Don't Teach in Korea
I am writing this as a warning for people who want to teach in Korea primarily as a means to
save money to pay off debt or to pay for graduate school. Also, I am writing this for
professional ESL teachers who are considering working in Korea.
I worked for two years as an English teacher in Seoul, South Korea, between 1996 and 1998. I
was employed for five months with a major language school chain, and then quit my job in order
to work on a tourist visa for the remaining year and a half. I left in early 1998, a few months
after the Korean currency crisis began in December 1997 and then returned to the United States.
I would advise against obtaining employment in Korea for the following reasons:
1) The Language Schools and Korean Employers
Non-payment of salary and harassment of the foreign teaching staff
by Korean management is the rule instead of the exception among
language schools (hagwans). Even universities and corporations
engage in these practices.
Please see the U.S. State Department's Official Warning regarding
teaching English in South Korea:
Here is an excerpt from the U.S. Embassyís Official Warning:
"Due to the growing number and seriousness of problems experienced
by American citizens teaching English in Korea, we counsel against
taking such employment, even at reputable colleges or universities,
except upon receipt of a favorable written referral from a current
American citizen employee. We receive several complaints daily
from Americans who came to Korea to teach English.
Despite contracts promising good salaries, furnished apartments
and other amenities, many teachers find they actually receive
much less than they were promised; some do not even receive
benefits required by Korean law, such as health insurance and
severance pay. Teachers' complaints range from simple contract
violations through non-payment of salary for months at a time,
to dramatic incidents of severe sexual harassment, intimidation,
threats of arrest/deportation, and physical assault."
I signed a twelve-month contract with BCM language schools in 1996 and
lasted only five months with the school to which I was assigned. Foreign
teachers were paid by the minute for classes (effectively cutting the hourly
pay rate by one-sixth), housed in tiny, filthy apartments with no furniture, and
yelled at for minor problems with students or work.
Most of the teachers either quit before their year contract was finished or they
were fired on some pretense (example: one teacher was fired for being five
minutes late). A few teachers were fired two weeks before their contracts
were finished so that they couldn't get their plane fare home and severance
There was basically no organization at the school or structure to the
cirriculum. The goal was to merely milk the students for as much money as
possible instead of giving them proper English lessons. Teachers that the
students found entertaining were given more hours than teachers with
teaching degrees and experience were given. ESL qualifications were
considered worthless by the management, which I found to be true for
language schools generally in Korea.
After I had accumulated enough outside work and contacts, I decided that I
would quit the day after I was paid for the previous month. When I told the
manager that I was quitting, she started ranting that I was going to be put in
jail. And this is the best part: after screaming at me for a minute about
possible imprisonment, she calmed down and told me that the whole incident
was an error in translation!
The Korean teachers defended her saying that the manager's English wasn't
that good and that she didn't mean to say any of it. During my stay in Korea
after leaving BCM, I would regularly hear stories of teachers being threatened
with imprisonment or even being physically assaulted by the management.
I left with just one day's notice (I didn't want them to get any more deposit
money from another month's paycheck) and flew to Japan to get a tourist
visa. After coming back to Korea, I had to leave every 90 days to renew the
visa (the rule for Americans). I would fly to another country and come back
after a few days.
I worked part-time at language schools and at companies through agencies
and taught private students. Even the temporary agencies would regularly try
not to pay me, saying that they didn't have the money at the time. I was
always able to get them to pay me with enough persistence (other teachers I
spoke with were cheated by the agencies, however).
This was the way to make a lot of money until the immigration crackdown
2) Korean Immigration
In 1995, English teaching jobs began to proliferate and foreigners swarmed
to Korea. Most with work visas found their job situation unacceptable, quit,
and either went home or began working on a tourist visa (which is highly
illegal). Soon, the number of illegal English teachers greatly exceeded the
number of legal teachers. This influx of illegal workers, in combination with
the declining health of the economy in 1997, prompted Korean immigration
to start seriously pursuing foreign teachers working on a tourist visa.
Previously, immigration hadn't been that thorough in its enforcement of
Korean laws regarding working illegally because of the relatively small number
of foreign teachers. Korean immigration began regularly questioning people
when they were leaving the country, sometimes denying people re-admittance.
Immigration officers began following foreigners on the subway and grabbing
them when they went to their jobs at companies or private homes. Building
security guards would contact immigration if they saw the same foreigner
repeatedly entering a home or building. Immigration would actually enter
private homes and arrest the foreigner there. People were dragged out of
private studentsí apartments, pushed and slapped around by immigration
officials in some cases, and deported within the week.
Strangest of all, immigration officers would pose as potential private students
and approach foreigners for English lessons (this is called entrapment in the
US). Just admitting that you are doing illegal work to an undercover
immigration officer is ground for deportation in Korea.
