Focus on... South Korea


Population: 49,169,000.
Monetary unit: won
Capital city: Seoul
Major languages: Korean
Major religions: Christian c. 43%, of which Protestant c. 17%, independent Christian c. 16%, Roman Catholic c. 9%; traditional beliefs c. 15%; Buddhist c. 14%; New Religionist c. 14%; Confucianist c. 10%; other c. 4%.
Ethnic composition: Korean 97.7%; Japanese 2.0%; U.S. white 0.1%; Han Chinese 0.1%; other 0.1%.
Age breakdown: under 15, 18.6%; 15–29, 22.5%; 30–44, 26.0%; 45–59, 19.2%; 60–74, 10.7%; 75–84, 2.5%; 85 and over, 0.5%.
Life expectancy: male 76.5 years; female 83.3 years
Education: Percentage of population ages 15 and older having: no formal schooling through lower secondary education 31.7%; upper secondary/higher vocational 39.2%; college 9.1%; university 20.0%.
Urban/Rural split: urban 82.7%; rural 17.3%
Income per household (USD): -
Broadband internet users (%): -

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica


South Korea has had an up and down economy over the past four decades. In 1971 its GDP per capita was comparable with that of a poor African country. In 2004, it joined the trillion dollar club of world economies, and currently is among the world's 20 largest economies. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 hit it hard with GDP contracting by 6.9% in 1998, but then recovering by 9% the year after. Steady growth of around 5% a year ground to a halt in 2009, but by 2010 it was surging ahead at over 6%.

Much of this growth has been due to its digital industries. A strong infrastructure and a propensity towards new technology makes the South Korean comms market an online-rich environment in which to operate. Ken Hong, global communications director at LG Electronics, says: “Multinationals recognise that the people here are quick to pick up on new trends, and so they are keen to invest here.”

However, senior corporate executives are, by and large, not convinced of the value of PR, and so agencies still have a fight on their hands for budgets. Advertising takes the lion's share and insiders report that as much as 80 per cent of the media's revenue still comes from advertising. As a result editorial decisions are sometimes led by advertising, and Korean PR professionals must fight hard to break this link.


With around 90 per cent of its population of 50 million online, and a rapid rise in adoption of smart phone technology, South Korea is a world leader in digital. This could be due to the fact that 81 per cent of its population is urban. Average broadband speed per member of the population stands at 12mbps – compared to a UK average of 3mbps.

So, social networking sites like Twitter, and the local Me2Day, have become central to the Korean

 way of life. At the same time, print media has taken a huge hit in the past 15 years.

Between 1996 and 2008, newspaper consumption fell from 69 per cent to 37 per cent. Hong believes that this is changing the way Korean PR professionals operate. “In the past two years I’ve noticed an increased focus on blogger superstars, he says. “But it is taking time. This is a conservative country and the PR industry

is still heavily focused on quantity of media coverage.”

Chosun Ilbo is the leading daily print news source, with a circulation of around 2.6 million readers, followed by Joongang Ilbo and Donga Ilbo. The key broadcast channels in South Korea include government-owned KBS, sports-focused SBS and current affairs-led MBC.

Major Brands

Technology and telecommunications brands are the market leaders in South Korea, with Samsung, LG and HP leading the field. Local telecommunications firms SK Telecom and Korea Telecom are also ahead of the curve. Finally, automotive manufacturers Kia and Hyundai now have a global presence.

Hong adds: “There are a large number of brands that are doing great PR work in Korean but have not yet established a presence internationally. For example, there are some coffee shops that run great, innovative campaigns. It’s not all about the multinationals here.”


In the same way the PR market is split between the very large global agencies such as Burson-Marseller, Edelman, Weber Shandwick, Ogilvy and Prain in that group, and the very small agencies.

There are around 600 agencies operating in

South Korea, and around 90% of them are local. Local and international firms both compete and co-operate: it is not unusual to see a local firm appointed to domestic communications and an international firm for international work.

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