An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

South Korea

Executive Summary

The Republic of Korea (ROK) is an attractive investment destination for foreign investors due to its political stability, public safety, world-class logistics and information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure, highly-educated and skilled workforce, and dynamic private sector.  Following market liberalization measures in the 1990s, foreign portfolio investment has grown steadily, exceeding 37 percent of the Korea Composite Stock Price Index’s (KOSPI) total market capitalization as of March 2020.  The services sector offers new and promising opportunities for the next wave of foreign direct investment (FDI).  However, studies conducted by the Korean International Trade Association and others have shown that the ROK underperforms in attracting FDI relative to the size and sophistication of its economy due to its burdensome regulatory environment.

Korea’s FDI shortfall is due in part to its complicated, opaque, and country-unique regulatory framework.  The ROK’s manufacturing model is being overtaken by low-cost producers, most notably China, which threatens the country’s ability to maintain competitiveness.  This is especially critical with the advent of disruptive technologies such as fifth generation (5G) mobile communications that enable smart manufacturing, autonomous vehicles, and the Internet of Things – innovative technologies that could be hampered by restrictive regulations which do not comport with global standards.  The ROK government (ROKG) has taken some steps to address this over the last decade, notably with the establishment of a Foreign Investment Ombudsman to address concerns of foreign investors.  In 2019, the ROKG created a “regulatory sandbox” program to spur creation of new products in the financial services, energy, and tech sectors.  Industry observers recommend additional process steps to improve the investment climate, including conducting Regulatory Impact Analyses and soliciting substantive feedback from a broad range of stakeholders, including foreign investors.

The revised U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) entered into force January 1, 2019, and continues to allow U.S. investors broad access to the ROK market.  Types of investment protected under KORUS include equity, debt, concessions, and intellectual property rights.  With a few exceptions, U.S. investors are treated the same as ROK investors (and third-country investors) in the establishment, acquisition, and operation of investments in the ROK.  Investors may elect to bring claims against the government for alleged investment breaches under a transparent international arbitration mechanism.  The U.S. government continues to work closely with the ROKG to ensure full implementation of KORUS investment provisions, especially in regard to the right to mount an adequate defense in competition proceedings.

The ROK was the second global hotspot after China for the global COVID-19 pandemic, with the nation’s first case discovered on January 20, 2020 and daily new cases topping 900 by the end of February.  The ROKG responded aggressively and immediately, employing its so-called “TRUST” strategy, prioritizing transparency, robust screening and quarantine, unique but universally applicable testing, and strict control and treatment.  The success of this approach allowed Korea to cut daily new cases down to single digits by late April without an economic shutdown.  The ROKG was also aggressive in pursuing economic stimulus, devoting more than USD 100 billion to such efforts in the first quarter of 2020.  As a result, the Korean domestic economy fared better than most of its OECD peers in the early part of the year.  The risk of a COVID resurgence still looms, and external shocks also pose a significant threat to Korea’s export-oriented economy looking forward.  If the ROKG succeeds in augmenting its stimulus spending with regulatory reform efforts under discussion in spring of 2020, the nation’s investment climate could well benefit in the long run.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 39 of 180 https://www.transparency.org/cpi2019
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2019 5 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2019 11 of 126 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2018 $41,532 https://www.selectusa.gov/servlet/
servlet.FileDownload?file=015t0000000LKNs
World Bank GNI per capita 2018 $30,600 http://data.worldbank.org/
indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Toward Foreign Direct Investment

The ROK government’s approach toward FDI is positive, and senior policymakers recognize the value of foreign investment.  In a March 2019 meeting, President Moon Jae-in equated the foreign business community’s success “with the Korean economy’s progress.”  The current administration has offered incentives to attract foreign companies bringing needed technology and investment in its ongoing efforts to improve the ROK domestic manufacturing supply base.  Foreign investors in the ROK still face numerous hurdles, however, including insufficient regulatory transparency, inconsistent interpretation of regulations, unanticipated regulatory revisions, underdeveloped corporate governance structures, an inflexible labor framework, burdensome Korea-unique consumer protection measures, and market domination by large conglomerates, known as chaebol.

The 1998 Foreign Investment Promotion Act (FIPA) is the basic law pertaining to foreign investment in the ROK.  FIPA and related regulations categorize business activities as open, conditionally or partly restricted, or closed to foreign investment.  FIPA features include:

  • Simplified procedures, including those for FDI notification and registration;
  • Expanded tax incentives for high-technology investments;
  • Reduced rental fees and lengthened lease durations for government land (including local government land);
  • Increased central government support for local FDI incentives;
  • Establishment of “Invest KOREA,” a one-stop investment promotion center within the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) to assist foreign investors; and
  • Establishment of a Foreign Investment Ombudsman to assist foreign investors.

The ROK National Assembly website provides a list of laws pertaining to foreigners, including FIPA, in English (http://korea.assembly.go.kr/res/low_03_list.jsp?boardid=1000000037 ).

The Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) actively facilitates foreign investment through its Invest Korea office (on the web at http://m.investkorea.org/m/index.do).  For investments exceeding 100 million won (about USD 88,000), KOTRA assists in establishing a domestically-incorporated foreign-invested company.  KOTRA and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE) organize a yearly Foreign Investment Week to attract investment to South Korea.  In March 2019, ROK President Moon Jae-in hosted AMCHAM Korea and more than 60 foreign businesses and associations at the Blue House and pledged that Korea would continue to welcome and incentivize foreign investment.  During 2019, ROKG leaders like Trade Minister Yoo Myung Hee, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, and former Financial Services Commission Chairman Choi Jong-ku  also met with AMCHAM Korea to promote FDI.  KOTRA also recruits FDI by participating in overseas events such as the March 2019 “South by Southwest Festival” in Austin, Texas, to attract U.S. startups and investors.  The ROK’s key official responsible for FDI promotion and retention is the Foreign Investment Ombudsman.  The position is commissioned by the President and heads a grievance resolution body that: collects and analyzes information concerning problems foreign firms experience; requests cooperation from and recommends implementation of reforms to relevant administrative agencies; proposes new policies to improve the foreign investment promotion system; and carries out other necessary tasks to assist investor companies.  More information on the Ombudsman can be found at http://ombudsman.kotra.or.kr/eng/index.do .

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreign and domestic private entities can establish and own business enterprises and engage in almost all forms of remunerative activity.  The number of industrial sectors open to foreign investors is well above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average, according to MOTIE.  However, restrictions on foreign ownership remain for 30 industrial sectors, including three that are closed to foreign investment (see below).  Under the KORUS FTA, South Korea treats U.S. companies like domestic entities in select sectors, including broadcasting and telecommunications.  Relevant ministries must approve investments in conditionally or partially restricted sectors.  Most applications are processed within five days; cases that require consultation with more than one ministry can take 25 days or longer.  The ROK’s procurement processes comply with the World Trade Organization (WTO) Government Procurement Agreement, but some implementation problems remain.

The following is a list of restricted sectors for foreign investment.  Figures in parentheses generally denote the Korean Industrial Classification Code, while those for the air transport industries are based on the Civil Aeronautics Laws:

Completely Closed

  •  Nuclear power generation (35111)
  •  Radio broadcasting (60100)
  •  Television broadcasting (60210)

Restricted Sectors (no more than 25 percent foreign equity)

  •  News agency activities (63910)

Restricted Sectors (less than 30 percent foreign equity)

  • Newspaper publication, daily (58121)  (Note: Other newspapers with the same industry code 58121 are restricted to less than 50 percent foreign equity)

Restricted Sectors (no more than 30 percent foreign equity)

  • Hydroelectric power generation (35112)
  • Thermal power generation (35113)
  • Solar power generation (35114)
  • Other power generation (35119)

Restricted Sectors (no more than 49 percent foreign equity)

  • Newspaper publication, non-daily (58121)  (Note: Daily newspapers with the same industry code 58121 are restricted to less than 30 percent foreign equity)
  • Program distribution (60221)
  • Cable networks (60222)
  • Satellite and other broadcasting (60229)
  • Wired telephone and other telecommunications (61210)
  • Mobile telephone and other telecommunications (61220)
  • Other telecommunications (61299)

Restricted Sectors (no more than 50 percent foreign equity)

  • Farming of beef cattle (01212)
  • Transmission/distribution of electricity (35120)
  • Wholesale of meat (46313)
  • Coastal water passenger transport (50121)
  • Coastal water freight transport (50122)
  • International air transport (51)
  • Domestic air transport (51)
  • Small air transport (51)
  • Publishing of magazines and periodicals (58122)

Open but Regulated under Relevant Laws

  • Growing of cereal crops and other food crops, except rice and barley (01110)
  • Other inorganic chemistry production, except fuel for nuclear power generation (20129)
  • Other nonferrous metals refining, smelting, and alloying (24219)
  • Domestic commercial banking, except special banking area (64121)
  • Radioactive waste collection, transportation, and disposal, except radioactive waste management (38240)

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The WTO conducted its seventh Trade Policy Review of the ROK in October 2016.  The Review does not contain any explicit policy recommendations.  It can be found at https://docs.wto.org/dol2fe/Pages/FE_Search/FE_S_S009-DP.aspx?language=E&CatalogueIdList=233680,233681,230967,230984,94925,104614,89233,66927,82162,84639&CurrentCatalogueIdIndex=1&FullTextHash=&HasEnglishRecord=True&HasFrenchRecord=True&HasSpanishRecord=True .  The ROK has not undergone investment policy reviews or received policy recommendations from the OECD or United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) within the past three years.

