But he knew they lacked experience on the international stage and set about trying to build an organised, streetwise unit.
His methods have been so successful that South Korea's corporate captains now analyse "the Hiddink way" to see if his football management tactics can be applied to industry.
And fans even displayed a tongue-in-cheek banner during the game in Daejeon which declared: "Hiddink for President".
"The Korean players have one big ability and that is they can learn and get to know the demands of international football," said Hiddink.
"They react very quickly, which they have proven.
"Our first aim was to be competitive at the World Cup and we have succeeded in doing that. The second was to win one match and we did that by beating Poland.
"Then we wanted to make the second round, which we have done, and now we are in the quarters.
"It is time to enjoy our accomplishments, but I want the players to be as greedy and hungry as they have been up until now."
Hiddink had the advantage of spending several months with his players in the build-up to the finals.
While top European and South American stars were scrapping it out for club honours, he was putting his plans into practice on the training ground with fresh, largely Asian-based players.
He then made sure they got to test their tactics in warm-up games against Scotland (4-1), England (1-1) and defending champions France (2-3).
"Since March we have worked virtually every day and spent so much time together that we are like one big family," said Hiddink.
The benefits became clear when Korea beat Poland 2-0 in their opening game and finished as group winners with a brilliant 1-0 victory against Portugal.
The 2-1 win against Italy was not only a triumph for their never-say-die spirit, but also a vindication of Hiddink's positive approach.
As Italy introduced a defensive midfielder to protect their 1-0 lead, he went on the attack by throwing on veteran striker Hwang Sun-Hong - with stunning results.
"I'd prefer to go all out to chase the win and risk going down 2-0 than know I hadn't tried everything," admitted Hiddink.
North Korea disappeared off the international scene after their stunning 1-0 win against Italy in 1966, never to be seen again in the finals.
Judging by the exploits of Hiddink's side, it is hard to see South Korea going any other way but up.