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This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).
South Korea is a truly impressive country for expats and travellers. It is notable for being the world’s “most wired” nation as well as one of the most urbanized. Today an estimated 80%+ of the nation live in towns and cities, with Seoul being regarded as the second largest capital city in the world.
Interestingly South Korea also manages to maintain one of the lowest crime rates found anywhere, despite alcohol consumption levels that are among the highest in the world.
An economic super-power with one of the most profitable manufacturing industries to be found anywhere, South Korea is responsible for producing many of the brands we see every day; from Samsung and LG through to Kia and Hyundai.
Welcome to this most fascinating of countries…
South Korea is a largely mountainous country, with the majority of the population tucked into densely-populated cities. Outside of these urban areas, however, many wilderness areas remain with national parks and beautiful vistas aplenty.
The climate of South Korea is astonishingly diverse, with extremes of weather seen throughout the year. Winter can be bitterly cold, with temperatures falling to minus 20’C on a regular basis. Heavy snowfall in winter is not uncommon in such temperatures.
At the other end of the scale summer temperatures can reach 30’C during July and August, which is also where the majority of the annual rainfall is focused. Typhoons, while experienced less commonly than many other Asian countries, may be experienced at any time between July and November.
Winter is therefore best summarized as dry but cold, while summers can be oppressively hot, wet and humid. For obvious reasons this climate can therefore take some getting used to for newly-arrived expats.
Generally speaking, Spring and Autumn are considered the “best” seasons, where rainfall is minimal while temperatures are far more moderate. South Korea is famous for its stunning New England-style autumn colours, where the trees turn to a patchwork of yellows, oranges and reds. This therefore makes it the perfect season for a short-term visit.
Culturally, South Korea is notable for its homogeneity, with over 90% of the population classing themselves as native Korean, while also speaking the Korean language. Of course, as the economy has grown, an increasing number of foreigners have joined the ranks of workers here, often in the manufacturing or service industries.
Like many Asian countries, one of the most notable cultural traits is that of respect and the concept of “face”. The intention is to minimize any negativity towards others; insults, arguments and aggression are all regarded as negative traits.
In contrast, manners are treated with great reverence. It is perfectly normal to see native Koreans and expats alike bowing politely to one another when meeting, while other signs of respect such as time-keeping are highly regarded. The removal of shoes before entering private residences is also expected in many situations.
It is interesting to note that in Korea one beckons (a taxi or person) in a most un-Western style. Whereas it is typical in the USA or UK to extend the hand, fingers pointing upward, in Korea such a gesture is more typically reserved for animals. Instead in Korea one will observe people beckoning with a downturned palm.
Korea also benefits from a unique written language which the people are suitably proud of, which sets them apart from many close Asian neighbours. The downside of such a language is that it is unlike those encountered elsewhere – such as China – so can be challenging for expats to gain a grasp of.
Korean is considered quite a difficult language for foreigners to pick up – either verbally or in written form.
The Korean alphabet is known as “hangul” and has a most fascinating and impressive history. In the early days of the Korean empire most written communication took place using Chinese symbols. However the Chinese alphabet is famously difficult to learn, which meant that less-educated Koreans were often unable to read and write.
In addition, growing nationalism led to many scholars pointing out that the Chinese symbols failed to accurately reflect the thoughts and unique cultural identity of Korea.
In the mid 1400’s the highly-respected monarch King Sejong therefore set about creating a new alphabet. It aimed to simplify written Korean, making it accessible to people of all castes.
The language consists of 24 main letters, which are then grouped together into syllables. Even today, linguistic experts laud it as one of the most efficient of alphabets; truly an impressive feat.
While English-speakers will find they can often communicate in their native tongue, gaining a basic understanding of the Korean language can be highly beneficial. Experts note that many words are actually spelt the same way in Korean and English – if only you can learn to recognize the different symbols.
It is also worth mentioning that while there are official guidelines for displaying the Korean language using the Roman alphabet these are not always followed. Thus the same place may have an assortment of similar names; each meaning the same thing. Visitors should therefore be aware when reading maps or following signs that such names can chop and change. This can make navigating in Korea slightly more difficult than in many other countries.
As a highly developed nation, it should come as no surprise that South Korea boasts an efficient and modern transportation network covering everything from subways to trains and buses.
Most expats are likely to find themselves working in one of the major cities such as Seoul, where an extensive metro system exists. The frequency and speed of these underground trains, not to mention the proclivity for bi-lingual signs on the subways, means they represent an excellent form of transport.
