South Korean Business Etiquette

한국 오신 것을 환영합니다 ("Welcome to South Korea"  in Korean)

South Korea, officially known as the Republic of Korea, shares a border with North Korea, China, and Japan. South Korea’s capital Seoul is the second-largest metropolitan area in the world after Tokyo despite the fact that South Korea itself is only a little bigger than the state of Indiana. The bottom line is: this is one highly-populated country.

According to the Human Development Index, South Korea ranks as East Asia’s most developed country. Koreans enjoy high levels of income stemming from robotics, biotechnology, and infrastructure, among other industries.

Before you set off on a business trip to South Korea, let’s first learn about the dos and don’ts of South Korean business etiquette.

The Lowdown

  • The capital of South Korea is Seoul, which is also its largest city.
  • South Korea is a unitary presidential constitutional republic.
  • About 97% of South Korea identifies ethnically as Korean.
  • More than half of South Koreans are agnostic when it comes to religion. Most of the remaining people are either Buddhist or (most prevalent) Christian.
  • The official language of South Korea is Korean, and the official written script is called Hangul.
  • Fun fact: According to Business Insider, South Korea harvests more than 90% of the world’s seaweed for consumption (ie, in sushi).  

Dressing Sharp

  • As is many Asian countries, dressing conservatively during business negotiations is the way to go.
  • Men should wear: dark, conservative suits with a well-fitting blazer.
  • Women should wear: dark, conservative suits with either pants or a skirt.
  • Tasteful, simple accessories, including shoes, are appreciated. Do not try to be flashy or it may be considered gaudy.
  • For men, pockets are a useful suit feature because business cards are so frequently exchanged.

Make or Break Meetings

  • As usual, punctuality is highly valued in South Korea. However, if a business associate is late to meet you, show understanding and refrain from acting “annoyed.”
  • Book your meetings at least a few weeks in advance.
  • Business cards are exchanged frequently. It is wise to have one side of your card printed in Korean out of respect for the Korean party.
  • The handshake is a common greeting. If you are a woman, you will have to initiate the handshake as it is considered impolite for men to do so. Korean men will often times greet each other with a bow.
  • Seniority is respected; therefore, the most senior business contact should be greeted first and will sit in the middle of the group.

Dining Decorum

  • It’s a good idea to learn how to use chopsticks before your trip to South Korea.
  • Never rest the “food” end of your chopsticks anywhere but your plate or on a chopstick rest.
  • The Korean host may toast with “cangai” at the beginning of the meal, meaning “bottoms up.”
  • It is acceptable to leave some rice in your bowl when you are finished as it is very hard to eat every grain of rice with chopsticks.
  • South Korean dining etiquette is similar to Japanese dining etiquette.
  • Wait until the most senior person is seated and has begun eating to begin your own meal.
  • If eating in the home, you will usually remove your shoes, just as in many other Asian countries.
  • Tipping is not customary in South Korea; however, if you do, it will be about 5%.

Giving and Getting Gifts

  • Gift giving is a common practice in South Korean business.
  • The practice of gift giving is reciprocal; if you are given a gift, you should expect to return the gesture.
  • Acceptable gifts include: an item bearing your company logo, candy, food, or small trinkets.
  • Try not to give anything too expensive or flashy. In Korean gift giving etiquette, Koreans like to reciprocate gifts with those of equal value.
  • It is polite to refuse a gift a few times before finally accepting. This shows you are not greedy.
  • Gifts are not typically opened upon receipt, but you can ask the gift-giver if they would like you to open the gift in front of them.

Down to Business

  • Avoid booking meetings in January/February and during September/October. These are holiday periods for South Koreans.
  • Because Koreans only do business with those they know and trust, there will likely be several meetings before negotiations come to a close.
  • You may need to take more than one trip to South Korea before a decision is reached.
  • Business in South Korea is hierarchical; therefore, decisions will be made from the top down.

Now that you're well prepared for your next jet-setting business trip to South Korea, don't forget to stay tuned for our next Business Etiquette blurb! 

안녕히 가세요 ("Goodbye" in Korean)

South Korean flag.png

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