Sunday, January 20, 2008

Commentary on "Korea -- A Desert Island in the Globalized World?"

This is an interesting article from the Chosun Ilbo. It talks about the problems foreigners have living here in Korea.

Korea -- A Desert Island in the Globalized World?

"Is Korea still an isolated country? Many have been calling for a "global Korea" over the last decade, stressing that globalization is the only way for survival. The number of foreigners living in the country exceeded the 1 million mark last year, but many of them say Korea lags far behind Singapore or Japan. There is plenty of inconvenience in their everyday life here, from basic communication and asking for directions to applying for credit cards and using the Internet. They also say Koreans still have little regard for the feeling of foreigners.

John (25), a Canadian English teacher in Seoul, has a problem with, of all things, his mobile phone. Despite plenty of battery power, his mobile phone goes dead a lot because he is on a pre-paid plan. In Korea, it is difficult for foreigners to subscribe to normal, post-paid plans, apparently because service providers fear they could scram without paying their bills.

Michael (42), an American who has taught English at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies for three years, has a similar problem. Last year, he went to an airline office to buy a flight ticket for the Christmas holidays carrying W3.5 million (US$1=W936) in his backpack -- and with Korea’s small-denomination banknotes that’s a lot of paper -- because he could not get a credit card. "I tried to apply to two banks for a credit card. But the only reply I got from their clerks was, 'No, sorry.' They neither attempted to explain to me why they were not issuing a credit card nor gave me any brochures in English."

Foreigners in Korea complain that it is very difficult to get ID numbers to use in the basic service sectors, including financing, the Internet, and communications. Most foreigners carry alien registration cards and numbers provided by the Korean government. But they are no use in everyday life, which makes it much more difficult to book train tickets, buy movie tickets in advance, or make online payments.

Korean websites use strict criteria for foreigners who wish to subscribe to their services -- and there are no set standards either. It is possible for foreigners registered with the Immigration Office of the Justice Ministry to apply for services on portal sites such as Naver and Empas with their ID numbers. But they are required to send copies of their alien registration cards by fax if they want to use services on CyWorld or CGV. And errors frequently occur even on Naver during the subscription process.

Banking is another headache. Even if a bank decides to issue credit cards to foreigners, services differ greatly depending, it seems, on the individual clerks who deal with them. One clerk at a call center of Kookmin Bank, the country's largest bank, said, "If you carry a professor's visa but don't have a third guarantor, you have to give proof of a salary of over W50 million a year." But another clerk said, "If you carry a professor's visa, you don't need proof of income."

What is the situation in other Asian countries like Japan and Hong Kong? In Japan, foreigners can immediately subscribe to mobile phone services and medical insurance if they carry an alien registration card. They are not discriminated against in terms and conditions or benefits from such services. Most portal sites in Japan like “”, the most popular site among Japanese netizens, only require foreigners to present basic information such as names and addresses, without asking for ID numbers.

In Hong Kong, foreigners also have little trouble subscribing to mobile phone and credit card services, even if they don't have third guarantors or make security deposits. Major banks in Hong Kong, such as HSBC, Standard Chartered and Heng Sheng Bank, allow foreigners to apply for credit cards three months after they open accounts -- on the same terms and conditions as local residents. Foreigners can also apply for housing loans after verifying their credit status, including income, just like local residents.

In Singapore, foreigners with employment passes, are not discriminated against in applying for mobile phone or credit card services. If they have employment passes and bank accounts, they can apply for bank loans. Ryan (32), a Canadian English teacher who arrived in Korea two years ago after living in Japan for three years, said, "Foreigners experience more inconvenience in Korea than in Japan because Korea has no universal standards. It seems Korea hasn’t even set its own standards yet, let alone using global standards.""

It's pretty much true. Now I got lucky very early on and I have a cell phone account in my name with LG Telecom. That was only because a friend of mine lucked upon a shop that only required your alien registration card and proof that you were a professor rather than an English teacher at a hagwon. He was tenacious and just kept going to shop after shop until he found a shop that would issue him a cell phone account. Therefore, I benefited when he told me about it, and I went up to the city where he was teaching to get my own account.

It's great because I've never had to be dependent on a Korean for a cell phone account or had to do the irritating calling card thing. I think the reasoning behind it might be right that someone employed at a college or university as a professor isn't going to skip the country. However, if I'm an honest hagwon teacher, I think it sucks that I have to suffer for the actions of foreigners who skip the country because those foreigners are almost always reacting to unscrupulous employment practices. It's frequent that teachers deal with dilemmas like not being paid or having the employer simply make rules up as they go along rather than obeying the contract terms. In that situation, I think call it a day here too.

I know that the Korean Rail system had a GREAT reservation system in place that worked in both English and Korean. I had a reservation card. I used it all the time. If the English page was down, my Korean is good enough that I could hop on the Korean site and make a reservation there. I accumulated points, and eventually got free train tickets now and then. But then someone decided to change it and the current system they have is not foreigner friendly. They completely skipped having an English, Chinese and Japanese option. I can use it, but it's not worth stumbling through as I live in Seoul and rarely leave the city these days. I just don't take the train now. However, should I have to, now it's back to going to the train station to get a ticket and then doubling back to get on my train or waiting around in the train station to catch my train. That sucks.

