Doing Business in South Korea

South Korea has to be classed as one of the world’s great economic success stories.  Along with Taiwan, South Korea is the only country which has recorded five consecutive decades of economic growth in excess of 5%.  This is an amazing achievement which is the result of careful governmental macro-engineering, sound business practice and sheer hard work from the population at large.  Economists feel that, given the lengthy stagflation seen in Japan, that it will not be too long before South Korean levels of prosperity are at a par with Japan.

Both South Korea and Japan are intensely conformist societies (one of the many similarities between the two countries) but they differ in one fundamental thing.  When faced with hardship or adversity the Japanese tend to turn inwards and backwards towards the familiar and comfortable whereas the South Koreans are absolute masters of change and rebuild.  If things aren’t working, they just change them and they have proved adept at doing this very quickly and very effectively – you only need to look at the contrasting reactions to the crisis that hit Asia in the 1990’s.  Japan is, arguably, still recovering while South Korea has long been in rude health.

South Korea has also re-invented itself as the cultural epicentre of Asian culture.  Korean pop music, or K-pop, has been exported with great success all over the continent and Korean TV dramas are watched from Tokyo to Beijing.  South Korean films are the enormously popular throughout Asia (with the exception of India) and the level of Korea’s cultural influence continues to grow.

This is not to say that South Korea doesn’t face significant challenges.  The inexorable rise of China and the political, cultural and military influence that comes in its wake is something all Asian countries wrestle with. The politicians in Seoul have the ever-present dilemma of how to deal with hard-line communist North Korea.  In addition, South Korea faces increasing competition from lower wage competitors in the region and will need to draw on all its reserves of flexibility and tenacity to stay ahead of the game.

Having said all this, doing business in South Korea can be a challenge and many business visitors find the Korean approach to business just as alien as the one they encounter in Japan.  Major Korean companies are still run along regimented, hierarchical lines and ‘face’ is of greater importance than in almost any other country in Asia.  You really do need to understand how the Koreans think and act if you are to be able to truly capitalise on business opportunities with Korean contacts.  Do your homework on the business culture and etiquette you will meet and you will undoubtedly reap the rewards.

This country profile is a starting point to understanding some of the key concepts you will need to factor into your dealings with any South Korean counterparts – but it is only a starting point.  When you have read this profile, why not purchase one of the books suggested on the South Korea pages or, better still, contact to discuss corporate training and development on this topic.