The Globe and Mail: Canadian teachers caught in S. Korean crackdown

Here we go with another newspaper misrepresentation. But this time, it’s not the Dong-Ah or the Joongang or the Chosun Ilbo, or even the Korea Herald. It’s The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper thant just ran a story titled: Canadian teachers caught in S. Korean crackdown.

I got an email from my accountant in Montreal asking if I am okay. I got another email forwarded to me from a reporter in Saskatchewan who wants to talk to a Canadian in Korea about “the Canadian crackdown”.

Well, as far as I know, it’s not a Canadian crackdown. It’s just a crackdown on idiots.

See, here’s the thing: all you need to get a teaching job in Korea is a degree… in ANY subject. Yeah, some people realize who ridiculous this is. Some don’t. Everyone seems to think that the best way to develop one’s English is talking with native speakers, though, and most Education-majors find enough disincentives to remain that people with majors in Literature, History, Geography, Art, and other areas end up here.

Which isn’t all bad. Some of these people develop into rather good teachers, actually. Some don’t. I wouldn’t dare hazard a guess at how many go either way, except to say that whatever extreme positive developments and negative developments we see generally have very little effect on the overall education system, because the shape of the system is determined by Korean businessmen or administrators. Thus most of the benefits and some of the negatives get swept away into the noise of the system.

So anyway, as I said, it’s absolutely easy to get a job in Korea as a foreigner, as long as you’re white and a native speaker. (Nonwhite native English speakers also can do it, but unless you’re a foreign-Korean, it’s progressively less easy the darker-skinned you are, and most nonwhites find it socially difficult enough that, in my experience, they tend not to stay too long.)

This said, many private-school owners are fairly unscrupulous, as are many prospective teachers. Sometimes the school-operator hires people, promises to get the legal paperwork done, and then never bothers. Given the extreme difficulty of getting the legal issues squared away by oneself in most parts of Korea — especially one’s first time in the country — the standard practice is that school-operators bring one to the immigration office and negotiate the paperwork. But some people, either to save a little money on the legally-required end-of-contract bonus pay, or have better control over a worker (illegal status means you have to comply to unreasonable and — more importantly, uncontractual — demands without refusal or complaint), or perhaps for other reasons I wouldn’t know about, just simply never get the foreigner registered. And, in legal terms, the fault comes down to the employee; although this is sometimes possible to transfer to the boss, when one can prove it’s the boss’s fault, it can be difficult, especially when dealing with a Ministry of Justice Official who can’t speak more than rudimentary English. Such persons actually do find employment in offices primarily tasked with dealing with foreigners, as ridiculous as it sounds.

Meanwhile, there are droves of foreigners who are at fault in cases of qualifications fraud. Although I’ve never known anyone who’s come over on the basis of a fake diploma, one hears stories and rumors, and occasionally a fake professor gets caught and put on the news. This is illegal and I have zero sympathy for the idiots who do this and then think they can get away with it. They give the qualified, serious teachers in Korea a bad repuation, and frankly I’m glad to be rid of them.

Which is not to defend the way the Ministry of Justice handles them. If too many people are being detained in small rooms, well, I suppose that’s not very nice. But you know, in some countries the consequences would be much stricter. And besides, I think the description in the Globe article gives an impression that people are being put in holes in the ground. I’m fairly certain we’re talking about ventilated, relatively clean spaces. And I’m fairly certain the reason so many people are being put in holding rooms is because (a) crackdowns like these go hard and fast for a short time, (b) because it’s just not common for organizations of any kind in Korea to prepare ahead of time for situations like this, and (c) because, gee, there are so many damned people here illegally, or working illegally. And very close to everyone who does it knows it’s illegal; most people think they don’t face any risk, and depending on their region it might be true. But everyone, everyone knows it’s technically illegal. Saying one was “enticed” into doing it is a way of shifting the blame: anyone who is giving private lessons decided to do it, knowing it was illegal.

Surely in Canada, foreign workers who violate the agreement under which they are allowed to work and live in Canada would also be subject to legal consequences, up to and including deportation? Surely they would not be processed immediately?

