Expat ESL Teachers Face More Visa Hoops in Korea (Both E and F Holders)

EXPAT LIFE, From the Scene Add comments

By Matt VanVolkenburg (From Gusts of Popular Feeling)

Editor’s Note: Any teacher in Korea or planning to come should read carefully and decide whether he or she wants to be labelled a drug user and disease carrier in exchange for teaching English.

As blogged at the Marmot’s Hole last week, seven Korean-Americans, including two lawyers and a native speaking English instructor, were arrested on drug-related charges on March 15, with all but one being arrested for dealing. As the Korea Herald reported,

According to Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, a corporate lawyer, a native-speaking English teacher, and two others were indicted on charges of marijuana possession with intent to sell. [...] According to prosecutors, the teacher sold 5.3 million won worth of marijuana from December 2010 to February of this year, and was in possession of 55 grams of cocaine and 40 ecstasy pills.

The teacher worked in Gangwon Province from 2007 before moving to Seoul and teaching kindergarten students from 2009.

Prosecutors say that the teacher purchased the marijuana from a 24-year-old Korean-American currently in a gang in the U.S. Prosecutors also believe the teacher may be a “professional” drug dealer considering that he was in possession of a digital scale and other drugs.

This story was pretty widely reported in the Korean language press with around 40 articles on the bust, out of which 32 mention native speakers. I think I liked NoCut News’ article’s title best (“Drug dealing by English kindergarten native speaking teacher, international lawyer as well”) – no other report (other than the Herald article above) mentioned the kindergarten connection. (One thing about the NoCut News title is its mention of a kindergarten ‘teacher’ (gyosa in Korean); gyosa (school teacher) and gangsa (hagwon instructor) have very clear meanings when applied to Koreans, but seem to be applied to foreigners depending on how the reporter/editor is feeling that day.) The Hankyoreh stepped up and offered this cartoon to accompany this article:

“By day, a company lawyer. By night, a dealer.”
(Holding a bag of pot and giving an evil laugh.)
(At least this time he looks Asian)

The Herald article adds these statistics at the end of the article:

According to data from the Korea Customs Service, 25 percent of smugglers caught in 2011 were from the United States. Marijuana accounted for 7 percent of all drugs confiscated the same year.

In 2011, the National Police Agency apprehended 243 foreigners on drug-related charges, down from 858 in 2010. Figures were not released for total drug-related arrests of foreigners and Koreans for last year, but the figure was 9,732 in 2010.

What’s interesting is that I can’t find the 2011 statistics described above in the news media anywhere – but different figures do turn up at the Supreme Prosecutors Office. As is turns out, they put out monthly updates on drug prosecutions, and here is a 2011 year-end report.

(Click to enlarge.)

As can be seen, the total number of arrests fell from 9,732 in 2010 to 9,174 in 2011. A closer look at the 2010 statistics can be seen in last year’s annual SPO drug report. At that time, the media released articles with titles like “Domestic drug crimes decrease, drug crimes by foreigners increase” (Kookmin Ilbo), despite the fact that drug crimes by both Koreans and foreigners had decreased that year. Here are the number of foreigners arrested for drugs from 2001 to 2010:

2011 saw 295 foreigners arrested for drugs – a massive decrease from the past three years. One wonders how the media will spin this (if its reported at all) considering the narrative that has been constructed regarding growing foreign drug crime. Here’s the 2011 break down by country:

China 104
US 81
Vietnam 33
Canada 19
Nigeria 12
Russia 9
Thailand 8
Japan, South Africa 3 each
Taiwan, Germany, Brazil, UK, Iran, 2 each
New Zealand, Romania, Surinam, Spain, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Ireland, Uzbekistan, Israel, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Australia 1 each

Interestingly, Thais have been far and away the leaders for drug arrests since 2008, but last year only 8 were arrested (compared to 711 in 2008, 578 in 2009, and 419 in 2010). There were 124 arrests of Sri Lankans in 2010 and just 1 last year (which is similar to most other years). It’s interesting how the numbers fluctuate.

The Law Times, however, reported the following in regard to the lawyer drug bust:

A prosecution official said, “‘White collar’ foreign drug crime by people like American lawyers or native speaking instructors is steadily increasing.” “We will continue strong enforcement against foreign drug crimes.”