Business Facilitation

Registering a business remains a complex process that varies according to the type of business being established and requires interaction with KOTRA, court registries, and tax offices.  Foreign corporations can enter the market by establishing a local corporation, local branch, or liaison office.  The establishment of local corporations by a foreign individual or corporation is regulated by FIPA and the Commercial Act; the latter recognizes five types of companies, of which stock companies with multiple shareholders are the most common.  Although registration can be filed online, there is no centralized online location to complete the process.  For small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and micro-enterprises, the online business registration process takes approximately three to four days and is completed through Korean language websites.  Registrations can be completed via the Smart Biz website, https://www.startbiz.go.kr/.  The UN’s Global Enterprise Registration (GER), which evaluates whether a country’s online registration process is clear and complete, awarded Smart Biz 2.5 of 10 possible points and suggested improvements in registering limited liability companies.  The Invest Korea information portal received 2 of 10 points.  The mandate of the Korea Commission for Corporate Partnership (http://www.winwingrowth.or.kr/ ) and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (http://www.mogef.go.kr/ ) includes creating a better business environment for minorities and women, but the agencies do not offer any direct support program for those groups.  Some local governments provide guaranteed bank loans for women or the disabled, but a lack of data on those programs makes the impact difficult to measure.

Outward Investment

The ROK does not have any restrictions on outward investment.  While Korea’s globally competitive firms complete their investment procedures in-house, the ROK has several offices to assist small business and middle-market firms.

  • KOTRA has an Outbound Investment Support Office that provides counseling to ROK firms and holds regular investment information sessions.
  • The ASEAN-Korea Centre, which is primarily ROKG-funded, provides counseling and matchmaking support to Korean SMEs interested in investing in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region.
  • The Defense Acquisition Program Administration in 2019 opened an office to advise Korean SME defense firms on exporting unrestricted defense articles.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Property rights and interests are enforced under the Civil Act.  Mortgages and liens exist, and the ROK’s recording system is reliable. The Alien Land Acquisition Act (amended in 1998) extends to non-resident foreigners and foreign corporations the same rights as Koreans in land purchase and use.  The Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) Act supports indirect investments in real estate and restructuring of corporations.  The REIT Act allows investors to invest funds through an asset management company and in real property such as office buildings, business parks, shopping malls, hotels, and serviced apartments.  Property interests are enforced, and there is a reliable system for registering mortgages and liens, managed by the courts.  Legally-purchased property cannot revert to other owners, but squatters may have very limited rights in special situations, such as a right to cultivation of unoccupied land.

Intellectual Property Rights

Four ROK ministries share primary responsibility for protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPR): the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST); the Korea Copyright Protection Agency (KCOPA); the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO); and the Korea Customs Service (KCS).  Since being removed from USTR’sSpecial 301 Watch List in 2009, the ROK has become a regional leader in terms of legal framework and enforcement for IPR.  Some industry sources have reported a loss of momentum in preventing the sale of physical counterfeit goods, but online markets are the subject of robust enforcement efforts.

Industry sources have expressed overall satisfaction with the ROK legal framework, calling Korea a “model Asian nation” for IPR protection.  In July 2019, an amendment to the Unfair Competition Prevention and Trade Secret Protection Act entered into force with the following broad effects: reduced requirements for secrecy on the part of information owners; broadened scope of what constitutes “theft;” and increased statutory punishments for trade secret theft.  KIPO suspended 7,662 online transactions on the year, up from 6,181 cases in 2018; and closed 340 illegal online shopping malls in 2019, up from 225 in 2018.  KIPO also introduced a new system in April 2019 that rewards private citizens for reporting counterfeit goods for sale online.  KCS handled 273 border enforcement cases for goods worth an estimated USD 600 million in 2019, annual increases of 56 percent and 26 percent, respectively.  Trademark enforcement accounted for 89 percent of these cases, which were mostly for counterfeit watches, apparel and other consumer goods.  KCS focused its enforcement efforts on online overseas direct purchases.  KCS also promoted IPR protection by posting public service announcements on public transportation and via social media.

Some industry sources have expressed concern that the ROK’s low prosecution-to-indictment ratio in IPR violation cases, light sentencing standards, and low punitive damage assessments are insufficient to deter lucrative infringement activity.  Although MCST Judicial Police recommended 762 IPR cases for legal action to the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) in 2019, a 13 percent increase on the previous year, the total number of people indicted by the SPO for Copyright Act violations dropped from 18,392 in 2018 to 15,831 in 2019.  ROKG officials ascribed these divergent trends to the high threshold for prosecutors to take on an IPR case.

Stakeholders continue to express concern about Korea’s pharmaceutical reimbursement policy, specifically that it is not conducted in a fair, transparent, and nondiscriminatory manner that fully recognizes the value of innovation.

