Working in South Korea — How different is it from India?

Are you planning to explore South Korea for work? If your answer is in the affirmative, you might want to spend sometime understanding the rising Korean economy and its unique, traditional culture, to make your life a tad easier.

A couple of years ago, I had the rare opportunity to fulfill one of my most cherished dreams — work as a technical communicator for Samsung Electronics, one of the biggest conglomerates in South Korea. Back then, none of friends knew about the country, leave alone the people, the cost of living, or the culture there. With little help from folks, I turned to the Internet as my only saving grace. Not surprisingly, every bit of information I garnered from the web, helped me enormously with my decision to relocate.

The Initial Cultural Pangs

If you are an expatriate, you can get a firsthand view of how the Japanese occupation and the war with North Korea have left its footprints in the modern Korean culture. It just took me a week to realize how different the Korean culture was compared to India.

South Korea is known for its unique, contemporary culture. The traditional values in South Korea stem from the deep-rooted Confucian ideology.

Confucianism or "The School of the Scholars" revolves around social, political, philosophical, ethical, and religious thoughts that have influenced the culture and history of South Korea up to the 21st century.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Korea's corporate system.

Try addressing a Korean colleague of the same age group and higher designation with his name, and chances are you will be asked to prefix a title. If you do not use a title to address someone higher in the value chain, Koreans will consider you as disrespectful or discourteous.

Koreans lay a lot of emphasis on title; the higher you get in the value chain, the more likely people expect you to show respect in the organization. It would be fair to say that nowhere in Asia does the title hold more prominence than Korea.

This Korea, That Korea

Confucianism has introduced a structure of hierarchy, rather than matrix in most Korean organizations. Professionals are hired on merit in tandem with social considerations. School affiliation and age play a major role in most hiring decisions in Korea. Beyond doubt, Korea is not an egalitarian society, and that leaves little scope for individualism.

According to an in-depth analysis of the "2004 Time Use Survey," South Koreans spend more time at work than their western counterparts. I could not agree more! Most Korean managers will throw a fit each time a subordinate enters the premises late, even by a minute.

A typical workday in Korea entails that you should reach the premises at the crack of dawn and leave only after the sunset. Yes, Koreans are suckers for time, and it only gets worse for someone accustomed to flexible hours and comfortable timings. Most jobs vary from 30 to 40 hours weekly, but if you want to work overtime, you will always be encouraged to spend more time at the workplace.

Regular or Contractual Jobs

As far as work goes, most jobs for expatriates in South Korea are contractual jobs. If an employer in Korea decides to engage you, chances are, you will be required to produce copies of your passport, university degree, experience certificates, and original set of passport-sized photographs. You may also be required to visit the Embassy of India located in Seoul (http://www.indembassy.or.kr/). The employer will only issue a contract letter, after the issuance of an alien card by Korea Immigration Service, Ministry of Justice Republic of Korea (http://www.immigration.go.kr/HP/IMM80/index.do).

The Rise of Korean Economy

Hailed as the third largest economy in Asia, and the twelfth worldwide, South Korea has risen from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest. Presently, the country enjoys a national per capita gross national product of $25000+; a sharp contrast from $100 in 1963. The locals call it a "Miracle of the Han River," which is not surprising, given the radical transformation that took place over its six-decade long existence.

Seoul also happens to be the world's third most expensive big cities, according to a report by Mercer Consulting published in June this year. As a foreigner, you must check with your employer about the cost to company (CTC), tax deductions, and net savings after tax, even before you enter Korea.

Independence and Forth

Korea received its independence from Japan in 1945. Since then, the Korean economy has witnessed an exponential economic growth. In the past, the Korean economy largely depended on agriculture for sustenance, but restructuring measures implemented in the post-crisis Korean economy boasted the resurgence of heavy industries, and in turn, led to the formation of a sizable manufacturing sector. The rapid economic growth can also be attributed to major events that took place in South Korea, such as the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and the 2002 Soccer World Cup, a joint effort with Japan.

The Korean government has ably supported the IT revolution in the country, by granting public funds to companies like Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and LG Electronics. The government is focusing on making South Korea a leading IT nation worldwide. In just five years of promoting Korean IT products and services, both locally as well overseas, the country is en-route to becoming one of the Next Eleven economies in the world by 2025.

The Non-Korean Advantage

In general, Koreans are less cynical than others. This is not to say it is a perfect haven for job seekers across the world. Like anywhere else, you too can find terrible situations at workplace, like a bad boss, or a communication gap. On the other hand, entering Korea as a foreign worker can have distinct advantages that even some natives don't get to enjoy. You will be treated politely for one. Second, you will be provided accommodation (in most cases), plus two-way airfare to visit your country once or twice a year. Last but not least, your family can stay with you in Korea and the hiring company can take care of their moving expenses.

Korea might seem intimidating at first sight, but it is truly a place to grow. The country is reminiscent of an unimaginably rich culture, mirroring ancient and western values. Somewhere in between the tall skyscrapers, ravishing malls, and urban Starbucks, is a beautiful country that truly stands up to its name – the land of the morning calm.