Not really, but it`s not hard to get that impression.
According to the Immigration Control Law & Relevant Rules, Chapter 4, Article 20, "When a foreigner staying in Korea intends to engage in activities corresponding to a different status of stay in addition to those activities corresponding to his/her original status of stay, s/he shall obtain permission for activities beyond the current status of stay from the Minister of Justice in advance."
Though no part of the law specifically mentions volunteer work by expats, this clause - as well as rumors circulating in the expat community - has discouraged them from such activities in the past.
Baek Joo-Hwan is the executive director of HOPE (Helping Others Prosper Through English), a not-for-profit organization that aims to provide access to English education to underprivileged children.
Though Korean himself, Baek said that HOPE was largely founded in response to the misconception that expats are restricted from volunteering. In fact, at the organization`s web page (www.alwayshope.or.kr) part of the FAQ section answers the question of whether or not teachers on a work visa are allowed to volunteer.
The organization started a little more than a year ago when a friend of Baek`s from Canada had asked him whether it was okay.
"He had the original idea of Hope," Baek said of his friend. He recalls that the Canadian got this information through rumors, and was even discouraged from volunteering by a government agency.
Later, Baek called the Korea Immigration Service, telling them he had foreign friends interested in volunteering, and was at first told the same thing. The reasons they gave were "very vague," he said, and included the possibility that some of the teachers were actually being paid.
Baek said that he received advice from a government-run office that volunteering was discouraged, but eventually learned through Korea Immigration Service that it is legal. In fact, he was told Baek that teachers on work visas can not only volunteer, but even receive compensation for transportation and food expenses while volunteering.
"We found it astonishing," Baek said of the experience. "I was even more convinced that I needed to do something about it."
All this took place a year ago, and Baek said he believes that the government agencies that have advised teachers against volunteering no longer do so.
HOPE began its own activities in May 2008. Currently 27 foreign teachers and 20 Koreans are volunteering with the organization, and about 50 have worked with it since it began. Those who volunteer with HOPE sign a three-month contract to teach English to underprivileged children at places like welfare centers and childcare centers who don`t have access to English education elsewhere.
"We don`t have a fixed curriculum," he said. "Most of our volunteers are actually English teachers, they know how to teach and how to deal with the little kids."
The textbooks may be supplied by HOPE - one reason why the organization needs donations - but most centers also have textbooks that can be used, Baek said.
"We would love to have a fixed location," he said. "We want to open a free English school."
In its infancy HOPE was aided by the Seoul Volunteer Center, who contacted the centers and notified them of HOPE`s intentions to work with them. This, Baek said, gave the organization credibility.
"When we talked to the centers we can tell them we are authorized and supported by the SVC," he said. "We found some centers ourselves but they helped us in finding those centers."
Even though expat teachers can help out, they may need to meet certain requirements. If teaching children, HOPE requires them to submit their resume, a copy of their passport and their criminal records check.
If the activity doesn`t involve working with children, such as food drives, none of these are required, Baek said.
Ministry of Justice spokesperson Nam Gi-deuk said that government approval was not necessary for expats, but was recommended.
"It is possible not to get any permission from the Ministry of Justice if foreigners who stay (short term) in Korea want to engage in volunteer activities, for example, a public organization, an orphanage, an international exhibition, an organization which supports foreigners and international events which are temporary volunteering and are not for pay," he said.
"But if foreigners who stay in Korea want to engage in the repeated and continuous volunteer activities, those foreigners are recommended to take counsel with Korea Immigration Service. Because the repeated and continuous activities possibly could be included in the case which needs the permission from the Ministry of Justice.
"If a foreigner engages in the volunteer activities which are not for pure purposes, such as, using volunteer activities as an indirect method of PR, the foreigner might need the permission from the Ministry of Justice in advance."
It is therefore recommended, Nam said, to talk with Korea Immigration Service ahead of time to be certain whether the expat needs permission from the ministry. KIS` judgment may vary according to the volunteer`s time of stay and the type of volunteer activities, he said.
By Rob York