I was invited to the Gunpo Global Education Center of PowerStudy last week to serve as an English contest judge in my capacity as a GyeongGi Province Foreign Direct Investment Advisor. It was the first time I’ve ever done something quite like that and listening to 38 kids give speeches did take a long time. Still, it was nice to support the event and to visit the beautiful campus there in Sanbon right next to Suri Mountain, which is only about 20 minutes from our place in Ansan.
Anyway, the PowerStudy chain of institutes is growing extremely rapidly, based on a business model that uses the existing infrastructure provided by non-profit organizations to provide affordable English training to area children. With 2,500 students at the Gunpo Center alone, they are aiming for tens of thousands of students across Korea within the next two years.
As part of this growth, PowerStudy is hiring lots of foreign teachers and when I was contacted by an American in Korea who’s been having trouble finding a proper job, I sent him to my contact at Gunpo. Thanks to my introduction, my American associate got a prompt reply and is working through the application process.
(Photo: Sokcho city, taken from the overlooking hills on the way to Sorak Mountain a few days ago.)
A client of mine in the education field is looking to increase his organizations Korean clientele. I introduced him to a colleague who is well-suited to work as his Korean agent. His organization also graduates students who go on to top universities around the world and I connected him with another client of mine, a well-reputed private university in the US.
(Moving-in day at Dongsuh Core, where I have an office. The desks being unloaded from the truck were moved into a new computer institute opening on the 3rd floor.)
Tom Pinansky is Senior Foreign Attorney at Barun Law, as well as “Of Counsel” to US firm Prety, Flaherty, Beliveau & Pachios. Mr. Pinansky is active with various chambers of commerce in Asia, as well as international arbitration. He’s lived and worked in Korea for over 20 years.
Topic #1 – Overview of the Korean Legal Services Market
Tom has been based in Korea since around the time of the Seoul Olympics in 1988 following several years working for US-based law firms.
Barun Law, Tom’s employer since 2005, is the newest major law firm in Korea, having been established only 11 years ago. The firm is particularly known for its litigation practice, having been founded primarily by former judges. However, Barun’s international practice is growing quickly too so that there are now 140 professionals at the firm.
The Korean legal services market is unique considering the size and sophistication of the Korean economy. While most areas of commerce are fully open to foreign participation, the legal services area remains closed. It means that no international law firms are physically present in Korea.
However, the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) will open the Korean legal services market once it is ratified by the US Congress. There is other legislation in the works in Korea to open the market to foreigners but the KORUS is what Americans are mainly waiting on.
Just because non-Korean legal firms can’t open up physically in Korea doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of foreign lawyers working in Korea. These run the gamut from Korean lawyers who are members of the Korean bar, to non-Koreans and ethnic Koreans who are members of the bar in other countries. Some work in Korean law firms and others in corporate settings.
The titles that foreign lawyers can use in Korea depends somewhat on whether they are being expressed in English or Korean, and there is a lot of discussion going on about how this will evolve going forward so it’s hard to predict the future regarding the use of titles by foreign lawyers in Korea.
Foreign lawyers cannot go into a Korean court alone to represent a client. But they can get involved with international arbitration, work with Korean colleagues on corporate and litigation matters, as well as other roles short of going to court.
Topic #2 – Foreign Investment and the Legal System
The Korean legal system is a civil system as opposed to the US common law system, meaning there are no juries. This avoids complicated discovery and evidence rules that you’d find in the US. Foreign investments in Korea that have been made legally can be adequately protected, though you can’t deny that there’s a bit of a “home-court advantage” for Korean companies.
Legal redress for foreign companies in Korea includes the court system, as well as arbitration. The Korean legal system is very efficient and results can generally be expected within nine and ten months, which is much faster than most jurisdictions in the United States.
During the mid- to late-90s, Korea liberalized its economy and there were a lot of joint ventures and direct foreign investment for which legal services were needed. Mergers and acquisitions really took off during the Asian economic crisis of 1997-1998, followed by strategic investors. This faded for awhile as foreign companies had a renewed interest in establishing their own companies. But the more diverse range of investments has been coming back over the last two years or so. There’s also been a revival in private equity.
Because the legal services industry is closed to non-Koreans, a foreign company wishing to do business in Korea will require a Korean law firm. Korea is a successful economy but in general, the costs of many services, including legal services, are more expensive in Korea than in most parts of the US.
Topic #3 – Korean Investments Overseas
Korean investments overseas are called “outbound work” by Korea-based law firms. Weakness in the Korean currency over the past couple years sharply curtailed this activity but it is increasing again recently.
High-profile recent outbound investments by Korean companies into the US include Kia’s car facilities in Georgia, Samsung’s semiconductor factory in Austin, Doosan’s acquisition of Bobcat, real estate deals in New York, etc. Koreans are also investing a lot in China and other resource-rich regions.
