How to Do Business in Korea
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Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries
in the world, racially and linguistically. It has its own
culture, language, dress and cuisine, separate and distinct
from its neighboring countries. Hard work, filial piety
and modesty are characteristics esteemed by Koreans. They
are proud of their traditional culture and their modern
economic success. Education is highly valued as the path
to status, money and success.
Meeting and Greeting
- The bow is the traditional Korean greeting,
although it is often accompanied by a handshake among men.
To show respect when shaking hands, support your right forearm
with your left hand.
- Korean women usually nod slightly and will not shake
hands with Western men. Western women may offer their
hand to a Korean man.
- Bow when departing. Younger people wave (move their
arm from side to side).
Names and Titles
- It is considered very impolite to address
a Korean with his or her given name. Address Koreans using
appropriate professional titles until specifically invited
by your host or colleagues to use their given names.
- Americans should address a Korean with
Mr., Mrs., Miss + family name; however, never address
a high-ranking person or superior in this manner.
- Korean names are the opposite of Western
names with the family name first, followed by the two-part
given name. The first of the two given names is shared
by everyone of the same generation in the family, and
the second is the individual’s given name.
Family + Shared Given + Given =
Lee Dong Sung. Dong Sung is the individual’s given name.
Address him as Mr. Lee or Lee Sonsaengnim (which means
- Koreans consider it a personal violation
to be touched by someone who is not a relative or close
friend. Avoid touching, patting or back slapping a Korean.
- Direct eye contact between junior and
senior businesspeople should be avoided. This is seen
as impolite or even as a challenge.
- Do not cross your legs or stretch your
legs out straight in front of you. Keep your feet on the
floor, never on a desk or chair.
- Always pass and receive objects with
your right hand (supported by the left hand at the wrist
or forearm) or with two hands.
- To beckon someone, extend your arm, palm
down, and move your fingers in a scratching motion. Never
point with your index finger.
- Koreans expect Westerners to be punctual
for social occasions and business meetings. Call if you
will be delayed. However, you may be kept waiting up to
a half hour. This is not a sign of disrespect, but reflects
the pressure of time on Korean executives.
- Professionals meeting for the first time
usually exchange business cards. Present your card and
receive your colleague’s card with both hands.
- Building trust and relationships is vital
to establishing a successful business relationship. This
requires patience. Koreans prefer to do business with
people they know.
- The first meeting is to establish trust,
so business should not be discussed. Be formal in meetings
until the Korean delegation loosens up.
- Negotiations are generally long and require
several trips. Be prepared for business meetings to go
well beyond business hours.
- Koreans generally start negotiations
at an unreasonable position and prepare to compromise.
Koreans are tough negotiators and admire a firm, persistent
negotiator, but refrain from being too aggressive.
- A low, deep bow from Koreans at the end
of a meeting indicates a successful meeting. A quick,
short parting bow could mean dissatisfaction with meetings.
Send a meeting review outlining all discussions and agreements
to your Korean counterpart after you leave Korea. Make
several visits during negotiations and after business
- “Yes” is not necessarily “yes.” Koreans
avoid saying “no.” Try to phrase questions in a manner
that doesn’t require a “yes” or “no” answer. Example:
Instead of saying “Could we sign the agreement by next
Friday?” say “When is the earliest date that we could
expect to sign this agreement?”
Dining and Entertainment
- Sharing a dinner is vital to building
friendships that foster trust. Your business success is
directly related to your social relationships.
- Do not pour your own drink, but do offer
to pour others’. It is common to trade and fill each other’s
cup. To refuse is an insult. Women pour men’s drinks,
but never another woman’s drink. A woman may pour her
own drink. Leave some drink in your glass if you don’t
want a refill.
- Wherever you see a “No Tipping” sign,
do not tip. Koreans find tipping offensive, although tipping
is now becoming expected in Western hotels.
- Always allow your host to seat you. The
seat of honor is the seat looking at the front door. If
you are seated in the seat of honor, it is polite to protest
- Koreans do not like to talk a lot during
dinner. Periods of silence are common and appreciated
at a dinner. The meal usually comes before socializing
at a dinner party.
- It is polite to pass or accept food or
drink with your right hand while your left hand supports
- The person who invites pays the bill
for everyone. However, it is polite to offer to pay. When
two people are dining, usually the younger person pays
for the older person.
- Prepare to sing a solo number after dinner,
no matter what kind of voice you have. Any song is acceptable,
as long as you sing with spirit.
- After dinner, the host may invite his
guests to go drinking. Don’t refuse this invitation.
- Koreans dress well, and you should dress
accordingly to show respect for them. A formal suit and
tie is almost always appropriate. Koreans dress up for
city activities, especially in Seoul.
- Women dress modestly. Prepare to sit
on the floor; avoid straight, tight skirts.
- Gift giving is very common in Korea.
Offer and receive a gift with both hands. Wrapped gifts
are never opened in the presence of the giver.
- Reciprocate with a gift of similar value
when receiving a gift from your Korean colleague. Koreans
like regional United States gifts and Indian/Western artifacts.
- Wrap your gift nicely. Bright colors
are preferred for wrapping gifts. Yellow and red or green
stripes are a traditional Korean wrapping paper design.
Avoid wrapping gifts in dark colors or red.
- Always bring a small gift for the hostess
when invited to someone’s home. Give: small gift, candy,
cakes, cookies, flowers, fruit. Do not give liquor to
- It is common to exchange gifts at the
first business meeting. Allow the host to present his
- Give: liquor (good quality scotch), fruit,
desk accessories, small mementos, gifts from France or
Italy (which often indicate status).
