The Korean Way

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How best to work with a Korean Client…

In business

Koreans are clever, forceful negotiators. They are not conditioned by any sense of fair play, of not taking advantage of a weaker adversary. They will take all they can get. There is also the very strong feeling that foreigners have so much and Koreans have so little that it is only right that Koreans get more than the foreign side out of any relationship. Link

Under the best of circumstances, the negotiating process in Korea is usually long and drawn out, not only because a fairly large number of people have to be satisfied with the details of any agreement, but also because communication and understanding take longer, and there is an unusually strong element of caution on the Korean side because they feel so strongly that they cannot afford to make mistakes. Link

Koreans expect potential partners to bargain strenuously and giving in too quickly is regarded as a weakness. Link

It is best to set generous but specific deadlines in negotiating and be prepared to stand by the conditions. It is also important to keep in mind that Koreans inevitably expect ongoing concessions after agreements are signed. The contract is the starting point for the development of the relationship. Negotiators who give away all of their concessions before a contract is signed leave themselves in a weak and sometimes untenable position. Link

Koreans automatically attempt to put all business relations on a personal, emotional level, leaving the foreign side with no room for maneuvering without appearing as callous, arrogant, and anti-Korean. The foreign side should set absolute limits beyond which it will not go, and hold that line diplomatically but firmly. Link

The basic Korean concept of contract, particularly the view of government bureaucrats, differs fundamentally from the way Westerners view and use contracts. The typical foreign view is that once you negotiate an agreement and sign a contract, that's it; the relationship proceeds forward on mutually acceptable, solid ground. That is not the case at all in Korea. The signing of the contract is usually when trouble begins because from the very beginning the contract is interpreted one way by the Korean side and another way by the foreign side. Link

South Korean Business Etiquette

Proper Behavior While in South Korea
(See website for full article - very detailed..)

  • Never single out one person, whether for praise or criticism.
  • Speak modestly and don't brag or pat yourself on the back.
  • Korea is not Japan or China. Do not make the mistake of confusing the cultures or you'll not only be seen as rude but also as ignorant.
  • Negativity is not well accepted in this culture. Answer questions in the most positive way possible.
  • Koreans, as with other Asians, do not like to offend and will often avoid saying "no" or "not".

Don't go into great elaborations when asked a question. Keep answers concise and to the point to make the best impression. Being too animated in gestures and facial expressions is not seen in a positive way. Avoid jokes while doing business and avoid distasteful jokes always. link


  • Business cards are vitally important in Korea. Exchange cards whenever you meet someone new and always give and receive cards with both hands, as this is considered respectful.
  • When receiving another person's card, always take a few seconds to study it in their presence and never place it immediately into your pocket. A card signifies a person's status in the company you are dealing with, and it is polite to always show interest in their position.
  • Never fondle or write upon a person's card, as this is considered insulting.
  • Koreans will always shake hands at meetings, but it is also customary to bow slightly when shaking hands for the first time.
  • Korean names are usually three syllables long, with the surname preceding given names. Hence, a Korean man named Chang Kon-sang should be referred to as Mr Chang. Never refer to a Korean counterpart by their first name, particularly in front of other business people or their contemporaries.
  • Never hand a Korean person a business card with a Japanese translation of your name and corporate position, as this is considered highly insulting. Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, and your card may be interpreted as a reference to this period.



  • Always try to obtain an introduction to a Korean organisation or business executive rather than contacting them directly yourself. It is always useful to cultivate a network of Korean contacts for such introductions.
  • Try to exchange notes after every meeting to ensure that everything which was agreed upon is clearly understood. Often Korean business people's comprehension of English is not as sound as their courtesy would lead you to believe.
  • Korean negotiations tend to be lengthy and protracted. It is not advisable to appear pushy during a discussion. If a sensitive issue arises on which agreement is not forthcoming, leave it for discussion at a later meeting, preferably through a Korean intermediary.
  • Try to avoid lengthy, detailed contracts. In Korea, the human relationship which exists between the parties to a contract is more important than the legal document itself.
  • Relationships will often be developed after hours, at pubs and restaurants over copious quantities of food and alcohol. Such gatherings are usually seen as male-only affairs and are regarded as highly important by your Korean counterparts. Drinking competitions and complete drunkenness are not uncommon at such gatherings, but don't worry, things rarely get out of hand.
  • Be prepared to tell Koreans about your private life (ie. marital status, family background, income etc.). Korean people do not regard such questions as personal and will often appear extraordinarily interested in your background.
  • In Korea, it is important to endure tardiness with humility. Whether it's the traffic or just forgetfulness on the part of the individual, some Koreans are often late. It is probably best to tolerate such situations since to complain about tardiness may ultimately prove to be counter-productive to the negotiating process.
  • Be prepared for bureaucratic and red tape hassles in Korea. Such situations should be handled delicately and with a minimum of fuss.
  • Korea is a Confucian society based on respect for elders and the subservience of females. Unfortunately, it is therefore necessary for all foreigners to expect to encounter gender and age discrimination.
  • Never offer or give money to your counterpart or other Koreans in return for favours that have been provided out of kindness. Offering money is sometimes considered offensive.
  • Under no circumstances should you resort to scolding or yelling in Korea. The concept of "face" is just as important in Korea as it is in Japan or China. Try to be as diplomatic as you can in resolving conflict, no matter how infuriated you may feel.


