How to get a driver’s license in KoreaThere I was again in a car with sirens and flashing lights. Only this time, I was in the driver’s seat and the police officer was beside me. “Hurry, go!” he said and we were off, racing through the crowded streets of Seoul. I white-knuckled the steering wheel and my face pulled back in a rictus grin. To understand how this strange circumstance arose, we need to look back into my journey through the arduous process of getting a driver’s license in Korea. Most foreigners registered to live or work here will just present their hometown license at the Driver’s License Agency, in the case of Americans take a short multiple-choice exam, and receive their Korean license in under a day. Let’s just say that my Canadian license was “lost in the mail,” but I had a hankering to hit the highways under the scorching sun of the Korean summer. I needed a driver’s license, and was off to the Gangnam DLA office, behind the COEX at Seolleung station.
The Korean National Police run the show for getting on the road in Korea. They are headmasters, instructors, revenue collectors, safety advisors, registrars and arresting officers for the thousands of new licensees on the roads in Korea every year. The process of getting a license in Korea seems to be part of a broader culture of test-taking here. Like the TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, GMAT and LSAT thousands of Koreans seem to be perpetually involved in taking and re-taking the government driving exams in order to better their chances in life. Failing some stage of the test as many as 10 times in a year is not unheard of, yet they soldier on. This involves a heavy commitment of both time and money, and, on my part, an ability to suspend much of what I learned in Driver Training School and 11 years of relatively accident-free driving back home.
The series of tests required to get your shiny certificate of ability to drive a 1996 Kia Sephia with “ground effects” can be broadly broken down into five stages: an eye exam, a multiple choice exam, a safety seminar, the hell of the test course and a road test on the highways and byways of Seoul with a police officer riding shotgun. Each of these was to prove a unique challenge. I thought that with careful planning I could jump through each of these hoops in maybe four days. It took me most of August and almost drove me mad. Like ballet, becoming licensed to thrill in Korea involves a series of complicated movements done in precise order, which have nothing to do with reality.
The eye exam was a straightforward affair that involved buying a revenue stamp, just like you do at Immigration, reading an eye chart for an unsettlingly brief period of time, and doing a quick color-blindness exam. So far, so good I thought. Just like driving on dirt roads when I was 12, I was getting away with it.
The multiple choice exam was the next morning in a big room in the same building with about 100 other people, presided over by a police officer on a stage waving a big stick. That got my attention. The exam is now available in Chinese, Japanese and English, reflecting Seoul’s slowly changing demographic makeup and also revealing a lot about Korean driving culture. The English translation was good but had some odd questions about things like carrying reserve military personnel in commandeered vehicles to the front lines and how to secure loads like telephone poles on trucks. These regulations from a different era are still being taught and tested in Korea. You need a 30 out of 50 to pass, and I walked out breathing a sigh of relief. The safety seminar was in an even bigger room later that day hosted by a kindly gentleman who may or may not have been a police officer. My motorcycle helmet was probably not the wisest thing to bring to this event but I mumbled something in Korean and sat down. The seminar was actually quite impressive and involved a lot of discussion of morality and proving yourself as a good citizen by buckling up, cutting down on the soju and staying out of brawls after accidents. They showed some horrific shots of cars flying off piers into the Han River and people lamenting their loved ones. Hard-hitting, much better than I had expected. This may have been the longest I have listened to one person speak in Korean.
The following Monday saw me swagger through the gates of the West Seoul DLA behind the World Cup Stadium for the closed course test. You may have seen these in outlying parts of Seoul and other cities, they look like miniature golf courses with bright yellow cars complete with “I May Crash At Any Time” signs in Korean and disco lights on the roof. I skipped the instruction video and paid dearly for it. The course is full of electronic sensors, as is your car, and you are monitored by computers and police officers in a tower yelling out instructions over a PA as you inch around the course, always crawling below 20 kmph, in a slow-motion dance of defeat.
One inch over the line? Sirens wail. Doing 21 km/h in a 20 zone? The car yells at you in Korean and red strobe lights go off. You are yanked from the driver’s seat and thrown in the back by a government worker who drives you back to the finish line, blowing through stop signs and doing 60 kmph. University girls tumble out of the back seats, sobbing over their inability to complete the course. At a random point during the test, an alarm will sound and you must stop the car within three seconds, turn on the hazard light within five seconds, wait three seconds and then move ahead. I failed three times and actually went to bed visualizing the course, “Begin with left turn-signal on, move forward 10 meters, stop within one meter, move forward....” I passed with the minimum score on my fourth attempt and had now spent almost 100,000 won on stamps.
This brought me full-circle to the road test. After arriving at the DLA and wading through a sea of newly pardoned traffic violators, I was about to pass the final hurdle. I handled the road with ease but had to contend with my police officer instructor grabbing the wheel, hitting the brakes and telling me to do bizarre things like take as many lanes as possible for a u-turn and change lanes in intersections. Let’s just say that driver training in Korea may not be what you are used to. I passed the test and you can too, but driving in Korea is not for the weak. Stay safe out there. In Seoul, call 1577-1200 or go to www.dla.go.kr/eng/main.jsp.
by Kenneth Craig
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