South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea (ROK), is a country in East Asia, constituting the southern part of the Korean Peninsula and lying east to the Asian mainland. South Korea lies in the north temperate zone and has a predominantly mountainous terrain. It comprises an estimated 51.4 million residents distributed over 99,392 km2. The capital and largest city is Seoul, with a population of 10 million.
The most popular activity for Korean Nationals is hiking, which, due to the country’s abundance of mountains and national parks, has become the national pastime.
Soccer is one of Korea’s most popular sports. The K League (Korea Professional Football League) runs from March to November each year, with fierce competition among 12 regional teams. The number of people who have joined grassroots football teams stands at around 500,000 nationwide. The popularity of baseball in the country is very similar to that of football and there are a total of ten teams in the KBO league. In 2017, some 8.4 million people visited stadiums to enjoy professional baseball games.
Popular indoor activities include visiting jimjilbang sauna rooms and taking part in karaoke (noraebang).
Korean cuisine is largely based on rice, noodles, tofu, vegetables, fish and meats. Traditional Korean meals are notable for the numerous side dishes, banchan (반찬), which accompany steam-cooked short-grain rice. Kimchi (김치), a fermented, usually spicy vegetable dish is commonly served at every meal and is one of the best known Korean dishes.
Korean is the official language of South Korea. Korean uses an indigenous writing system called Hangul. Although not directly related to any Chinese languages, it incorporates a number of words that are Chinese in origin. Korean spoken in South Korea also uses a significant number of loanwords from English and other European languages.
Almost all South Korean students currently learn English throughout their education, with some optionally choosing Japanese or Mandarin as well.
South Korea has a humid continental climate and a humid subtropical climate largely affected by the East Asian monsoon. Precipitation is heavier in summer during a short rainy season called jangma (장마), which begins at the end of June and lasts through to the end of July. To monitor the approaching storms, the Korean Meteorological Administration website can be used.
Winters can be cold with the temperature dropping below −20 °C (−4 °F) in the inland region of the country. In Seoul, the average January temperature range is −7 to 1 °C (19 to 34 °F), and the average August temperature range is 22 to 30 °C (72 to 86 °F)
Safety and security
Crime against foreigners is rare but there are occasional isolated incidents. While most reported crimes are thefts, there have been some rare cases of assault, particularly around bars and nightlife areas.
Take good care of passports, credit cards and money in crowded areas and be careful in areas with high levels of tourism. When travelling alone at night, only use legitimate taxis or public transport.
Education is of great importance in South Korea. With the growth in industrialisation, the need for highly qualified employees emerged as an important factor to cope with scarce capital and resources. Children’s education is considered a top priority for many families and this has resulted in a large number of well-educated people. This has helped South Korea succeed in its aim of rapid economic growth.
Standard school education includes kindergarten (1 to 3 years), elementary school (6 years), middle school (3 years), high school (3 years), and university. There are also junior colleges (2 or 3 years) and graduate schools (for masters and Ph.D. degrees).
Since 2004, middle school has been a compulsory level of education for all South Koreans. A government childcare allowance is available for all children aged up to five years.
In most schools, the academic year lasts for approximately six months. Fall semester typically runs from September to December and Spring semester begins in January and ends in April.
The 370 official higher education providers in Korea include six top-20 entries and 57 representatives in total among Asian Universities, and 29 included in the QS World University Rankings 2019.
South Korean universities produce many highly educated people specialising in disciplines seen as essential for economic growth and prosperity, namely physics, electronics, mechanical engineering, business management, economics, and accounting. English is a relatively common language among educated adults, with some also speaking a further foreign language.
The cost of courses can vary depending on the university. Private universities are generally more expensive and one semester for an undergraduate degree can range from £2100 to £4300 and £2600 to £5000 per semester for graduate degrees. Public and national universities in South Korea are less expensive than private universities. An undergraduate degree at these types of institutions usually range from £1400 to £3200 per semester, and postgraduate degrees can cost anywhere from £1700 to £3600 per semester.
