A late slip allowed Kerzhakov to snaffle an equalizer for the Russians but there are bright signs for the Asian side in Group H.
That Russia battled back to earn a point suggests a certain naivety in the Korea play but there was no sign of the disorganized unit that shipped four goals to Ghana only a week ago.
"The heavy defeat against Ghana was not important as it was just part of the process," Hong Myung-Bo told SBS afterwards. "We focused our rhythm and organization on this match.
"I think it worked well. The condition of players and organization of team was good."
Hong has been primed for this occasion ever since he took off his South Korea shirt for the last time in 2002 and put on a suit in 2009. A playing legend, he has grown through the Korean coaching ranks and, along the way, he has assembled this group of players.
Many of them were with him when he guided the nation to the Bronze Medal at the 2012 Olympic Games. He has stuck steadfastly by this team since coming into the senior job to the extent that sections of the local press refer to them as Mr Hong's Sons or the Loyalty Squad.
Their results in the run-up to the World Cup were inadequate and there were fears that this young team would be outclassed. There was little sign of inferiority as they earned a point that might have been three against Russia.
Before the game, Hong addressed the need to stand up to the Russians because they were physically stronger. No sign of that; instead there was bright, aggressive football.
Russia, instead, bore all the hallmarks of a Fabio Capello team. There was a deep defensive line and a mistrust of anyone approaching creative. If he plays like this against one of the least-fancied teams in Brazil, then, at 67, he is unlikely to change his ways now. However, the manner in which Alan Dzagoev affected the game should have him considering placing the 24-year-old at the heart of operations.
Alexander Kokorin is a man in the spotlight considering he is charged with carrying the goal threat on home soil in four years time. His game here was a little unrefined.
And just like England's 2010 World Cup campaign under Capello, the first goal conceded came via a goalkeeping error. Lee Keun-Ho was a brighter forward than the man he replaced, Park Chu-Young and, although his strike was lucky, it was deserved. "The result is not satisfying but the performance of the team was good," said the goalscorer to SBS.
Russia did get one back in contentious circumstances when Alexander Kerzhakov scored from what seemed to be an offside position but a handy point against the Russians will stand Korea in good stead in the group.
The momentum was with the Koreans from the outset. Son Heung-Min, the powerful Bayer Leverkusen forward, was key to their operations. He cut in from the left to find space and could have given the Asians a first-half lead were it not for some wayward finishing.
Kashiwa Reysol's Han Kook-Young looks destined to be one of those players who bursts onto the wider consciousness at these finals. His game was fully loaded with graft, aggression and ability on the ball. He created Son's best chance of the first half which flew over.
Often, Russia was left chasing shadows as Han and Ki Sung-Yueng passed rings around them in midfield and linked up with the wingers Son and Lee Chung-Yong. Korea were better all over the pitch; sharper, fitter, stronger.
After the Russia goal there were signs of immaturity in the Koreans' game as they dropped uncharacteristically deep. The sweltering, humid conditions in Cuiaba no doubt played a part but so did the replacement of star center back Hong Jeong-Ho who was lost to a suspected ankle knock.
An emerging team will have to go through these moments of uncertainty and learn how to lead matches but Hong's Korea is on the right track.