Jacco Zwetsloot’s Tips on Carving Your Niche in Korea

A recent column by Jacco Zwetsloot in Korea’s DongA Ilbo newspaper, reflecting on his time in Korea / Supplied

Living as an expat abroad, you typically grow used to the transient nature of the foreign community – as friends and colleagues gradually return home or venture off to pursue new adventures across the globe.

But amidst all the comings and goings, you can find a smattering of ‘old-timers’ – a fascinating group that have spent a decade (or more!) in the country and have witnessed its transformation to the city you wander in today.

In South Korea, one of these fascinating folks is undoubtedly Jacco Zwetsloot, a charmingly eccentric Dutch-Australian celebrating the 25th anniversary of his first arrival in Korea this year. With a freshly minted Bachelor of Arts in Modern European Studies & German Language from the University of Melbourne, Jacco’s foray into Asia came in the guise of a contract as an English teacher, initially meant to last one year and fund a planned trip to Germany. However, the dynamism and potential of South Korea in the late 1990s left a deep impression on him, leading Jacco to pivot away from Europe and dive headlong into the study of Korean history, language, politics and comic books (more on that later).

Interested in more stories of Australians that spent over a decade in South Korea? Get inspired by Julia Mellor’s story as an English-teacher-turned-entrepreneur and Sool-expert!

After 3 years teaching English as part of the Korean government’s EPIK program, Jacco took a Korean Language course at Yonsei University in 1999, and then returned to Melbourne to live near his father, who was struggling with Parkinson’s Disease by himself. Jacco found it tough to put his knowledge and experience from Korea to use in the Australian job market. Regrettably, in those days, Korean expertise was not highly valued. Nevertheless, Korea continued to fascinate Jacco and he was accepted into Monash University in 2001, where he changed his major to Asian Studies and wrote an Honour’s year thesis titled “DMZ in the Head” on the possible future of Korean Unification.

“Melbourne in the early 2000s didn’t have a Korean Consulate, a KOTRA office, nothing, so really there was nothing you could do that was related to Korea,” Jacco explains, adding “The world has changed. These days there is greater recognition of Korea as an important trading partner. It just wasn’t ready yet. My timing was wrong – I was too early.”

Jacco recreating a historic photograph alongside 2 fellow history buffs at Kim Il Sung’s old summer villa, which ended up south of the inter-Korean border after the war. On the left, Kim Jong Il with his sister and a Soviet general’s son, playing at the villa as kids / Supplied

Knowing Your Stuff

When Jacco returned to Korea in 2004, he had his previous teaching English experience, Yonsei University Korean Language certificate and academic credentials in Asian Studies from Monash University as a foundation for his job-hunting. Yet after a short-term contract at Seoul City Hall, he returned to English teaching, though this time at a university. Speaking about English teaching, Jacco says, “There was a time when there was money to be made in that industry, but salaries have fallen over the last two decades, and there are no real prospects for advancement or professional development. I cannot recommend young graduates choose it as a career. Do it for a year or two to see some of the world, but don’t get stuck in it. You need to build your own skills and branch out into other areas.”

During his two and a half years teaching at a university, Jacco met some colleagues and together they founded a company to offer global business skills training to Koreans who wanted to work for multinational companies. They saw a need in that there were many capable and intelligent young graduates who did not yet have a mindset or the skillset to function well in the global business world. While this project proved successful at first, the company did not ultimately achieve long-term sustainable growth and had to close down.

What followed was 2.5 years at Korea.net, a Korean government official promotion website that sits under the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. “I was writing and editing English-language website content that promoted positive news about Korea and its government. Thankfully, I had a certain degree of freedom to choose my own subject matter so I wrote articles about cultural and historical things that I found interesting and thought other non-Koreans would find interesting too.” When asked why he left there, he says, “They offered me a contract that would have given me tenure for life, but I felt I had done all I could do, and there was no chance for advancement or development, so I resigned.”

Over the years, Jacco has continued to reinvent himself, gaining experience in a number of industries, including radio, podcasting (make sure to check out his ongoing interview podcast series about north Korea for NK News here!), historical walking tours, writing, translating, and editing, including regular pieces for both English- and Korean-language media.  He even managed a tourism team in a hotel on a US military base for a year.

“I’ve made a career for myself in Korea in my own way, doing things that I found interesting or challenging,” he explains. “But it hasn’t always been easy. To current university students who would like to live and work in Korea, I would advise them to study a business skill that can be marketable anywhere in the world, like accounting, engineering, auditing, or do an MBA course after your bachelor’s. Otherwise you’re limiting the paths that you can follow.”

