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More Young South Koreans Opt to Learn Chinese

South Korean teenager Lee Jun-ho hopes to talk himself into a job someday -- in Chinese.

Snubbing offers from two local universities in favor of a language institute in downtown Seoul, the 19-year-old studies Chinese seven hours a day in hopes of winning a place at a prestigious school in Shanghai or Beijing.

Lee has embraced a growing trend in South Korea, where more and more young people are opting to focus their foreign language skills on Chinese rather than English, the traditional lingua franca of the business world.

"I think China holds a better future for me, so I persuaded my parents to let me go there to study business," said Lee during a short break between classes at the Yiersan institute, whose name means "One, two, three" in Chinese.

The phenomenon mirrors South Korea's growing dependence on China's booming economy, which has replaced the United States as its main trading partner.

"Student numbers at language institutes specializing in Chinese have risen 10-fold over the last two years," said Chang Hyun-min, a manager at Yiersan's headquarters in Seoul.

"We are living in a world where it is virtually impossible to do anything without mentioning China."

More than 35,000 South Koreans are currently studying in China, making it the largest foreign student community there, and accounting for some 40 percent of the total, and the number is growing.

By contrast, the number of South Koreans traveling to the United States to improve their English or further their education has slowed.

Data from the U.S. Institute of International Education showed the number of South Koreans studying in the United States grew by 11 percent in 2001, but growth had slowed to 5 percent by last year.

"We've been receiving less enquiries about going to the United States for study in recent years," said Chris Cho, a manager at Chongro Overseas Educational Institute.

A sluggish domestic economy and tightened visa procedures following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have discouraged students from choosing the United States, he said.

Trading places

Jang Hae-san, a 43-year-old businessman and father of two, hopes an education in China will help his kids beat South Korea's growing youth unemployment problem.

"Originally I had planned to send my children to the United States, but I changed my mind," said Jang, who packed his 17-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son off to schools in Beijing three years ago.

"Since my business gives me some contact with China, I came to realize almost every firm I had heard of was rushing there," said Jang, whose company supplies electronic parts to major Korean firms.

Trade between South Korea and China has grown nearly tenfold since diplomatic ties were established between the two Asian neighbors in 1992, the Korea International Trade Association said.

China has also overtaken the United States as South Korea's biggest export market and is now Seoul's biggest trading partner, a title America held for decades, the trade association said.

Major enterprises such as the SK and LG groups are at the forefront of South Korea's foray into China's massive market.

Top local mobile carrier SK Telecom has already set up a joint venture with China's number two carrier, China Unicom Ltd., while LG Chem plans to boost its Chinese-speaking staff to one-quarter of its workforce from 10 percent.

"Since language is the most basic method to understand the culture of a country, we reckon proficiency in Chinese is much needed to do business with China," said LG Chem spokesman Eric Han.

(China Daily September 15, 2004)


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