Monday, February 06, 2023

Korean media reaction to discovering a confessed killer taught English in Korea (2006)

[This is based on a post no longer online (though used with permission) and is expanded with additional information and my translation of the Segye Ilbo article.]

In mid-August 2006 Korean media were reporting, as many outlets were, on the story of John Mark Karr, who had been arrested in Thailand and was due to be extradited to the US after confessing to the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Karr had lived outside the US since 2001 after he was arrested for possession of child pornography, divorced, and then had become a fugitive after he violated the terms of his supervised release. In the time since, it was discovered, he had taught or supervised children in various locations around the world. (And, as it turned out, he had nothing to do with Ramsey's death.)

As more details were unearthed about his live, however, a new revelation came to light on August 18:

Karr, who arrived in Thailand earlier this year looking for work as a teacher, claims to have spent years skipping from job to job, country to country, nearly all the time working with children. Karr taught for two months in early 2002 at I&S Language School in Seoul, South Korea, said Kim Sun-tae, an official at the Seoul Dongbu District Office of Education. And in Taiwan, the National Police Administration said Friday that Karr entered the country in August 2005 and left two months later.

A year and a half after the English Spectrum Incident, months after the English Village cases (which didn't involve native-speaking instructors, but that didn't stop some from saying so anyways) and amid Break News' numerous negative articles about foreign instructors, this news led to a good deal of criticism of English teacher hiring practices in Korea.

First of all, however, there was a rush to confirm that Karr had actually taught in Korea. As Yonhap reported on the 18th, the Korean Justice Ministry was not yet able to confirm whether Karr had actually taught in Korea. In a briefing that day, the head of Korea’s immigration service said that without specific information, namely a passport number and a date of birth, it couldn’t say for sure whether the man suspected of killing Ramsey had come to Korea.

According to a source at Incheon International Airport, however, an individual by the name of John Mark Karr entered Korea three times between 2001 and 2005. On all three visits he came without a visa, meaning he could stay no more than 30 days. The source was unable to confirm whether the person in question was the same one under arrest in Thailand.

Later that day, Yonhap reported that Kim Seon-tae, the official quoted by CBS above, had stated that "It is highly likely that John Mark Carr served as an English instructor at a private academy in Bongcheon-dong, Gwanak-gu, Seoul from January to March 2002" but did not know for sure since they "could not confirm whether it is the same person as the murderer."

Yonhap also noted that in an online resume, Karr claimed that he taught 22 hours a week at a language academy in Korea for three months from 2001 to 2002, and that he gave and graded assignments as the only English instructor at the academy.

The Kyonghyang Sinmun added that said person worked at the academy for two months from January 14, 2002 to March 14, while an MBC interviewed an Official from Dongjak Office of Education who said, "The language school notified me that he was dismissed while working. The reason for dismissal on March 14 is not recorded." MBC also, correctly, as it turned out, noted that "it is still questionable whether Karr is the real culprit" in the murder he confessed to.

Despite Karr ultimately not being involved, the fact that a confessed murderer with child pornography charges in his past had taught in Korea prompted calls to strengthen Korea’s ability to keep out foreign sex offenders and improve the standards for hiring foreign teachers.

The Chosun Ilbo concluded an editorial titled "[Korea is also defenseless] There is no way to know even if a foreign sex offender enters the country" with the following:

However, if these foreign sex offenders enter Korea, because there is no information sharing with the other countries, there is no way for the Korean government to prevent them from entering the country and commiting sex crimes. There was an incident in May when an American assistant teacher at Seongnam English Village, Gyeonggi-do, was accused of sexually harassing an elementary school student, so the American's contract was canceled.

The problem with the provided example, of course, is that said (Korean) American assistant teacher was not hired as a native speaker but as a Korean-speaking teacher.

On August 19, the Segye Ilbo published the following article which contributed this memorable cartoon:

(The podium reads "unqualified")

Blond hair, blue eyes, big nose, English coming out of his mouth, holding a girl toy, unqualified, money sticking out of his pocket? Check, check, and check!

As long as they speak English... the 'don't ask questions' hiring of foreign instructors

Mr. A (26) visited an English academy in Seocho-gu, Seoul last June to become an English instructor. Mr. A, who introduced himself as an American, stated that he had a lot of experience teaching English and went to university in the United States. As Mr. A wore a neat suit, spoke English fluently, and did not demand a higher salary than other instructors, the academy hired Mr. A without checking his nationality or academic background. Mr. A lectured for 1 hour and 30 minutes a day and received 2 million won per month. However, as a result of an Immigration Office crackdown, it was discovered that Mr. A was not an American, but rather a Nigerian national, and had not not even gone to university.

Mr. A said that he’d heard he could earn money by speaking only English in Korea, so he came on a tourist visa in 2001 and went around Gangnam and other areas teaching English. He was caught and deported on  August 10.

While a number of private academies and kindergartens are hiring foreign English instructors due to the recent countrywide craze for learning English, some private academies are causing controversy by hiring unqualified English instructors to save money.

According to the law, if foreigners want to teach English at hagwons, they must obtain an E-2 visa, which is an employment visa, and submit to the hagwon a diploma from a 4-year university. However, among the large number of foreigners who work as English teachers, there are many cases in which they entered Korea on tourist visas, lied about their nationalities, or forged diplomas.

In October of last year, 69 foreigners who forged university diplomas and transcripts from English-speaking countries such as Canada and the United States and worked as unqualified English instructors in Korea were caught by prosecutors and forced to leave the country.

