South Korea: The Diplomats Who Can't Speak English

It was revealed on September 13, 2011, that four out of ten South Korean diplomats find it nearly impossible to use proper diplomatic language in English, prompting the public to raise questions on the competency of Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials.

It is not the first time the Ministry has embarrassed itself: in February 2011, hundreds of translation errors were found in its official trade agreement papers. In September 2010, the former Minister stepped down after an allegation that his daughter was specially hired at the ministry without taking proper steps. In March 2011, multiple extramarital affairs scandals involving the  former chief of the Consulate General in Shanghai shook the nation. This last incident gained the Ministry of Foreign Affairs an embarrassing nickname, the ‘Ministry of Love Affairs’ and also caused a leak of classified documents and government contact information.

Image of Korean National Assembly Building. Photo by author (CC - BY - 2.0).

Image of Korean National Assembly Building. Photo by author (CC – BY – 2.0).

Ministry scandal

The latest revelation has strengthened people's suspicions that it is connections and not ability that is gets the jobs.

According to the Ministry's internal documentation, revealed by a policy maker, only 1.6 percent of diplomats are able to speak English fluently and write decent diplomatic documents, while 26 percent were evaluated as: “it requires readers extra efforts to understand a document written by him/her and his/her grammatical errors and poor word choices are sometimes critical enough to hinder clear understanding”.

About 12 percent received the most humiliating result: “there are serious flaws in his/her sentence structure and word choices. Too many errors can be found in the documents, such as incorrect words and typos”.

Furthermore, among the 26 South Korean diplomats dispatched to non-English speaking foreign countries, no one speaks the native language.

Reactions online

Online public forum, blogs and Twitter have been flooded with angry reactions. Anthony G. Kim (@AnthonyGKim) tweeted [ko] sarcastically:

외교관들 영어 못하는게 문제될 이유가 없다 그 사람들 해외나오면 주업무가 골프인데 영어 쓸 일이 뭐가있나

The diplomats’ terrible English won't be a problem. Whenever they visit other countries, their major task is playing golf. They dont need to use English.

Noh Jean (@Nonohnoh) tweeted [ko]:

이러니 FTA에서 번역 오류 몇백개 있어도 문제인식 못하고. (태만에 의한) 과실로 매국할 수도 있겠음

That is why they were unable to detect the several hundred translation errors in the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) deal. Not knowing what they actually do (due to poor language skills), they could mistakenly commit treason.

John Kim (@forlegacy) tweeted [ko]:

외교관도 유창한 영어는 1%대인데, 영어 잘 하는 사람은 다 회사에 취직한거죠?

Only the top one percent of the diplomats are fluent in English. (What about other people fluent in English?) They must have been hired by companies (instead of the civil service)

One of South Korea's most influential political bloggers, I am Peter, elaborated [ko] more on the diplomats’ love of golf and the tasks they focus on beside their regular duties:

해외 주재 외교관을 어디에서 가장 쉽게 볼 수 있는지 아십니까? 바로 한인회 주최 XX 골프 대회가 열리는 골프장에서 제일 많이 모습을 나타냅니다. 이들에게 골프는 말 그대로 한인사회와 끈끈한 (?) 정을 나누며 한인 사회 발전에 이바지한다는 허울 좋은 명분이 있습니다. 경기고 동창회 주회 골프대회, 서울대 동문 골프대회, 한인회장배 골프대회,해병 전우회 골프대회 등 등 헤아릴 수 없는 많은 골프대회에 빠짐없이 참가를 합니다.

So, where can we actually find these diplomats easily? It is none other than a golf field, usually the field golf tournaments are hosted by Korean groups living in the foreign countries.They justify their love for golf by claiming golf helps them to bond and mingle with fellow Koreans and thereby nurture Korean communities abroad. But there are countless golf tournaments, such as one hosted by Kyunggi high school alumni, another hosted by Seoul National University alumni, one organized by the ex-Marine community and etc,. And they never miss any of these events.

대한민국 정치인, 특히 여권 실세가 해외에 나가면 가관입니다. 영사관 직원이 총출동해서 여행코스, 식사 코스, 도시락 메뉴, 술 자리 등 사신단을 맞이하듯 극진한 대접을 합니다. 이들이 정치인을 잘 모시는 이유는 더 좋은 자리로 가기 위한 아부가 가장 큰 목적이고, 대접을 소홀히 받고 간 국회의원들이 외교통상부 국감에서 딴지를 걸까 봐 미연에 방지하는 차원입니다.

When Korean politicians, especially when those powerful figures from the ruling party visit foreign countries, the diplomats in that countries make such a scene that it is almost hard to watch. Everybody from the embassy goes out to welcome them and comes up with a good tour and meal plan. They even choose what kind of lunch box they will be serving and which bar works best, as if they are welcoming envoys. They do this mainly to kiss ass in order to be promoted to a better position and it is also to prevent any policy maker from feeling poorly treated. Because those policy makers (when hold grudge) can attack them in the hearing later.

Blogger Mujige sarcastically commented [ko] that it is like a bad comedy:

정말 한국엔 그렇게 인재가 없는걸까? 가장 중요한 외교를 책임지는 사람들을 일반인들보다 영어실력이 떨어지는 사람들로 대부분 채용해야만 하는 어떤 숨은 사정이 있는걸까? 국가안에서는 초등학생,심지어 유치원생들까지 영어교육으로 몰아대 영어광풍에 휩쌓이게 하면서 정작 영어가 필요한 외국에 나갈땐 자랑스러운 한국말을 널리 알리겠다는 깊은 뜻의 정책일까? 영어가 정작 쓰여야 할 국가적인 외교에는 쓰이지 못하고 엄한 국민들만 들볶아 대는듯.

Do we really don't have talents? (if we do have competent people) Then, is there a hidden reason for the Ministry to hire someone whose English is much worse than that of ordinary Koreans? The government drove this entire country into ‘English Craze’ by pressuring those kids, elementary school or even nursery kids, to learn English. However, when they encounter a situation when speaking English fluently is crucial, do they suddenly changed the policy from ‘learn English’ to ‘spread Koreans in the foreign countries’? Really? Why do they pressure irrelevant citizens while they can not use English properly in diplomatic circles?

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