But finally, on the subject of “illegal” private teaching, this is Korea’s big open secret. A majority of foreigners are teaching private lessons. The Ministry of Justice claims that this is illegal; however, according to a legal expert in Korea, who is known online as The EFL Law Guy, it’s not illegal at all according to some kind of international labour law treaty that Korea ratified. (Of course, like so much of the way the Ministry of Justice handles foreign labourers, this is a byzantine ad-hoc law that is not really legal or binding, but is de facto the law because, well, good luck getting around it.)

The even bigger secret is that a lot of the most effective teaching going on in Korea seems to be going on in private. Many dedicated, skilled teachers give private lessons, and their students tend to be very happy with the results. Even with an unskilled teacher, a lot of the distractions of the classroom setting and of an academic system being removed aid students’ learning, especially in the area of conversational use of English.

The reason that the private-cram-school system — which was illegal not so long ago just as private lessons are today — is more acceptable to the Ministry of Justice is because these institutions are almost exclusively run by Koreans, due to prohibitive ownership laws (one must have lived in Korea for something like ten years before one can be the sole proprietor of a business). No matter how unscrupulous these “hakwon” owners are for being crooked or unscrupulous, the Korean government (and I suspect Korean society in general) prefers any foreign population in Korea being under their control than acting as free agents.

This is an ironic tragedy, I suspect, because if private lessons were to be legalized for foreigners, a market would emerge, in which skilled or outstanding teachers would be sought after but also required to charge competitive rates; meanwhile, Korea would be honoring its international agreements, and very likely the acquisition of English would nationwide improve. Meanwhile, universities would also have a surplus of foreigners from whom to choose for their faculties, and would be able to impose demands for better qualifications, instead of just accepting anyone with an MA or a BA and a little experience.

Maybe the main issue is tax. After all, private lessons constitute an underground-economy industry, a kind of black market and therefore go untaxed. That may well be the main reason it’s illegal; taxation issues. If thousands of foreigners living in Canada did under the table work for $30-50 an hour and never paid a cent of tax on it, I imagine the Canadian government would rapidly be having a crackdown too. The difference is, the Canadian government would probably just demand tax on lessons and deport you if you defrauded on your taxes. I don’t know, though, what the legal issues are for freelance work by foreigners in Canada. Then again, I know we generally don’t need non-immigrant foreigners on the scale that Korea seems to need for its English-education industry/obsession.

Another thing I want to point out is that the Korean legal system is extremely fond of crackdowns. When the sex trade crackdown happened last year — or was it earlier this year — it was pursued with such fervor that the national economy suffered, to the tune of one percent of the GDP, or was is GNP? I can’t remember. Crackdowns on bad drivers have also happened. Most such things last only a while, and then they evaporate, and things go back to how they were, or as close as possible.

Finally: there was a time last year when peoples’ attitudes towards white foreigners became noticeably more negative, or at least circumspect; but then Korea got a big hate-fest going for Japan over the territory dispute regarding Dokdo (called Takeshima by Japan), and things cooled off. I don’t find people outwardly negative toward me, and most of the (small amount of) racism I’ve encountered in the classroom has been focused on macho statements of hatred for (or, in more critical minded students, anger at) Japan. But living in a foreign country is not easy, and living in one where such little English is properly and comprehensibly spoken, and where people are so insular and race-minded, and so on, that can be quite difficult. Add to that any bad experience and one sees every pair of eyes as if they were looking with anger: I know from experience. This is the perception of people who’re under arrest for breaking the (de facto) labour law, so of course they’ll have bad things to say; even foreigners who really love Korea (or their lives in Korea) often have a lot of bad things to say, on a bad day.

Anyway, that’s my two cents on this whole “crackdown on Canadians in Korea” thing.

UPDATE: And what I said about risks and decision making? It goes double for the use of fake diplomas. To people who do that, I laugh in their faces. I worked damn hard for my BA and MA. I went hungry sometimes and I studied like a madman. It may not be much but I earned this education. That someone would have the gall to go buy a diploma, and that they could get away with it, pisses me off. I only wish that the Korean Ministry of Justice would start checking on diplomas from the get-go. It’d be a lot more effective.

