As part of South Korea’s ongoing efforts to establish itself as an international arbitration destination to rival Hong Kong and Singapore, the new Seoul International Dispute Resolution Centre opened at the end of May.
The new centre, which has four hearing rooms and three preparation rooms, is fashioned after Singapore’s Maxwell Chambers, and will host arbitrations held under the rules of major arbitral institutions – including the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, the London Court of International Arbitration, the ICC, the International Centre for Dispute Resolution, and the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board (KCAB). It is hoped that the centre will help attract foreign parties, particularly those from Japan and China, to arbitrate in Seoul.
However, whilst the centre houses overseas offices of several main arbitral institutions and offers parties up-to-date technology and equipment, there remain obstacles to South Korea’s goal of becoming North Asia’s premier dispute resolution location.
As well as historic concerns about neutrality (especially in relation to China and Japan), many foreign parties lack familiarity with and confidence in the South Korean court system – particularly following the recent refusal of a Seoul court to enforce an arbitral award against a state-owned broadcaster. The prospect of South Korean court proceedings also raises a language barrier that does not exist in other English-speaking jurisdictions.
South Korea’s international dispute resolution community and infrastructure is still small, and there are restrictions on the ability of Seoul-based foreign lawyers to act in arbitrations involving local law. To draw parties to Seoul, South Korea needs to continue to attract international practitioners and build upon recent efforts to develop international arbitration (such as the release of the new International Rules of the KCAB in September 2011), and crucially to encourage its courts to follow the Singaporean model and become firmly arbitration-friendly. Until then, it is anticipated that the centre is likely to attract businesses which already have a Korean connection; only time will tell how successful it will be with parties from further afield.