Business meetings

  • Avoid direct eye contact between junior and senior business people.
  • Call if your late, and if you wait for thirty minutes, it is not a sign of disrespect, but how pressured the Korean people are with time.
  • Whenever meeting another professional for the first time, exchange business cards (don’t forget, both hands!)
  • The first meeting is to know if they are trustworthy, so business is not discussed.
  • Be formal in meeting until the Koreans trust you.
  • A low deep bow from Koreans means the meeting was successful, but a short, quick bow, means it was not.


Business etiquette (Do's and Don'ts)

  • DO maintain an element of modesty and humility as these aspects are extremely important in Korean culture. With this in mind, you must try to avoid over-selling previous business achievements.
  • DO make direct eye-contact when addressing Korean business professionals, as it is important to indicate your honesty and interest. However, some Koreans do not make eye-contact for any length of time when in the presence of an authority figure as a sign of respect.
  • DO refrain from being overly impatient. The decision making process in Korea is often done collectively and will therefore require more time.
  • DON’T address a Korea by his or her given name as it is considered extremely impolite Korean names begin with the family name and are followed by a two-part given name. The correct way to address a Korean is with Mr, Mrs, or Miss together with their family name. You should address your Korean counterparts using appropriate titles until specifically invited to do otherwise.
  • DON’T display criticism in public. It should be conducted in private where loss of face will be diminished. In a similar vein, opposing someone directly can also cause a Korean to lose face and should be avoided.
  • DON’T use large hand gestures or facial expressions. Talking or laughing loudly is also considered impolite in Korean culture.

Meeting In Person

  • Never touch, pat, or backslap a Korean that is not your relative or close friend.
  • Always pass and accept things with your right hand, with your left hand supporting the wrist.
  • To beckon someone, extend your arm palm down, and move your fingers in a scratching motion.
  • Never point with your index finger.



  • When greeting (and saying bye to) an elder, keep both legs straight and together, put both arms stiffly by your side, keep your back straight, and bend from the waist. Keep the head down and do not look at the elder.
  • While bowing, say, “an nyung hah sae yo” (the greeting phrase). Bow not too fast or slow.
  • If it is the first time meeting the person, give a detailed introduction about yourself.
  • Koreans avoid saying “no”, so “yes”, may not mean, “yes”.
  • You shouldn’t squeeze hard when shaking hands.
  • Never talk about Korean culture, even if it is complimentary, earshot to a Korean.


Dress Etiquette

  • Business attire is conservative and unpretentious.
  • Men should wear dark coloured, conservative business suits.
  • Women should wear conservative business suits or dresses with a high neckline.
  • Women should wear flat shoes or shoes with very low heels.
  • Bright colours should be avoided.


Business Cards

  • Business cards are exchanged after the initial introduction.
  • Have one side of your business card translated into Chinese using simplified Chinese characters that are printed in gold ink since gold is an auspicious colour.
  • Your business card should include your title. If your company is the oldest or largest in your country, that fact should be on your card as well.
  • Hold the card in both hands when offering it, Chinese side facing the recipient.
  • Examine a business card before putting it on the table next to you or in a business card case.
  • Never write on someone's card unless so directed.



  • Unlike other chopstick cultures, Koreans use a spoon (traditionally, relatively flat, circular head with straight stick handle, unlike the Chinese soup spoon and similar to the Western spoon) for their rice and soup, and chopsticks for most other things at the table.
  • Do not pick up the rice or food bowls and eat from them. Unlike the rice eaten in many parts of China, Korean steamed rice can be easily picked up with chopsticks, although eating rice with a spoon is more acceptable. Link

Table Manners

  • At first, taste soup or kimchi juice, and then try rice or other dishes. Use spoon for rice and liquid foods, such as stews or soups; use chopsticks for other foods.
  • Do not make noises with spoon or chopsticks hitting the rice bowl or other food containers.
  • Do not hold the rice bowl or soup bowl in your hand during the meal.
  • Do not poke around the rice or side dishes with the spoon.
  • Do not pick out what you don't like or shake off seasonings.
  • Do not leave any trace of food on the spoon while eating.



Korean culture – Key concepts and values


The word Kibun has no literal translation in English, however, as a concept that permeates every facet of Korean life, it can be described in terms of pride, face, mood, or state of mind. In order to maintain a Korean’s sense of Kibun, particularly in a business context, one must show the proper respect and avoid causing loss of face. In a culture where social harmony is essential, the ability to identify another’s state of mind, often referred to as nunchi, is crucial to successful business ventures. For this reason, you must be aware of subtleties in communication, observing non-verbal and indirect cues that often suggest the true sense of what is being communicated.


Drawing from Confucian beliefs, the term inhwa signifies the Korean approach to harmony and is closely related to the name of the village “Inhwa”. As a collectivist society, consensus is an important element in promoting and maintaining harmony in Korea. To avoid disturbing inhwa, Koreans will often reply with a positive answer and show reluctance to give direct refusals. In Korean business culture this manifests itself in an innate sense of loyalty, employee obedience and courteous and formal behaviour.


Confucianism became a common philosophy in ancient Korea bringing about significant changes and exerting considerable influence on the Korean people. With its roots set deep in Korean culture, Confucianism continues to pervade the consciousness of many Koreans, shaping the Korean moral system, its national laws, and general way of life in Korea. The ubiquitous Confucian beliefs and values of contemporary Korean society highlight a plethora of social concerns, and include obligation towards others, respect for family, elders and authority, loyalty, honour, and filial piety.




Further Reading

Korean Fact file [PDF]

Negotiating Korean Style

Social Etiquette

The Korean View and Use of Contracts

List of related Korean Topics

Books from Amazon



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