UPDATE 2: Sheldon at The Marmot’s Hole got a post up on the subject before I did, of course: it’s brief but followed by a fair amount of discussion.

12 thoughts on “The Globe and Mail: Canadian teachers caught in S. Korean crackdown

  1. Nice one, Gord.

    This place is looking pretty good lately.

    We had a widely publicised arrest of a Canadian guy from British Columbia down here last month. He was arrested with all kinds of dope, cocain, pills, etc at his house with some other EFL’ers. I guess they were bringing drugs into the country inside textbooks they were ordering.

    Lots of riff raff from Canada and other parts walking around TEFL’ing here in Taipei City also.

    There is, however, a certain amount of tolerance for illegal English teaching it seems.

    Maybe this is similar to Korea in that regard.

    In Japan, I never met any illegal English teachers but have met tons here in Taiwan with fake University of Victoria or University of Ottawa B.A. degrees!

    They say they haven’t had any problems with the fake docs, either!

  2. I’ve heard people can legally teach freelance in Japan, though; is that not the case?

    The sad thing is that this would all be so easy to prevent: the Immigration office handling the dipomas would just need to call the relevant University with the transcript in hand, feed in the student number, and get an answer within one minute as to whether it’s a real transcript connected to a real name, Too bad nobody seems to want to do his (or her) homework.

  3. While this is one of those Friend of a Friend things, it’s my impression that teaching ESL in Japan is significantly easier — and safer — cause you “own” your visa rather than having to get it via your school.

    So, in that respect, being a free-lance peddler of English is ligit in Japan. The downside, of course, is that Japan is SO EXPENSIVE that it’s probably moot to try to teach there freelance.

  4. Personally, I saved more money in Japan than I did in either Korea or Taiwan.

    I made Twice what I make here in Taiwan.

    Furthermore, I had a 3 year work visa that was not tied to an employer. I could work for any school anywhere.

    If I were teaching in Tokyo, I could quit my job today and go work in Hokkaido if I felt like it.

    There are so many EFL jobs, and high paying positions, in Tokyo that you could work the rest of your life there and have no problem finding lucrative part time gigs.

    Tokyo is on my list as the most lucrative EFL destination next to the United Arab Emirates or some of those great-paying M.E. jobs.

  5. Dear Sir,
    What info could you relay to a person with an AA degree, a TEFL certificate, and three years of favourable comments of teaching experience with foreign high school and university level students as well as doing many English Camps for foreign teachers?
    Which country can a fiance from another country work in while I would be there?
    Which country would allow a pet dog into the country with a short quarantine time?

    1. Is Japan really a place that is affordable if money is budgeted and possible?
    2. Which is the best country in the middle east that would be willing to accept my listed aspects?
    3. Is a place like Istanbul or Buenos Aires even something that would be worth looking into for a job area?

  6. T. Walcholz,

    1. According to the other people above, yes. I don’t know about living there, but when I traveled there, I was struck by how much less expensive it was than I expected. I figure if you’re not a spendthrift, you can do okay.

    As for questions 2 & 3, I have no idea. You should research those things for yourself, or ask people who’ve actually been there. Me, I’ve only every worked in EFL in Korea (and, sort-of, in ESL, in Montreal).

    Good luck, and feel free to post what you find out here.

  7. The past 2 years the media has really been hammering on the foreigners in Korea. . Teachers are often accused of being pedophiles, criminals, drug users and disease carriers due to media exaggeration and a bad example of a few offenders in the past. The teaching visa is more strict this year now requiring a criminal history and medical check.

  8. Jim,

    I don’t perceive the media as more racist than in the past, though. To me it seems like more of the same-old. I could be wrong, though. What’s different is the government acting like the histrionic media is actually onto something.

    And, well, in its usual ridiculous, hysterical way, it kind of is. There are pedophiles (very few, but some), druggies, useless drunkards, fake-diploma holders, and more teaching in hakwons. Since the hakwon owners will never smarten up, I think the criminal history and record check is a reasonable demand… as long as reasonable time is given for the record requests to get processed.