Interesting that there were so few reported drug crimes by foreign teachers last year (nine), and yet such crime by them is “steadily increasing.” (For more on last year’s media discourse on foreign teachers and drugs, see here.)

Later on the day of the drug bust involving the Korean American lawyers, teacher, and students, KBS, as the Marmot put it, “focused on the real problem—i.e., the lone English teacher who got busted—warning that there is a hole in the system.” KBS has in fact looked at the F visa loophole before, in 2009 (though that time it was an F-2 visa holder). Here’s some of what KBS reported:

In particular, since Mr. J entered the country on an F-4 visa, or jaeoe dongpo (or gyopo) visa, he could avoid a drug test.

Jang Gwangj-hui (Gyeonggi-do Gwangju-Hannam Office of Education section chief): “Last year, when hiring before the revision of the hagwon law, (hiring) without submitting documents (drug tests) was allowed.”

Poly School, which was responsible for managing the native speaking instructor, took the position that a hagwon is not legally responsible for an instructor’s individual crimes. [...]

Currently there are 15,400 native speaking instructors at hagwons in Korea.

Among these, 10% or 1,500 people are overseas Korean F-4 visa holders who do not need to submit criminal record checks which include a drug test certificate.

Ministry of Education, Science and Technology plans to confirm whether native speaking instructors working at well-known Seoul-area hagwons [are taking drugs via] a drug test when they are newly hired or when they renew their contracts, regardless of their visa status.

It’s nice to see those numbers for hagwons and the percentage of those on F-4 visas, since I’ve never seen such figures before. It’s that last paragraph, however, which is most interesting, as it describes how the MoE plans to implement last year’s revision of the Hagwon Law. Here are the parts of the revised bill pertinent to the discussion:

Article 13-2 (the hiring of foreign instructors) The person who established or manages the hagwon must, when hiring a foreign instructor to be responsible for foreign language instruction, submit the each of the following documents and have them confirmed before hiring the instructor:

1. A criminal background check
2. A health certificate (issued within the previous month and including the results of a drug and marijuana test)
3. An educational background certificate
4. Anything else prescribed by presidential decree

[As well, Article 23, which deals with penalties, will have paragraph 3-1 added to it, which stipulates that 3 million won will be the penalty if Article 13-2 is not followed.]

Supplementary Provisions

Article 5 (Interim Measures for foreign instructors carrying out foreign language instruction) According to the revised regulations in article 13-2, those currently working as foreign instructors must submit the documents listed in article 13-2 within one month of this law coming into effect.

immigration1 copyOf course, it would be foolish to assume that the MoE would think, “Well, E-2s already do all of this, so we need to apply this to F visa holders only.” They are, instead, requiring new drug tests, criminal record checks and notarized degrees of teachers on E-2 visas (who have already submitted such documents to immigration), and will require two copies of these documents for newly hired teachers. It’s all the more ridiculous when one considers that teachers working for public schools (which require drug and HIV tests and criminal record checks of all of its teachers regardless of visa) don’t face such doubled up document requirements despite the involvement of local offices of education and the MoE.

The new policy is mentioned here, and discussed at Dave’s ESL Cafe here, here, here, and here. People preparing to come to Korea are complaining about receiving the new request for additional documents after just receiving their criminal record checks (after lengthy waits). It also appears that some Ministry of Education branches will allow teachers already in country to make copies of their documents at the immigration office, while others won’t allow this.

It’s interesting that, according to that KBS article, the Ministry of Education plans to require foreign hagwon instructors to a take a “drug test when they are newly hired or when they renew their contracts, regardless of their visa status.” There’s nothing in the law (see above) that says anything about needing these documents when renewing their contracts – only when being hired. On the other hand, I’m not sure what the legal basis is for SMOE (and other offices of education) requiring drug and HIV tests when rehiring teachers. And, of course, with the most recent arrests, there have been editorials saying that “tests can only verify whether drugs have been used within the last two weeks,” which comes pretty close to suggesting random drug testing.

I was made aware of the new policy recently when someone I know told me that he was being required to turn in not just a new drug test, but also an HIV test – something the new law does not mention at all. Mind you, on the health test I took, the HIV test was included in the drug test section, so it might just get thrown in there anyway.

