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Negotiating with Koreans

Koreans are renowned as skillful negotiators.  Still, they put a strong emphasis on developing a personal relationship, and this investment in upfront relationship-building will be one of your most powerful bargaining chips.  Without a high level of comfort with the other party, things may go nowhere; but with a feeling of camaraderie and trust, things can go far.

Because of this relationship-based nature of business, an introduction is a must for starters, and the higher the status of the introducer the better.  The first meetings are "get to know you" meetings and generally involve higher level participants as part of the relationship-building.  The nitty-gritty of the work to come will be left to mid- and lower-level managers.

During the early stages, socializing after hours will be critical.  If the emotional comfort level is good, and the venture seems in their interest, only then will the Korean side decide to move forward in trying to work together.  A long drawn out process follows for haggling.  Keep in mind that proceedings must still be polite, and nobody should suffer any sort of public embarrassment, even with mild criticism. 

Giving concessions too soon or showing any impatience will be seen as signs of weakness and taken advantage of.  Remember, Koreans take a shrewd approach to negotiating.  They are prepared to wait patiently until a frustrated "opponent" gives in.  If your negotiators are not the patient, gentle-but-firm type, you may want to rethink your choice of negotiators. Likewise, if you are not prepared to engage in negotiations for as long as it takes, you may want to rethink your plans altogether.

Clear communication during these meetings is essential.  It behooves you to have your own interpreter and to get the meeting notes down in writing and get them agreed to.  Remember that the simple act of interpretation adds time, so prepare for this.  Trying to shorten the time and expenses of using an interpreter, however, can, in the end, add much more of both through the problems created by miscommunication.

Korea is a group-oriented society. This means that getting the internal buy-in from a large number of people will add to the time.  Highlighting the ways your proposal benefits their country, as well as their company, is seen as favorable to the group.  On the other hand, in light of your highly personal relationship, they can manipulate the context to make it seem like you are undermining the group harmony.  Don't give up - they admire people who are tenacious.

The contract should be considered more of a memorandum of understanding, because there will be more negotiating after the contract is signed.  Consequently, it goes without saying that you should never make all your concessions before the contract is signed.  

Be diplomatic, always.  Be patient, always.  But always be a clever poker player.

 by Diana Rowland,

author of Japanese Business: Terms of Engagement

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