photographer, visual artist and designer.

On Working With Koreans and/or in South Korea

The Korean Dream

As someone who spent about three years living in Seoul, it would probably seem like I enjoy working with Koreans. But the truth is far from that. I’ve never thought of working in South Korea with Koreans in a Korean company. And I don’t think that’s about to change any time soon.

Many Singaporeans (and not just Singaporeans) dream of working in South Korea, mainly in the two largest cities in the country, Seoul and Busan. The number of people who want to work in South Korea seem to have increased in recent years, likely due to Korean Wave and also perhaps partially due to the lack of job opportunities and prospects in Singapore itself.

Because South Korea is largely monolingual and there isn’t much information out there for Singaporeans, even those with Korean acquaintances and friends struggle to find a way to understand and enter the Korean job market. It all just seems elusive. And so, many are turning to Facebook groups such as Singapore Club Seoul to ask for advice from those who are living or have lived in South Korea.

Often, these hopeful candidates are met with harsh responses that are not actually directed at them as individuals, but are meant as friendly reminders that the grass is not greener on the other side.

Most expats working in South Korea, as well as those who have tried and failed to get a job in South Korea would know why. The Korean media has portrayed a reality that Koreans and anyone who has been living in South Korea long enough would know is unreal. Being in Seoul as a tourist and living in the country itself are also two entirely different experiences.

In addition, high unemployment rate and difficulty in getting a work visa in South Korea are real problems. Even with a work visa, good opportunities are few and far between. If getting highly paid is a concern for you, note that the average salary in the country is lower than in Singapore (though if you are smart with your finances, you might still be able to save more than you would in Singapore due to the slightly lower cost of living).

I try not to sound like one of those who discourage others from dreaming big and working towards their passions. No one’s here to stop you from studying the Korean language, applying for a university in South Korea and then try to get a job. You might just be one of the lucky ones who fall out of the statistics. But just know that dreams are sometimes limited by reality.

Qualifications play a part.

Most of the time, graduating from one of the top 200 universities under the QS World University Rankings would give you an advantage in applying for either work visas or even permanent residency.

If you’re from Singapore, currently only NTU and NUS qualify. Graduating from a university in South Korea definitely helps.

For permanent residency, while the ranking of your university may not matter as much, the point system is complex and getting more and more rigid in recent years. Since it seems to change every so often, I’ll not go into depth regarding the requirements.

In short, the more educated you are, the higher your earning power is and the younger you are, the higher your chances are in getting the much coveted F2 Long-term Residency Visa.

It’s a catch-22 situation.

You need a job to be sponsored for a work visa. You need a visa to get a decent job.

Most people who are dying to work in South Korea (especially Taiwanese, since the pay in South Korea is higher than in Taiwan) would take up just about any job in their first year or two, so that they can apply for the F2 visa and look for a better job after that. The F2 visa gives them more flexibility in terms of the type of job that they can take up and it’s often higher paying jobs.

The type of jobs that most people take up in their first year are usually service line jobs that require you to be able to speak Mandarin, Cantonese, English, Japanese or other foreign languages.

Not unexpectedly, most of them work in the tourism industry.

My not-so-good experiences working with Koreans.

Officially, I’ve worked under three Korean employers, two in Singapore and one in Seoul. My experience in Seoul was fantastic, and I felt like I was treated fairly and paid generously. On top of that, it kickstarted my career as a photographer. It was an internship and the experience was too good to be true.

As for the two Korean employers that I’ve worked with in Singapore, they seemed to have no qualms about breaking the rules and regulations set by MOM to protect employees. In fact, with one of them, I’ve had to go to the CPF Board and MOM to resolve a salary-related claim. Both employers also did not feel there was anything wrong about overworking their employees and depriving them of their entitled breaks.

To be fair, these are not problems unique only to Korean employers, but it seems fairly common among Korean employers even back in South Korea.

Stories by other people.

During my days in Yonsei University KLI, I’ve heard many stories about foreign students taking up part-time jobs only to be deprived of their pay. Firstly, the employers knew it would be too much trouble for foreign students to file for salary-related claims (especially for that little amount of money). And secondly, many of these students are working illegally. While both parties are at fault, the employers just seem like mercenaries who honestly would do anything for money.

Why hire these poor students and promise to pay them in the first place?

So the point of this post is…

Should you still work for Koreans? Sure. But never be too trusting.