Jacco Zwetsloot

Acknowledging that not everybody is suitable for all jobs, Jacco say, “Of course, a lot depends on your personality type. But that just means that you have to channel your energy through something else, like an easily transferrable skill. In my case, I’ve had to learn to put to use my people skills– you’ve got to use the skills that you have.”

A major career breakthrough came in 2016 with an opportunity to work at HMP Law, one of Korea’s oldest and most prestigious law firms, managing the firm’s international marketing, PR and business development activities. Jacco credits that hire to his ability to network and befriend people across all walks and stations of life. “I met the chairman of HMP Law in a social setting way back when I had founded that small training company, and we stayed in touch, so when he was looking for someone to raise the firm’s international profile, he called me.” He goes on to say that, “Be it through writing, making videos or podcasts, it’s important to be active as a way to build your presence and what it is now trendy to call your ‘brand identity.’”

As of July 2021, Jacco is a content creator for Insights Communications Consultants (a PR-firm managed by Michael Breen, the author of The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation (a book Jacco recommends for anyone wanting to live in Korea), as well as network moderator for the Seoul branch of the Economist Corporate Network (part of the Economist Intelligence Unit), weekly podcast host for NK News, volunteer walking tour guide for the Royal Asiatic Society in Seoul, freelance writer for a number of local media outlets, and freelance event emcee.

It sure feels like a world away from starting out as an English teacher planning to stay just one year in Korea!

Jacco at numerous social and business events around Seoul / Supplied

Building Networks That Count

While building an association between your name and a certain area of expertise is important, having people that vouch for you is also critical. Jacco noted that a majority of his roles, including his current position with the Economist, Insight Communications Consultants and NK News, as well as past jobs at Korea.net and HMP Law, came through word-of-mouth.

For those looking to start networking, Jacco recommended tapping into organisations such as AustCham Korea to participate in community events like ANZAC Day or Australia Day. The Royal Asiatic Society is another great organisation that brings together journalists, academics, diplomats and business leaders with an interest in Korean culture, history and politics. If you want to work as a freelance print or broadcast journalist, or want to meet those who do, the Foreign Press Center Korea is, in Jacco’s words, a place where “you can meet journalists or those on the fringe of journalism”.

“Build your network. Get to know people in as many sectors as possible. Korea isn’t a place to be passive. You won’t get very far by being a wall flower,” is some of Jacco’s advice. He goes on to say, “Show that you can be useful. You can’t just be needy, asking for things. It’s important to provide value to an exchange, whether that’s by providing helpful information, telling a good story, or connecting people to others who they have something in common with.”

Jacco on the streets of Seoul / Supplied

Learning The Language

Doing one’s best to learn and master the Korean language can be something that sets you apart from other jobseekers and will help you build a career. “I know a lot of people that are restricted by their lack of Korean and could be much further than where they are. Not only are you limiting yourself, you are also limiting your information, forced to rely on translated sources. Every Korean word you know, every language structure, will come back to you in won or dollars – it’s a monetizable skill.”

That may seem obvious, especially for any Korean Studies students who may be reading this, but it wasn’t always that self-evident. Jacco notes that while in the 90s and up until the 2000s it may have been possible to get by and even do well without learning Korean, this is no longer the case.

Although Jacco’s own decision to learn Korean was primarily driven by the frustration of “living in a community of people but knowing what they were saying”, he also emphasized that the labour market in Korea has changed over the recent decades. People who can only speak English are now competing for the same jobs with the children of Korean immigrants overseas (gyopo), who have become increasingly numerous since the 1990s, and from highly educated Koreans with study-abroad experience.

“Now there are a lot of bilingual Korean adults who weren’t there in 1996.”

Jacco Zwetsloot

Looking for more study tips to learn Korean? Check out the Korean Language study section on Asia Options!

Jacco enjoying Seoul summer in 2021

Convinced on the need to learn Korean but not sure where to start?

Apart from spending time in the country and immersing yourself in the local environment, Jacco recommended the Yonsei University Korean Language Program, particularly for those keen to develop a solid academic foundation for their language studies.

On the self-study front, and including Jacco’s passion for history, books and comic books (and even propaganda posters!) were top recommendations for those seeking to boost their Korean language skills. The key, Jacco noted, was finding a way to combine your study aspirations with topics that genuinely interest you:

“One of the first books that I read cover to cover was a Korean comic book about the Netherlands. Later for my Master’s thesis I researched North Korean comic books.”

Jacco Zwetsloot

Whether you are currently based in Australia and dreaming of moving to Korea, or already making your fortunes in the land of the morning calm, we hope that Jacco’s story inspires you to read up on Korean history, study the language and build your network within the Australia-Korea space.

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