The ROK was not listed in the 2020 Special 301 Report, nor were any ROK-based phsyical or online markets included in the 2019 Notorious Markets List.  For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local intellectual property offices, please see World Intellectual Property Organization’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The Korea Exchange (KRX) is comprised of a stock exchange, futures market, and stock market following a 2005 merger of the Korea Stock Exchange, Korea Futures Exchange, and Korean Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (KOSDAQ) stock market.  It is tracked by the Korea Composite Stock Price Index (KOSPI) and has an effective regulatory system that encourages portfolio investment.  There is sufficient liquidity in the market to enter and exit sizeable positions.  In 2019, over 2,000 companies were listed with a combined market capitalization of USD 1.4 trillion.  The ROK government uses various incentives, such as tax breaks, to facilitate the free flow of financial resources into the product and factor markets.  The ROK does not restrict payments and transfers for current international transactions, in accordance with the general obligations of member states under International Monetary Fund (IMF) Article VIII.  Credit is allocated on market terms.  The private sector has access to a variety of credit instruments, but non-resident foreigners are unable to borrow money in South Korean won, although they can issue bonds in local currency.  Foreign portfolio investors enjoy open access to the ROK stock market.  Aggregate foreign investment ceilings were abolished in 1998, and foreign investors owned 37.6 percent of benchmark KOSPI stocks and 10.1 percent of the KOSDAQ at the end of 2019.  Foreign portfolio investment decreased slightly over the past year, reflecting slowing global growth.

Money and Banking System

Financial sector reforms enacted to increase transparency and promote investor confidence are often cited as one reason for the ROK’s rapid rebound from the 2008 global financial crisis.  These reforms aimed to increase transparency and investor confidence and generally purge the sector of moral hazard.  Since 1998, the ROK government has recapitalized its banks and non-bank financial institutions, closed or merged weak financial institutions, resolved many non-performing assets, introduced internationally-accepted risk assessment methods and accounting standards for banks, forced depositors and investors to assume appropriate levels of risk, and taken steps to help end the policy-directed lending of the past.  These reforms addressed the weak supervision and poor lending practices in the South Korean banking system that helped cause and exacerbate the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.  The ROK banking sector is healthy overall, with a low non-performing loan ratio of 0.77 percent at the end of 2019, dropping 0.2 percent from the prior year.  Korean commercial banks held more than USD 3.3 trillion in total assets at the end of 2019.  Foreign commercial banks or branches can establish local operations, which would be subject to oversight by ROK financial regulators.  The ROK has not lost any correspondent banking relationships in the past three years, nor are any relationships in jeopardy.  There are no restrictions on a foreigner’s ability to establish a bank account in Korea.  The Bank of Korea (BOK) is the central bank.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

In categories open to investment, foreign exchange banks must be notified in advance of applications for foreign investment.  All ROK banks, including branches of foreign banks, are permitted to deal in foreign exchange.  In effect, these notifications are pro forma, and approval can be processed within three hours.  Applications may be denied only on specific grounds, including national security, public order and morals, international security obligations, and health and environmental concerns.  Exceptions to the advance notification approval system exist for project categories subject to joint-venture requirements and certain projects in the distribution sector.  According to the Foreign Exchange Transaction Act (FETA), transactions that could harm international peace or public order, such as money laundering and gambling, require additional monitoring or screening.  Three specific types of transactions are restricted:

  • Non-residents are not permitted to buy won-denominated hedge funds, including forward currency contracts;
  • The Financial Services Commission will not permit foreign currency borrowing by “non-viable” domestic firms; and
  • The ROK government will monitor and ensure that South Korean firms that have extended credit to foreign borrowers collect their debts. The ROK government has retained the authority to re-impose restrictions in the case of severe economic or financial emergency.

Funds associated with any form of investment can be freely converted into any world currency.  However, there might be some cost or technical problems in case of conversion into lesser used currencies, due to the relatively small foreign exchange market in the country.  In 2019, 69.4 percent of spot transactions in the market were between the U.S. dollar and Korean won, while daily transaction (spot and future) was equal to USD 55.8 billion, up 0.5 percent from the previous year.  Exchange rates are generally determined by the market.  The U.S. Department of the Treasury assessed that ROK authorities historically had intervened on both sides of the currency market, with a net impact that resisted won appreciation as demonstrated by a sustained rise in reserves and net forward position.  In its January 2020 semiannual report to Congress, Treasury assessed that in 2018 and the first half of 2019, ROKG authorities on balance intervened to support the won through small net sales of foreign exchange.  Treasury welcomed the ROK’s commitment to increased transparency, while recommending that Korean authorities limit currency intervention to exceptional circumstances.  The BOK’s most recent intervention report, released in March 2020 and covering 4Q 2019, showed zero net intervention.

