Michael Kocken on why Australians should be seriously considering studying Korean

michael kocken

It will probably surprise most that my journey with Korean actually started out when I was on exchange in China. My university major was Chinese and even my second elective language was not Korean (it was Indonesian). Heck even in high school I took Japanese as an elective course in year 8-9. During that whole period, I barely had any knowledge of Korean culture, I had never met a Korean person and the only time I had heard the Korean language was by chance when I watched [My Sassy Girl] late night on SBS Australia.

While on a year exchange program in China I found that many of my Chinese language learning peers were Korean. My particular exchange city (Dalian) was practically full of Koreans – to the extent that at my particular Chinese language school the student body was 70% Korean. Many of my daily interactions, new friends, drinking partners and travel buddies were Korean and from these friendships grew my interest in the Korean language.

After the exchange ended I returned to Australia to finish the final 6 months of my degree. 6 months after that I decided to travel to Korea for a gap year to see the friends who I had bonded with so closely in China. The only issue was that I had already invested 4 years and a university degree into learning Chinese with the idea I would be working in some capacity between Australia and China and I needed solid reasons to essential jump across the yellow sea and justify a gap year in Korea rather than returning to China.

I did my research at the time and now still 5 years on many of those same reasons that vindicated my decision to visit Korea are applicable to other Australian (and non-Australian) students studying Asian languages.

Here are my reasons for pursuing Korean (Over Japanese and Chinese) which when combined helped me to make my decision.


The economic opportunities

I expect have already lost some of you on this first point because China and Japan are respectively the top two export markets and two-way trading partners for Australia.

But here are the facts for the Korean-Australian economic relationship.

  • Korea is Australia’s third largest global export market, ahead of India and the US.
  • South Korea is also Australia’s fourth largest two-way trading partner. (Behind China, Japan and the USA)

The above points were a major factor in my decision to study Korean. I obviously knew about the economic relationship between China and Japan which influenced my initial decision to study Chinese. What I didn’t realize and was surprised to learn was of the economic significance of Korea to Australia. If we compare the GDP and population to Japan and China then it is even more significant that these two middle powers could have cultivated such a large economic relationship – and we will continue to do so in many years to come.

Korea will remain a significant market for Australian resources. From sending Iron Ore to Korean Steel Mills (POSCO) to maintain the Korean Shipbuilding Industry (Largest in the world), to the new opportunities in LNG (Korea is the second largest importer of LNG while Australia will become the largest producer come 2018), Australian agricultural produce can be found in a wide variety of Korean produced food products (Check the back of your Ramen packet for 호주산), Australian meat is on the menu of every barbecue restaurant in Seoul, while Wine and Beer exports will continue to grow.

There are also growing investments and joint ventures between the two nations providing exciting job opportunities for Australians. – Projects like Samsung C&T and their involvement in the Roy Hill project in WA. Samsung Heavy Industries building floating LNG facilities for Australian gas projects; Korean Gas Corp and their involvement in two Australian multi-billion dollar LNG projects. POSCO’s branch for engineering and construction are also involved in some projects and on the lookout for even more prospective mining JV’s. Then there is the lesser known CJ (Entertainment and Food) which is also involved in direct investment in the Australian Agricultural industry to secure produce for its wide range of perishable products.

Then, of course, there are the Korean consumer products – Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, Hyundai Motors, Kia Motors, Daewoo Motors, Sanggyong Motors, Nexen/Gumho/Hankook tyres – all massive multinational companies that have been doing business in Australia for years.

South Korea also remains Australia’s third largest source of student enrolments – There are roughly around 30,000 students / working holiday makers arriving from Korea every year. Which means plenty of job opportunities in the education industry particularly in international marketing and student enrolments with Australian universities, TAFE or language institutes.

All of this is then enhanced with the recent Australia-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that will further strengthen the highly complementary trade and investment relationship.


