Two years ago, Lee Eun Yul made an unusual choice for a South Korean student: to do her master’s degree in Shanghai instead of the U.S. She says the decision helped land her a job at Samsung Electronics Co., the top pick for graduates.

“I chose China over the U.S. as China is the future,” said Lee, 36, who studied at China Europe International Business School. “My experience in China opens more exciting opportunities and I expect more challenging work when I join” Samsung this month.

Lee is at the forefront of a trend in South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, that is steering students toward China to boost their prospects in an increasingly competitive employment market. The number of South Koreans studying in China more than doubled to 62,855 in 2012 from 2003, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Education. The number of U.S.-bound students grew 50 percent to 73,351 in the same period.

“It’s only the beginning in the shift in Koreans’ appetite for education toward China from the U.S.,” said Cho Jin Pyou, chief executive officer of Seoul-based Wise Mentor, which provides education and career-path advice. “A flood of Korean students will follow companies going to China for jobs.”

The focus on Chinese language mirrors South Korea’s strengthening ties with the world’s second-biggest economy. Trade with China climbed an average 20 percent per year between 1992 and 2012, faster than the 6 percent growth with the U.S., according to Korea Customs Service. South Korea exported more to China than to the U.S. and European Union combined last year. China overtook the U.S. for South Korean foreign direct investment in the first quarter, the finance ministry said.

Sea Change

That’s causing a sea change in the way Korean students approach one of the world’s most competitive job markets. The nation has the highest level of young adults who finished high school and the highest proportion of gross domestic product spent on private education in the Organization for Economic Co- operation and Development, according to the OECD’s latest data. More than four out of five primary-school children get some form of private education, Statistics Korea said in a May report.

English was at the core of those extra classes traditionally, a reflection of the nation’s export-based economy and close political and economic ties with the U.S. Now, English has become so ubiquitous that it doesn’t give applicants an edge.

“English has become such a common product now here that it can no longer guarantee a decent job,” said Cho at Wise Mentor. “Studying in China offers another language skill and human network, a qualification that sells well to companies expanding their Asia businesses.”

Excess Students

The rise in education spending, and resulting increase in choice of graduates, means that the nation’s big industrial groups like Samsung or Hyundai rely less on the output of a few top universities such as Seoul National. About 42 percent of university students were “excess supply,” overqualified for the jobs available, according to a May 2012 report from Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul.

South Korean employers increasingly are evaluating new hires based on skills rather than where they received their education, said David Swan, managing director in Tokyo for London-based recruiter Robert Walters Plc.

“There is definitely a changing trend towards more consideration of Asian degrees,” Swan said. “People are being evaluated for the skills that they have as opposed to being educated in a particular university. The trend is people being able to actually do the job.”

Park’s Visit

When South Korean President Park Geun Hye led a delegation of 71 executives to Beijing in late June, including Hyundai Motor Co. Chairman Chung Mong Koo, she highlighted the role that students are playing in drawing the two countries closer.

“Koreans make up the largest proportion of the international students studying in China,” said Park, who is fluent in Mandarin and English, at a business forum in the Chinese capital on June 28. “Our strategic cooperative partnership has been enhanced.”

One reason is cost, according to Shin So Hee, manager at overseas education consultancy China Study Net in Seoul. “A short language-training program in China will cost a student one-third of the expense to go to the U.S.” Shin said.

Koreans made up the largest international group at her school, said Lee at CEIBS, adding that the tuition fee of about $60,000 was “very reasonable” compared to an equivalent course in the U.S. She said the experience made her attractive to employers for more than just the language skills.

“I was able to understand a lot about China in terms of how people behave,” said Lee. “This is something that you can’t learn without living there. At the same time, you can build a network with your potential Chinese business partners, an invaluable asset in your career.”

Medical Asset

Koreans aren’t learning Chinese just to do business with Chinese companies. Twenty-three year old Nam Ga Hee says the language skills she honed in China during a winter vacation helped her gain a job in one of Korea’s top medical facilities.

“You would think that learning Chinese has nothing to do with what I do, but it helped me greatly in the job market,” said Nam, who works as a nurse at Samsung Medical Center in Gangnam, Seoul. “I was able to differentiate myself from other nursing graduates because I could speak Chinese.”

The number of Chinese patients coming to Korean hospitals for treatment rose more than fivefold to 31,472 in 2012 from 4,725 in 2009 and overtook the number from the U.S. last year, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare data.

Medical tourism is growing in countries such as South Korea and Singapore, which offer patients high-quality staff and facilities at cheaper prices than in the U.S.

Ivy League

While more students are favoring China for part of their education to gain an employment edge, for some Korean students the U.S. remains the choice destination, with Ivy-League colleges such as Harvard and Yale heading the wish list.

“The U.S. is still the best place for top degrees needed to become an expert or scholar,” said Cho at Wise Mentor.

Many of the nation’s top policy makers were educated in the U.S. Bank of Korea Governor Kim Choong Soo and Finance Minister Hyun Oh Seok received doctorates in economics from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The U.S. Department of State issued 9,673 work visas to South Koreans in 2012, according to the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

The U.S. also remains a key political ally for South Korea, which is still technically at war with the nuclear-armed North. During the conflict on the Korean peninsula from 1950 to 1953, the communist North received backing from China. South Korea didn’t normalize diplomatic ties with China until 1992.

U.S. Sneeze

“South Korea used to catch a cold when the U.S. sneezed, now it’s China that dictates the course for the South Korean economy,” said Yoon Deok Ryong, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy. “Given China is still backing the North Korean regime, the risk is they may turn into our enemy.”

That didn’t stop Lee Ja Eun, 24, from heading to Shanghai in 2008 to study finance at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

“People started to realize China’s potential,” said Lee, who is now working on her master’s degree. “I study finance in China because it’s a country where its financial industry needs a lot of development, which means it will offer various opportunities.”

–With assistance from Cynthia Kim in Seoul. Editors: Arran Scott, Adam Majendie

To contact the reporters on this story: Eunkyung Seo in Seoul at; Heesu Lee in Seoul at;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Panckhurst at

Photo Credit: Korean students at Remin University in Beijing. Philip / Flickr