Remittance Policies

The right to remit profits is granted at the time of original investment approval.  Banks control the now pro forma approval process for FETA-defined open sectors.  For conditionally or partially restricted investments (as defined by the FETA), the relevant ministry must provide approval for both investment and remittance.  When foreign investment royalties or other payments are proposed as part of a technology licensing agreement, the agreement and the projected stream of royalties must be approved by either a bank or MOEF.  Approval is virtually automatic.  An investor wishing to enact a remittance must present an audited financial statement to a bank to substantiate the payment.  The ROK routinely permits the repatriation of funds but reserves the right to limit capital outflows in exceptional circumstances, such as situations when uncontrolled outflows might harm the balance of payments, cause excessive fluctuations in interest or exchange rates, or threaten the stability of domestic financial markets.  To withdraw capital, a stock valuation report issued by a recognized securities company or the ROK appraisal board also must be presented.  Foreign companies seeking to remit funds from investments in restricted sectors must first seek ministerial and bank approval, after demonstrating the legal source of the funds and proving that relevant taxes have been paid.  There are no time limitations on remittances.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

The Korea Investment Corporation (KIC) is a wholly government-owned sovereign wealth fund established in July 2005 under the KIC Act.  KIC’s steering committee is comprised of KIC’s Chief Executive Officer, the Minister of Economy and Finance, the Bank of Korea (BOK) Governor, and six private sector members appointed by the ROK President.  KIC is on the Public Institutions Management Act (PIMA) list.  It is mandated to manage assets entrusted by the ROK government and central bank and generally adopts a passive role as a portfolio investor.  Its assets under management stood at USD 131.6 billion at the end of 2018.  KIC is required by law to publish an annual report, submit its books to the steering committee for review, and follow all domestic accounting standards and rules.  It follows the Santiago Principles and participates in the IMF-hosted International Working Group on Sovereign Wealth Funds.  The KIC does not invest in domestic assets, aside from a one-time USD 23 million investment into a domestic real estate fund in January 2015.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Many ROK state-owned enterprises (SOEs) continue to exert significant control over segments of the economy.  There are 36 SOEs active in the energy, real estate, and infrastructure (railroad, highway construction) sectors.  The legal system has traditionally ensured a role for SOEs as sectoral leaders, but in recent years, the ROK has sought to attract more private participation in the real estate and construction sectors.  SOEs are generally subject to the same regulations and tax policies as private sector competitors and do not have preferential access to government contracts, resources, or financing.  The ROK is party to the WTO Government Procurement Agreement; a list of SOEs subject to WTO government procurement provisions is available in annex three of the ROK’s agreement.  The state-owned Korea Land and Housing Corporation is given preference in developing state-owned real estate projects, notably housing.  The court system functions independently from the government and gives equal treatment to SOEs and private enterprises.  The ROK government does not provide official market share data for SOEs.  It requires each entity to disclose financial statements, the number of employees, and average compensation figures.  The PIMA gives authority to MOEF to administer control of many SOEs, mainly focusing on administrative and human resource management.  However, there is no singular government entity that exercises ownership rights over SOEs.  SOEs subject to PIMA are required to report to a line minister; the President or line ministers appoint CEOs or directors, often from among senior government officials.  SOEs are explicitly obligated to consult with government officials on their budget, compensation, and key management decisions (e.g., pricing policy for energy and public utilities).  For other issues, the government officials informally require the SOEs to either consult with them before making decisions or report ex post facto.  Market analysts generally regard SOEs as a part of the government or entities fully guaranteed by the government, with some exceptions: SOEs listed on local security markets, such as the Industrial Bank of Korea and Korea Electric Power Corporation, are regarded as semi-private firms.  The ROK adheres to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and reports significant changes in the regulatory framework for SOEs to the OECD.  A list of South Korean SOEs is available on this Korean-language website: http://www.alio.go.kr/home.html .  The ROK government officially does not give any non-market based advantage to SOEs competing in the domestic market.  Although the state-owned Korea Development Bank does appear to enjoy lower financing costs because of the government’s guarantee, it does not  have a major effect on U.S. retail banks operating in Korea.

Privatization Program

Privatization of government-owned assets historically faced protests by labor unions and professional associations and a lack of interested buyers in some sectors.  No state-owned enterprises were privatized between 2002 and November 2016.  In December 2016, the ROK sold part of its stake in Woori Bank, recouping USD 2.07 billion, and plans to sell its remaining 21.4 percent stake at an undetermined future date.  Given the current administration’s pro-labor stance, most analysts do not expect significant movement with regard to privatization in the near future.  Foreign investors may participate in privatization programs if they comply with ownership restrictions stipulated for the 30 industrial sectors indicated in this report, Section 1: Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment.  These programs have a public bidding process that is clear, non-discriminatory, and transparent.  The authority in charge or a delegated private lead manager provides the relevant information.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

