Doing Business in South Korea

Doing business in South Korea | BCBusiness
Modern and traditional meet in downtown Seoul.

Canada is poised to benefit from a newly minted free trade agreement with the Asian star

Business ties between Canada and South Korea have been boosted in recent years by that country’s billion-dollar investments in Canadian infrastructure, commercial interests in B.C. natural gas and a sizeable export market for Canadian lumber. For an enterprise with the smarts to overcome the language and culture barriers, there are ample opportunities in the Korean market.

Partner Up

“The most effective and efficient way is through a joint venture with a local company that is in your industry, that is in the business you are in, with similar goals in the Korean market,” says John Kim, partner at Faskin Martineau DuMoulin LLP, and president of the Canada Korea Business Association. “Sometimes the relationship considerations may override the short-term business considerations, because the logic is that the relationship is more important to the long-term business goals,” says Kim. And it’s important to get the relationship right the first time. Korea’s legal system is lengthy, cumbersome and expensive and courts have been known to bar foreigners from leaving the country during a dispute.

Culture Rules

“Korean culture impacts business in too many ways to count,” says Mike Weisbart, a journalist who lives and works in Seoul and is a board member of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Korea. Age, rank and hierarchy play an important role in Korean business, and certain behaviours common in the West won’t fly there. Never be late; 20 minutes early is the norm, says Weisbart. And don’t even think about cold-calling.

Trade Talks

Last March the federal government signed a free trade agreement with South Korea that is more extensive in the tariffs removed, sectors opened to investment and labour mobility and intellectual property than NAFTA. “No one knows the benefits of the agreement at this stage,” says Kim, although he believes it will at least increase mutual awareness between Korean and Canadian businesses. “We know that there is a market there, but that’s different from having processes in place to open up business.”