Many foreigners choose to teach English in (South) Korea without the required documentation ? illegally. They may have had a visa initially and are unable or unwilling to obtain a new one, or they might simply have began teaching without any visa whatsoever.
Still other individuals, with visas to teach at specific institutions, teach students privately outside of school time (“privates”), according to conditions arranged between them and the students or students’ parents ? also illegal.
If a foreigner is caught teaching English in either of the above situations, the penalty is usually severe. Government fines can be thousands of dollars for both “offending” parties (in the case of teacher and school), as well as deportation of the teacher at his or her expense. Teachers are imprisoned until they can pay their fines (although cases vary in this respect).
The Korean Immigration website is vague about the legal rights of immigration offenders and offers no information regarding specific fines or penalties (other than deportation). Certainly, the investigative procedures used by the government have been reported to be lacking in objectivity and impartiality. Penalties are determined on a case-by-case basis, and offenders don’t know what to expect until a ruling is handed down by the immigration official in charge of their case.
Among the accounts given by foreigners who have been caught, we find many distasteful details, among them: pronouncements of guilt with scant evidence (a few grammar books found in the suspect’s backpack), bribes made to, and received by immigration officials, and overall, just a lack of transparency and accountability in investigation and adjudication.
Paramount even to these problems, however, are immigration policies themselves. (This problem definitely isn’t limited to Korea, but we’ll focus on Korea here ? and specifically on the teaching of English). The Korean government assures its people that the restriction and policing of English teachers coming to Korea prevents Korean students and parents from being victimized by unqualified English teachers, and aims to diminish the “education black market.”
The ‘education black market’ refers to any paid teaching that occurs outside of government-licensed institutions. The Ministry of Education contends that Korean parents spend a disproportionate amount of money in the “black market” of private tutoring, in order to give their children a competitive edge in examinations (all of which is true). Well, Korea is capitalist ? so what’s the problem, you might ask? A system that encourages rigorous private education may very well result in wealthier families having advantaged children. Is there anything immoral about that? If people can’t use their wealth to their children’s advantage, what good is it?
So what is really wrong with this situation? Is it the tax dollars lost to the private education sector? I’m sure that has something to do with it, but there is something deeper and more sinister at work here.
The alleged corruption of immigration officials and inconsistency of legal administration aside, the core problem is the mentality that Korean citizens and businesses are unable to make their own educated hiring decisions. Aren’t Korean parents and business owners adults – able and qualified, and most importantly, possessed of the right to select the right tutor for their child or customer? The Koreans I know certainly are, and it is insulting to think otherwise. If a teacher has gained employment by misrepresenting his or her qualifications (fraud) ? then there is a valid cause for government intervention. However, the hiring process should rightfully be in the employer’s full control.
Without the government’s protection, apparently Korean children would be taught by alcoholic, drug-addicted, child-molesting, high school dropout foreigners whose aim it is to come thousands of miles to deprive good, albeit naive Koreans of their hard-earned money.
Anytime a foreign teacher (among the tens of thousands here) remotely fits this stereotype, the media has a field day – complete with fear-inspiring documentaries and government press releases promising more crackdowns on immigration offenders.
The concept that Korean citizens are unable to make rational decisions gives rise to other ludicrous legislation. Did you know that it is illegal for Korean citizens to gamble in their own casinos? Alarmed at the amount of money people were gambling with, the Korean government saw this as a wise decision. You may also want to look at the recent trade embargoes on American beef as an example of undue government interference. During all of this micro-management, gang-related crime, human trafficking, and corruption (legitimate government concerns), continue to be rampant.
How does this relate to you, if you’re teaching in Korea? Well, whether you engage in the occasional private lesson or are teaching in a way that is otherwise unlawful in this country – breathe a little easier. Because unless you’re misrepresenting yourself in some way, there is absolutely nothing morally wrong about an exchange of goods or services for payment between free individuals.
A government’s proper function is to protect its people from force and fraud, not interfere with our right to enter into a contract with other free individuals. Although there exists a practical need for discretion if you choose to teach illegally, and you should remain aware of the risks, don’t feel guilty about what you’re doing. Teach to the best of your ability, and who knows? Mindsets may begin to change – the day may come when our Korean friends, co-workers, and neighbors realize that they don’t need to be babysat by their government.
Whatever you do, don’t be discouraged with Korea! Those of you who live here know just how much it has to offer us, and in some ways, industriousness and honesty are rewarded here like nowhere else. The problems I’ve talked about go beyond Korea, and exist to some lesser or greater degree in our own countries. Let’s strive to be positive agents for change where we live!
Source: Seoul Times