1stopKorea recently sat down with Brendon Carr, a 30 year old American attorney with Korea’s second largest law firm, Shin and Kim. He’s been working with this firm for about a year and I wanted to get his opinions and feelings on being a foreign counsel in a Korean law firm.
1stopKorea: I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. First of all could you tell our readers what type of law you practice for Shin and Kim?
Brendon: Shin & Kim is a large corporate law firm. At about 100 professionals, including Korean and US-licensed lawyers, we are the second-largest law firm in Korea. We represent Korean and multinational businesses who are doing mergers and acquisitions of existing businesses, establishing new businesses, distributing products in Korea. There is a lot of work in trademarks and intellectual properties.
I myself have been working with a lot of Internet domain name disputes.
1stopKorea: When one lives in another country for an extended period of time as you have, they tend to gain a new perspective on things. What have you learned from your experiences of living in Korea and working for Shin and Kim?
Brendon: Well, as frustrating as it can be sometimes to be a foreigner in Korea (especially since after many years I still speak Korean clumsily sometimes), I have learned that many things that foreigners might attribute to malice or anti-foreign bias are usually just based on misunderstanding.
One example I can recall is found in cases where a foreign party tries to sign up for a free web-based e-mail, voice-mail, or chat service, only to find out that his foreigners' resident-registration number is not accepted by the system - ergo, this damn Internet service discriminates against foreigners!
It turns out that the problem is not found in anti-foreign bias, but simple poor programming. Korean resident registration numbers are supposed to carry a "checksum" digit that helps determine whether a number is valid or fake. Unfortunately, many of the checksum-validating programs are poorly written, and they reject not only all the foreigners' applications, but also a lot of Koreans' applications as well. But that isn't immediately apparent when one only talks to one's fellow disgruntled foreign friends.
1stopKorea: Many of our readers are currently living and working in Korea or planning to come to Korea to work. Is there anything legally, that they should be cautious of?
Brendon: I would caution readers coming to Korea to behave as responsibly and conservatively as they can. Also, "look before you leap," isn't just good advice in Aesop's fables, it's good advice for all of us.
1stopKorea: The economic crisis that gripped Korea a year or two ago forced the government to open the door to foreign investment. Can you give us a few examples of investment opportunities that are now available to foreigners that weren't just a couple years ago?
Brendon: Well, of probable interest to your readers is the fact that the government is not only interested in giant capital-intensive investments - small foreign investments (as little as 50 million Korean won) are being encouraged. This means that small businesses like 1stopKorea.com are now realistic vehicles for non-Koreans to live and work in Korea.
For foreign investors (including ones making these kinds of small investments), the government is offering free services like the Korea Investment Service Center (www.kisc.org) and the Seoul Foreign Investment and Trade Service at City Hall. These places aim to be "one-stop" advisors to new investors. They are not as sophisticated counselors as the law firms, but you can't beat the price.
1stopKorea: I've heard many teachers working at language institutes complain about not getting paid. Have you or your firm ever dealt with this problem?
Brendon: I receive these kinds of questions a lot. At least once a month, my phone will ring and on the other end of the line is an English teacher whose employer is abusive or doesn't keep up his end of the employment bargain.
Unfortunately, there is usually little I personally can do to assist English teachers. First of all, I'm a foreign legal consultant, and not licensed to independently represent parties in Korean legal matters. Secondly, my firm's practice is generally confined to corporate matters.
Additionally, there is one other problem that stands in the way of English teachers hiring Korean lawyers to champion them in disputes - English teachers don't have much money, and lawyers want to get paid to work. In Korea, legal fees are usually quite a bit higher than one may expect in the United States. It's about 10 million Korean won to institute a lawsuit, and the fees can increase quite a bit as the case goes on. Sometimes it's not worth it to sue over the few millions of Korean won that are usually in dispute. However, there's strength in numbers; I do know of a case where several dozen university instructors banded together and sued their university.
However, I know several excellent and conscientious English-speaking Korean lawyers who sometimes accept these types of contract disputes. If any reader has a problem, please call my office at 316-4009; I'm always glad to talk it over for 15 to 20 minutes.
1stopKorea: Are there any government organizations or phone numbers to call should this situation arise?
Brendon: Usually in cases of non-payment of wages, or forced overtime, the local district labor office is good place to start. Unfortunately, those offices don't always have English-speaking staff.
1stopKorea: On the other end of the sword, there are many teachers who don't fulfill their contracts as well. What are the consequences, if any?
Brendon: Well, there are legal consequences and then there are the mundane practical difficulties.
Under the Korean Civil Code, a party who breaks his contract and causes damages to the contract's counterparty shall be liable for damages caused. In the case of English-teaching contracts, this could include the lost profits for any classes the school has to cancel because of the broken contract. Sometimes the institute's profits earned on a given class are a couple times the monthly salary of the teacher.
Further, although the employer should find some way to cover the damages (i.e. find a new teacher as soon as possible), it's not always easy. With some smaller institutes, a teacher's broken contract could mean insolvency of the institute. Then the damages can really mount.
In the realm of the mundane, usually the foreign teacher's visa is tied to a guarantee given by the institute. When that relationship goes sour, this can lead to cancellation of the visa and an order to leave the country. Although frequently interpreted by foreigners as "the system" getting revenge on English teachers, the real facts are simpler. No foreign citizen has a "right" to stay in Korea without a sponsor who makes a promise to the government to guarantee the foreigner's behavior. If you and your sponsor have a falling out, is it reasonable to expect his continued acceptance of legal exposure for your behavior? It doesn't make sense.
1stopKorea: Recently a drug bust involving a group of foreigners made headlines across Korea. What type of punishment can be expected for drug-related crimes?
Brendon: Drug crimes are one of the dumbest ways to get into trouble, no matter what country one lives in. My advice: stay away from drugs in Korea. Although to an outsider it doesn't seem like there is much, if any, law enforcement going on in Korea, the area of crime under the most effective policing is related to drugs. Korea does not want drugs, and especially doesn't appreciate foreigners bringing drugs to Korea.
Foreigners may not be aware that public prosecutors can hold them for up to 21 days without bringing charges. During that time, the suspect may be denied counsel, and interrogated with methods that are frequently harsh, and may even be lethal. I recently read an article in the newspaper about a young police officer who accidentally discharged his weapon into the face of the suspect during interrogation.
If you are caught with drugs, you will be spending some time in jail regardless of whether you are convicted of the crime or acquitted. Bail is almost unheard of in drug cases, and the trial itself may take six months after arrest.
And Korean jail just plain sucks. Jail is especially difficult if one doesn't speak the language or know anybody in Korea, because once you're in jail, you're basically on your own. It is cold in the cells, and there's not always a bed (sleep on the concrete floor!). There is no library in the jail, so prisoners have a lot of time to reflect on their crimes. Depending on the locality, there may or may not be any other foreigners in jail at the same time, but regardless it's not a chummy place.
Stay away from drugs while you're in Korea. Period.
1stopKorea: Do you have any first hand knowledge of foreigners 'rotting away' in Korean prisons?
Brendon: Oh, yes.
Copyright 1999-2000 1stopKorea