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President Moon's new administration has gradually restored confidence to the South Korean economy and gradually reduced geopolitical tensions with China and their northern neighbours. The results of which is that domestic and foreign investors and businesses have greater confidence to proceed with large-scale deals in South Korea.

The financial space saw a growth in refinancing deals, largely due to private equity funds being able to increase the value of their portfolio companies, which in turn allows them to increase the debt exposure through refinancing. In the aviation industry, there has been an uptake in the commercial financing and particularly leasing of aircraft through secured finance. Although South Korean banks have a dominant hold on the market, there is increasing pressure by the Chinese financial institutions which are aggressively seeking to expand their presence.

South Korean investors are continuing to look for outbound opportunities which generate higher yield; notably in renewable energy and solar power in Australia and Chile. A rapid growth in the construction sector has also brought on a steady volume of commercial arbitration, with contractors now being much more involved with overseas construction and project-related disputes. Lawyers also report an increasing number of investor-state filings and demand for representation in disputes by outbound domestic and inbound foreign investors.

President Moon has directed government policy on greater wealth distribution, enhanced protection of workers’ rights and sought to address issues surrounding the work-life balance, resulting in amendments to labour and employment legislation. A key change was the implementation of a maximum 52-hour working week for companies with 300 or more employees from 1 July 2018, along with wage increases. Executive departments have also been granted significant powers of enforcement, to conduct investigations, audits of compliance and with greater resources and legislative power. Meanwhile, the appointment of a new liberal-leaning chief justice is expected to impact the outcome of pending cases before the Supreme Court.

These reforms have been largely welcomed by the public but have also brought on a flood of work for lawyers with labour, regulatory and compliance, and criminal practices, as large businesses, keen to avoid costly investigations and disputes, increasingly taking extra precautions to ensure compliance with the new regulations.

Elsewhere, pharmaceutical patent disputes continue to dominate the IP sector, largely due to the patent-approval linkage system implemented in March 2015. South Korea has also concentrated its efforts to promote itself to international parties as an attractive ‘hub’ to resolve patent disputes. The Korean Patent Act was amended to allow for enhanced discovery procedures to prove patent infringements and damages. In addition, to attract foreign parties, the patent courts and the Korean Intellectual Property Office have taken great strides to conduct hearings in English. Also of note, The National Assembly passed an amendment to the Court Organisation Act, creating the International Tribunal of the Patent Court, effective from June 2018.

In other news, Shearman & Sterling LLP confirmed it will open an office in Seoul later this year, the first new US entrant to the market since Latham & Watkins LLP launched its outpost in 2016. Meanwhile, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP moved its Korea practice to Hong Kong earlier this year and has announced it will close its six-year-old office in the South Korean capital by the close of 2018.

Dinner with GC -
Korea 2018

  • China and Hong Kong GC Powerlist

    In May, The Legal 500 and GC Magazine added another country to the list of destinations for their exclusive Dinner with GC series, as South Korea’s elite in-house counsel came together at Mugunghwa in Seoul, for a closed-door discussion on the realities of the role.

    Dinner with GC - Korea 2018

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