    As others have pointed out, it’s not more onerous than what lots of countries ask of people coming in on work visas. So I have trouble criticising the requirements.

    I do think it’s hilarious that they want to check for alcoholism. How many Koreans would fail such a test? The presumption that alcoholism can (a) be detected or (b) exists as a discrete illness (in a way that psychological pot-dependency, or an obsession with Japanese manga do not) are really odd, and worse, I suspect plenty of Koreans would fail whatever criteria too… yet they’re allowed to function in society. That’s an unnecessarily harsh double-standard, especially if false positives are possible (like the fatty liver I have, not from drinking but from lack of exercise, or the physiological differences in bodily reaction to alcohol that “alcoholics” demonstrate, as discussed in the link in my post).

    But frankly, I’m as tired of the ever-drunken fratboys as any Korean, maybe more. If only the Korean government would do something about violent, drunk middled-aged Korean men on the subway next.

  9. I can’t help it, I and I have to refrain from leaving my details (I’m sure you’ll understand), but I’ve used a fake Masters and BA diploma in Korea and Japan for years and years with never a single solitary problem. While you were studying, I was traveling the world and loving it. I’ve even been published based on those credentials and I must say, I enjoyed all that much more knowing I was bull shitting everyone.

    Perhaps there is some kind of satisfaction for some simply in the act of grinding out a degree, but I highly suspect I’m not one of those.

    Anyway, Cheers and have a lovely weekend.

    1. I assume you realize that you’re commenting on a post from 12 years ago; the post is a little less nuanced than what I’d say today, but my attitude is the same: the risk is yours. It may pay off for a while, but often there’s a price for fraud in the long run. Also, bragging is risky: I could easily post your IP address ( or pass on this information to someone in Japan who could pursue it, now couldn’t I?

      But they probably don’t care. I’m fairly certain nobody much cares about your credentials, or cares about who fills your position. That’s the life of most expat English teachers in Asia, if we’re honest, and so I understand your desire for a kind of vindictive revenge. Well, kind of.

      I mean, it can’t feel great forever to be hoodwinking people. Not if you’re neurotypical, anyway. There’s a point where faking (and exulting in faking) eventually gives way to fatigue. Living a lie means either having no deep or long-term relationships, or questioning the trustworthiness of anyone who accepts you despite knowing the truth about you. (If someone’s cool with you being a fraud, they’re likely a fraud too, and you can’t trust them: the moment they feel screwed over, or you break up, or whatever, you risk being outed and deported… at least, assuming things work in Japan as they do here.)

      Plus on some level, you know it’s not a big achievement. I’ve seen people who were barely mentally functional (from prescription pill addiction, alcoholism, somewhat serious mental illness, and even just plain stupidity) pull off the very same fraud for years on end, so it can’t be all that hard. To brag about it is a bit like crowing about having shot fish in the barrel, really, especially if you arrived back in the old Wild West days of the TEFL boom in this region.

      Besides, you know it’s not going to work forever. Either you’ll get caught, or the field will contract—it’s already begun to do so—until the jobs that do exist will be more competed-over and condidates more aggressively vetted. You’ll end up working worse jobs for less money, and the glee at defrauding your employers will lose its consoling power.

      Which is to say, I thought at first your post—a drive-by-bragging comment—seemed a little narcissistic, but now I can’t help but think it’s just a sort of abiding loneliness that makes you go around the internet, bragging about your negligible achievements in scamming those who are quite willing to be scammed.

      Hm. If only I thought you were coming back to read this, I’d be very curious to see your response. But I know you probably won’t be back. Ah well.

      Oh, by the way, while I mention working like hell and sometimes going hungry to finish school, I loved studying. I truly did. If I could do one thing differently, I would have gotten a PhD as well as a Master’s. It was very fulfilling, and equipped me very well for all that’s come since. It’s not for everyone… but neither is a life of fraud, really.

      Good luck… I expect sooner or later you’re going to need it.

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