If you are doing illegal work, Korean immigration has a hotline that anyone
can call and turn you in. Once you are fingered by someone, immigration
will start monitoring you in order to catch you teaching privates or other
outside work. This includes having undercover immigration officials offering
you work or grabbing you on the subway, searching you, and then deporting
you just for carrying ESL textbooks and not having a work visa.
Anyone can turn you in: disgruntled former employers or students, your
neighbors, or other English teachers. If this sounds like Ď1984í, thatís
because it is. Korea is supposedly a democracy, but the country has a long
tradition of police state tactics and tangible proof isn't required for
If you are working illegally or if you are teaching private students part time
while working legally at a language school, there is a very high chance that
you will eventually be caught, fined, and deported (even in Seoul where
there are relatively many foreigners). Rights of privacy don't exist in Korea
in the they way they are understood in Western countries.
3) The Won Exchange Rate and Outside Work
The won (the Korean currency) was slowly declining in value from the time I
arrived in 1996 until it abruptly collapsed at the end of 1997. The currency
began to recover at the end of 1998. As of mid 2002, the won is at less than
50% of its previous value from its 1995 -1996 peak.
The language schools have raised their pay in won, and so have many of the
temporary agencies. The pay the agencies are offering is still below the pre-
crisis level in exchange rate terms, however. Also, private students can't
afford to pay any more than they could before the crisis. Even with the
economic recovery, there is less private work available now then there was
before the currency crisis and the prices of many goods (such as those
requiring imported inputs - like food) are higher. Private students were
previously the most lucrative form of outside employment and make up the
majority of outside work for teachers working legally at a school.
Speaking with Koreans that I have kept in contact with since leaving, the
additional work has dwindled noticeably from its high point when English
instruction began en masse.
Private students tend to provide unstable work, ending classed easily, taking
long breaks, or running out of money. Companies and language schools
tend to conduct additional classes for short stints as well. When the
exchange rate was good, it was still possible to make a lot of money on an
unstable schedule but the prospects are now dimmer. The depreciated won,
combined with the more stringent immigration policy, make teaching
significantly less lucrative than it was in past years.
Also, if you are working on a tourist visa, many of the best outside jobs will
be unavailable to you. You need a work visa to get most jobs through
agencies, even though taking such work is still illegal. I kept my foreigner ID
card after I quit my hagwon and lied to the agencies to get work with
companies. I even worked for the Ministry of Education with an invalid ID
Remember that if you quit or are fired by your work visa sponsor, you can't
legally work for someone else until the visa period is completed (usually one
year) or until you get an employee release document.
4) The Other English Teachers
All you need to teach legally in Korea is a four-year degree in something
from somewhere. This is just a formality required by immigration as most
Koreans believe that basically any white foreigner from North America can
do the job. TESL is not considered to be a profession by the majority of
These low standards apply just to those with a work visa. Most of the illegal
teachers had some college, a high school diploma, or were high school
drop-outs. Unqualified people wanting to work legally even had fake
diplomas printed up and submitted them to immigration to obtain a visa.
Generally, the English teachers represented people who had failed
in some way at home. Korean employers appear not to do a background
check on the foreign teachers they hire, as a fair number seemed to have
mental problems or felony records (I'm not kidding). People trying to save
money or teaching as a career were definitely in the minority.
The scariness of the English teachers can be a problem as you might have
to share an apartment with one of these potentially dangerous people or
maintain a good working environment with them (which is difficult).
Most of the English teachers I spoke with were unhappy working in Korea.
Some people fled the country after just a few months and most of the people
who made it through one year didn't come back for a second year of
This includes people who had taught ESL in other developing countries or
had worked for the Peace Corps for a few years before coming to Korea.
Teachers who had worked in Africa, Morocco, Japan, China, Latin America,
and Thailand (and had enjoyed those experiences) all expressed frustration
and boredom with working and living in Korea.
The only people I met that liked Korea were the Mormon missionaries or
members of other conservative religious groups, people with absolutely no
social and/or economic prospects in their own country, or people who were
running away from something at home and had found a place where they
could almost completely hide from the Outside World (Korea is that isolated).
All of the people defending Korea on this web page and elsewhere on the
Internet probably fall into one of these three categories. They may even
be recruiters pretending to be satisfied teachers. If it was a requirement that
you had to post a picture with your testimonial, you would see that the Korea
apologists are a collection of side show freaks.
5) Living Conditions in Korea
Korea is seriously polluted, especially Seoul. I had a sore throat for the first
month that I was there due to the air pollution. The water is undrinkable (you
must drink bottled water) and brushing your teeth with it can cause
problems. I had to have my teeth cleaned and gums examined when I
returned home (there is still some gum damage along my upper back teeth).
Many of the Koreans have badly stained teeth and dental problems.
Korea is an OECD member, but it is still very much a developing country.