Topic #4 – Korean Law Firms
The large Korean law firms have a core of internationally-trained lawyers with a broad variety of backgrounds and from a broad variety of jurisdictions. In many cases, Korea-educated attorneys are given the opportunity to study overseas and then come back to become partners in the firm that sent them. Tom is not aware of any non-ethnic Koreans who came to Korea, passed the Korean bar and are practicing in Korea as a local Korean attorney.
Topic #5 – Opening of the Korean Legal Services Industry
The Asia-Pacific Council of American Chambers of Commerce (APCAC) consists of 27 member AmChambs in the Asia-Pacific region, and AmCham Korea is the respective member for Korea. Tom has chaired this organization for two of the last 15 years, though he’s been affiliated closely with it during this entire time. APCAC and AmCham Korea have been lobbying hard for the passage of KORUS, in part because of the opening it will bring to the Korean legal services industry. KORUS would help nearly all American businesses and the current delays on the US side are allowing other countries to move ahead into the Korean market.
Regardless of KORUS, the Korean economic opening is inevitable though and there isn’t much opposition to it anymore.
Interestingly, though legal services are still closed, Korea is relatively open in many other areas, including real estate, whether residential or commercial.
Other Asian markets where the legal services industry is closed include Malaysia and India. Countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and even China have already liberalized. Japan today resembles what we might expect the Korean legal services market to look like in a few years.
Koreans are commonly concerned about how non-Koreans view their country, and one index for measuring this is the number of foreigners living in Korea.
According to an article in the Jungang Ilbo today ("Foreign Talent Leaving Korea Due to "Three Serious Difficulties"), the number of foreigners living in Korea is about 1.22 million. However, of these, only about 40,000 are classified as "professionals"; the others would mainly be laborers, students and immigrant wives.Furthermore, of the professionals, about 20,000 are in the English-teaching profession, meaning that there are about 20,000 non-Koreans working in Korea in professional jobs that are not related to ESL.
The chart below shows that the number of foreigners in Korea has more than doubled since 2005, but that the increase is slowing significantly.
The article points out that the number of foreign professionals actually declined over the last year and in a survey, three main complaints foreigners have about Korea are listed in more detail in one of the sub-articles ("Schools for Foreigners Are Too Expensive… He Sent the Family Away and is Living as a 'Goose' Father" - "Goose Father" is the term Koreans normally use to refer to a Korean father who works in Korea to pay for his wife and children to live overseas for a year or two so that the children can get a foreign education.)
The cost of education at international schools is prohibitive and the article mentions that professionals with school-age children often cannot afford to keep their families in Korea.
English is not spoken widely enough and non-Koreans speakers face a lot of difficulties, from things as basic as using appliances at home all the way to not being able to participate and thrive in the workplace. An American executive working for a Korean conglomerate is quoted as saying that her work was determined by what documents were translated for her by subordinates and that she was never given an English-language work review or specific work instructions in English.
The government has put restrictions on the types of jobs foreigners can get a professional visa for and the procedures for getting such a visa approved are onerous. In many cases, this process takes 3-4 months and involves a letter of recommendation from a local government head. Considering the difficulties many Koreans have getting good jobs themselves, this letter of recommendation is not always forthcoming.
Finally, in a third article entitled "English Isn't Easy in Lectures or in Everyday Life… Goodbye, Korea", there is the story of an Indian professor, M. Desai (photo at left), who had signed a six-year contract to work at Seoul National University but ended up leaving Korea after only nine months, complaining mostly of the difficulties of working in an environment where English is not spoken fluently. This really surprises me because Seoul National University is one of the top schools in Korea!
These types of stories keep showing up in the Korean news and many Koreans are earnestly looking forward to the day that non-Koreans come to Korea and find it to be as international and liveable as any other globalized place in the world. It seems Korea still has a long way to go.
I'm always amazed to think of the growth and changes in Ansan since I first arrived almost 17 years ago. But that pales in comparison with the transformation of what used to be a sleepy fishing village into a city of 350,000 people when I arrived in 1993 (Current population is about 750,000 now.)
Here are links to some before/after photos of Ansan on my Seongpo-Dong blog this year:
Recently, I came upon another source of old photos, which is the website of the City of Ansan. The general photo section is here: https://photo.iansan.net/ but for photos of old Ansan, they can be seen in the following categories:
To see the photos in large size, you must be logged in (membership is free and easy, but basic Korean-language ability is necessary to get through the form) and be accessing through Internet Explorer (other browsers don't work.)
Steven S. Bammel
Technical Translator, Korean to English B.B.A. Economics M.S. Management Strategy
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