One Reason Why Korea is Not the ‘Hub of Asia’
By J. Scott Burgeson
Last year I worked my butt off at Hongik University writing my latest book, and hadn't had a real vacation in over two years. So I decided to spend a month in Northeast China in February during the winter break, doing a little research on the ethnic Korean areas there but mostly just having fun.
Of course, one requires money to travel and have fun, so in late January I visited my local branch of Hana Bank in Jongno to apply for an international cash card (alternately known as an int'l debit or ATM card), in order to access my account there from abroad. I don't have or want a credit card, and certainly didn't want to travel around for a month carrying all of my money on me. I also knew that since I was going to be in China until the end of February, and my university wires my salary into my account on the 25th of every month, I might need to use some of my pay from February in case I emptied out my account before then.
I was a little worried about whether or not Hana would give me an international cash card, since for the past two years I had heard countless stories and complaints from local expats about how Korean banks had suddenly stopped issuing international cash cards to resident foreigners here. Even worse, many expats who had been given international cash cards from Korean banks in the past were finding that they now didn't work overseas, or were denied replacement when they were lost, damaged or reached their expiration date. No one was quite sure why Korean banks had decided to enforce this new policy, but it was clear that many foreigners here were very ticked off about it.
To my relief, however, the nice young lady at Hana processed my application without a hitch, and told me with a cheerful smile that my new international cash card would be mailed to me in a few days. It was still unclear why so many other foreigners were being denied international bankcards, but being a typically self-absorbed expat I wasn't about to complain since I had gotten exactly what I needed.
Or so I thought. Two days later, I received a call from the same teller. ``I'm sorry,'' she said, ``but we won't be able to send you an international cash card.''
``Why not?'' I asked, already sensing what the answer would be.
``Because foreigners aren't allowed to receive them.''
I couldn't understand why she hadn't known this when I'd first come in to apply, and went back to see the manager the next day. He was most apologetic and even offered me a cup of green tea, but when I asked where this discriminatory policy had originated from, he was unable to answer and simply kept repeating, ``I'm sorry.''
I was sorry, too, and told him before leaving, ``You know, I'm a respected instructor at a well-known Korean university. I think I have a right to access the money I've earned here legally, don't you? Isn't this the era of globalization that Koreans are always talking about?''
He agreed, which was nice to hear, but his sympathy wasn't going to be very helpful during my travels in China. In the end, I had to withdraw my last 2 million won using my domestic cash card, and exchanged it all for travelers checks that were often a pain to cash in provincial China, especially since I was traveling during the Lunar New Year when many banks and businesses there were closed for the long holiday.
Still, that was nothing compared to nearly getting fired because I was without an international cash card on my trip. When I had purchased my open-ended, round-trip ferry ticket in Korea, the clerk had neglected to tell me that they would be suspending service for two weeks for repairs during and after the Lunar New Year period. As a result, I spent the last week of February in the border town of Dandong thoroughly stressed out because I was almost out of money and the soonest ferry back to Incheon arrived on the morning of March 2, the first day of the new semester, and my first class started at 1pm that same day.
Even worse, I was unable to call the ferry company to make a reservation because it was closed throughout the holiday and repair period. It wasn't hard to imagine the ferry being fully booked after a two-week hiatus, which indeed turned out to be the case.
I would have much preferred just to buy a cheap airline ticket back to Korea rather than cutting things so close, but of course I was unable access my Hana account which had been replenished on the 25th. While I'm happy to say that I did in fact make it back to Korea in time after much high drama, I cannot say that I have especially fond memories of my last week in China.
Since I again plan to travel abroad this summer, I recently visited half a dozen local banks in Jongno inquiring if I could receive an international cash card from any of them, but Kookmin, Korea Exchange Bank (KEB), Woori, Shinhan and Standard Chartered First Bank of Korea all told me that they were no longer issuing such cards to their foreign customers.
When I asked why not, some of them didn't know, some said it was because of their own internal policy, and some said it was because of government regulations on foreign currency exchange. One teller even told me, ``It's because we think that foreigners in Korea only need to use a Korean bank while they're in Korea!''
Surprisingly, though, Nonghyup said it would be no problem for me to receive an international cash card, and even more bizarrely, the Ulchiro-1-ga branch of Hana told me that I could get an international cash card right away. I admit that I was skeptical at first given my previous experience with them, but sure enough, I had one in my hands within 5 minutes. It reads, ``Hana International Debit Card'' and works with the global ``Plus'' network. Amazing, but also incredibly strange!
I was so confused by all of this that I called up the Ministry of Finance and Economy, to see if there was really some sort of government restriction against issuing international cash cards to foreign residents in Korea. The official I spoke with, however, was just as baffled by the situation as I was.
``There is no government policy preventing foreign residents from receiving international bank cards,'' he said. ``The banks either misunderstand our policy, or it's just their excuse.'' Meanwhile, officials at the local banking industry's Financial Supervisory Service could tell me nothing more concrete, beyond the by now largely ritualistic expression, ``As a Korean, I'm sorry.''
The moral of this story? It is clear that many Korean banks are either inept, since they are incorrectly interpreting government-made banking regulations, or else they are outright discriminatory towards their foreign customers. Either way, there are hundreds of thousands of expats here with legitimate and often unmet banking needs who cannot help but roll their eyes when they hear of South Korea's oft-expressed desire to become a so-called ``Hub of Asia.'' Indeed, I'm sure many of them feel that Korea is only a ``Hub of Korea'' and not much else.
When I discuss this problem with my expat friends in Singapore, Beijing, Bangkok, Kyoto, Sydney and San Francisco, all of them resident foreigners with international cash cards from local banks, they often just laugh or shake their heads in disbelief. My Canadian friend Doug, a former colleague at Hongik who recently relocated to Beijing, was stranded in Bangkok last year without any money after his KEB ``international'' cash card failed to work, and had so many problems with Korean banks over the years that he now likes to say of his Korean experience, ``I voted with my feet.'' Then there is my American friend Dave, a long-term expat in China with many years of experience in the travel industry there, who simply asks, ``What the hell is Korea thinking?''
It's something I'd like to know myself!
J. Scott Burgeson is the author of ``Korea Consumer Report’’ (Galleon, 2007) and ``Korea Bug’’ (Eunhaeng Namu, 2005). www.kingbaeksu.com.