Emerging Market Profiles: Living and Working in South Korea

By Pat DeDonato Nov 13, 2014
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Traditionally, South Korea has not been a frequent assignment destination but its popularity has increased in the last few years. Although a language barrier can exist, many international assignees have found Korean people to be open, warm and friendly.

Expats to South Korea find a country with an elevated standard of living at a reasonable price level. The cities are modern, with services and support for expats improving over the last 10 years. Some costs, such as food and housing, may prove more expensive than an assignee’s home country, but these expenses can be offset by lower transportation costs.

Housing

Most assignees to South Korea are surprised and pleased by the quality, selection and availability of housing in the country. Housing is readily available both in the capital, Seoul, and throughout the country. Not surprisingly, the larger Korean cities offer more housing selection than the smaller cities and rural areas.

There are a number of residential areas in Seoul, and where expats choose to live depends on where they work or where their children are schooled. Three types of housing are primarily available in the capital:

  • Villas: Usually low-rise structures (three to five stories) of newer construction with modern interiors, often including balconies and private gardens.
  • Luxury high-rises: Similar to villas in style, but involve high-rise structures (20 or more stories) with enclosed balconies. These offerings can include fitness centers and playgrounds for children.
  • Free-standing homes: Tend to be older and not as attractive as newer housing. There are fewer homes available for rental since many owners are building villas where free-standing homes previously stood. When this type of housing can be obtained, however, more space is available, usually with a garden.

Properties are usually not furnished. It is possible to negotiate a furnished dwelling for an increased rental fee. Typically, housing includes major appliances—refrigerator, washer/dryer and air conditioning.

Assignees can access the Internet to see what kind of housing is available in South Korea; however, the information available can often be incorrect or out-of-date. This is especially true regarding rental fees

Given that Internet information about rentals can be out-of-date, we advise that assignees use this type of search for information purposes only. Coordinating school acceptance and housing selection is a difficult balancing act. While ideally we would recommend that for families with school age children, a school place is secured before housing selection. This is not always possible and families may need to consider the possibility of making a housing decision without the benefit of confirmed enrollment at their primary school of choice.

Schooling

A number of options exist in South Korea for educating expatriate children. There is, however, limited space in the preferred schools, which means that assignees should carefully research what schools meet their needs and what availability exists. Expats should also apply early to these schools to ensure that their children are eligible for entry when needed. There is a very good selection of international schools in Seoul, including English, Chinese, Japanese, French and German schools. Several provide pre-kindergarten through high school programs. For the upper grades, many schools offer advanced placement and International Baccalaureate programs.

It is essential to plan early to secure a place at an international school. The assignee and family should take time to research the schools available and the admission criteria, submitting applications to preferred schools as soon as possible. We recommend that where possible families secure schooling before housing to minimize the journey time between home and school.

Transportation

Travel throughout South Korea is made easy through a network of expressways and highways, air travel options, a rail system that includes high-speed rail, and express bus services. In Seoul and other large cities such as Busan and Daegu, transportation options include an excellent public transportation network, which includes subways, buses and taxis. Some expat challenges may present themselves due to language considerations in taxis and on buses. The subway system however is signed in English and has an English website. Road signage is in both English and Korean, and for main roads, in Chinese as well.

Many expats—especially those from North America—choose to drive themselves rather than use public transportation. This is an easy transition, since South Korea uses left-hand drive.

Medical Services

Medical services in South Korea are considered to be very good. In fact, the country is increasingly recognized as an important medical tourism destination. Modern hospitals can be found in all major cities, including a number of international clinics that cater to the expat community.

Security

Day-to-day security is rarely a concern in South Korea. Although crime does exist in Seoul and the larger cities, it remains less than one would expect for a large metropolitan city. Almost all housing includes a security system, and in some cases, security guards. This, however, is typically provided more as a precaution rather than a necessity.

Shopping

In South Korea, expats can find almost everything they would need or want to buy, however, rarely are all items available in a single store, as is found in much of the world. Shopping options include:

  • Mega markets that provide a wide variety of household goods and food items, with the products being safe and fresh.
  • Recognizable chain stores (such as Costco) that provide an excellent selection of products—often reassuring to expats in South Korea.
  • Specialty food markets selling items from around the world.

Language

The country’s official language is Korean, spoken by the vast majority of the population. Korean has its own 24-character Hangul alphabet, although script commonly used is a mixture of Hangul and Chinese characters. Assignees should be mindful that Korean is a very precise language, with one misheard syllable completely changing the meaning of a sentence. Due to Western influences, younger generations and the business community typically understand English, Chinese and Japanese. Although younger generations do have understanding of English, Chinese and Japanese, assignees and their families relocating to South Korea should learn some spoken Korean which is appreciated by locals.

Cultural Issues

With their complex history, South Korean people are proud of their country’s progressive achievements and culture. People are patient, industrious and traditional and believe very strongly in the democratic process and freedom of choice. There is also emphasis on the importance of the group as opposed to the individual. This is demonstrated in the workplace by an employee’s obedience and loyalty to their employer. Social interactions are regulated by formalities, which focus on courtesy and proper behavior toward one another.

Doing Business in South Korea

Many professionals in South Korea have studied in the West, so are well-versed in Western ways, although in the workplace they will revert to traditional approaches.

Impatience and raising your voice is frowned upon in South Korea, as is showing too much emotion. Formality is expected and before attending initial meetings, assignees should make sure they are comfortable with local rituals, for example the process of business card exchanges. As in wider society, the workplace has a rigid hierarchy, with those with status and older generations commanding respect. However, middle management (especially in larger organizations) have quite a lot of power, so assignees should treat all colleagues with the same degree of respect to avoid offending anyone. Business relationships are as important as the business itself, with third-party introductions and referrals very helpful in setting a trusting climate. Like many other Asian nationalities, Koreans believe that contracts are a starting point rather than the final stage. Koreans have a sense of humor closer to that of Westerners than some other Asian cultures. Humor is important in bonding, although the assignee should wait until a relationship has been established before using humor in the workplace.

Pat DeDonato is senior vice president of supply chain management at Cartus, a provider of global relocation solutions serving half of the Fortune 50, in more than 165 countries, helping clients with their mobility, outsourcing, consulting, and language and intercultural training needs.

Copyright 2014 © Cartus. All rights reserved.

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