A business opportunity. This is how one can describe South Korea. While K-pop and bibimbaps attract cultural fans, business people look towards South Korea’s economy as a promising destination for international expansion. And, there are many good reasons for that.
At EHLION we get a lot of queries about South Korea’s GDP, economy, and business relationships. We designed this article as an introduction to this growing East Asian economy. It covers a range of topics, from South Korea’s currency, to religion, to Korean national holidays.
To make it easier for our clients to navigate South Korea we also created a short summary-guide with South Korea’s facts. If you don’t have time to read a long post, feel free to download it as a reference.
For an even more efficient approach consider reaching out to our cultural coaches for advice tailored to your specific business.
From climate to South Korea’s provinces
South Korea, Republic of Korea, is a country located in East Asia, on the southern half of the Korean Peninsula and just on the far-east side of China.
Located on a peninsula, the country has fairly long coast lines. The 2,413 km (1,499 miles) of coastline stretches along three seas, the Yellow Sea to the west, the East China Sea to the south, and the East Sea.
The country is 99,720 sq km (38,502 sq mi) in size, which, for comparison makes South Korea’s size roughly the same as that of New York, or around 1/4 of the size of Germany.
The country shares a border with The Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea). The line between the two Korean states is located at the 38th parallel of latitude. This strip of land is known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and was formed following the Korean War, as a buffer zone between the two countries.
Korea’s time zone difference: US & Germany
South Korea’s time zone is KST, Korean Standard Time, nine hours ahead of the universal coordinated time (UTC+9). In practical terms, it means Korea’s time difference is:
- Seven hours between Seoul and Germany’s (GMT, DST). At 8 a.m. Berlin it’s 3 p.m. in Seoul.
- 16 hours between Seoul and San Francisco (PDT, DST). At 8 a.m. San Francisco time, it’s 12 a.m. in Seoul.
Don’t worry about memorizing all these facts. This handy summary will serve as your reference guide, so that when you’re in South Korea you can focus on building business relationships.
South Korea’s climate
South Korea has four distinct seasons. Spring and autumn are mild but are also quite short in duration. At the same time, temperature differences between the hottest and coldest time of the year are high— temperatures can rise as high as 28°C (82.4°F) in the summer and fall as low as -6°C (21.2°F)  in the winter.
So, if you plan to spend holidays in Korea, bring both a warm hat and a swimming suit!
Many of EHLION’s business clients travel to Seoul. If you too plan to start your business trip from South Korea’s capital, remember, the city has a wet and humid climate during the summer, but is very dry in the winter.
Most of South Korea's precipitation falls in the summer monsoon period between June and September. If your business trip falls in this period, a sturdy umbrella is a must!
Very few of us learn the specifics of Korea’s history at school, especially as it comes to the period before Korea’s separation. The country has a long and rich history which many of our business cultural coaching clients are curious about.
This brief outline is a quick overview of the most important facts.
- The Three Kingdoms of Korea. From the 1st century, there were three kingdoms that controlled the Korean peninsula. Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla, known as the Three Kingdoms of Korea, were separate entities until their unification by Silla in 676 CE.
- This unification was the first time in history the kingdoms came together forming a unified national identity.
- Soon afterwards, in 698 CE, Dae Jo-yeong, King Go, established the kingdom of Balhae. It was located where Goguryeo used to be — spanning Manchuria, Korean peninsula, and Primorsky Krai (currently Russia).
- Goryeo dynasty. In the late 9th century, Wang Geon formed the Goryeo dynasty, which gives Korea its name. The Goryeo dynasty ruled Korea between the 10th and 14th centuries.
- The Joeson dynasty. In 1392, General Yi Seong-gye overthrew Goryeo and established the Joseon dynasty (also known as Chosun). Joseon ruled Korea for around five centuries, until 1897, when it was replaced by the Korean Empire.
- Japanese occupation of Korea. In 1910, Japan brought down the Joseon dynasty and annexed the country.