It's also true that we can't register for Korean websites with the ID numbers we have. Okay, technically, you can. But you have to submit all sorts of information to get access and I'm not going to bother with that. I'll just stick with Google, thank you very much. It's irritating. I have a friend who says it's going to change and under President-elect Lee, it just might, but for now it takes a lot of effort for a foreigner to get a Cyworld account, so screw it. I know part of it is because of the legal rules here. You can't say something bad about a person in Korea even if it's true. So if you have a real name system where your account is tied to your government issued ID, you're easy to find. It cuts the anonymous posting of stuff online right out.

I have an LG Telecom account, but I can't register on their website with my government issued number because the system doesn't recognize the ID number format foreigners get. That was irritating when I made a reservation for a US mobile phone for my upcoming trip. The representative told me I'd get 50% off the daily rental rate if I reserved online. This is going to be a three week trip, so 50% off adds up. I told her that, as a foreigner, I can't even register on the website. However, living here for awhile has taught me that objecting initially usually gets you nowhere in a situation like this. Instead, I tried to do the online reservation just to say I tried it, 'cause I knew I was going to call back. Of course, it didn't work. I called back later in the week and the representative just gave me the discount. But really, it would be nice just to hop online and do it.

Also, it's true about credit cards. The rules change depending on who you're dealing with. I've had two Korean credit cards before, but I cancelled both as it was just too much of a pain to deal with. My American issued cards work here just fine. However, now I have a Korean credit card from Samsung. They're great. Now they have a support line specifically for foreigners who have Samsung cards.

The general belief is you'll never get a Korean issued credit card or, if you do, you had to sacrifice your first-born to get it ;-) What's funny is the Samsung representative chased me down to issue me one. I think that was because she is on commission as I think she chased down all the foreign professors at my job. I kept avoiding her because I didn't want another Korean credit card. But she found me, I signed up and it has made my life easier. I'd had a Samsung card a few years ago and that experience was a nightmare. Since settling that first Samsung card account, however, it seems they made a lot of positive changes.

It will be particularly good when I go on vacation. This is because due to bank scams run by Korean-speaking Chinese-Koreans, the banking system here stopped issuing international ATM cards. So you can be abroad and it can be your payday but good luck trying to withdraw money. However, that doesn't apply to my credit card it seems. So, in theory, should I need it I can draw funds from my bank account in an indirect manner. Before you say "you can't do that", well, you might be right, but I did withdraw money using that card on a US military base via a Bank of America ATM recently. I never use my US ATM card and simply forgot the passcode...ooops. In that way, the Samsung card saved me 'cause I needed US dollars immediately. It's a way around another stupid rule which penalizes all foreigners for the acts of a select few.

That's the crux of the problem in Korea - simplistic and one dimensional thinking. It's probably because Korea is a society that is homogenious, everyone is the same, one size fits all solutions do solve or, at least, mask the problem, and systems like that ARE easier to manage. But it leads to bad decisions when you're dealing with a diverse foreign population. If there is a bank scam by foreigners, all foreigners suffer. If an English teacher who works in Korea is revealed to go to SE Asia on sex holidays to pursue underage boys, then the visa laws change to penalize all English teachers. There are tons more examples, but it's still very much the case that many everyday things here just don't compete with other countries. There are frequent, over-the-top, reactions when stories like this happen. There is also the problem of someone just making it up as they go along. I've had a few times where I went somewhere to sign up for a point card at a store and have the clerk say I couldn't because I was a foreigner. Um, not true and then I whip out my Happy Point card, my LG Telecom card, my OK Cashback card, etc. (These are cards that either offer you discounts, upgrades or point accumulations for free stuff later on. They're really great as the Happy Point card has gotten me free cups of coffee I don't know how many times at this point.)

Anyway, there is no training or sensitivity when dealing with foreigners in those situations, so you have to switch to stubborn to get what you want. And, no I'm not lonely and I don't want to date or marry a Korean to get these basic things.

It's getting better, slowly. I think it might improve exponentially when the former mayor of Seoul, President-elect Lee takes office as he's very pro-investment and seems to know that making things easier for the foreigners makes business easier to do.

I've found my way around a lot of these problems. I've got my LG Telecom cell phone account, I've got my Korean credit card, I can make an appointment for immigration in a flash and blow in and out of that office in an hour or less. However, that's not the case for most foreigners and, until it is, Korea is going to rank lower in terms of livability in comparison to other Asian countries.

I interviewed someone today who has a very upbeat outlook on the possiblity of this changing. I'm a bit more cynical. However, because of the changes I've seen since I've been here, positive change just might happen quicker than I expect. I hope so because I've come to the point where I root for Korea's success too.

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