I am the Canadian owner and director of an English hagwon near Suwon. I’ve lived in Korea for 17 years now, been married to my lovely Korean wife for 15, and been running a hagwon for about 10.
Much has happened in my time here since the year 2000. I’ve watched the stellar rise of Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and others. I’ve seen Korea reach the final four in the World Cup, and I’ve learned very much to respect the hard-working attitude of Korean workers and students. It is with great pride that I tell old acquaintances that I’m lucky enough to live and work in a small country with a huge heart.
That being said, some of my recent experiences have troubled me. Although they are still relatively minor, they do cause some anxiety: Are foreign investors like me still welcome? Is Korea still going to be a good place for small or mid-sized business owners to work and prosper?
Recently, President Moon Jae-in declared a national holiday on Oct. 2. On the calendar, it looks nice: who wouldn’t like more than a full week of holidays? But the result to my business is a loss of several million won. How many thousands of small-business employers in Korea will, like me, be hurt by that same loss in October?
My wife, who co-directs our hagwon with me, recently paid a trip to the immigration office to register a new English teacher. She was flatly turned away, and given an appointment time about three weeks in the future. She was told that the office is horribly understaffed, and there was no possibility of being seen sooner. This means that the employee will likely lose the job, and thereby be left without income or accommodation while trapped in limbo in a country that apparently doesn’t care to provide sufficient staff to prevent this from happening. This is in contrast to a couple years ago, when we could walk into the immigration office, take a number, and be served in a couple of hours. Where are the “million civil workers” that Moon promised so confidently, when a small business is being made to struggle in this way?
During his campaign, I was impressed by many of Moon’s promises. As a Canadian, I’m used to focus on social services and fairness to the “little guy.” I’m proud of my 10 Korean employees, who are hard-working, honest, and reliable people -- much better, I think, than Canadian workers! I wouldn’t be too bothered if required to pay them a little more, or if they could have better benefits.
However, it seems in my recent experience that Moon’s big ideals may be giving way to a bread-and-circus policy. A generous gesture like an extra holiday might earn cheers from workers, but if the Moon administration can’t keep important institutions functioning properly, then what happens? Will workers cheer with equal enthusiasm a couple years from now when they arrive at work to find locked doors?
From Benjamin Lassmann
Suwon, Gyeonggi Province