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South Korea is one of Asia’s most visible success stories, having fast-tracked its economy from a Third World ranking in the 1950s to over a trillion dollars in GDP today. Modern as it may be, though, there is still a very strong vein of Confucian hierarchy running through all relationships. Don’t be surprised if business associates in Seoul ask direct questions about your age, position, marital status and education at your initial meeting. They’re not judging your qualifications, just looking for context—because in this town, everything starts with status.
Photo: Manchul Kim
LAY OF THE LAND
One of the most important assets you can have in Seoul is a mutual third party to facilitate introductions and act as an intermediary. Don’t have one in your LinkedIn network? The Canadian Consulate General can help. When it comes to hotels, stick to the tried and true. The closest you’ll get to boutique is the ultramodern W Hotel, a hotbed of power brokers and finance types. The relatively new Park Hyatt is conveniently located in the Gangnam financial district, and combines Zen-like accommodations with modern amenities including high-tech lighting, curtain controls and heated toilet seats.
MAKE YOUR PITCH
A night out with your Korean counterparts will often involve several rounds of extravagant eating and drinking, the latter of which is a particularly crucial part of doing business. Your first dinner will almost certainly be a traditional Korean feast, and one of the best can be found at SamcheongGak. Formerly reserved for government entertaining, everything about this place is designed to impress on a head-of-state level—from the authentic cuisine to the flawless service to the performances by local musicians and dancers.
SEAL THE DEAL
After dinner, it’s off to round 2: more drinking. The W Hotel’s futuristic WooBar features egg-shaped lounge chairs, a space-age DJ booth and, if you’re still feeling lively, interactive artwork. For a more laid-back affair, the Library at the Shilla Hotel is ideal for toasting a new partnership, thanks to its handsome dark wood walls, live jazz and excellent single-malt whiskies.
WHAT TO READ
In Michael Breen’s The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies, the veteran British journalist and former Korea correspondent for The Guardian and The Washington Times examines the complex culture and psyche of the Korean people. Though it was published in 2004, Breen’s witty anecdotes and personal observations, amassed over his 20-plus years living in Seoul, still ring true today.
“The bow is the traditional greeting in Korea. At the initial meeting, the person of lower status should bow first to the person of higher status and say, ‘man-na-suh pan-gop-sumnida,’ which means, ‘pleased to meet you.’ Allow your host to initiate a handshake, if he wishes.”
—Frank Lee is senior manager, corporate marketing at LG Electronics Canada.Based in Toronto, he has travelled to Seoul two to three times a year for 12 years.