Awareness of the economic and social value of responsible business conduct and corporate social responsibility (CSR) continues to grow in the ROK.  The Korea Corporate Governance Service, founded in 2002 by entities including the Korea Exchange and the Korea Listed Companies Association, encourages companies to voluntarily improve their corporate governance practices.  Since 2011, its annual assessments have included guidelines and CSR reviews including of corporate environmental responsibility.  The United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) Network Korea, established in 2007, actively promotes corporate involvement in the UN Public Private Partnership for Sustainable Development Goals 2016-2030.  UNGC is focused on human rights, anti-corruption, labor standards, and the environment, with 231 ROK companies listed as UNGC members as of April 2020.  Government-supported subsidies and tax reductions for social enterprises have contributed to an increase in the number of organizations tackling social issues related to unemployment, the environment, and low-income populations.  The ROKG promotes the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises online, via seminars, and by publishing and distributing promotional materials.  To enhance implementation, the ROKG established a National Action Plan overseen by the Ministry of Justice’s International Human Rights Division, established a National Contact Point (NCP), and designated the Korea Commercial Arbitration Board (KCAB) as the NCP Secretariat.  The KCAB handled 393 cases in 2018 with a total claim amount over USD 670 million.

The National Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL), the Korea Consumer Agency, and the Ministry of Environment impartially enforce ROK laws in the fields of human rights, labor, consumer protection, and the environment.  Shareholders are protected by laws such as the Act on an External Audit of Corporations under the jurisdiction of the Financial Services Commission, the Act on Monopoly Regulation and Fair Trade under the jurisdiction of the KFTC, and the Commercial Act under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice.  The Commercial Act is currently under revision to better represent minority shareholders and enhance the value of shareholders.  Other organizations involved in responsible business conduct include the ROK office of the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD, the Korea Human Rights Foundation, and the Korean House for International Society.  The Korea Sustainability Investing Forum (KOSIF) was established in 2007 and is dedicated to promoting and expanding socially responsible investment and CSR.  Through regular fora, seminars, and publications, KOSIF provides educational opportunities, conducts research to establish a culture of socially responsible investment in the ROK, and supports relevant legislative processes.  It actively engages with National Assembly members and stakeholders to influence decision-making processes.

The ROK does not maintain regulations to prevent conflict minerals from entering supply chains; however, MOTIE supports companies’ voluntary adherence to OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Afflicted and High-Risk Areas.  ROK companies are often obligated to follow the conflict-free regulations of economies to which they export goods.  The Korea International Trade Association and private-sector firms provide consulting services to companies seeking to comply with conflict-free regulations.  The ROK is not a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, but has a mining industry and has participated in the Kimberly Process since 2012.  The ROK government is taking measures to guarantee transparency through the Mining Act, Overseas Resources Development Business Act, other relevant laws on taxation, environment, labor, and anti-bribery, and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

9. Corruption

In an effort to combat corruption, the ROK has introduced systematic measures to prevent the illegal accumulation of wealth by civil servants.  The 1983 Public Service Ethics Act requires high-ranking officials to disclose personal assets, financial transactions, and gifts received during their term of office.  The Act on Anti-Corruption and the Establishment and Operation of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission (previously called the Anti-Corruption Act) concerns reporting of corruption allegations, protection of whistleblowers, institutional improvement, and training and public awareness to prevent corruption, as well as establishing national anti-corruption initiatives through the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission (ACRC).  Implementation is behind schedule, according to Transparency International, which ranked the ROK 37 out of 180 countries and territories in its 2019 Corruption Perception Index with a score of 59 out of 100 (with 100 being the best score).  The Department of State’s 2019 ROK Human Rights Report highlighted allegations of corruption levied against former Minister of Justice Cho Kuk in October 2019.  He resigned 35 days after his appointment amid allegations that he and his family used his previous positions unfairly and, in some cases, fraudulently to gain academic benefits for his daughter and inappropriate returns on financial investments.  Public concern about government corruption reached an apex between 2016 and 2017, when local press began exposing the link between then-President Park Geun-hye and her friend and adviser Choi Soon-sil.  Choi was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in jail on charges of fraud, coercion, and abuse of power and President Park was impeached by a 234-56 vote in the National Assembly in December 2016.  Following her removal from office, a presidential by-election was held on May 9, 2017, bringing President Moon Jae-in into office.  Former President Park was found guilty of multiple counts of abuse of power, bribery, and coercion and sentenced to 24 years in prison on April 6, 2018.  Separately, on October 5, 2018, Park’s predecessor, former President Lee Myung-bak was sentenced to 11 months’ imprisonment for graft, embezzlement, and abuse of power, including accepting bribes from a major consumer electronics conglomerate in return for a presidential pardon for its chairman.  Political corruption at the highest levels of elected office have occurred despite efforts by the ROK legislature to pass and enact anti-corruption laws such as the Act on Prohibition of Illegal Requests and Bribes, also known as the Kim Young-ran Act, in March 2015.  The anti-corruption law came into effect on September 28, 2016, and institutes strict limits on the value of gifts that can be given to public officials, lawmakers, reporters, and private school teachers.  It also extends to the spouses of officials.  The Act on the Protection of Public Interest Whistleblowers is designed to protect whistleblowers in the private sector and equally extends to reports on foreign bribery, with a reporting center operated by the ACRC.