According to the Seoul Immigration Office, about 240 unqualified foreign instructors were caught last year in Seoul alone, and 20 to 30 have been caught every month this year as well. There are cases where people who have committed crimes such as murder abroad openly work as English instructors in Korea.

In the case of John Mark Carr (41), who was recently arrested in Thailand for the 1996 murder of 'Little Miss Colorado' John Bennett Ramsey in the United States it was reported in the foreign media that from January to March 2002, he worked as an English instructor for children at a private academy in Seoul. 

Even if the authorities catch them, they only receive light punishment due to the lack of related laws. Most of the unqualified foreign instructors and the employers who hired them are fined only a few million won. Even among foreigners, there is a widespread perception that even if they’re caught, they will only be fined and deported, so they calculate that they will come out ahead as long as they are not caught for more than a year. 

An official from G English Hagwon in Jongno, Seoul said, “The students want foreign instructors and the hagwons rush to bring in foreigners, so there are many cases where unqualified instructors are used.” 

Reporters Lee Gwi-jeon and Jang Won-ju

Also reporting on this case was the online issue discussion site Buchaejil, which posted an article on the netizen fury over low-quality English teachers and the Korean women who love them.

Pointing to the shock many felt at learning that the prime suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey killing may have taught children in Korea, the writer noted that netizens were outraged that even murderers could apparently get jobs teaching in Korea and were calling for employment conditions for native English speakers to be strengthened.

The article pointed out that questions about the behavior of native-speaking English teachers in Korea had been raised for some time. Hagwon officials complained that they were going crazy because of the behavior of their foreign teachers.

It noted that not so long ago, a "native speaking instructor" at an English camp sexually assaulted a student, but hagwon officials said such incidents happened all the time. [Except for the fact that the English Village cases did not involve native speakers.]

According to a netizen familiar with the problem of decadent foreign teachers, the foreign instructors, who apparently thought of Korean women as sexual playthings, were only part of the problem. Also problematic were Korean women with a weakness for foreign men.

The netizen said there were many instances of foreign teachers seducing women at nightclubs and the clubs of Hongik University by telling them they would teach them English.

The article cited an assortment of netizen comments about foreign English teachers and the women that chase after them, such as this one by an individual going under the online ID of asleychung:

The place you’ll find a lot of low-quality English teachers is the JJ Mahoney's nightclub of the Seoul Hyatt Hotel. It seems even moneyless, beggar-like English teachers can get in. They all get together to hit on Korean women. Whart’s worse, also going there are garbage-like gyopo from Canada who come to Korea because they can’t get jobs back home. To make a living, they teach children English in places like Budang and Pyeongchon, but at the club, they act like big shots intimidating and seducing the women who come there.

[One has to watch out for Americans in JJ Mahoney's, of course.]

In the wake of the revelation about Karr teaching in Korea, netizens were calling for regulations on the hiring of foreign teachers to be strengthened. One netizen decried how foreigners don’t appear subject to background checks when hired as teachers. Another complained of all the "American beggars" coming to Korea to teach low-quality English and fraternize with local women, and called on the government to strengthen its qualification requirements. Still other netizens complained of all the low-class foreigners teaching English in Korea.

The article concluded by saying that some people were taking things into their own hands. The Korea Foreign Teacher Recruiting Association had released a blacklist of foreign instructors and some patriotic netizens had banded together over at to form a movement to expel illegal English teachers (ie. Anti English Spectrum).

While this case did not lead to changes in hagwon hiring policies or E-2 visa regulations, it provided more material for Anti-English Spectrum and outlets like Break News to work with in pushing for change that summer.


Kevin Kim said...

My insider experience at various hagweons in the 90s (plus the one I'm at now, although I'm not a teacher here—I'm a textbook-content creator) shows that the problem cuts both ways: there's unfair stereotyping of foreign workers, but there are also plenty of foreign workers who really are unqualified to teach English because they lack the basic knowledge and qualifications. As to the question of behavior, I've found that unstable personality types are more attracted to hagweon work: I knew some jerks when I taught at the university level, but for the most part, they weren't the type to have psychotic breaks. In hagweons, meanwhile, unprofessional behavior by foreigners was a fairly normal thing. It didn't help that a lot of hagweon work presented itself as a joke, so on some level, I can't blame hagweon expats for not always taking their work seriously. The whole English-ed system is a mess, in my opinion, and definitely requires revamping. Anyone looking to teach English in Korea ought to, at the very least, be put through a competency test of both their teaching ability and their English-language knowledge.

matt said...

I'd agree that many hagwons have far less interest in qualifications or ability and more interest in having someone to fill the seat and fulfill the 'native speaker' role (I remember once having tonsils the size and colour of golf balls but was ordered to come to work anyways) - the economic imperative dominating all others. From my experience the public schools are a bit more discerning and are a step above the hagwons in who they hire (and they're also less likely to hire only white people). I would guess with the basic due diligence of criminal checks, etc, that were introduced in 2007 some of the flotsam would have been prevented from washing ashore, leading to some improvement in teachers, but not having worked in hagwons for years, I really can't be sure - not that CRCs tell you anything about teaching ability or knowledge of the English language.

Now that I think about it, psychotic breaks and other problems are more likely to develop in hagwons since teachers are alone in the classroom, whereas in public schools there's always a (co)teacher around who should be able to detect problems as they arise.