- Do not give: expensive gifts (Koreans
will feel obligated to reciprocate with a gift of equal
value), knives or scissors (they signify “cutting off”
a relationship), green headwear, gifts with red writing
(denotes death) or gifts in a set of four (denotes death).
- Never use words like “fellow,” “guy,”
“this man” or “that man.” This is considered demeaning.
- Koreans are not Chinese. They are distinct
from other Asians in food, language and culture.
- Expect Koreans to ask personal questions.
This is viewed as showing a polite interest in your life.
- Deny a compliment. Don’t say “thank you.”
It is impolite and shows a lack of humility.
- Never expect Koreans to admit to not
knowing an answer when questioned. They may give an incorrect
answer or an answer they think you would like to hear
to make you feel good or to save face.
- Don’t talk about Koreans or their customs
or culture within earshot of a Korean, even if you are
saying good things. Do not talk about politics.
Especially for Women
- Foreign women may have difficulty doing
business in Korea. Although women are becoming more accepted
in the Korean businessplace, Korean men generally prefer
to negotiate with men.
- Korean women seldom shake hands. A Western
woman can offer her hand to a Korean man, but should not
to a Korean woman.
- Foreign businesswomen should always act
elegant, refined and very “feminine.” Laughing and loud
talking are frowned upon.
- Generally, women wait for Korean men
to make the first move.
International Education Systems
1814 Hillcrest Avenue, Suite 300
St. Paul, MN 55116
Visit our web sites at
to Do Business in South Korea
by Injung Choi,
Marketing Automation Specialist
Doing business in South Korea now, or planning to in the
near future? Consider this…
- South Korea is one of the top IT developed countries.
They have the fastest Internet access speed in the world
— seven times faster than the global average.
- South Korea is ranked 8th in exporting and 11th in importing
- Major industries include cars, chemicals, electronics,
machinery, shipbuilding, steel, telecommunications, and
- Incheon International Airport is the largest and the
primary airport in South Korea. From 2006 to 2010, the
airport was selected the best airport in the world by
the Airports Council International.
- South Korean society is based on Confucian values; age,
rank, and harmony between groups are very important factors
to consider. People can only be considered equals when
they are the same age.
South Korea is a strong economic power with a huge global
presence. Koreans in the business sector are often highly
educated in Western customs and traditions, but continue
to uphold their own nation’s strong conservative and traditional
values, so don’t overestimate their tolerance and understanding
of Western culture. Though younger generations are much
more open to globalization, there are still many social
and cultural differences from the United States, which should
be considered when doing business in South Korea.
- Korean name structures are different from the Western
norm. For instance, if a person’s name is Kim Hee Jin,
it means Kim is the family name and Hee Jin is the first
name. Middle names are not used.
- Women do not change their names when they get married.
- In a business setting, address people by their title
along with their last name. For instance, if a person’s
last name is Kim and title is manager, you should say
“ Kim Manager.”
- Koreans write the year first, and then the month and
the day. For instance, January 9, 2012 is written 2012-01-09.
- Local time is fourteen hours ahead of U.S. EST.
- It is inappropriate to write a person’s name or sign
a contract in red; only the names of the deceased are
written in red.
- Koreans believe the number 4 is bad luck because the
Chinese characters for both “4” and “dead” are pronounced
the same way.
- People of opposite genders do not embrace when greeting;
a handshake and slight bow are common ways to greet one
- Appointments are necessary when planning a meeting;
be prompt, but be patient if your Korean counterpart is
late. Punctuality is also expected for social events.
- Koreans have a preference for one-on-one meetings over
- Rank and status are very important factors in Korea;
in group meetings, seniors will enter the meeting room
first, followed by colleagues in order of rank and job
- The best time for a business meeting is between 10:00
a.m. and 11:00 a.m. or between 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.
Be aware of Korea’s summer vacation days from July to
August and all public holidays.
- Usually tea, coffee, water, or other refreshments will
be provided at a scheduled meeting at your Korean counterpart’s
- Gift-giving is acceptable. Gifts with your company
logo are welcome.
- Send your English proposals or presentation materials
in advance. Koreans prefer to have accurate statistical
results with visible graphs or charts.
- English is the most widely used foreign language; younger
generations will conduct business meetings in English.
- Koreans prefer to do business with individuals of equal
business status or higher. If you are sending someone
within your organization to meet with a Korean project
manager, make sure that person is a project manager or
higher; to meet a VP, send a VP or your CEO.
- Business decisions often take longer to make than in
the United States. Korean systems are based on hierarchy,
so it takes time to get a final decision from executive
- Look for signs, such as silence, that your counterpart
does not understand what you are saying. Do not expect
them to tell you directly, but instead take the initiative
to rephrase what it is you are trying to say.
- Many business relationships are built during dinner
and drinks at restaurants or bars. After dinner, people
often go to a karaoke place.
- Hosts or elders usually pay for meals.
- If you are invited to a Korean’s house, you should
come bearing fruits, flowers, cakes, juices, or wines.
- Koreans never wear shoes inside houses or temples,
so take off your shoes at the entryway.
- Koreans always use chopsticks and spoons for meals
and eat desserts or fruits with forks. Most Korean dishes
are served with a bowl of rice.
For translations of business documents into South Korean,
contact McElroy Translation. Visit our website to learn
more about how we can help you and your company achieve
success in your international business ventures.
Morrison, Terri, and Wayne A. Conaway (2006). Kiss, Bow,
or Shake Hands, 2nd edition. Massachusetts: Adams.
Published - February 2012
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