young people and those who are in positions of authority—though it’s often seen as more natural and less formal than the respect typically paid to older figures such as professors or religious figures. 

Depending on roles and responsibilities, you can also call your peers by ‘Sunbae’. For example, a junior student deferring to their seniors or a subordinate listening to advice from their colleagues can all be seen as examples of sunbae in action.

Ways To Respect Sunbae

One way to learn about and show respect towards sunbae is to understand the concept of age hierarchy and the importance of rank in korean. Learning how and when to give your elders greater degrees of respect can help you understand the traditional social structure in South Korean societies. 

Additionally, the language of humility—including phrases like ‘did I do well?’—can also demonstrate a level of deference and appreciation for people in higher positions to give you some advice. Finally, showing politeness at all times and following various korean cultural etiquette practices will be very helpful, such as avoiding dirty or unnecessary jokes and listen carefully as they speak can also be ways to show respect for sunbae.

Similar Words Of Sunbae

 Here are some similar words of Sunbae including.

  • Seon-im 선임: Seniors
  • Hu-im 후임: Juniors. 
  • Sa-su 사수: Direct senior coworkers, someone who you report your work to.

Sum Up

Sunbae and Hoobae relationship is not always beautiful and you need to find the real sunbae who can help you takes off to the next level. More than that, as a Hoobae, you also want to respect your Sunbae and still having a boundaries in case you meet a bad Sunbae who ask you to do something you don’t like.

If you are a female, some sunbae will ask you to call them ‘oppa’ after a while. This is tricky, be careful if you don’t like the man, then it is better to keep call them ‘Sunbae’ to ensure distance and avoid misunderstanding within each other! 

These are all I can share about the meaning of Sunbae! Do you have Sunbae turn to Oppa in your life? Do you think Sunbae is really useful and helpful? Let me know in the comment sections below!

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