Seoul, South Korea is one of the world's largest and most vibrant cities. Settled amongst the mountains, it has become a powerhouse of culture, fashion, music, technology, food, and business. From posh Gangnam, to traditional Insadong, Seoul is almost guaranteed to be a great place to live, work, study, play, and intern. Interested in testing your chops in one of the world's coolest cities? Brush up on your hangeul, perfect your metal chopsticks eating skills, and follow this guide all the way to an internship you won't soon forget.
- Main Industries: Automobiles, ships, consumer electronics, mobile telecommunications, equipment, steel, music, and fashion
- Popular Destinations:Gyeongbokgung Palace, Namsan Tower, Coex (Asia's Largest Underground Mall), Dongdaemun Market, Cheonggyecheon Stream, Insadong's Bukchon Hanok Village (traditional Korean homes), Myeong-dong Shopping Area, and Hongdae.
- Cost of Living: As of 2012, Seoul was the #22 most expensive city in the world. Apartments in Seoul can be very expensive, but you can get by on pretty cheap ramen. Watch out for the coffee though, some cups will set you back about $6.
- Visa:Acquiring a visa for interning can be somewhat complicated. First you will have to determine how long you will be there (as certain visas are only for 90 days). Korea offers working holidays visas to some countries but not all, and even then people of Korea descent can apply for a special visa to be able to visit. Global visas is a good place to inquire about a each specific situation, but the experts will probably be your program or internship providers.
- Technology and Programming: As one of the major tech capitals of the world, it comes as no surprise that internships involving technology are popular in Seoul. You'll find that many of these internships don't necessarily deal with making a product like a phone or computer. Many focus on website maintenance and computer programming. SUNY Korea, a branch of Stony Brook University, is a great place to look for these kinds of internships
- Government: Some of the best internship programs in Seoul deal with government, from the Seoul City government to the United Nations. One of the most successful programs is the Seoul Global Internship Program. This program lasts five weeks and is open to students from around to world. Interns can learn about how Seoul, one of the world's largest metropolises is maintained and run on a day-to-day basis. The program is usually held in January and February. This program doesn't require Korean skills although internships with the US Embassy and the UN will require knowledge of Korean.
- Business: Korea is home to many thriving industries like Hyundai, Lotte, and Samsung to name a few. When looking for a business internship in Seoul, one of the best sites to check out is Korea Business Central. The site has a membership, but you can check out discussions from people about finding and acquiring business internships in Korea without a membership. While you probably won't be able to break into an internship in a big company without considerable knowledge of Korean, you can find internships with smaller companies and get in touch with people to help with your internship search.
When and Where to Look for an Internship:
The resources stated above are some of the best starting points for preparing and finding internships in Korea, although a college or university's study abroad or internship office would also be great places to start. Korean universities run on similar schedules to Americans, although it should be noted that new school years in Korea start in January or February, not August or September. Internships in the winter and summer are popular, but can be hard to come by. There are also some programs that offer internships longer than a standard semester so it is always best to decide when, and where you want to intern first.
Work Culture in Korea:
- Etiquette: Koreans are exceptionally hard working people. Koreans work more hours a week than almost any other developed country in the world. While you might not be expected to stay as long as everyone else, do be ready to stay longer than you planned.
Another important aspect of Korean culture is age and seniority. Korea is a Confucian society, and as such those who are older are usually seen to be of a higher ranking. As a younger person, especially an intern, you will have to be very respectful to everyone else.
In Korea you can also find that there may be some cultural differences between your home country's work clothes etiquette and Korea's. This especially goes for women. Even a small amount of cleavage is considered to be very inappropriate. Shirts should be high up on the chest in order to be modest and work appropriate.
One last note on working culture: As stated above, Koreans work hard, but a lot of them play pretty hard too. Korea has a vibrant drinking culture, and sometimes coworkers will go out for drinks after work. Drinking with coworkers after hours is completely normal. When drinking, if someone above you offers you a drink, it is good to accept (if you like drinking that is). The person who offers you a drink will pour the drink for you and you should pour them a glass in return. If you don't drink, don't worry, but if you do, it's a good thing to remember.
- Language: Korea speaks Korean, which is certainly not a shocking revelation but it is important. Of all the places in Korea, you will probably find the most English speakers in Seoul. It is not necessary to know Korean to live and work in Seoul but it definitely helps. There are many internships that require interns to be fluent in both English and Korean.
Korean is also a very difficult language for native English speakers to pick up in a short amount of time. Sentence structures between the two languages vary a great deal, so most English speakers heading to Korea will find it difficult to master the language in just a few weeks or months.
This being said there are some internships that only require English, but those are sometimes difficult to find.
- Networking: Networking and connections are important, but it can sometimes be difficult to do when you don't speak Korean. You will still probably get lots of business cards from people though. Hold onto them. Contact them. Enthusiasm and attention to details are important so remember key things about the people you meet. Also, Korea has a very prominent expat community; if you ever need assistance of want good advice, seek the help of a fellow expat. Many of them will be very willing to help you out.
Korean Royal Palace
- Work and Labor Laws: The most important work laws regarding interns in Korea come from the Labor Standards Act. In laymen's terms, this act says that laborers (interns included) have to be compensated for their work, although educational experiences can be considered compensation if the employer and laborer agree on the compensation ahead of time. The laborer becomes 'legal' after the agreement to work has been made. As of an recent article in the Korea Times, unpaid interns do not have the right to take legal action against employers should something go awry, although some in the current government want to make some changes to the act. As these laws can change, it is always best to keep up to date on the laws and practices before and during your internship.
Why Intern in Seoul?
You may be reading this right now thinking 'this seems like a lot of work.' Good! It should be a lot of work! Interning in general can be very difficult, and interning in another country where they don't speak your language is even more difficult, but many would argue that it's worth it. Seoul is a beautiful and amazing city that offers shopping, hiking, gaming, eating, and even a theme park, all accessible by public transport! Interning at the epicenter of Korean culture will certainly be a challenge, but if you're willing to work for it, the experience may be worth your while.
Contributed by Kylie Genter
Travel junkie, film lover, rap enthusiast, and self proclaimed wine aficionado, Kylie Genter is a graduate of SUNY Oswego where she studied Communication. She studied abroad in both London and Cuba during her collegiate career. After conducting research on student study abroad narratives, she moved to South Korea where she now lives as an English teacher. When she's not writing or teaching, she's probably eating.
Do you think there is something missing in our guide to interning in Seoul, South Korea? Contact us and let us know! We want to make sure our information is relevant and up to date.