Pharmaceutical products are sub-standard (sometimes even causing
reactions), milk is unpasturized for the most part, and diseases which are
almost unheard of in North America (such as tuberculosis) abound.
Perhaps the worst part about living in Seoul is the numbing sameness of the
place. It is merely block after block of the same ugly buildings and
apartments, seemingly expanding out forever. I have been to fifteen
developing countries and I have never seen anything that looks worse than
Seoul (including Detroit). Bucharest in Romania is a slum, but it is a slum
with architectural character. The total lack of variety and external stimuli
began to ware away at me even more than always having to look over my
shoulder for immigration.
I went to Korea with higher expectations. My primary purpose was to save
money for school, but I also thought I would be exciting and a learning
experience. I am interested in the developing world and learning about other
cultures. I enjoyed visiting the other Asian countries that I traveled to when I
was working in Korea.
I learned to speak some Korean during my stay and read books on Korean
culture and history. The conclusion that I came to after two years was that
Korea is just a painfully dull place. Many of the Koreans think Korea is awful
and want to escape (which often breeds resentment against anyone holding
a North American passport).
Ultimately, everything worked out for me. I used the money I saved while teaching in Korea to
pay for graduate school and to put down payments on a car and a condo. I am now working as an
analyst for a government agency on the West Coast of America.
If I were seeking a job now, I would teach somewhere else where I could save money. There
are two other big markets for English teachers in Asia: Japan and Taiwan.
If you have decent qualifications and are presentable, Japan is certainly worth considering.
The pay differential between Korea and Japan is now much narrower and the language schools in
Japan are professional and organized for the most part (unlike Korea).
I visited Japan three times while I was working in Korea and was impressed by how clean and
modern it was. All of the English teachers I spoke to appeared to be normal people who could
actually hold down a job in their own country. Teaching in Japan has it own particular
difficulties, but everyone I met said that they were happy living and working in Japan.
Working part-time at another language school or company is still illegal and is actively
prosecuted, but all of the English teachers teach private students unmolested (Japan is strict
but not a police state). Problems exist with some of the language schools, but most are honest
according to the discussions I had with English teachers.
If you are less qualified or want to work in a developing country, Taiwan is a good bet. From
what I can gather, there are a number of shady employers in Taiwan but not nearly on the scale
that they exist in Korea. The English teachers in Taiwan also tend to be scummy, but Taiwan is
livelier and more open to foreigners than Korea and there is plenty of opportunity to save some
At current exchange rates, it is possible to save between $10,000 - $20,000 US a year teaching
at a language school in Korea in combination with doing a lot of outside work. This is about
what you can save in Japan and Taiwan if you are working the same kind of schedule.
If you just teach at a hagwon for a year without doing any privates or other work (which is all
you are legally allowed to do), the most you can save is about $10,000 US if you live very
frugally. You could probably save that much in a year at home waiting tables or driving a cab
if you lived simply. Korea used to be head and shoulders above the other Asian countries in
terms of saving possibilities, but this is no longer the case due to the depreciation of the
The reason that Korea appears to offer a better package than Japan or Taiwan is because
a) the language schools in Korea and Korea itself have horrible reputations and they have
trouble bringing teachers there;
b) most Korean employers have no intention of giving you the benefits or pay that you are
Even if you might save as much as $5,000 US a year more in Korea, is it really worth it when
you can teach in Japan or Taiwan, both of which are relatively free countries with better living
and working conditions? From my experience, the teachers that made it through a year in Korea
usually ended up in Japan soon after if they continued teaching. I stayed in Korea for a second
year because I didnít intend to teach anywhere else after I was finished there and I had already
built up a lot of work.
As for professional ESL teachers, work in a country that takes ESL seriously. The language
schools in Korea are just trying to make a fast buck and the public schools and universities
are not prepared or organized for ESL teaching. There are plenty of more interesting places to
go where ESL teachers are genuinely valued.
I just ask you to weigh the evidence. The sheer volume of negative feedback about Korea on
this web site and on the Internet in general should tell you something. If you notice, other
countries do not have this level of negative feedback. Also, the U.S. State Department has
not issued an official warning for any other major ESL market other than Korea (there is no
serious warning for Japan and none for Taiwan). How do all of Korea's defenders explain this?
During the time I was working in Korea, the exchange rate was excellent and outside work was
plentiful. If you were working freelance on a tourist visa, it was worth enduring the problems
of living in Korea if you really needed to save a lot of money (tax-free) in a short period of
time. Now, however, due to the reduced value of the Korean currency vs. the US and Canadian
dollars, the incredible amount of latitude Korean immigration has for arresting English
teachers, and the continuing struggle teachers have to go through just to get paid, I would
recommend not teaching English in Korea.
July 1st, 2002
Anchorage, AK (USA)