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Legal Market Overview

With the appointment of SungWook Joh as its first female Chairperson in September 2019, the Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) continues to intensify its scrutiny of Korea’s family-owned conglomerates (chaebols), allowing small and medium-sized companies to compete for a larger portion of the market share.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the KFTC also launched an ICT task force, which was set up by fully mobilising the Anti-Monopoly Bureau (in charge of monitoring abuses of dominance) and the Directorate for Market Structure Policy (responsible for monitoring M&A activities and conducting economic analyses); this is expected to strengthen its regulatory reach to better encompass the online platform market, and heralds a period of careful surveillance of the rapid technological developments which characterise the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The global spread of coronavirus has affected many areas of Korean legal practice, most notably causing a marked increase in restructuring and rescheduling work. There has also been a steep increase in layoffs, which has compounded existing uncertainties around the employee status and rights of temporary workers, such as delivery drivers. Elsewhere in the labour law arena, January 2020 saw businesses that employ between 50 and 299 staff members implementing a piece of 2018 legislation which reduces the working week to 52 hours, as the government continues to push for the liberalisation of workplaces.

Another key area of focus for President Moon Jae-in is the environment; his government recently announced a Green New Deal, which pledges to invest $61bn from the national treasury to transform the economy from carbon-dependant to low-carbon by 2025. It is hoped that this financial commitment will boost Korea’s renewable energy by 42.7GW, and its announcement is already generating interest among foreign investors.

On the M&A front, saturation within the Korean market means that domestic enterprises are increasingly looking outwards, and much work can be seen in developing markets, such as Vietnam.

The legal scene in Korea continues to be dominated by well-established local firms, namely Kim & ChangLee & KoYoon & Yang LLCYulchonJipyong, and Bae, Kim & Lee LLC. In a key change to the dispute resolution landscape in Seoul, Kap-You (Kevin) Kim left the latter of these in November 2019 to establish boutique practice Peter & Kim, along with Geneva-based Wolfgang Peter; the firm brings together international arbitration practitioners from different civil and common law cultures based in Switzerland, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore. Another key change to the make-up of firms based in South Korea saw a first-of-its-kind occurrence in early 2020, in which global firm Dentons merged with local firm Lee International IP & Law Group to form Dentons Lee.