We owe the current political shape of the region to the aftermath of World War 2.
- When was Korea divided? It was the surrender of Japan at the end of World War 2 that led to the division of the country along the 38th parallel.
- Why was Korea divided? This division was meant to be a temporary measure until the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and the Republic of China could come to an agreement around arranging a single government for the country.
- Their efforts failed. In 1948, the already existing partition led to the creation of The Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north.
Korean war. In 1950 Kim il-Sung, the first leader of North Korea, launched a war—the Korean War—to bring the peninsula under communist rule.
- The conflict ended with a cease-fire in 1953. The two nations officially remain at war because a peace treaty was never signed.
- North Korea remains a communist, totalitarian state, and the issue of North Korea’s denuclearization is a hot topic in international politics.
Demographics: South Korea’s population
While over 10 million people live in Seoul, Korea’s population stood at approximately 51.6 million, as of 2018. South Korea’s society is very homogeneous, with the Korean ethnic group accounting for 96% of the total population.
However, opportunities for foreign immigrants increased with South Korea’s economic growth. In 2016, the number of foreign citizens residing in South Korea reached 3.4% of the population and passed 1.76 million. As of 2017, most of foreigners arrive from:
- China. 1,018,074 of new arrivals came from China. Out of this group more than half were ethnic Koreans of Chinese citizenship.
- Vietnam. The next largest group of foreigners is from Vietnam—169,738 residents.
- Thailand. The third largest group is from Thailand, 153,259 residents.
- USA. Last, but not least, the fourth largest group of immigrants, with 143,568 residents, is from the United States—a figure still excluding American troops stationed in the country.
The linguistic landscape of the country is also pretty homogeneous with Korean, being the only national and official language of South Korea.
Korean can be a challenging language for people from Western countries, and EHLION often gets requests for Korean translation and interpretation services. If you are in the same boat, let us know. We will be happy to assist you in building smooth relationships with your South Korean business partners.
Political system: South Korea’s government type
The Republic of Korea is a democratic country with a multi-party system.
- The President of South Korea is the Chief of State. They are elected by vote for a single five-year term and also serve as the Commander-in-Chief of the South Korea’s military. The current South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-In, was elected in 2017.
- South Korea’s government exercises executive power.
- The National Assembly hold legislative power. The National Assembly has 300 statutory seats and is elected for a four-year term.
- The Judiciary runs independently from the executive and legislative powers, and is comprised of a Supreme Court, appellate courts, and a Constitutional Court.
Since 1948, the constitution of South Korea has undergone five revisions. The last major constitutional revision was in 1987.
Familiarity with South Korea’s political system helps navigate the structure of the country’s economy. To ensure you remember the basics, make sure to download this handy fact sheet.
If you still have questions—whether it’s about politics or… South Korea’s national animal—we’ll be happy to help out during a personalized cultural coaching session.
South Korea’s economy
South Korea’s economy is the fourth largest in Asia and the 11th largest in the world. It also remains one of the fastest growing among developed countries. In the world following the Great Recession, Korea’s GDP growth rate was 2.7% in 2018, while South Korea’s GDP per capita stood at US$31,362.8 in 2018.
The internal consumer market was not enough for continued economic growth, so South Korea adapted an export-oriented economic strategy. In 2014, South Korea was the seventh largest exporter and the seventh largest importer in the world.
The country is a global leader of:
- consumer electronics,
- mobile broadband, and
It is therefore no surprise that South Korea’s major export goods include semiconductors, wireless telecommunications equipment, motor vehicles, computers, and steel.
South Korea’s currency is the Won (₩), KRW. For comparison, a 1000 Won is slightly less than one US dollar, at least since 2014.
We probably don’t need to convince you about the economic opportunities awaiting you in South Korea. Is there anything that’s still stopping you from expanding your business to this growing economy? Our cultural coaches will help you take the final step—book your session now.
Transport: South Korea’s train and bus
KTX, Korea’s train express network is South Korea’s high-speed rail system. Launched in 2004 it connects Seoul with major cities in the country such as Busan or Mokpo.