Above ground, buses are the most common form of public transport and are considered fast, punctual and reasonably-priced. Taxis may be hired within urban areas, though are considered expensive on a global scale.
Note that many bus drivers and taxi owners speak little English, and may also struggle to understand the Roman alphabet. Consequently it can be wise to arm yourself with the name of your destination written in Korean, or to keep a local map to hand, in order to ensure you end up at your chosen destination.
For longer journeys South Korea’s highly-developed rail network can facilitate comfortable and rapid transit between towns and cities. Note that while booking tickets in advance is by no means required, train travel is so popular in Korea that seats can fill up quickly. Many experts therefore recommend pre-booking, especially for weekend travel, in order to guarantee a seat.
Be aware that while there are many miles of rail track on Korea, the network tends to focus on more populous urban areas. Visiting more rural areas is likely to be easier in your own private car.
Possession of an International Driving Permit facilitates legal driving in South Korea, though first-time visitors to Korea should take note of the congestion to be found in urban areas. This, combined with the difficulties (and expense) of parking means that most visitors are advised to avoid major cities when driving.
The healthcare system in South Korea is considered one of the very best in the world. Numerous hospitals offer modern and efficient levels of care, with the latest technology and medical knowledge. Indeed, it has been noted that survival rates for many cancers are significantly higher in South Korea than they are in the USA or UK.
Generally speaking South Korea operates under a co-payment system like so many other countries, where registered expats receive significantly discounted medical care and prescriptions. Resident expats are able to register for the National Health Insurance service by producing their Alien Registration Card (ARC).
Payments to the NHI system are typically made through your employer. The exact sums payable depend on your employee category, and are normally shared equally between employer contribution and employee payroll deduction.
Alongside the publically-funded institutions, a range of private facilities are available, many offering English-speaking doctors in “international clinics”.
It should be noted that many private clinics don’t accept delayed billing; you will need to cover the costs of your treatment before trying to claim this back.
For this reason many expats supplement their NHI contribution with a private health insurance policy. Such policies make private care easier and more affordable. Additionally, expat healthcare policies also typically offer a range of additional benefits, such as medical repatriation or the ability to fly out family members should you need long-term care. Travel Insurance is also a strong and reliable investment.
The currency in South Korea is known as the “Won”. Coins come in denominations as small as 1 Won, while notes may be found up to 50,000 Won. As a result, unlike many other countries where one has to deal with two different forms (dollars and cents, pounds and pence etc.) everything in South Korea is charged in whole Won. This can make getting to grips with the local currency rather easier.
Possibly the easiest way to gain access to Korean currency is through one of the many ATMs which proliferate here. Note, however, that a significant proportion of cash machines refuse to accept foreign debit or credit cards. If in doubt, look for those machines boasting a “foreign card” button or seek out machines at internationally-recognized banks.
Lastly it is worth mentioning the Korean initiative known as the “T-Money” card. Equivalent to London’s Oyster card, this card can be purchased and loaded with funds, then used to pay for public transport, not to mention smaller purchases in many coffee shops, news agents and the like. For expats planning to live in urban areas such a card can make life much easier and more efficient.
Let’s start with the good news; education in South Korea is a serious business, with great care taken over pupils. Results are recognized on a global level, with South Korean schools turning out some of the most educated students to be found anywhere. As a result expats with children can expect exceptional tuition and advancement which will be the envy of parents back home.
Now the bad news; all this achievement comes at a cost. This is mainly borne by the pupils themselves in terms of exceptionally-long hours. It is entirely normal for a standard 8 hour school day to be supplemented with many hours of homework and/or additional tuition. It is not unheard of for South Korean pupils to study for an additional 4+ hours per day in order to keep up with academic expectations.
Education in Korea is therefore a full-time occupation, and one which children from more casual countries may struggle to adjust to.
Expat pupils may attend local schools if desirable, bearing in mind the potential language barrier. Here 12 years of standard schooling should be expected, often in schools which strictly segregate boys from girls.
An increasingly popular option among expat parents is the opportunity to home-school children. While such a practise is not permitted for Korean-born children, it is perfectly acceptable for expat children. Such an activity requires considerable parental input, but can reduce the otherwise onerous workload and eliminate issues with understanding the Korean language.
Alternatively an impressive number of private and international schools are to be found, wherein pupils can study for globally-recognized qualifications. Note, however, that as elsewhere in the world tuition fees at such schools can be painful. Expats are therefore advised to try and factor private education fees into expat package discussions.