In 2014, the Sewol ferry disaster that resulted in the deaths of 304 passengers, most of them school children on a field trip, brought to public attention collusion between government regulators and regulated industries.  Investigators determined that companies associated with the vessel had used insider knowledge and government contacts to skirt legal requirements by hiring recently retired government officials.  In response, the ROK government tightened regulations around hiring of former government officials.  This reform expanded the sectors restricted from employing former government officials, extended the employment ban from two to three years, and increased scrutiny of retired officials employed in fields associated with their former duties.  The Public Service Ethics Commission, between May 2017 and February 2019, approved approximately 85 percent, or 1,335, of the requests made by former political appointees and former government officials to accept government-affiliated or private sector positions, according to local press.  Most companies maintain an internal audit function to prevent and detect corruption.  Government agencies responsible for combating government corruption include the Board of Audit and Inspection, which monitors government expenditures, and the Public Service Ethics Committee, which monitors civil servants’ financial disclosures and their financial activities.  The ACRC focuses on preventing corruption by assessing the transparency of public institutions, protecting and rewarding whistleblowers, training public officials, raising public awareness, and improving policies and systems.  In reporting cases of corruption to government authorities, nongovernment organizations and civil society groups are protected by the Act on the Prevention of Corruption and the Establishment and Management of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, as well as the Protection of Public Interest Reporters Act.  Individuals reporting cases of corruption to the ACRC must provide their full name and other personally identifiable information (PII) to make the submission.  However, in April 2018, the law was updated to allow would-be filers to report cases through one’s attorney without disclosing PII to the courts.  Violations of these legal protections can result in fines or prison sentences.  U.S. firms have not identified corruption as an obstacle to FDI.  The ROK ratified the UN Convention against Corruption in 2008.  It is also a party to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions and a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Anti-Corruption and Transparency Working Group.  The Financial Intelligence Unit has cooperated fully with U.S. and UN efforts to shut down sources of terrorist financing.  Transparency International has maintained a national chapter in the ROK since 1999.

Resources to Report Corruption

Government agency responsible for combating corruption:

Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission
Government Complex-Sejong, 20, Doum 5-ro
Sejong-si, 339-012
Tel: +82-44-200-7151
Fax: +82-44-200-7916
Email: acrc@korea.kr
http://www.acrc.go.kr/en/index.do 

Contact at “watchdog” organization:

Corruption Network in Korea (aka Transparency International Korea)
#1006 Pierson Building, 42, Saemunan-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul 110-761
Tel: +82-2-717-6211
Fax: +82-2-717-6210
Email: ti@ti.or.kr
http://www.transparency-korea.org/ 

10. Political and Security Environment

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the ROK continue to have a tense relationship despite rapprochement efforts in 2018, and the two Koreas maintain one of the world’s most heavily-fortified borders.  The United States has had a security alliance with the ROK since 1953, with nearly 28,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in the ROK.  The presence of U.S. forces has allowed the Korean Peninsula to maintain general peace and stability since 1953 and enabled the ROK to grow into a modern, prosperous democracy boasting one of the largest and most dynamic economies in the world.  In addition, both the ROK and U.S. governments are attempting to engage with the DPRK in dialogue in an effort to resolve tensions and to realize the complete denuclearization of North Korea.  The two Koreas committed in the April 27, 2018, inter-Korean summit to reduce military tensions on the border and to work toward a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.  Likewise, the United States and DPRK agreed in the June 12, 2018, Singapore Summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim to work toward the transformation of U.S.-DPRK relations, joint efforts to build a lasting a stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and the recovery and repatriation of POW/MIA remains from the Korean War.

The ROK’s relations with Japan deteriorated significantly in 2019 due primarily to the government of Japan’s strong reaction against the ROK Supreme Court’s 2018 decisions directing Japanese companies to compensate South Koreans subjected to forced labor during World War II – including the court-directed seizure of defendant company assets – as well as the ROK’s objection to Japan’s subsequent tightening of exports controls against the ROK in 2019.  This prompted consumer boycotts in the ROK against Japanese goods, causing a significant drop in local sales for certain products, including beer and automobiles, as well as at certain Japan-origin retail chains.

