Expats moving to South Korea usually have many questions, often about what to expect from expat life. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about living in South Korea.
Is it necessary to learn Korean?
Fortunately for many expats, English is the language of business and commerce. It's also possible to get by in South Korea without knowing Korean. Despite this, South Koreans are proud of their language and history, and while it isn't vital to learn Korean, it 's useful in both navigating the country and understanding Korean culture. The Korean alphabet is easy to master and is especially helpful when reading signs and bus stops.
Is South Korea safe and what is the situation with North Korea?
South Korea is incredibly safe and crime statistics are low. Pickpocketing does occur in the larger cities but it's rare. Walking about and catching public transport late at night is considered safe, but this does not mean that one should forgo safety precautions.
The situation with North Korea is tense but unlikely to escalate. South Korea is committed to peace with its northern neighbours. Many older South Koreans have relatives in the North and speak confidently about reunification. Although there are occasional acts of aggression by North Korea toward the South Korean military, North Korea doesn’t pose a threat to expats and their daily lives.
Which is the best city to live in?
While Seoul is the most obvious choice for expats, South Korea has four main expat hubs: Seoul, Busan, Daejeon and Daegu. With just a three-hour train ride separating Seoul, in the north, and Busan, in the south, it's easy to explore all of these cities regardless of which one you choose to call home. Expats live all over the country, and getting around is very easy.
Seoul is the capital and contains the largest expat community. It also has a large number of international schools and a significant number of shops, restaurants and businesses catering to Westerners.
Daegu also has a fair number of international schools and a large expat community. It's the centre of the manufacturing industry (textiles, machinery and metals) in South Korea. Both Daegu and Seoul host US military bases and so they have large American expat communities. Although military bases make it easier to find Western goods and Western-orientated shops and restaurants, South Korean sentiment toward these bases isn't always positive.
Daejeon is just over an hour from Seoul and is something of a science hub. Daejeon focuses on technological innovation and has one of the fastest developing business communities in South Korea.
Busan is located in the south. It's a coastal city and said to be the most laid back of all the South Korean cities. However, Busan is also one of the busiest seaports in the world and is host to a number of international and local festivals. There are a number of schools and shopping districts catering to the expat community living in Busan.
What is ‘saving face’?
Reputation and the way others perceive a person are very important to South Koreans. In a work environment, this means that proper respect and social harmony must be shown at all times. South Koreans will often give subtle hints or clues about the true nature of a situation without approaching the matter head-on. In many cases, a higher value is placed on showing politeness than on other moral values like honesty. When dealing with Koreans it's important to take note of subtle hints and clues and it's equally important to remain polite in all business dealings. Striving to maintain a constant state of peace and equilibrium is highly respected in South Korean culture.
Are you an expat living in South Korea?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to South Korea. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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