SEOUL — NEWS OF THE UNITED STATES’ plan to allow 5,000 South Koreans annually to work, study and travel independently in the country on 18-month visas buzzed along local wires shortly after the State Dept. issued a media release Monday. But there has been a notable lack of commentary on the announcement here, even from South Korea’s famously controversy-prone ‘netizens.’ The “Reader Opinion” sections are empty, and Web portal Daum’s WEST forum hasn’t seen activity for 10 days.
By the silence, we can perhaps guess there has been a general nod of approval.
But while the WEST (Work, English study, Travel) program may entice loads of South Koreans who are looking for improved language skills and a leg-up in the corporate world, it doesn’t live up to the rhetoric of facilitating “cultural exchange” — due mainly to one binding guideline:
Participants will devote at least 450 classroom hours to structured English language training and coursework focusing on American business practices and business procedures, U.S. corporate culture, and general office management issues.
While I can only interpret vaguely, what I read is this: no art students, no English lit kids, no history majors et al. The U.S. is interested in bringing young Koreans bent on business, finance and management degrees; the rest are on their own.
The stipulation will hardly whittle the number of applicants, but it will certainly influence the dynamic of any cultural interaction; a good number of the Korean nationals that U.S. students have the opportunity to talk with will all be chasing after the same thing. Of course, skilled Korean artists and academics of other disciplines can still be accepted as exchange students directly by their universities, but won’t have the luxury of time for travel and exploration afforded by the new WEST visa, known as J-1.
It may be a futile effort, but I think local institutions should be lobbying for an amendment to the new agreement that allows for more breadth — or, if not, start pushing now for a wider doorway for American students when Seoul draws up its reciprocal program.