Korea Tips
Making Contacts > Business Meetings > Business Hours > Corporate Structure > Negotiation

Making Contacts
  • Most Koreans have three names:  two given names and a surname.  You should feel comfortable asking a person how they would like to be addressed.
  • Asians tend to be more formal initially.  When addressing a new acquaintance use formal titles such as “Mr.,”  “Mrs.,” or “Dr.” High educational attainment is respected throughout Asia.  Those with Ph'd degrees are usually addressed as Dr. and then their family name.  First or given names are considered personal and are rarely used in business.  Wait to be invited to use first names and don't be offended if your host doesn't offer to use these more personal names.  Most Korean wives retain their maiden names. 
  • Speak slowly and clearly but not so slow as to be offensive, as your host may not be fluent in English. Most Koreans understand written English better than spoken English.  Use written materials and graphics, whenever possible have these materials translated into Korean.  This shows respect for the country and the culture and improves comprehension of the points you are trying to make.  If your business is technical it is best to hire an interpreter to help you.  Keep in mind in using an interpreter that using your own is usually better than one supplied to you by your host.
  • Although Koreans appear quite westernized it is important to remember that they hold Korean values that are different in certain respects.  Kibun, which relates to a person’s mood or state of mind, affects all relationships.  To hurt someone’s Kibun causes a loss of dignity.  Maintaining harmony is more important than absolute truth.
  • Koreans will smile in a variety of situations such as when they are happy, sad, nervous or embarrassed.  Don't necessarily assume that a smile denotes acceptance.  In certain circumstances it can have many meainings.  The Korean sense of humor is often very direct.
  • Public perception and image matter a great deal to Koreans.  Representatives of large companies are usually better received initially than those of smaller less well-known companies. 
  • Try to obtain a formal introduction to make a business contact with Koreans.  Korea is a relatively small country and relationships are instrumental in many parts of Korean life.  Koreans value introductions and referrals from people they know. Use acquaintances, suppliers, accountants, lawyers or consultants to gain these introductions.
  • When seeking an introduction to a large Korean firm, see if it has a subsidiary where your company also has an office.  If your subsidiary has dealt with the other firm or managers in the two firms know each other, this can serve as the means to introduce you to your target customer.
  • It is always very helpful to have a local partner.
  • Agents should be approved by the Korean government.
  • Cold calls and letters usually do not work.
  • Schedule meetings with Korean companies before arriving in the country, do not expect to arrive in Korea and then be able to meet with them.
  • Before choosing a local partner, research the market extensively to make sure you choose your local partner based on full information.  It is advisable to establish relations with several firms in case partnerships break down.
  • It is best to assign one person to represent your firm on a permanent basis.  This allows personal relationships to develop which are critical for business success.  This person can verify that work is getting completed.  Frequent visits will assure the Korean business that you are committed to them.
  • The Korean Trade Promotion Corporation (KOTRA) publishes a guide that provides an overview of business information.

          Business Meetings
  • Many South Korean professionals are accustomed to Western customs because they studied or worked overseas.  Almost all the businesspeople have some familiarity with Western culture.  Government officials however tend to be more traditional and conservative.
  • Most South Koreans choose to hold a first meeting in their office.  Punctuality is very important.  Shaking hands is a common greeting with both men and women; it may be accompanied with a slight nod or bow. 
  • The exchanging of business cards is very ritualized and important part of  a first meeting.  The business card  should be presented and received with both hands, with the writing facing the receiver.  Show respect by reading the card slowly and placing it on the table in front of you.  If possible have your cards printed in Korean on one side.
  • Begin a first meeting with casual conversation about your trip.  Do no try to accomplish too much at this first meeting.  Koreans need to feel you out and get a sense of your intentions, trustworthiness and objectives.
  • Koreans will try to match you with someone of similar rank.  Keep this in mind when selecting a representative as it can be very important.
  • Gifts are not required for early meetings.  If you have established a relationship through writing or on the telephone, you may want to bring a small token such as a pen or a gift with the company logo.  If you meet with a group, bring a gift for the senior person as well as all the subordinates.  The senior person’s gift should be different and more expensive than the others.  If you receive a gift do not open it in front of the giver.

          Business Hours
  • Most businesses are open from 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on weekdays and from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. of Saturdays.
  • From November to February government offices close daily at 5:00 p.m. 
  • Banks are open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays.
  • Shop hours vary but most are open from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. everyday.
  • Department stores are open from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. everyday.

          Corporate Structure
  • Korean companies are dominated by chaebols, which are large business conglomerates, many of which are family owned and operated.
  • The typical corporation has a chairman of the board at the top.  Below the senior level are division chiefs, section chiefs, managers and employees.  The corporate structure is heavily influenced by the Japanese model.


  • Koreans consider a person’s character to be just as important as the contract or deal.  To be successful you must develop a trusting personal relationship with your business partner.  As part of developing this relationship Koreans spend time on business socializing.  It is important to accept social invitations and to reciprocate.  It may appear at first that business is not a major part of the agenda but of course, it certainly is.
  • Koreans prefer group consensus as their decision-making model.  The senior person makes the final decision.  Koreans tend to be very conservative and risk averse.
  • Adgressive or adversarial negotiations do not work in Korea.  Your opposite negotiators may appear on the surface to agree just to keep discussions harmonious.  You must give the average Korean time to reach agreement or the deal will never happen.  They can appear to be rigid, stubborn and unyielding.  You need to be clear about your position.  It is best for you as the foreigner never to raise your voice or become visibly frustrated, unless absolutely necessary in the final stages of the negotiation.  Remember that in making a decision the Korean businessperson will consider personal relationships and character as well as business.
  • Koreans do not like to say “no” directly and want to preserve harmony under all circumstances.  You may need to ask several indirect questions to get to the true response.
  • Avoid the word “win” which implies a one-sided benefit – the goal is harmony so use words like “we would like to receive the contract ” are more appropriate 
  • Koreans as other hard bargainers will seek to gain as many concessions as possible from you.
  • If you are asked the same question repeatedly it is to ensure the consistency of the information so no mistakes will occur.
  • Most Koreans are concerned with price over cost efficiency or effectiveness.  Usually the top three proposals are invited to a financial review.  The winning bid is usually the lowest bid passing the technical review.
  • Historically foreign firms have fared best when they work in collaboration with a Korean company.
  • Written contracts should be used in all transactions.  Koreans view of contracts is different from the Western view.  Koreans see contracts more loosely, believing they allow room for flexibility.  Often the rules will change as the situation changes, it is important to be specific about responsibilities.  This different view of contracts can be problematic and it is therefore advisable to consider and discuss future situations. 

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