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 
       Korean employers. 

       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 
Korean won.  

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 
being promised.

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.

                                     John Balance
                                     July 1st, 2002 
                                     Anchorage, AK (USA)