While not an obvious choice for the jet-setting expat, South Korea’s high-energy capital has a lot to offer foreign professionals, writes Jason Strother.

There’s a certain energy to Seoul.

Legend has it that the city was selected as the Chosun Dynasty’s capital in the late 14th Century due to the natural vitality emitted from its mountains and waterways.

Home to 10 million people, Seoul continues to be the political, economic and cultural centre of modern South Korea and attracts adventurous, inquisitive and talented expats from around the globe.

Up until the early 2000s, the local expat community was composed mostly of US military personnel and a motley crew of English-language teachers. Now, people from around the globe flock to Seoul to work for multinationals, start businesses or learn Korean, which is handy when singing karaoke versions of favourite K-Pop girl group songs.

It’s a 24-hour city and has a lot to offer

“It’s a 24-hour city and has a lot to offer”, says British expat Paul Carver, who heads the Seoul Global Center, a support centre for the city’s 273,000 foreign residents.

South Korea and its capital might not seem like an obvious choice for the jet-setting expat; Mercer’s 2017 Quality of Living ranking placed Seoul at 76 and a similar poll last year by the HSBC Expat Explorer survey places South Korea at 36. Seoul is also the sixth most expensive city in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Cost of Living Index.

And when North Korea aggression rears its head (it has vowed to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire”), Carver says “everyone is on edge for a day or two” but then life gets back to normal,

For a cyclist like him, Seoul’s “murderous traffic” is a more immediate concern. 

Cultural differences

An expat can make the most out of their time in Seoul by keeping an open mind toward Korea’s cultural differences, explains US expat David Carruth, a Korean-to-English translator.

An expat who insists on clocking out at the time stipulated on their contract might be 'seen as selfish'

Group dynamics is one example, Carruth says: Korean employees will stay at the office until they are given a cue by their supervisor that it’s alright to leave. An expat who insists on clocking out at the time stipulated on their contract might be “seen as selfish”, he says.

Making some effort to learn the local language can also go a long way in smoothing out some of the rougher edges. In Seoul, many restaurants have English menus and road signage or public transportation information is either posted or announced in English. But, asking a question to a waitress, bus driver or convenience store clerk might not get you very far.

The Korean alphabet, Hangul, is surprisingly easy to learn and mastering a few basic expressions are a good start. But Carruth cautions that reaching a basic conversational level requires a lot of effort and anything more advanced could take years of academic and independent study.

Working life

Even though South Korea is called the Land of the Morning Calm, it’s a highly competitive society and that extends to the expat job market, which is very limited for those who don’t speak Korean.

It’s a “rigid” process to bring an expat over to Korea, says Duncan Harrison, who heads the Seoul office of recruitment firm Robert Walters. Headhunting agencies have to prove to the authorities that they tried to hire a Korean for a given position first, but could not find the right candidate, he says.

There is some demand for monolingual foreign professionals in the IT, engineering and computer programming fields, the British expat adds.

South Korea’s top firms, such as Samsung and Hyundai, do hire foreign talent for their R&D and global outreach units.

It’s a 'rigid' process to bring an expat over to Korea

Harrison believes that compared to Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo, Seoul’s relatively smaller expat population offers an advantage to foreign jobseekers.

He says, “it’s a very tight, close-knit community” with many chances to network and see familiar and helpful faces.

Some international companies as well as South Korean firms do offer expat packages, but conditions vary. And as Harrison points out, there’s a global trend to hire locally and reduce the generous perks that were once standard.  

Obtaining a work permit for South Korea is dependent on sponsorship of the hiring company.

Students are permitted to hold part-time jobs during their studies and nationals of some countries can apply for working holiday visas, but only up until a certain age.

Those who once held South Korean citizenship or have documented South Korean ancestry can obtain an F series visa, which allows them to work independently.    

With the exception of the US military, South Korea’s education industry is the largest employer of English speaking expats. Seoul’s public school system has reduced its native English teacher programme, but many private academies are still hiring.   

A place to call home

“There is a massive Gangnam-Gangbuk divide,” says Kurt Achin, referring respectively to the districts south and north of the Han River, which cuts through the middle of the city.

Achin, from the US state of Massachusetts and host of Koreascape, a daily programme on Seoul’s TBS eFM radio, is a partisan of the northern side of the river.

He says Gangnam is perhaps best suited to those who appreciate a glamorous lifestyle, whereas Gangbuk might appeal more to those who wish to “take a deeper dive into the history of Korea”, since this part of town was the original royal capital.  

There is a massive Gangnam-Gangbuk divide

For those that are not the recipient of relocation services provided by their employers, searching for an apartment in Seoul can be a challenge, since few real estate agents speak English.

It’s still possible to find a single room apartment in an older part of town for $400 a month or less, while a multi-room condo in a brand new residential tower can fetch $4,000 and up.  But, the “key money”, or deposit, “can be exorbitant and reach into the thousands of dollars”, says Yesung Han, managing director of Angloinfo Seoul, a resource site for expats in Korea.   

A rule of thumb is the higher the key money, the lower the monthly rent and sometimes the ratio is negotiable.

Cost of living

By western expat standards, Seoul can be pricey – it consistently ranks in the top 10 most expensive cities in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Cost of Living Index.

That’s certainly so if one resides in the ritzier parts of the city in serviced apartments and dines solely in upscale restaurants that feature versions of international cuisine.

But, for expats that live and spend in the local economy and mainly eat Korean dishes, Seoul can be very affordable.

Seoul has one of the most populated restaurant scenes on Earth

“Sometimes it’s cheaper to dine out than to dine in,” says Joe McPherson, originally from Alabama and the founder of the Zenkimchi food blog and tours.  “Seoul has one of the most populated restaurant scenes on Earth.”

A meal at a basic Korean restaurant costs around $5 and at a Korean style barbecue eatery, a grill loaded with marinated pork and an endless assortment of side dishes won’t cost more than $20 – and that’s for two people.

A latte at a trendy café in Gangnam can easily go for $6.

Seoul’s network of buses and subway lines are also inexpensive and taxis are generally cheap, too.

Enrolment in South Korea’s national health insurance plan is often paid for in part by the employer. But, Australian expat Jacco Zwetsloot, who underwent surgery in 2012, suggests also signing up for a supplemental plan.

While health insurance gives good and effective coverage for seeing a general practitioner or even a specialist, as soon as you require hospitalisation, the costs can really begin to mount”, says Zwetsloot, who works at a local law firm.

Bring the kids

Since moving to Seoul in 2009, Eva from France, and her American husband have had two children.

Having children in Seoul meant finding an English-speaking OBGYN and putting her eldest daughter into a local Korean nursery school, since tuition at an international pre-kindergarten programme can cost upwards of $18,000 a year or more, says Eva, who preferred not to use her surname out of privacy concerns.

While there are plenty of outdoor places to take children in Seoul, such as the Children’s Grand Park, Eva says the city’s cold winters and air pollution necessitates staying inside more than she’d like. But, fortunately, all around the city are so-called “kids’ cafes,” where children can play with toys or jump on trampolines as parents sip on much-needed coffee. 

A pastime that doesn’t involve children, especially for Seoul’s more senior residents, is hiking along the city’s many mountain trails.

Californian English teacher Douglas Binns says the mountains are where the barrier between expat and locals is broken down.

“Koreans invite you to share food and drinks. It’s a good way to make friends.” On the trails, he says, “people treat you like a hiker and not just as a visitor.”

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