South Korea has undergone radical changes in the past three decades, experiencing one of the fastest development rates. With a population of about 51 million, South Korea’s labor force participation rate is roughly 63%. Today, this country is a major player in international trade and among the largest exporters and importers in the world. The unemployment rate for 2019 is 4.8%, which is a slight increase from last year’s 3.84%. With that being said, it’s important to know the salaries offered in South Korea before relocating. Note that the country’s currency is the South Korean won (KRW), which equals 0.00086 United States Dollar ($) at the time of writing –November 2019.
What is the average salary in South Korea? The average salary in South Korea in 2019 is approximately $44,980 a year, $3,750/month, and $21.62 hourly. Apart from the national average, salaries also differ drastically between regions. The highest salaries per month are found in the cities of Seoul, Busan, Incheon, Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangju, at around $4,204, $4,132, $4,060, $3,987, $3,915, and $3,841 respectively.
Being one of the top economic success stories in Asia, South Korea offers all kinds of work opportunities. Powerhouse companies like Hyundai Motors, Samsung Electronics, Korea Gas, and LG Electronics are among the major contributors to economic growth. The country is also a major business hub within Asia and home to many international companies, which is why expats from all over the world are drawn to it. Working here will help you kick-start your international career. In this text, I’ll cover more about the economy, job market, salaries for specific job titles, as well as the cost of living in South Korea to help you make an informed decision about relocating to South Korea.
Average Salary in South Korea
If you’re looking to enter the South Korean job market, you may be interested in the salaries of a particular job title. Here are the average annual salaries for some of the common jobs in South Korea:
- Accountant – $31,671
- Architect – $39,420
- Cashier – $26,235
- Chef – $37,673
- CEO – $100,810.75
- Dentist – $107,500
- Director – $132,716
- Engineer – $41,478
- General Manager – $83,868
- Internal Auditor – $45,830
- Legal Assistant – $34,220
- Pilot – $52,885
- Police Officer – $36,370
- Software Developer – $72,828
- Teacher – $34,020
- Travel Agent – $36,350
- University Professor – $69,613
- Waiter / Waitress – $27,215
What it’s like working in South Korea
A big part of the South Korean labor force was originally working in the agricultural sector, which is dominated by rice farming. Today, however, the agricultural sector is shrinking and currently contributes just 2.3% of the total GDP. South Korea is moving towards industrialization.
Its industries have become a major source of income for most households and currently contribute 39% to the total GDP. The largest industries that have pushed the South Korean economy towards growth are automobiles, automotive, shipbuilding, electronics, and telecommunication. Did you know that South Korea is one of the biggest manufacturers in the world? Well, semiconductors, memory chips, and electronic goods are all manufactured here. It also manufactures over 4 million cars each year.
The biggest employer of all is, however, the services sector, which makes up about 60% of the total GDP. Over 70% of the working population work in this sector, and chances are it may become the driving force of the South Korean economy in the future.
While this varies from one employer to the next, most jobs require a bachelor’s degree and 4-8 years of working experience. There’s a huge demand for teaching English as a foreign language, as well as those who have IT and technology skills. Although English is widely spoken in the major cities, it would be a good idea to learn the Korean language. You might find it harder to find work in some sectors without some knowledge of Korean –fluency isn’t essential though.
South Koreans have a culture of working very long hours. The law has, however, reduced the maximum working hours to 52hrs/week from the previous 68hrs/week. These 52 hours include 40 normal hours and 12 hours for overtime. There are also detailed laws about sick leave, vacations, holidays, maternity leave, and missed work. For starters, employees get at least 15 days paid vacation annually. New mothers get 90 days of paid maternity leave while dads get 3 days paid leave.
Like most countries, South Korea was highly affected by the great financial crisis of the 20th century. And, although this has since been resolved thanks to foreign investments, you should probably be aware that the country still faces long-term economic challenges. Half of the country’s GDP strongly depends on manufacturing exports, not to mention an inflexible job market and an aging population are just but a few of South Korea’s economic problems.
South Korea Average Household Income
The annual household income per capita in South Korea was $16,567.175 in December 2018. This figure is higher than the previous value of $15,335.390 in December 2017. Despite reaching an all-time high since 2003, this figure is significantly lower than the OECD average household net adjusted disposable income per capita of $30,563 a year. There’s also a huge pay gap between the rich and the poor. The upper 20% income bracket earns over 5 times more than the bottom 20%. Although this gap has widened, household income for low-income earners saw some gains after the government increased their support allowance.