What last year’s revision to the hagwon law has apparently done is complete the codification of drug testing for all native speaking instructors in hagwons and public schools. This could be explained as necessary, of course, due to higher drug arrest rates for foreigners in Korea. Not that it ever is, however – statistical analysis would require more effort than regurgitating police/prosecution statistics and toeing the ‘foreign crime is increasing’ party line. That line (“the crime rate among native English teachers is getting higher”) was used to justify these bills (which were partly included in the recent revision of the hagwon law) despite the national assembly representative who introduced them not having any statistics to back that assertion up. Whether the implementation of the revisions to the hagwon law will lead to repeat drug testing in practice remains to be seen.


Matt VanVolkenburg has lived and taught English in Korea since 2001, and written the blog Gusts of Popular Feeling since 2005

9 Responses to “Expat ESL Teachers Face More Visa Hoops in Korea (Both E and F Holders)”

  1. SJL Says:

    All teachers, Korean or foreign, should be subject to the same tests. To make one group and not another take drug and disease tests is blatant discrimination. And WTF is the deal with skewing the data? How about a headline that announces the plunge in drug arrests? But the media couldn’t do that because it would fly in the face of their campaign.

  2. RabbitRabbi Says:

    So they are saying that F2 visa holders will have submit criminal background check, HIV test, drug test, and college diploma? I know someone who is getting married to a Korean in the near future and is planning to return to Korea with their spouse and teaching. I know this person has a record and no degree. Are these revisions in effect now? Are they being enforced? I’ve come across some currently teaching on a F2 who do not have a degree.

  3. pete Says:

    I’m on a F series visa, as I’ve had it for a bit I was only required to do the regular medical + drugs and AIDS and local Korean criminal check. To get one from native country would be expensive and a hassle.

    If they want these tests then they should, in the interest of fairness, be applied equally to Koreans and non Koreans alike. The school or business should also pay for it.

    To be honest, with all the mud slinging at native speaker teachers, if I wasn’t married an on an F series visa and a property owner here I’d have left a long time ago. I’m not a drug addict, I don’t have AIDS, and I don’t have a criminal record anywhere in the world.

    Wages for NSET have been stagnant for years, conditions in many jobs have got worse, and prices for everyday goods, utilities and services have sky rocketed. Any newbie going into teaching ESL-EFL is better off going to Europe, China or Vietnam these days.

    I may talk to my partner, rent the property here and relocate and start a business in Europe if the Korean authorities keep on behaving like this. At least Spain and Portugal (and most other European countries with a market for ESL-EFL) have a cleaner environment, better weather and better food than Korea.

    In the past Korea was a good place to be for a language teacher. With the attitude that we’re all criminal junkies with AIDS who molest children that some Koreans (not all) hold these days, and with salaries not even remotely keeping up with inflation. It’s time for many teachers to reflect a bit on our position here.

  4. pete Says:

    Rabbit, if he doesn’t even have a degree then he shouldn’t be teaching anyway. He ‘could’ do it illegally, but he shouldn’t. He could get in a lot of trouble. If he doesn’t have ‘at least’ a degree, he really doesn’t have any place in a classroom as a ‘teacher’, even teaching ‘ABC’ to the little ones is not as easy as it sounds. I’ve met some terrible teachers with teaching degrees, and some great teachers with random-weird degrees in the strangest of subjects.

    If he didn’t commit a serious offence, he may be able to get it ‘expunged’. If it is a serious offence they won’t remove it from his record (which is fair enough). He should still get his education ‘up to scratch’ if he wants to teach.

  5. RabbitRabbi Says:

    I have to disagree with you Pete. I did a short stint teaching in China back in the day and it was one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had. Having to work long hours on the weekend sucked but in the classroom it was a piece of cake.

  6. The Bobster Says:

    I’m looking hard, and I don’t see anything in the article to support the caveat inserted at the top.

    “Editor’s Note: Any teacher in Korea or planning to come should read carefully and decide whether he or she wants to be labelled [sic] a drug user and disease carrier in exchange for teaching English.”

    Didn’t you forget to mention “potential pederast?” (Insert eye-roll emoticon here.) Again, there’s no source in the article to support this. In fact, if someone has been tested for these things as part of a job screening process, isn’t it LESS likely, rather than more so, that the person (or group he or she belongs to) will be accused of these things? I’ll note that “Article 13-2” as quoted says nothing about an HIV test (or any other illness) but rather focuses on drug use, so I just don’t get where the editor is finding this stuff about ‘disease carriers.’

