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South Korea, also referred to as the Republic of Korea, is a country in East Asia, constituting the southern part of the Korean Peninsula. It shares land borders with North Korea and oversea borders with China to the west and Japan to the east. At the end of the 16th century, Korea had survived many invasions by Japan and in the early 17th century by the Manchus of East Asia. This resulted in a 250-year-long period of peace after they decided to limit contact with the outside world.
However, this changed in the late 19th century with Western powers making efforts to open trade and diplomatic relations with Korea, though with little success. At the beginning of the 20th century, Japan emerged victorious in the competition against China and Russia for control over the Korean Peninsula. However, it was formally annexed after five years. During this time, Korea became an industrialized country, but its people suffered brutal repression under the Japanese, who attempted to wipe out the language and their cultural identity. During World War II, many Korean men served in Japan’s army and many women provided sexual services for Japanese soldiers.
After the Japanese lost the war in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union divided the peninsula into two zones. By 1948, the Republic of Korea was established. With their declaration of independence in 1950, North Korea tried to invade its neighbor in an effort to regain control of the entire peninsula. This is known as the Korean War and it ended in 1953 with an armistice agreement. Today, Korea is one of East Asia’s most affluent countries.
South Korea is a collectivist country and is family orientated. Building relationships plays an essential part of doing business in South Korea. Relationships are developed through informal social gatherings that involve a considerable amount of eating and drinking. These gatherings give an opportunity for both sides to discuss business in a more friendly and relaxed surrounding. Make sure that you attend all gatherings that you are invited to because relationships in Korea are based on trust and are more personal. Communication is indirect and it is up to the listener to fill in the blanks and make out the meaning by reading correctly the contextual clues.
In South Korea, respect for age and status is very important in their culture, with a hierarchy affecting all aspects of social interactions. This respect comes from Confucian traditions, which emphasize respect for education, authorities, and those who are older. Everyone has a role in society as a result of hierarchy. They are more comfortable interacting with someone they consider their equal. Status is determined by someone’s role in an organization, which organization they work for, which university they went to, and their marital status. Make sure you always keep this in mind when speaking to a person who stands above you in order not to show them any sign of disrespect.
South Korea is Asia’s third-largest economy. The economy is export-driven, with production focusing on electronics, automobiles, ships, machinery, petrochemicals, and robotics.
The Business Dress Code in South Korea is conservative. They have an emphasis on conformity rather than individual expression. Men should wear dark-colored business suits with ties and white shirts. Jewelry for men should be kept to a minimum – a watch and a wedding ring should be enough. Women should dress conservatively and in subdued colors. Women wear conservative skirts and white blouses.
In South Korea, it is encouraged that you are introduced by a third party. However, whether you were introduced by a third party or you had a self-introductory meeting, it is important for you to pay attention to their job title and their family name because calling them by their first name is considered rude, so you should call them by their last name and job title. If there is no job title just stick with Mr./Ms./Mrs. South Koreans follow a strict protocol when greeting.
Do not wave your hand when you have just met someone in a business environment. South Koreans greet by bowing, legs straight and hands down on the sides or with both hands clasped in front of your stomach. A slight bow, 15 degrees, is acceptable when you are running into someone several times a day or when you are meeting someone close to you or who is the same age as you. The salute, 30 degrees, and the respectful bow, 45 degrees, are used when you are meeting someone new or an elderly person. Sometimes, the person with higher status will initiate a handshake, without lifting yourself, take it with both hands.
Korean women usually nod slightly and will not shake hands with Western men. Western women may offer their hand to a Korean man. While standing, they politely hand a business card over with two hands and receive one in return. Koreans bow to those senior to them both as a greeting and a show of respect. The junior initiates the bow by greeting the highest status individual first, followed by the oldest when meeting a group.
When scheduling a meeting, it is best to plan a few weeks in advance. In Korea, most meetings are held between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. or 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. South Koreans value punctuality and it is seen as a sign of respect. If you are running late, whatever the reason, call ahead to let the other party know. Even though you are expected to arrive a few minutes early or on time, it is common for Korean executives to arrive a few minutes late due to their busy and pressured schedules. With this in mind, it is common for executives to cancel meetings at the last minute. If these cancellations are happening often, you may assume that they are uninterested in doing business or are delaying the process. Since they are a low-context country, they expect you to recognize this without them saying it out loud to you.
The exchange of business cards is an essential part of initial meetings. It allows them to quickly determine their counterpart’s all-important position, title, and rank. Before you hand your card to the other party, introduce yourself first. While standing, you will politely hand your business card over with two hands, and receive one in return. When handing your card, make sure that your name faces the other person. It is recommended that you take exchanging cards.
In this situation, you would accept the card with both hands and hand your card over with two hands after. If you are exchanging the cards simultaneously, exchange your card with your right hand and receive the counterpart’s card with your left hand. When you receive the counterpart’s card, it is important to treat it with respect. You then will take a few seconds to review their names and titles. If you are sitting down, place the card on the table in front of you for the duration of the meeting. Do not write on the card you just received without permission. If given permission, use the backside of the card to add information. Do not play with the card you just received.
Building relationships is essential and is developed through informal social gatherings and generally involves a considerable amount of eating and drinking. Always accept dinner invitations as this is the Korean’s opportunity to assess your trustworthiness and whether they wish to conduct business with you. The host is expected to pay for the meal. Korea is basically a no-tip culture and finds tipping offensive. The eldest person is served first and everyone around should wait until they begin to eat. Koreans never pick any food up with their fingers, they always use utensils.
When it comes to drinking, South Korea has one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the world, and men are expected to partake in this culture. One thing you should never do is pour your own drink, but do offer to pour others’. It is common to trade and fill each other’s cups and refusal is seen as an insult. Women can pour a man’s drink, but never another woman’s drink. A woman may pour her own drink. If you don’t want a refill, leave some of the drink in your glass.
At the table, offer alcohol to the oldest person first. If you are pouring the drink, hold it with both hands with your right hand holding the bottle and your left hand placed lightly under your right arm. When doing this, be careful of your sleeve, make sure it does not go into the food and drinks. When an older person is offering you alcohol, stand up to accept the glass with both hands after bowing. After they have poured your drink, you can sit back down and drink. However, do not drink before the elder person raises the glass and do not decline the glass that is offered. When you drink in front of an older person or the host, face away from them while drinking. This shows them respect.
South Korean businesses revolve around a hierarchy, so don’t be too pushy when it comes to closing deals. This country is collectivist and they make decisions together by moving the deal up the hierarchy. This process takes time, so don’t expect to walk out of the first meeting with a deal in hand.
Gift-giving is common and encouraged. In South Korea, gift-giving is a common practice when doing business. The gifts are given at the first meeting and are meant to acquire favors and to build relationships. Wait for the host to present the gift, then use both hands to accept it. The gifts exchanged should be of similar value, with that of the greatest value going to the most senior person. Do not buy expensive gifts for other than the most senior person or this will look like a sign of disrespect. While, gifts demonstrate your thoughtfulness, where it was made is also very important. They will appreciate gifts that come from your own country or region. Avoid items made in underdeveloped countries, unless they are cultural icons or souvenirs.
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