Friday, October 15, 2010

English-Speakers in Korea Demand Right to Shop in English

Since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, Koreans have increasingly taken to shopping online as a variety of popular shopping mall websites sprung up offering a huge number of products. As these sites only operated in Korea, they are only available in the Korean language, but recently this has been challenged by foreigners who have moved to this country.

“We are being unfairly excluded from online shopping malls” said Sue, a 26-year-old native-English teacher who has been in Korea for two years. Andrew, a 35-year-old from Columbus, Nebraska, who has lived in Korea for ten years but can’t read or speak Korean, complained that the lack of English on Korean Internet shopping sites was simply “un-American”. “I usually have to get a Korean friend to help me out”, he complained.

Kim, a 32-year-old business woman who sells jewelry through, says she occasionally has foreigners contacting her asking to describe some of the products she sells in English, but her English isn’t good and she worries about making a mistake. She says the margins in her business are very tight and she doesn’t have the money to pay a translator, especially when the products she sells regularly change.

Meanwhile, emboldened by the newly introduced anti-discrimination law, which for the first time seeks to establish limited legal rights for non-Koreans, some foreigners who have lived here several years are threatening to bring test cases against Korean retailers, who – “through the barrier of language seek to exclude English-speaking foreigners from their legal right to participate in online shopping in Korea.”

Professor Kim, a 58-year-old expert on human rights laws from Seoul International University, says it may be an interesting test case: “Do English speakers living in Korea have to learn Korean to buy from Korean businesses, or do Korean businesses operating in Korea have to learn English because English speakers are trying to buy from them?” Kim thinks that if a test case is successful, it may mean that in future when an English-speaking foreigner asks a Korean for directions in the street, the Korean will be legally obliged to provide the correct answer in English.

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