The Minimum Wage in South Korea
This stands at KRW 8,350 ($7.19) per hour. This is a 10.9% increase from the previous year’s 7,530 won/hour. Based on the average 40 hours of work per week, the daily minimum wage will be 66,800 won ($57.49) while the monthly minimum wage will be 1,745,150 won ($1,502.01).
The minimum wage act was enacted by the South government in 1986 thanks to the booming economy at that time. The country’s minimum wage averages at KRW 3114.84 ($2.68)/hour from 1989 to 2019.
Violating minimum wage laws
The NMW (national minimum wage) is the lowest salary per hour, per day, or per month that employers of a particular country are legally required to pay employees. In South Korea, anyone who pays less than the legal minimum wage could be sentenced to 3 years or less in prison, or fined 20 million won ($17,215).
Effects of the minimum wage in South Korea
The minimum wage in this country has been rising steadily since its enactment in 1986. The country recorded a low of KRW 600($0.52)/hour in 1989 and has reached an all-time high of KRW 8,350($7.19)/hour in 2019. President Moon Jae-in has vowed to increase the minimum wage further to at least KRW 10,000 ($8.61)/hour by 2020; a move that has seen the general public divided. Some argue that increasing the minimum wage will consequently increase the cost of living. Also, small businesses that are unable to pay high labor costs will find it difficult to hire employees, resulting in fewer employees being hired and increased unemployment rates.
On the other hand, those who are in favor of minimum wage laws and minimum wage increases argue that it’s effective in raising the employee’s productivity. Increasing the minimum wage also has a positive impact on stable living for low-income earners and boosts the national economy.
The Average Salary in Seoul
Seoul is the capital and largest metropolis of South Korea. It’s often the first destination that comes to mind when looking to move to South Korea. This is thanks to its strong and diversified economy, high quality of life, low crime rates, diverse cultural scene, endless job opportunities, and high salaries among other things.
Wages in this city are growing steadily and becoming comparable to those in other big cities across the globe. In fact, by 2020, just a handful of Western European cities will have wages higher than Seoul.
Seoul has the highest salaries in South Korea and Asia at large. The average salary of a person working in this city is currently around $24.22/hour, $4,204 per month, and $50,375/year. The trend is still rising, although at a slower pace than it was a few years ago.
Salaries may differ between professions, industries, and job titles, but they are mostly based on years of service to a company as opposed to the academic credits or set of skills you bring to a particular job. It’s not uncommon to find a first-year engineer making as much as a first-year human resource.
Economic and job outlook
Seoul has become one of the most attractive places to live worldwide. There are several job opportunities for expats in IT and trade sectors. And, although job requirements differ from one employer/job title to the next, becoming an English teacher is one of the easiest ways foreigners use to move to South Korea and develop their careers.
The work culture in Seoul is pretty intense. Although working hours are usually 40 hours/week, longer working hours are pretty common in most sectors.
Cost Of Living in South Korea
Now that you know your earning potential, let’s take a look at the cost of living in this country so you can know whether you can afford to live in it. The exact monthly expenses will vary from place to place and person to person, however, here’s what you should expect to spend living in South Korea.
Housing is reasonably priced in South Korea. The average cost of renting in the city center is $577/month for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,455/month for a three-bedroom apartment. Renting outside of the city center will cost you less. Alternatively, you can buy a house at around $9,279.64/square meter in the city center. Expats can take out a mortgage to buy a property. Those who have lived in the country for over a year and have a good credit score stand a better chance of getting a mortgage loan.
Foodstuffs are a bit costly in South Korea compared to most Western countries. Expect to spend an average of $340 on monthly groceries, while the cost of eating out will depend on what establishments you visit and how often.
There are many ways to get around in South Korea. Public transportation is extensive, efficient, and cheap. A one-way ticket costs around $1.08, while a monthly travel pass costs $47.40. Taxis cost about $0.69/km while a liter of gasoline cost $1.31.
All South Korean residents are required to have the National Health Insurance to cater for basic health care. You and your employer will most likely cover the monthly insurance premiums 50/50. Expect to pay between 1.8% and 3.3% of your salary for this expense.
While these are the constant expenses in every household, you’ll also need to budget for other variable costs such as entertainment, clothing, internet, and mobile phone use, as well as childcare and cost of education for those with kids. Ultimately, a single person will spend around $871 on monthly expenses (excluding rent), while a four-person household will spend $3,480 (excluding rent).
About the author: Marta Kovachek is the author of this article. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in Economics. Marta enjoys writing about the current economic situation and loves helping our readers to find their next "destination". From places to live to complex social and economic topics, we always enjoy Marta's work. Please contact us in case of any questions.