    Matt always does excellent research, but he’s forgotten to answer a couple of questions that really ought to be asked, and which few people bother to when this stuff comes up.

    1. Are the ‘hoops’ that native-speaking teachers asked to jump through terribly different from those that Korean teachers have to perform?
    2. Are these hoops qualitatively different from those required of people in our own countries who seek to do work in daily contact with small children?

    I ask these things because I really want to know – the article does seem to strongly suggest that foreign teachers are being discriminated against. It might be true, but unless you can show that foreign teachers are being treated differently here, then it’s not such an easy case to make as what is being implied and presented.

    For many years, it was possible – easy, in fact – for someone with absolutely no credentials or prior experience to make a phone call in Chicago and be working in daily contact with small children in Daegu or Busan or Seoul a week later or even less. Even today, I’d wager it is still easier for this person to get such a job and be on the ground here than it would be to do so in their own neighborhood.

    As for the article, the only added hoops I see here are that F-visa holders will need to do what E-visa types have been doing for a little while now. Am I missing something? Is there some reason that those of us on F-visas should be looked at less carefully than others when seeking to do the same job?

  7. Don Julian Says:

    I find it interesting how gyopo are treated as Korean for immigration purposes and of course for FAME of the country, but they are considered American for criminal stats.

    I am always weary of arrest stats. Clearly as seen with the Thai stats, it all depends on WHO they crack down on. Just because arrests aren’t being made (or sought), doesn’t mean the crime isn’t there. If you stop door busting brothels, it doesn’t mean prostitution is on the decline. I also find it disturbing how stats are never reported is proportion, just absolute numbers.
    Thirdly, and indicative of Korean culture and its inability to seek truth in numbers or media, being prone to ignorant hysteria, is that the stats are for ARRESTS, NOT convictions. Of course, in Korea, there is no presumption on innocence, so I would wager those arrests are closely in line with convictions (ie high conviction rates, because after all, foreigners MUST be guilty, while a Korea may have ‘mistakenly’ been involved and deserves leniency, thus no conviction or a commuting of sentence). Thus endeth my rant.

  8. Stevie D Says:

    I can only wish that similar stringent measures would be required of Koreans seeking to find employment or long-term visa status in the U.S. as those applied to EFL instructors seeking to work on the Korean peninsula. Perhaps if we (the U.S. and the Commonwealth) required Koreans coming into our countries–even if only for long-term visas or educational stays–to submit to criminal background checks, we would not have incidents akin to the Cho shooting at Virginia Polytech.; maybe if we required drug screenings of visiting Koreans, we wouldn’t have gyopos “currently in a gang in the U.S.” being ABLE to sell drugs ANYWHERE; perhaps if we required checks on degrees and educational backgrounds, we would be able to avoid imposters like Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk performing shady research. Sound racist and extremist? Well…guess what…IT IS! But this is what Americans (and other Commonwealths) must endure to be able to teach in S. Korea. Those with racist mindsets in Korea often overlook the multitude of EFL instructors who come to Korea every year and are NOT pedophiles, drug dealers/takers, playboys, or mentally aberrant and JUST WANT TO DO A GOOD JOB. Unfortunately, until Koreans start confronting such profiling and racially charged criteria themselves when seeking to go abroad, they will just continue to take a high-browed approach, coupled with “Great Han Empire People” thinking, to their treat of non-native persons living on the peninsula and view all of them with contempt and indifference.

  9. Stacy Says:

    @Pete Couldn’t agree more and I’m an E-2. Your spot on about stagnant wages as well–+10 years and if you look at starter jobs they are exactly where they were. Now if you do establish yourself and get a good gig the pay is much higher. Yet by and large, the price of living has consistently gone up so someone starting out at a regular job is going to have a hard time saving anything. Throw into the mix that you’ll have to spend extra money getting your degree verified, getting your CBC done and then approved, getting a full health check and regardless of all that, you’ll still be judged through a prejudicial and nationalistic and xenophobic prism. Oh, and you’ll be leered at wherever you go. Any potential ESL teacher better do his or her research.

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