South Korean higher education is divided into 2-3 years, junior colleges program, 4-year universities program and graduate schools. The development of information and communication technologies has led to an increase in online universities that deliver e-learning courses. Master’s and doctoral degree programs are normally provided as university courses, however, separate ‘graduate schools’ are also being established to offer exclusively graduate programs with no affiliations to universities.
South Korean universities are divided into 3 tiers, national universities, which are those established and operated by the central government, public universities, those established by local governments and private universities which are founded by private non-profit educational foundations.
Primary and secondary education
South Korean education is a single-track system with six years of elementary school, three years of middle school, three years of high school, and four years at the undergraduate university level. Nine years of education is a compulsory minimum, including the six years of elementary school and three years of middle school. Each academic year has two semesters, the first semester is from March to August and the second from September to February. School vacations in summer run from July to August and in winter from December to February.
Preschool and childcare options
Korean is the most common language in preschool although English-taught curriculums are offered in some private kindergartens. The programs are classified by age groups (from three to five). The approximate cost of public kindergarten is around £38 per month while private and English kindergartens approximately require between £300 and £550. This fee normally includes the tuition fee, studying materials, food and transportation to and from kindergarten.
South Korea is roughly half the size of the UK. In South Korea, the cost of living is relatively higher than in the UK but rent is considerably lower. In comparison with London or New York, rent in Seoul is 47% and 39% cheaper respectively.
If accommodation is not arranged by your employer, there are a few options available to explore. For renting from a landlord, there are two types of property rental contracts. The most common contract is a “jeonsei” which requires the tenant to pay a specified sum to the landlord (usually 30-80% of the cost to rent the property). The ‘jeonsei’ contract is also abided to by short-term tenants. The second type of contract is called “wolsei”, where the tenant pays a monthly fee to the owner.
There is a third option available where the two rental contracts are combined. The tenant is required to pay a large sum upfront and continue with small monthly payments.
Most rental contracts last for an average of 2 years and the tenant is responsible for seeking the landlord’s consent to renew the contract.
Other accommodation options include hotels, which are more expensive but safe and comfortable, or hostels, which are cheaper dependent on quality.
The income, corporation and value-added taxes contribute to the majority of the South Korean tax revenue. In addition, revenue is also collected towards government programmes through transportation, education and rural development tax.
It is important the rental contract is checked for information on utilities (including extras such as the internet and phone). The majority of apartment complexes and villas have utilities set up in advance, where the bill is split among the residents. If the information is unclear in the contract, you will need to contact utility companies and arrange the service on the day before you arrive.
The average utility bill for one month is usually between 50,000 and 200,000 ₩, which works out to approximately £135. The sum can vary depending on the size and number of people at the residence. For those who live in high-rises or villas, your utility bills may be calculated as a building total and then divided by the number of apartments.
In South Korea, the TV licence fee is ₩30,000 per year (about £20) and is collected by the Korean Broadcasting System and Educational Broadcasting System.
Also, if there are particular services that require more time for installation, please consider and plan accordingly. Extras such as cable TV and the Internet will not automatically be provided by your landlord. English teachers or tutors living in a pre-arranged residence should already have the basics set up by their employer.
Healthcare and medical costs
Generally, medical and dental care in South Korea is of a high standard. Hospitals have advanced medical equipment and facilities readily available. Staff may not always speak English however, and the treatment can be relatively expensive. For example, a short visit to a private Doctor can cost about 36,263 won (equivalent to £25), so having medical insurance is recommended.
Throughout the year, especially during spring months, air pollution, including yellow dust pollution, is common in South Korea, this mostly affects the elderly and those with respiratory problems. Please follow local media reporting and the Korean Meteorological Service website for the latest advice.