Lack of competition

The above economic significance of Korea to Australia isn’t as attractive without the fact there is a serious lack of competition for job opportunities in comparison to China and Japan.

In 2009 before leaving for Korea I did some research into the Korea-Australia relationship. What I managed to find was a statistic that estimated the number of students enrolled in tertiary Korean courses in Australia was below 100 nationwide! Japanese is one of the most common languages taught at high school in Australia and Chinese courses are arguably the most popular of the Asian languages at University but Korean, however, at the time was really struggling to attract students. My university even shut down its Korean program after years of low enrolments such was the lack of interest.

To sum it up – We have Australia’s 4th Largest trading partner, 3rd largest export market, and 3rd largest student enrolment market but only a paltry 100 odd Australian students investing time and money into learning the language and culture. This fact was the tipping point for me and it should be for so many others now enrolled in Asian studies.  The situation isn’t unique to Australia either and a similar lack of Interest from American, Canadian, British and European students alike will play to the advantage of anyone deciding to study Korean.

I like to think that my decision to study Korean was the smartest bet in my life based on those above odds. Despite the rise in Korean culture awareness and rising popularity of Korean TV shows, music, food and electronics there still exists this very large gap in the market for Korean speaking, Korean culture understanding Australians. The Australian government has been aware of such shortcomings for some time now and the very generous Australia-Korea foundation (see below) is just one step they have taken to push more young Australians into learning Korean.

Despite the popularity of Korean culture increasing there will always be the Chinese and Japanese markets attracting away the majority of the competition. I have been incredibly lucky since I started learning Korean but that luck was brought about by being opportunistic and I have no doubt that anyone deciding to study Korean will find bigger and better opportunities than their Japanese / Chinese language student counterparts.


Working Holiday Visa

Working holiday agreements for Australia exist with a few countries and while the agreement with Korea was developed to cash in on the booming Korean working holiday English market it still provides Australians with a unique visa opportunity with which to travel, study and work with relative freedom and minimal starting funds.

In 2012 I was interviewed about my experience on the working holiday visa. At the time I was one of 23 Australians on the visa in Korea, while a staggering 15,000 Koreans were in Australia under the program. This figure probably best portrays to date the current imbalance in this significant relationship. The working holiday visa restrictions certainly have some issues such as banning formal English tutoring and the ridiculous Korean minimum wage but regardless; in a country where it is still hard to get working/long term visa’s the H1 working holiday program is a unique opportunity.

For more information on applying and attaining a H! visa to Korea please visit the Korean embassy website.

The visa essentially provides Korean language learners with the opportunity to study Korean without the constraints of a student visa and allows them to learn Korean at non-university academies and or via tutoring which can prove cost-effective for short-term visitors  To date the visa program is still greatly under-utilized by Australians was another reason that led me to visit Korea on a gap year.


The Australia Korea Foundation

I love the AKF! Basically, because they gave me two, yes two! $5,000 scholarships to study Korean in Korea. I have no doubt I received these scholarships not because I was an outstanding candidate but because they had funds that they needed to allocate combined with a lack of applicants. This was truer in 2009/10 but I have since recommended two friends to apply for a scholarship and both my friends were successful. Neither of them were outstanding students or candidates either but what’s great about the AKF is they seem to genuinely recognize people who have the passion and desire to learn Korean and develop a unique Australia-Korea career.

I applied the first time as an afterthought but without a doubt, this scholarship and foundation gave me the opportunity that I don’t think I would have been afforded in China or Japan (once again due to competition). If you are considering your future career and language options then a quick visit or even email to the AKF could help with your decision!

This article was originally published on The Sawon – an Asia Options endorsed blog for those with an eye on a career in South Korea.

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Michael Kocken lived, studied and worked in Korea for 4 years and now currently works for a Korean multinational company in Australia while providing freelance Korea-focused business consultancy to Australian companies. He also runs a blog called “The Sawon” which focuses on Korean business culture and job opportunities for non-Koreans in Korea.

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