One of the four Asian Tigers along with Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, the Republic of Korea is unique in that it's globally recognised as both a developed and an emerging market. The fourth-largest economy in Asia, it's home to a multitude of companies of international stature.
Although it's known for being one of the world’s largest exporters of cars, smartphones and ships, most expats working in South Korea do so as English teachers at one of its public schools or privately-run institutions known as hagwons.
Most expat job opportunities can be found in major cities and industrial zones such as Seoul, Busan and Incheon. While speaking Korean isn't required for teaching English, expats who are interested in higher-level corporate jobs will have an advantage if they can speak the local language as well as other Asian languages, particularly Mandarin or Japanese.
Most companies in South Korea offer good relocation packages to their employees. Benefits often include a furnished apartment or a generous housing allowance, flights home each year and a thirteenth cheque. Expats hired from overseas can generally expect airfare reimbursements but those hired from within the country may not get this benefit.
Job market in South Korea
With massive local brands such as Hyundai, Kia, LG and Samsung, it's easy to understand why such a small country has such a large economy. Aside from teaching English, large numbers of expats also work for the US Armed Forces, with a growing number of foreigners in high-level management, information and communications technology, and engineering.
Some of the largest employers in South Korea are in fields such as electronics, biotechnology, microchip production, shipbuilding, chemical production, steelmaking and automobile manufacturing. It also has a respectable financial services industry, with the Shinhan Financial Group especially prominent among these.
Working in rural South Korea
With stiff competition in the larger cities, many expats look for employment in the Korean countryside, especially in the teaching industry. This usually proves to be a completely different experience from, for instance, working in Seoul.
While the countryside is often more beautiful and less congested, amenities aren't as widely available and the language barrier tends to be more pronounced for non-Korean speakers.
Finding a job in South Korea
Most expats find a job before relocating. Finding employment through the many job portals available online is the most common way of doing this.
The high number of expats wanting to teach in Korea has resulted in a large number of recruitment companies that organise placements on behalf of schools. This means that expats may not be aware of exactly who they will be employed by, which may be an issue as some schools are more reputable than others.
Otherwise, expats can search through job listings in English language newspapers such as the Korea Herald and The Korea Times.
Expats should also be warned that work-permit regulations can and often do change, meaning that information sources should be carefully considered and compared to the latest official information. Finding a job from inside South Korea often becomes complicated, and expats should note that, while visa runs do happen, they are in fact illegal.
Work Culture in South Korea
Traditional social practices and etiquette still have an important role in South Korean business. Personal relationships, hierarchy and saving face are all major factors in the Korean work environment. If expatriate businesspeople want to be accepted by their colleagues, they need to display an awareness of these and a willingness to engage in the social codes that are at the foundation of business culture in South Korea.
While South Korea's place in the global business circuit has made changes to the way that business is generally conducted in the country, there is still an elaborate system of hierarchy that imbues business culture that is based on position, age, prestige and, to an extent, gender.
Koreans need to be able to trust the people they are doing business with and social relationships are directly linked to business success. For this reason, prospective business partners spend a lot of time getting to know each other. Dinner invitations, after dinner drinks and karaoke are also likely to feature at some point and should not be turned down.