South Korea is one of the world leaders on credit card usage. By law, all merchants have to accept them. You can pay for an amount as low as 2,000 won (equivalent to £1.50) at convenience stores using a credit card. One of the main benefits of using credit cards is that you will receive a tax refund for usage, so you will find most people use credit cards for nearly 100% of their purchases. However, many merchants (especially Dongdaemun clothing retailers) can offer a discount up to 10% if you pay in cash. This does not apply to major department stores like Lotte and Shinsegae.
The standard VAT rate is 10%. Except where a specific exemption is provided, VAT is levied on the importation and supply of all goods and services into South Korea.
Rent 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – 640,133.52 ₩ (£440.84)
Rent 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – 418,445.95 ₩ (£288.17)
Price of apartment per square metre in city centre – 12,166,276.80 ₩ (£8,378.49)
Price of apartment per square metre outside city centre – 6,144,611.51 ₩ (£4,231.58)
To drive legally in South Korea an International Driving Permit is required. Driving licenses may be attained at age 16 for cars and motorcycles. Traffic can be relatively intense in the cities. There could also be serious penalties or even criminal charges when accidents result in injury, even if guilt is not proven.
English speaking taxi drivers are not very common. Ilban (regular taxis) can cost about ₩3300 (£2.5) for the first 2km with a 20% surcharge from midnight to 4am, while the pricier mobeom (deluxe taxis; black with a yellow top) that exist in some cities cost around ₩5500 (£4) for the first 3km with no late-night surcharge.
The buses in the cities are well-developed and not expensive – from ₩1200 (less than £1) a trip. However, rural buses generally run on an hourly or half-hourly schedule. All timetables, bus-stop names and destination signs are usually in Korean. Sometimes the best way to find the right route is to ask in a local tourist information center, generally, these will have a member of staff that speaks English, or to use a smartphone app, such as Naver Map, which is available in English.
For the most common categories of public transport, it is handy to have T-Money or Cash Bee card. Buses, taxis, subways and trains accept both of the cards, however, T-Money is more common. An added bonus of the card is it provides a ₩100 discount per trip. The basic card can be bought for a nonrefundable ₩3000 (£2) at any subway-station booth, bus kiosk or convenience store displaying the T-Money logo, which are widely available across the country. Cards can also be used to buy goods in vending machines and convenience stores.
The South Korean railway system is well developed and easy to travel. There are two main train operators in South Korea: the more expensive Korea Train Express (KTX) and Saemaul. However, KTX regularly offers a wide range of discounts and special offers, for example, reduced costs if buying the tickets from 30 to 7 days before the journey, or half-price on the tickets for children.
South Korea has 8 international and 6 domestic airports. The national carrier is Korean Air. Generally, airports are modern and well-connected. Incheon International Airport (ICN) near Seoul is the largest airport in South Korea. Other large airports are Gimpo Airport (GMP) in Seoul and Jeju International Airport (CJU) in Jeju Province.
The Republic of Korea includes many small islands alongside southern and western coasts of the country which are served by ferries. In addition, the larger offshore Jeju and Ulleung Islands are also served by ferry. The main centers for ferry service are Incheon, Mokpo, Pohang and Busan, as well as China and Japan.
South Korea requires a visa to visit the country, to study or to work there. In the education sector, the most common are E-5: Visa for professionals, E-1: Visa for Academics and E-3: Visa for conducting a research project.
As the requirements can vary for different citizenships holders, it is worth visiting the official resource Hi Korea. This is the main site of the electronic government for foreigners, created by the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Knowledge Economy and the Ministry of Labor.
The tax year in South Korea runs from Jan 1st to Dec 31st. The level of tax paid on earned income depends on the individual resident classification, with all residents, including foreigners, having to pay a resident surtax of 10% of their taxable income.
Foreign employees, who choose the flat rate option for their individual income tax, would then pay 18.5% when the resident surtax is added. Those who choose the progressive rate would pay 6%, 16.5%, 26.4%, 35% or 41.8% when the resident surtax is added.
