Korea has one of the most homogeneous populations in the world. Korea has its own culture, language, dress and cuisine, separate and distinct from its neighbouring countries. They take pride in their traditional culture and their modern economic success and greatly appreciate it when foreigners show recognition of Korean national achievements. Foreigners are not expected to follow the otherwise strict Korean social conventions, but foreigners would be wise to always show respect to the elder and higher ranking.
The Confucian mind-set is a fundamental part of Korean culture. In accordance with Confucian principles, people of higher rank or age are treated with an explicit respect, both socially and in business matters. Employees of Korean companies have a strong sense of loyalty towards their employer and in any situation of conflict they are expected to seek confirmation or take the side of the employer regardless of the logic behind the arguments.
Confucian emphasis on education can be felt throughout Korean society. Koreans are in general very well educated and attach much importance to academic excellence and degrees obtained. The admission examinations for Korean universities are important events as the result of the examinations determine the future of thousands of young Koreans. Networks established during the high-school and college years often play a big role in the following career and throughout life.
Despite the fact that many Koreans get their education overseas, including the very best universities of the USA, the lack of English language skills may still be considered one of the biggest barriers to doing business in Korea. The Korean educational system is continuously emphasizing improvements in the teaching of oral English. An increasing number of business people – especially at the higher echelons – are able to work proficiently in English.
Korea has its own alphabet, hangul, consisting of 24 written characters (10 vowels and 14 consonants). In Seoul and larger urban areas Korean road signs and menus are often supplemented by information in English.
Korea still has a tense relationship with Japan after a long history of conflict and especially many years of occupation in the first half of the 20th century. Although older Koreans may still understand and speak some Japanese, it is not recommendable to use brochures or other commercial material in Japanese in Korea.
Koreans are more formal in their social interaction than Scandinavians and first impressions matter. It is important to observe a formal dress code. For business meetings, a suit and tie is mandatory. Although the dress code in Korea is strict, once introduced and outside formal business meetings, Koreans can show a very relaxed, personal, and humorous side.
It is essential to bring business cards when having a meeting with Koreans. The business cards are presented to the counterpart after a handshake or small bows. This presentation of cards is almost of ceremonial character and it will be observed that Koreans give and receive business cards with either both hands or with one hand supporting the giving/receiving hand about the wrist or a bit behind. After having received the card, it is closely examined. The close examination serves a practical purpose, as you address people (in Korean language especially) according to their title and status. All business cards received should be placed on the table during the meeting, and if more than one card is being received, they should be placed on the table in a vertical line so that all cards are visible. After the meeting, cards received are placed in the breast pocket.
If one omits to present his business card for a Korean business man it may be perceived as an insult. An excuse that one is out of business cards may be seen as being unserious.
For business people frequently going to Korea it may be an advantage to have business cards printed in English on the one side and in Korean on the other.
Things happen quickly in Korea and preferably straight away. Koreans are impatient and make emotional and spontaneous decisions, which is why foreigners should take care to address Korean counterparts on these terms. Be aware that a signed agreement, in case of changes in the underlying circumstances, from a Korean point of view, will not always be considered an obligating agreement but a starting point for further negotiation. Business deals are concluded based on mutual confidence and trust more than on the written word.
In spite of the fact that Koreans want to see fast results you should not as a negotiation partner be too aggressive. Through the past thousands of years Koreans have been strongly influenced by Buddhism where body language and the ability to listen are highly valued. Maintaining mutual trust and confidence in a business relationship is extremely valuable.
If the main issue involves a partnership agreement in the Korean market you should be prepared that the Koreans might try to set up an exclusive agreement.
Also, an important part of the Korean business culture is the social aspect. Business partners should take the time to get acquainted in a relaxed and informal context, whether over lunch, dinner or drinks.
South Korea has a reputation of having problems with corruption and certainly corruption charges are still regularly put forward against business people and others in positions of influence. Nevertheless, gifts are part of the business culture and (from a Korean point of view) not considered bribery. A small gift (possibly with a Danish distinctiveness) can be considered an “icebreaker” in relation to a business meeting and is good to bring along as a response to a Korean gift offered in a formal context.