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

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


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    Re: Expat Teachers Face More Visa Hoops in Korea (E and F ...

    as i know there are loop holes in all areas of the world. i was in korea from 98-2011, during which i had to endure these tests in the latter half of my tenure. at this point, i'd flat out say SOD IT! its time to get out of dodge, and for any prospective folks looking to work in korea, you might wanna just stay back home, or find some other place to work in ESL. might be less money, but without a doubt, it'll be far more foreign friendly, unless you work in the certain middle eastern countries.

    Re: Expat Teachers Face More Visa Hoops in Korea (E and F ...

    How about just once someone post a story on here about all the Korean pedophiles, all the bar girls who are driven around in cars that dont have to obey traffic laws or the motels that stay open because of all the Korean men who cheat on their wives. Lets see  some stats on this? Korea is so worried about fixing the "foreigner" problem they are totally oblivious to the real social problems facing millions of Koreans. It is time to do something about all the student suicides and so on. Please post an article about this. I am tired of these long winded stories about less than .1% of the foreign workers that for someone reason screw things up for the rest of us. There are much bigger problems than a foreigner having a few grams of drugs. Koreans have more!