Summary of 9th Seoul Town Meeting

by Anne Ladouceur, 20/12/2007

The Seoul Metroplitan Government held its 9th Town Hall Meeting on Friday 30 November. In attendance were about 160 people, including government officials and members of the expat community. This was the second Town Hall Meeting in 2007, the first having been held in April. The November meeting’s agenda included: Schooling for Expat Children, Access to Services for Foreign Residents, Marriage-Immigration Policy, Cross-Cultural Programs (for foreign spouses) and an open-question period.  Since most mothers and working ex-pats were unable to attend the meeting, some questions/issues were submitted in writing prior to the meeting.

Schooling for Expat Children issues included the high cost of schools for the children of foreign residents as well as the limited schooling options available in Seoul as opposed to other Asian countries. A parent pointed out that although her husband was employed by a major American multi-national, the couple were from two different European countries and that their children would be completing their education in Europe but that international schools in Seoul do not meet those needs in that the curriculum (of English-language schools) is primarily American and Christian-based. The government was asked what it planned on doing to address the needs of foreign invested families who need a more international and truly secular schooling for their children. The high cost of schooling was also raised. A city official indicated that two international schools would likely be opened in the next two or three years – one in Gangnam and one in the Digital Media City.

Access to services brought questions and comments on a number of challenges and frustrations faced by foreign residents and visitors, including discriminatory banking rules, telephone (land line and cell) access, on-line purchases (even on sites with English information), and more. Participants asked about banking regulations that now require non-Koreans to wait at least three months before they are allowed to access their Korean bank account via the ATM and why foreigners are no longer allowed to access their Korean bank accounts from international ATMs outside the country.
The difficulty, or even impossibility, of ordering simple things like movie or theatre tickets on-line or shopping in the many e-markets, not because of language difficulties, but because alien registration numbers are not recognized. Others talked about the biases against foreign customers by the major telecommunications companies when it comes to basic services such as landline or cell phones. The invited expat guest speaker, explained that she was able to access many of the necessary basic services, but only with the help of Korean staff. “We need to be able to live in Korea independently and to be able to do things for ourselves” she added.

Two government officials made presentations on immigration policies regarding the increase in marriages in which one spouse is a foreign national and on cultural programs that the government has developed for them. Foreign spouses spoke to some of the challenges facing them, such as regulations that prevent their names being added to the family registry resulting in not being named as the mother of their children and having all of their personal information (immigration required data) attached to their children’s school records for anyone to read. The issue of dual citizenship for foreign nationals married to Koreans was also raised along with the experience of foreign husbands having to leave the country following a divorce from their Korean spouse.

The majority of immigration questions were about the new visa regulations for English Teachers with foreign embassy officials and participants expressing the need for information in English. Other immigration questions touched on the difficulty of getting clear and consistent information from immigration officials/sites regarding immigration rules and requirements in other areas as well, including business investment. The official was also asked why Korea does not have a landed immigrant category, why a labor conflict with an employer can be used as justification for refusing to issue a work visa (with another employer) and if Korea has any plans to be more open on allowing domestic help visas.

Other issues raised in the general questions segment (including some that were sent in by expats who are unable to attend a week day meeting) touched on a variety of subject. Included among them were taxi safety (non-working or absent back-seat safety belts) and taxis that drive past foreigners or refuse to take them where they need to go; the need for more late night buses and trains, more commuter bike paths/dedicated bike lanes and a more complete bike path map. Questions were also sent in asking if the city has policies regarding noise from commercial establishments and motorcycles as well as the recurrent ‘motorcycles on the sidewalk’ complaint (one writer did suggest posting soldiers and/or police on sidewalks as part of an identification and penalty strategy.

At the end of the meeting, participants were asked to inform the city via the Seoul Help Center for Foreigners what they would like to see on the agenda of the next meeting and if they would prefer a weekend, weekday day or weekday night date next time.

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