Employers are required to deduct withholding tax from each employee’s salary each month. Employers must withhold the taxes for each employee to NTS by the tenth day of the following month. Employers who have less than 20 employees can, with the permission of the tax office, pay the taxes withheld twice a year instead of every month – although the tax will still be deducted from each pay.
The pension in South Korea is an earnings-related scheme with benefits based on both individual earnings and the average earnings of the insured individual as a whole. Currently, the pension age is 61 with at least ten years of contributions, although this is gradually increasing and will reach 65 by 2033. The early retirement age is also gradually increasing from 56 to 60 years.
Companies in South Korea traditionally have a high degree of both centralisation and vertical hierarchy. Most large businesses are family affairs with the founder’s family being the main executive authority. This has resulted in a system where decisions are made at the top and delegated downwards.
However, this approach to business has started to be challenged with the introduction of modern, western management theories frequently from American-educated Koreans.
The management style is predominately hierarchical and paternalistic and is significantly influenced by Confucianism.
Confucianism stresses the importance of obedience and loyalty and this is present in manager/subordinate relationships. Managers are very helpful and supportive as long as they are treated with loyalty, respect and obedience and employees are expected to work hard and be prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to succeed in their job. There are frequently team-building exercises to promote harmony in the team and to build staff loyalty.
The paternalistic management style here results in strong emotional ties between managers and subordinates. Organisations are often seen as an extension of the family and, therefore, relationships within an organisation are similar to those within a family.
Titles are very important among South Koreans and therefore it is very important to use professional and honorific titles when addressing someone in business. It is also important to bear in mind that Korean names are written as Surname and then their Given Name.
Building relationships is an essential part of conducting business in South Korea. Relationships are often developed through informal social gatherings at bars and restaurants. Gatherings like this present a good opportunity for both sides to discuss business matters in a more relaxed and friendly surrounding.
If you are invited out for dinner or drinks it is advisable that you accept this as these occasions are often used to determine whether they would like to do business with you.
Dress code is very important in South Korea and therefore it is important that you look smart at all times. Business attire is quite conservative and dark suits and white shirts are common for both men and women. Smart business dresses are often favoured by women.
The winters are very cold in Korea and it is therefore essential that you also take a smart coat, scarves and gloves. On the other end of the spectrum, the summers are hot and you will also need a lightweight suit.
The bow is the traditional way to greet people in South Korea. Handshakes also often accompany bows but this is much more common for men than for women.
If you would like to offer a business card then this should be handed over with both hands and face up so that it is easier to read. When you receive a business card, you should take a moment to examine it and then store it neatly. It is considered very rude to put a card away without looking at it.
Punctuality is very important, and observing correct meeting times is a sign of respect. You should never be late for meetings, however, if it is unavoidable, always call the person you are meeting with to let them know, even if it is just a few minutes. Korean executives may arrive a little late due to being extremely busy and this is acceptable.
All meetings should be booked well in advance with date, time and location confirmed by email. Generally, communication in meetings is formal but friendly.
Keeping in mind the top-down style of management in South Korea, it is important that the most senior person in the team enter the room first and leaders should sit opposite each other around the table.
The exchanging of gifts is also common when conducting business in Korea, and helps build relationships. The host will present a gift first, which must be received using both hands, then gifts are given in order of seniority.
When shaking hands, or passing out business cards, use two hands, or support your right arm with your left.
It is worth keeping in mind that in a South Korea business setting, saying ‘no’, or declining directly can be considered as poor etiquette. South Koreans avoid confrontation, and strive for harmony in all relationships, business or personal. In order to ‘save face’ they will opt for a less defining answer, such as ‘I’ll try’ when unsure if they can fulfil requests.
It is worth remembering that Korea should be acknowledged for its distinctiveness and difference from other East Asian cultures, so avoid drawing parallels between the Korean culture and language with Japan.
Although Korean is the official language, English is widely used in business settings, so it is not unusual to meet people who are fluent in English. Depending on the region and the nature of your business, you could also encounter Chinese or Japanese speaking people, so check ahead to find out if translation will be required.