The Korean English Teacher Phenomenon

Immigration and Integration of Anglophone Immigrants in Modern South Korea

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

18 Pages, Grade: A entstricht 1



In the past decade, the historically homogenous South Korean society has seen an increase in immigration. While the majority of immigrants still come from other Asian countries, the immigration of Anglophone immigrants is especially remarkable. Most of them are working as English teachers in public and private Korean education institution. The essay at hand traces the motivations of these immigrants and the role of the government by means of literature research. Furthermore, a short survey has been conducted to try to answer the question how well these Western immigrants are integrated in the Korean. Even though South Korea is slowly transforming into a multicultural society, integration still an issue that the government did not yet address thoroughly.

The Korean English Teacher Phenomenon:

Immigration and Integration of Anglophone Immigrants in Modern South Korea

With high economic growth rates, South Korea started to invite English native speakers to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) in private and public schools in the late 1990s. From the start of the English programme EPIK (English programme in Korea) in 1995, the number of Anglophone immigrants increased to 23,515 in 2010. The majority of immigrants are still Chinese but in the homogeneous Korean society such a development is still impressive. Because the Korean society is based on the idea of ethnic nationalism integration is not always easy, even for immigrants from other Asian countries or repatriates.

With an exploratory research approach the following analysis will try to shed light on the Korean English teacher phenomenon. First, an overview of the history of English language education and the role of the government will be given. Later, the analysis will try to explain the migration transition process for the government to encourage Western migration. The focus of this essay will be then on the question what caused the migration flow and how well these Western immigrants are integrated in the Korean society. To answer this question, individual stories will be taken into account. Furthermore, a short survey has been conducted to shed light on the motivations of English teachers for going to South Korea.

History of English Language Education in South Korea and the Role of the Government

Education is of primary importance in the Korean society and has been seen as one of the most important reasons for Korea’s rapid economic growth that occurred from the 1960s onwards (Pillay, 2010). With such an education fever (kyoyukyeol) as it has been called by Koreans (Park , 2009), specifically English language education (yeongeokyoyuk) became more important and has been called the “English fever” by Jin-Kyu Park (2009).

Children are sent to strict private institutions after school to train their English, English camps or to study abroad in English-speaking countries. For this, mothers even become educational short-term migrants. They move abroad with their children while the father stays in Korea to work. It is estimated that in 2008 there were around 200,000 so called “goose dads” (기러기 아빠, Gireogi appa) that made this sacrifice for their children. Moreover, as a study of the Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) found out, Koreans spent about 15.8$ (15 trillion won) every year on their English education (Kim, 2008).

English skills have been promoted by the government as they have been seen as crucial for keeping Korean companies competitive. First of all, they promoted the English boom by making English language tests part of university entrance examination in the 1990s (Park, 2009). Furthermore, the Korean government started in 1981 to employ native speakers (American Peace Corps teachers and Fulbright ETA teachers at the beginning) in high schools and at universities throughout Korea (“Timeline”). According to Park, Koreans also started to prefer native speakers as English teachers while disregarding their educational backgrounds because the widespread theory is that it is better to learn a language from a native speaker (2009).

In July 1995, the English Program in Korea (EPIK) was launched by the Korean Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (MEST) to recruit native speakers for teaching in elementary, middle and high schools in metropolitan as well as in rural areas. Inviting native speakers was seen crucial to “to enhance English communicative skills of Korean students and teachers, and increase national competitiveness and cultural exchange in the era of globalization” (Yook, 2010, p. 24). These native speakers need to have citizenship and a Bachelor’s degree in any subject of a university in either, Canada, the United States, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, United Kingdom or New Zealand. At first, only 54 teachers were recruited by the Korea National University of Education. Over the next decade the number grew and in 2009 1,714 natives were teaching in the EPIK programme. Until April 2012, this number doubled again and a total of 3,477 EPIK teachers were placed all over the country (“Timeline”, 2012). Furthermore, the government introduced in 2008 the programme Teach and Learn in Korea (TaLK), an educational scholarship programme for native speakers to teach after-school classes in elementary schools in rural areas (“Mission & Purpose”, 2012).

The Stance of the Government: Korea - a Country of Immigration?

As T. C. Lim explains Korea’s migration transition symbolically started with the hosting of the Olympic games in 1988 (2002). While 3D jobs (meaning dirty, dangerous and difficult) like work in fishery, construction and manufacturing were becoming more unattractive to Korean workers, workers from other Asian countries were attracted by chronic labour shortages due to the economic boom (Lee & Park, 2005). While in 1987 only a few thousand were working in these industries, in 1997 the number rose up to over 200,000 immigrants workers. However, labour laws made immigration difficult and most immigrants were working illegally and faced human rights violations. Even though special trainee programmes have been put in place and the Foreign Workers Act for the protection of migrant workers has been introduced in July 2003, undocumented migrants are still a challenge. On the other hand, Koreans that went abroad before to seek better job opportunities, returned or stayed in their home country due to a big wage increase in the late 1980s (Kee, 2009).

Immigration for the highly skilled however , is different as it is the case in many developed in countries. As already explained, the main reason for the encouragement of Western immigration is a national obsession with learning English from native speakers and this can be also considered as a sign of modernity. Moreover, according to The First Basic Plan for Immigration Policy 2008-2012, a report by the Ministry of Justice, the Korean government “[will improve access to Korea] for professionals, foreign investors, international students, and other highly-skilled people” (2009, p. 11). This is done in order to “enhance the national competitiveness through an open-door policy” and as preparation “for the advent of the multicultural society that results as more immigrants make Korea their long-term home” (2009, p. 11-12). This stands in agreement with what T. C. Lim notes “The key question that faces South Korea is not whether it will become a land of immigration but what kind of immigration country it will be” (2002, p. 17).

With the encouragement of high-skilled workers Korea aims to make its labour force more competitive and eventually sustain the economic growth rates. On the other hand, according to demographer Philip Morgan, Korea is also in need of immigration due to falling birth rates: Only 1.15 children per mother were born in 2009. One reason for this is also that more females decide to have a career instead of a marriage and children (Yoon, 2010). This led to the recent trend of bride-importing from South-East Asian countries (so-called mail-order brides) which is also slowly changing the mono-cultural face of Korea. However, these women and their biracial children still face a lot of discrimination and are not fully accepted yet (“Asia brides for sale”, 2011) even though they are recognized by the government and entitled to social security benefits (The First Basic Plan, 2009). In a nutshell, with a population of over 1 million foreign-born (“국내 체류 외국인 사상 첫 100만명 돌파”, 2007) of a total population of 48,456,000 (“Korea, Republik”, 2011), South Korea is becoming a country of immigration. However, even though the Korean government opens up for the possibilities of a multicultural society and sees it as a way to bring more prosperity to the country, the immigration laws will continue to differentiate between high and low skilled workers just like it is the case in most other countries.


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The Korean English Teacher Phenomenon
Immigration and Integration of Anglophone Immigrants in Modern South Korea
Utrecht University  (University College Roosevelt)
A entstricht 1
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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506 KB
korean, english, teacher, phenomenon, immigration, integration, anglophone, immigrants, modern, south, korea
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Nora Goerne (Author), 2013, The Korean English Teacher Phenomenon, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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