The first thing you need to be aware of is that there are two New Year's Days in Korea – one for the solar calendar and one for the lunar calendar. New Year's Day according to the lunar calendar in Korea is the same as in China but it is better to refer to it as "seol-nahl", Korean New Year or Lunar New Year rather than Chinese New Year. You can and should wish Koreans a Happy New Year for both New Years.
Wish Koreans a Happy New Year on or within a few days of New Year's Day. Do it once only the first time you see or speak to someone after New Year's Day but do it for both the solar and lunar New Years. For significant Korean individuals with similar or greater seniority than you, you should definitely make an effort to meet or telephone them to wish them a Happy New Year. Doing it on New Year's Day will make a better impression than doing it after New Year's Day but as with most things, it is better late than never. A face-to-face meeting or telephone call is much better than sending a card. With Koreans who are less senior than you or not particularly significant, you don't need to make a special effort to contact them – just wish them a Happy New Year if you happen to see or call them on or soon after New Year. Naturally, you should return the greeting to any person who gives you a New Year's greeting.
Each year, the Korean (Chinese) New Year falls in either late January or early February. In 2008, it will fall on February 7. The date it falls on in a particular year can easily be found by searching the Internet using the phrase "Chinese New Year" followed by the year in question.
The Lunar New Year is a three-day public holiday in Korea and is a time for families to gather and eat a meal together. For this reason, expect traffic chaos on major roads and difficulty obtaining tickets to travel in Korea over this period. Nowadays, international flights into and out of Korea are also heavily booked out over the LunarNew Year holiday break because many Koreans use the break to take a quick overseas trip. Try to avoid it but if you know you will need to travel over the Lunar New Year break then book months in advance.
Most shops and businesses are closed over the Lunar New Year holiday and ATMs often run out of cash and are not replenished until after the holiday so make sure you do your shopping in advance and have sufficient cash to tide you over.
The Lunar New Year is a time of gift giving in Korea. Adults give envelopes containing cash to children with the amount being determined by the age of the child and the closeness of the relationship. Companies might give gifts to employees or major clients. If you are invited to a family gathering, prepare some envelopes with cash for the children plus some empty spare envelopes just in case. You should prepare a gift, such as a commercially produced gift set or gift basket for the person who invited you as well as for that person's parents. Remember that the parents of the person who invited you are the most senior so they should get the most expensive gift. In addition, take lots of small denomination notes to participate in a variety of traditional Korean gambling games that are played at such gatherings.
The Korean expression for Happy New Year is "seh heh bok mah-nee bahd-oo-say-yoh". It literally means "Receive lots of New Year's good fortune". There is no need to distinguish between the solar and lunar New Years when wishing people a happy New Year. Use the same expression for both.
Related greetings are to wish people a good New Year's holiday break the last time you see them before they head off for the break and to ask whether they had a good New Year's holiday break when you see them again afterwards. The expressions for these respectively are "Seol-nahl-eul chal boh-neh-say-yoh" (flat intonation) and "Seol-nahl chal boh-neh-shoss-o-yoh?" (rising intonation).
Click here to hear pronunciations of the phrases described above:
If you are not confident about giving New Year's greetings in Korean, then just do them in English. The fact that you make the effort to contact people and wish them a happy New Year will create a great impression with your Korean associates. If the language barrier means that you are unable to communicate directly with a person that you want to give greetings to then you could ask an English-speaking subordinate of that person to pass on your New Year's greetings. This will create the same good impression.