The traditional South Korean diet is tremendously healthy, comprising a base of rice, noodles or tofu supplemented with a range of meats and vegetables. Possibly the best-known South Korean dish is “kimchi” – a dish consisting of fermented cabbage.
What makes South Korean dishes notable is that they are typically accompanied by a range of additional side-dishes known locally as “banchan”. The number and range of such dishes can vary enormously, with basic meals offering just a handful of options, while expensive meals offering a dizzying array of additional taste experiences.
Typically South Korean food can be quite hot and spicy. A popular addition to many meals, for example, is a hot chilli paste known as “gochujang”. Visitors with more sensitive palettes may therefore want to sample dishes carefully in order to assess the degree of heat each offers rather than diving headlong into their meal.
As an increasingly international destination, of course, South Korea offers far more choice than simply traditional fare. From fine dining establishments to well-known fast food ventures it is easier than ever to find an eating establishment to suite your unique tastes.
In terms of beverages, South Koreans are passionate about their green tea and freshly-brewed coffee. As a result coffee shops are to be found all over urban areas. Koreans are also known to be some of the heaviest drinkers in the world, with the national drink “soju” being particularly popular. As it is considered impolite to refuse a drink in Korea, especially when offered by someone more senior, diplomacy may be required on occasion to limit one’s intake.
South Korea is noted for having a tremendously low crime rate which helps to make it an appealing travel or expat destination. While a small amount of petty crime exists as anywhere else, taking the same basic precautions you would in your home country should help you avoid any minor issues. If you are unfortunate enough to become a victim of crime the Korean police force can be summoned by dialling 112. Connect to the ambulance service on 119.
Possibly the greatest danger in Korea is the so-called “Yellow Dust” – airborne pollution as a result of Korea’s manufacturing plants combined with Chinese pollution swept across the ocean. While periods of high pollution are uncommon, when they do occur visitors are advised to stay indoors or wear a mask if venturing out. Those with respiratory problems such as asthma should take particular care at such times.
Lastly be aware that Korea can be subject to typhoons. While these are typically far less frequent than in other countries in the area, they can represent a significant loss to life. Keep abreast of local media while in the country – especially during the summer months – in order to stay alert to any potential hazards heading in your direction.
South Korea isn’t yet a headline destination for visitors from Europe or America. This is a shame as the country has much to offer in terms of culture, history and scenery. Indeed, it is the fact that South Korea is so different to even its nearby neighbours which can make it such a fascinating destination to explore.
Here are some of our suggestions for what to see on your trip to South Korea…
Built in 1395, this mesmerizing palace served as the main royal residence for hundreds of years before being gutted by fire. Now restored, it represents one of South Korea’s most popular tourist destinations. Come and stroll around the scenic grounds, before making your way into the National Palace Museum to learn more about the history of South Korea.
This UNESCO-listed national park may only be 62 square miles in size, but Seoraksan manages to pack an awful lot into its protected borders. There are a bewildering number of different plant species to be found here, numbering over 1000 at last count. Even greater numbers of animals are to be found here including bears and otters.
From soaring mountain peaks to immense waterfalls, all accessible by well-trodden trails or even by cable-car, Seoraksan is the perfect antidote to the daily mayhem of Seoul.
This underground tunnel stretches for almost a mile at a depth of 73 metres below ground. Originally built by North Korea in order to stage a surprise attack on Seoul, the tunnel travels beneath the agreed demilitarized zone and was only discovered by South Korea in 1978, a short while before its estimated completion date.
Today parts of the tunnel are open to the public as a tourist site. For the ultimate experience book a guided tour in order to learn all about this, and the estimated 20 other tunnels that North Korea has built over the years.
This crater, originally formed by sub-aqua volcanic activity, now rises over 90 metres into the sky and measures in at 600 metres across. The summit is rich in plant life, with a number of nationally rare plant species to be found here.
However the best reason to climb the paths to the summit is for the most memorable sunrise of your life (hence it’s colloquial name). Note that the climb can take some time, and can be busy at peak season, so be prepared to start out early if you’re to get the very best view.
Have you ever wondered how lava gets from deep inside the planet to bursting through the crust? The answer is through “lava tubes” which are literally melted or burst through rock. Manjang represents one of the best opportunities in the world to explore one of these subterranean tubes. Now empty, and resembling a long cave, this 13km long tube is now open to the public.
This UNESCO listed site not only allows you to experience a truly unique subterranean environment but also to see all manner of unique wildlife and rock formations which are to be found here.
For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.
Of course, if you’re planning on travelling abroad please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.
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