Korea’s train service is a regular and reliable way of transport—not to mention its speed of astounding 305 km/h (190 mph). On routes where KTX operates, air travel has significantly declined, with less passengers choosing to fly and airlines offering less flights.
Buses. For inter-city connections in South Korea, travel can also be done by bus. Regional routes are classified as gosok bus (express bus) or sioe bus (intercity bus) — gosok buses cover longer routes, and shioe buses typically operate over shorter distances and make more stops.
Subway. Within South Korea's largest cities — Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Gwangju, Daejeon and Incheon— you can rely on subway systems.
Taxies. But, if you don’t like public transport, taxis are relatively popular and inexpensive everywhere in Korea. In major cities you can easily flag one on the street. Available taxis are identified by a red light just inside the passenger-side windshield or by the cap light on top.
Prepare for taxi small talk, and learn to navigate South Korea’s culture during, and after your business meetings—consult EHLION’s cultural coaches.
Religion: Confucianism and Christianity in South Korea
The indigenous religion of Korea is Muism—Korean shamanism—but Muism is rarely practiced today. In fact, as of 2015 the majority of South Koreans (56.9%) have no formal membership in a religious organization. The remaining people are split among three dominant religions:
- Protestantism (19.7%)
- Korean Buddhism (15.5%)
- Roman Catholicism (7.9%)
It’s hard to formally establish how many people follow Confucianism in Korea, since it’s not an organized religion. However, many values stemming from this philosophy permeate South Korea’s culture, for example respect for education and the key role of ancestral rituals.
Key Korean holidays
Business visitors inquire with EHLION about South Korean festivals. And they are right to do so! Awareness of the country’s holiday calendar can make a big difference for your business activities.
Below we list key dates to be mindful of. Don’t worry about memorizing them though— they are also included in our free cheat sheet.
The first two important celebrations are the same as in the Western holiday calendar and require no explanation. South Koreans observe the New Year's Day on January 1, and Christmas on December 25. Christmas in Korea is a popular holiday with lights illuminating all major cities.
There are four Korean national holidays:
- Independence Movement Day, on March 1, commemorates the Declaration of Independence proclaimed in 1919, while South Korea was under Japanese colonization.
- Liberation Day, on August 15, commemorates Japan's acceptance of the Allies' terms of surrender in 1945, and the resulting liberation of Korea.
- National Foundation Day, on October 3, celebrates the formation of the first Korean state in 2333 BC, a date considered the founding of the Korean people.
- Hangeul Day falls on October 9. Hangeul Day is a festival held to remember the 1446’s creation of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet.
There are many more Korean holidays and celebrations. If you want to make sure your business trip falls in the best possible period, feel free to run it past our cultural experts.
Out of the remaining South Korea’s holidays the most important ones are:
- Seolnal, the lunar New Year, falls on the second lunar month after the winter solstice, and is one of the most important traditional holidays of the year. Most businesses are closed for a longer period around that time, so beware not to plan your business trip then!
- Chuseok, on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, Chuseok is often referred to as the Korean Thanksgiving Day. Again, most businesses are closed.
- Memorial Day—June 6.
- Children's Day—May 5.
- Buddha's Birthday—8th day of the 4th lunar month.
As the very last point, take note of typical hours of operation of South Korean businesses. It will come in handy when you have to arrange for meetings in the country, or, if you want to go shopping.
- Banks. Weekdays: 09:00-16:00
- Government Offices and Organizations. Weekdays: 09:00-18:00
- Post offices. Weekdays: 09:00-18:00
- Department Stores.
If South Korea’s culture is a new topic for you, don’t worry! At EHLION we have experience in getting executives fully prepared for conducting business in the country. From business communication, to etiquette, to developing relationships, we are happy to share tips to assist you in developing long-lasting partnerships.
To save time and get advice tailored to your specific business, speak to one of our cultural coaches. Let us guide you to business success in South Korea!