The ROK does not have a history of political violence directed against foreign investors.  There have not been reports of politically-motivated threats of damage to foreign-invested projects or foreign-related installations of any sort, nor of any incidents that might be interpreted as having targeted foreign investments.  Labor violence unrelated to the issue of foreign ownership, however, has occurred in foreign-owned facilities in the past.  There have also been protests in the past directed at U.S. economic, political, and military interests (e.g. beef imports in 2008 or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense deployment in 2017 and 2018).  The ROK is a modern democracy with active public political participation, and well-organized political demonstrations are common.  For example, large-scale rallies were a regular occurrence throughout former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in 2016 and 2017.  The protests were largely peaceful and orderly.  The presidential by-election and transition that followed Park’s impeachment also proceeded smoothly and without incident.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

Upon taking office in May 2017, President Moon Jae-in declared himself the “Jobs President,” and his administration has introduced a number of employment-related reforms since.  In an attempt to reduce the ROK’s notoriously long working hours, the Moon administration introduced a mandatory 52-hour workweek regulation in July 2018.  Domestic and foreign companies, however, expressed concern that the measure added further rigidity to the ROK’s already inflexible labor market.  According to Statistics Korea (http://kostat.go.kr/portal/eng/index.action ), there were approximately 28 million economically active people in the ROK as of February 2020, with an employment rate (OECD standard) of approximately 60 percent.  The overall unemployment rate of 4.1 percent in February 2020 was less than half the 9 percent unemployment rate of youth aged 15-29. The country has two major national labor federations.  As of March 2020, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) had 933,000 members, and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) had 968,000 members.  KCTU and FKTU are affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation.  Most of FKTU’s constituent unions maintain affiliations with international union federations.

The minimum wage is reviewed annually.  Labor and business set the minimum wage for 2019 at KRW 8,350 (approximately USD 7.35 per hour), a 10.9 percent increase from 2018.  The Labor Standards Act was revised in 2018 to reduce maximum working hours to 52 per week.  According to Statistics Korea, non-regular workers received 54.6 percent of the wages of regular workers in 2019.  Non-regular workers received KRW 1.73 million per month (about USD 1,484) while regular workers received KRW 3.17 million (about USD 2,714).

For regular, full-time employees, the law provides employment insurance, national medical insurance, industrial accident compensation insurance, and participation in the national pension system through employers or employer subsidies.  Non-regular workers, such as temporary and contracted employees, are not guaranteed the same collection of benefits.  Regarding severance pay for regular workers, ROK law does not distinguish between the firing of an employee versus the laying off of an employee for economic reasons.  Employers’ reliance on non-regular workers is partially explained by the costs that may be associated with dismissing regular full-time employees and the savings from not offering benefits like insurance to non-regular workers.  There are no government policies requiring the hiring of ROK nationals.  In 2004, the ROK implemented a “guest worker” program known as the Employment Permit System (EPS) to help protect the rights of foreign workers.  The EPS allows employers to legally employ a certain number of foreign workers from 16 countries, including the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam, with which the ROK maintains bilateral labor agreements.  In 2015, the ROK increased its annual quota to 55,000 migrant workers.  At the end of 2019, approximately 213,374 foreigners were working under the EPS in the manufacturing, construction, agriculture, livestock, service, and fishery industries.

Legally, unions operate with autonomy from the government and employers, although national labor federations, comprised of various industry-specific unions, receive annual government subsidies.  The ratio of organized labor to the entire population of wage earners at the end of 2018 was 11.8 percent.  ROK trade union participation is lower than the latest-available OECD average of 16 percent in 2016.  More information is available at http://stats.oecd.org/ .  Labor organizations can organize in export processing zones (EPZs), but foreign companies operating in EPZs are exempt from some labor regulations.  Exemptions include provisions that mandate paid leave, require companies with more than 50 people to recruit persons with disabilities for at least two percent of their workforce, encourage companies to reserve three percent of their workforce for workers over 55 years of age, and restrict large companies from participating in certain business categories.  Foreign companies operating in Free Economic Zones have greater flexibility in employing “non-regular” workers in a wider range of sectors for extended contractual periods.  ROK law provides workers with the right to associate freely and allows public servants and private workers to organize unions.  The Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act provides for the right to collective bargaining and collective action, and allows workers to exercise these rights in practice.

The National Labor Relations Commission is the primary government body responsible for labor dispute resolution.  It provides arbitration and mediation services in response to dispute resolution requests submitted by employees, employers, or both parties.  Labor inspectors from the Ministry of Employment and Labor also have certain legal authorities to participate in dispute settlement related to violations of labor rights.  The Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service handles labor disputes resulting from industrial accidents or disasters.  In June 2018, the ROK President established the “Economic, Social, and Labor Council” that serves as an advisory group on economic and labor issues.  The Act on the Protection of Fixed-Term and Part-Time Workers prohibits discrimination against non-regular workers and requires that non-regular workers employed longer than two years be converted to permanent status.  The two-year rule went into effect on July 1, 2009.  Both the labor and business sectors have complained that the two-year conversion law forced many businesses to limit the contract terms of non-regular workers to two years and incur additional costs with the entry of new labor every two years.  More information can be found in the Department of State’s Report on Human Rights Practices for 2019: https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/south-korea/

Investment Climate Statements
Edit Your Custom Report

01 / Select A Year

02 / Select Sections

03 / Select Countries You can add more than one country or area.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future