CHINESE CHECKERSKorea's trade figures with China grow every year, and last year China passed Japan to become Korea's No. 2 trading partner, behind the United States. Naturally, with the Korea-China trade numbers expected to keep rising, people are rushing to capitalize on the trend by training local employees to work with the Chinese and pick up the language.
One such person is Kim Choong-sik, who last spring established a Chinese language institute in downtown Seoul, the Yi Er San Chinese Culture Center, that arranges study-abroad programs in China for local students. Mr. Kim, 35, says that Korea needs to cultivate at least 100,000 China experts over the next few years to meet its needs.
"We are a country where 80 percent of the gross domestic product is generated through trade," Mr. Kim said. "Dependence on foreign countries is an essential part of our economic mechanism, so grooming China experts is very important for the future of this country." Many students who have gone to China to study have failed to adapt well to the culture there, but that doesn't discourage Mr. Kim. In fact, he says that's the reason he started his cultural center, to develop an organized approach to help students prepare for the changes they'll experience when they go abroad to study.
"To help those who plan to study in China boost their level of readiness there needs to be a preparatory system in Korea," he explains. Coming from the head of one of Korea's most prominent Chinese language institutes, his opinion might sound a little bit motivated by self-interest, but many local students are taking to it, driven by what they see as the next big gold mine in business, the vast, untapped markets in China.
Mr. Kim said his institute's downtown branch had around 3,200 students enrolled as of the end of July, just four months after it opened. The institute's second branch, in Yeoksam-dong, opened on July 15 and already has about 400 students in its classes. Mr. Kim says that enrollment at his schools is rising by 30-40 percent each month.
One thing his schools have that appeals to many of the students is a connection with colleges in China. Mr. Kim has contracts with 10 Chinese colleges, among them Beijing University, one of the country's premier schools. The agreements enable certain students to transfer to the schools after they have successfully completed pre-requirements through Mr. Kim's classes over a period of one year.
Getting approval for educating transfer students was not that easy, but Mr. Kim pointed out to the officials at the Chinese colleges that Korean employers tend to prefer hiring job candidates who have studied in the United States over those who have studied in China, because Korean employers do not think very highly of Chinese colleges. He said that one way to change that perception was to have a large pool of qualified students enter Chinese universities, and offered a cooperative relationship with his institutes as a way to achieve that.
Under the study-abroad agreements there are now 30 students undergoing intensive Chinese language training at the Chinese schools, as well as taking elective courses that are taught at the colleges. Mr. Kim said that another 200 students will go to China under the program by the end of this year.
Korea's educational system is unfit to produce China experts and Korean parents are reluctant to educate their children in Chinese, Mr. Kim said, adding the conventional wisdom that language training should begin from a very early age. He said that unless Chinese is included in the college entrance exam, it will continue to be untaught in schools -- in contrast to English, which is now taught at just about every level. Naturally, he views his institute as the fix to the flaw in the public education system. "We predict that in the year 2007 China will become Korea's No. 1 trading partner," he said. "But are we ready for this kind of change? I don't think so."
Mr. Kim last visited China last year, when he toured Beijing and Shanghai and saw the changes China is undergoing, which surprised him.
"In Shanghai I saw more than 500 buildings that were 30 stories or higher," he said. "The landscape has changed drastically and China's infrastructure is changing as well. In my mind there is no doubt that we need more people to go abroad and study China and these changes."
It may be true that China's upper education opportunities are still a notch or two below those of America and other developed countries, Mr. Kim acknowledges. "The infrastructure and the business environment are a step behind as well," he says. "But if the purpose of studying is not to become a scholar but to get involved with the Chinese market, then going to China and studying at one of the universities is the right way to do it."
by Kim Hong-gyun