Making a Smile Go a Long Way

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Making a Smile Go a Long Way

Kim Yang-su's attitude has changed in his 14 years at the Immigration Bureau. It wasn't that Mr. Kim tried to be rude when he started working at the bureau, but back in the 1980s, being friendly was not a high priority. "I just didn't know about customer service," said the assistant director of the Special Investigations Division. "But now I know it is important not to just think of myself."

What one might call a "softer, kinder" Mr. Kim is the product of a broader improvement campaign at the Immigration Bureau. In 1996, the Ministry of Justice introduced Dae Chinjeol Undong, the Great Kindness Plan, a new approach to running the ministry, which includes the Immigration Bureau. Smiling is now allowed. Helpfulness, too. And courtesy. The move is part of the general shift by the Korean government to make their services more user-friendly and productive. They have discovered, finally, that they are in the people business.

The general consensus on Korean immigration used to be that its workers were crass and obstinate and the office itself, from its location in the remotest reaches of western Seoul to its long crawling lines, was a synonym for "inconvenient." Just a few years ago, many foreigners living in Korea complained of negative treatment - brusk and indifferent, even hostile. On rare occasions when there were no stretch of bodies snaking up to the counters, several people said they were still forced to wait up to an hour. Counselors, who were supposed to tow to shore those adrift in the immigration process, proved to be just another shoal.

Immigration officials would show up at apartments to ask questions menacingly or they would ambush "suspects" in places they were least expected.

"I was treated like a Russian prostitute," said one English teacher from the United Kingdom. She was at a night club when five immigration officials suddenly rushed the booth where she was drinking with friends and started shouting and demanding identification. A fight even broke out. "I was amused by it all, really," she said, "and annoyed that they didn't just ask for my I.D." That run-in was the migraine of immigration headaches for the woman who said she was stymied all through the visa process.

"It used to be a big problem," Mr. Kim agreed. In the past, immigration employees said, the emphasis was on whatever was best for each individual officer. And if that meant bad service and inconvenience for people using the office, so be it.

The Great Kindness Plan was put in place in 1996 by then-Minister of Justice Woo Man-ahn as part of a broader effort to bring government services up to international standards.

But changes at the office are much bigger than just smiling more often. Until recently, it was difficult for people who did not speak Korea to get information about policies, rules or how to fill out forms. Now many guides in English and several other languages are available at immigration offices and on its Web site. The bureau has even introduced mobile services, which visit large foreign communities located far from the main office. All in all, these changes add up to a government bureaucracy that is, simply, much more pleasant to face.

One man from New Mexico said he showed up at the office disoriented, void of any idea about what he was supposed to be doing. An immigration counselor, Lim Ducksoon, quickly recognized the man appeared lost and went to his aid. She walked him through all the forms and procedures.

After two decades at the bureau, Ms. Lim, an energetic woman in her early 40s, beams about the transformation. When she went to work for the bureau, in Pusan in the early-80s, she was the only woman in the office. She estimated women made up just 2 percent or 3 percent of the immigration workforce. But over the last five years women employees have achieved noticeable gains, and now account for 40 percent of new employees.

"Everything has become a lot more friendly," she said.

The push to be more hospitable does not affect just customers. As the atmosphere improved, bureau employees began to enjoy their jobs and get more satisfaction from their work. "I work until midnight or even 2 a.m. once or twice a week," said one immigration officer, "but because I like our office, that's okay with me."

A sizeable international community is still a fairly new characteristic for South Korea. In 1990, there were only 100,000 foreigners living in Korea. But today, there are more than 500,000, and that number continues to grow rapidly. General entry, for tourism and short-term business also is expanding, and last year nearly 5 million foreigners passed through customs at one point of entry or another. Such growth presents all sorts of challenges.

That rise in the number of foreigners forced a lot of changes, as non-Koreans brought international standards with them. The result is a smarter, more aware customer base that expects more from immigration officials than ever before. "It requires a business mind," said Yoon Jong-seok, a supervisor at the Mok-dong Immigration office. The language the Immigration Bureau uses is now more like the language of business. Foreign residents are now "customers," and, just like a business, customers need to be treated well or else they take their business elsewhere.

The Internet has played a role in changing attitudes, too. In the past, a bureau officer might do a bad job, but by the end of the day he likely had forgotten about it. Now, through message boards and forums, complaints of bad service can sit there, online, for everyone to see. Fortunately, these days there are also many compliments to read. On the bureau's Web site, a visitor named Chris wrote: "I have to say, I really like your site. There are too many rumors among the foreign teachers here about the laws of the ROK." Which was exactly what Mr. Kim hoped for when he wrote the English-language Web site for the Immigration Bureau, as well as most of the English pamphlets and booklets available.

Mr. Yoon said the he and everyone at the Immigration Bureau have always been trained to be kind, but in the past it was just assigned a lower priority. He thinks changes there simply reflect broader changes in Korean society. He remembers no sudden shifts of policy. "In the middle of a change, you cannot feel the change," Mr. Yoon said.

The American Chamber of Commerce has also noticed the changes. One report read, "Korea has made tremendous strides in reducing its barriers of entry." But it also points out that much more needs to be done. Especially the farther one gets from Seoul, the more lax immigration offices can become, and foreigners in other cities, like Kwangju in South Cholla province, expressed more complaints about the current levels of service.

The improvements to the Immigration Bureau have not come easily. Increased internationalization has brought with it more crime. Drugs are particularly a problem, as is international organized crime. There are times when immigration officials acknowledge the old ways were more efficient at getting information and keeping tabs on people.

In the future, Mr. Kim thinks the emphasis will be on the Gwalliguk, the control and regulation aspects of the bureau. By this he means that in the future, he thinks the focus will be on how the international community lives and operates in Korea, on their standard of living.

As he said Korean Immigration used to practice a more confrontational policy, dealing with those foreigners. But now, he thinks the attitude is "not me, but us, including foreigners," that everyone is in it together.

For more information about the Ministry of Justice and the Immigration Bureau, you can check out the official Web site at:

by Mark Russell

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)