Forging pathways: Understanding and empowering the New Zealand workforce in South Korea

A report exploring the experiences of New Zealand professionals in South Korea, commissioned by the North Asia Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence.

Forging pathways: Understanding and empowering the New Zealand workforce in South Korea
South Korea is home to a growing community of Kiwis

This report was prepared by Dr. Yuri Seo and Dr. Amy Errmann.

We would like to acknowledge Dr. Heesun Kim from University of Hawaii at Hilo for her help with conducting interviews in Korea and supporting this project.

Executive Summary

This research report outlines the key findings of a project aimed at exploring the experiences of New Zealand professionals in South Korea. It seeks to understand the reasons behind the growing trend of New Zealanders moving to South Korea, focusing on opportunities in teaching, academia, entrepreneurship, and other corporate sectors.

The project aims to address gaps in knowledge about New Zealanders working in South Korea, exploring the reasons for choosing South Korea, initial challenges faced, strategies for overcoming these challenges, career progression, and advice for prospective professionals.

The methodology involves in-depth interviews with 9 New Zealand professionals in South Korea. The findings are compiled into this report, offering actionable insights, and helping prepare future professionals interested in the South Korean market. These include:

  • Insights into the workforce and employment opportunities in South Korea
  • The allure of South Korea for employment and settlement
  • Challenges encountered initially by New Zealanders in South Korea
  • Strategies adopted to surmount professional challenges and cultural adaption
  • Career pathways and advice to prospective New Zealanders considering a professional venture in South Korea.

1. Introduction

South Korea has emerged as a vital hub, attracting a significant number of New Zealanders due to its dynamic economy and captivating culture. This expatriate trend is primarily driven by expanded opportunities for Overseas Experience (OE), particularly in English teaching roles.

Additionally, there has been a surge in New Zealand-based companies extending their operations into the Korean market, including firms like Zespri, ANZ, Jack Links, and Luge (Skelton, 2022). Interestingly, an increasing number of New Zealanders are venturing beyond these traditional roles, seeking to establish long-term careers in South Korea.

One effective method for integrating into the workforce and building professional connections is through involvement in professional networks. For example, the Kiwi Chamber of Commerce in Seoul serves as a pivotal platform, fostering connections among New Zealand professionals and solidifying their workforce's presence in the region (Kiwi Chamber of Commerce, 2023).

Despite these promising developments, a comprehensive understanding of New Zealanders' professional experiences in Korea is still elusive. Persisting inquiries revolve around the workforce's size, Korea's appeal for employment and settlement, initial challenges encompassing language, culture, and institutional nuances, strategies to overcome such barriers, career development trajectories in Korea, and advice for prospective New Zealand professionals considering a move (Kim, 2022; Park, 2023).

This report provides insights to these aspects through in-depth interviews with nine New Zealanders currently living in Korea. We highlight the experiences, challenges, opportunities, and practical recommendations of participants, aimed at offering actionable insights.

The second phase of the project will feature a workshop and networking event in 2024, alongside the Kiwi Chamber of Commerce's chairman, who will provide insights to our findings and respond to emerging questions. This event will serve as a platform to foster valuable dialogue for those considering Korean opportunities.

By highlighting the experiences of New Zealand professionals in South Korea, we aspire to enhance understanding of their journeys and prepare the next generation of New Zealanders looking to expand their career horizons in this vibrant market.

Read more about the background and motivations for this report in an interview with report authors Dr Yuri Seo and Dr Amy Errmann, on The Context: Asia-Pacific

2. Opportunities in South Korea

South Korea, renowned for its rapid economic growth and rich culture, has become an increasingly attractive destination for international professionals. Among these, New Zealanders have found unique opportunities in this vibrant Asian nation.

This section explores two fundamental aspects of this trend: the burgeoning size of the New Zealand workforce in Korea and the country's allure as a place of employment and long-term settlement.

2.1 The Expanding New Zealand Workforce in Korea

The last decade has seen a notable increase in the number of New Zealanders making South Korea their professional home, with approximately 4000 kiwis calling South Korea home (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade).

This growth is not just in numbers but also in the diversity of roles occupied. Initially driven by the demand for English language education, the New Zealand presence in Korea has evolved to encompass a wider range of sectors. Companies such as Zespri and ANZ have been instrumental in paving the way for more corporate roles, while entrepreneurial ventures by New Zealanders are also on the rise.

The Korean government's initiatives to attract foreign talent, including streamlined visa processes and support for start-ups, have also played a significant role in drawing professionals from New Zealand. Statistics Korea and the New Zealand Embassy in Seoul have reported a steady increase in work visas issued to New Zealanders, reflecting this expanding footprint.

South Korea is taking steps to address manpower shortages in its industrial sector by expediting the entry of foreign workers and expanding quotas for businesses to hire them, as announced by economic policymakers on Monday (Kim, 2022). The government plans to accelerate the entry of 42,000 foreign workers whose immigration was delayed between 2020 and the first half of 2022 and streamline checks for an additional 20,000 expatriates expected in the second half of the year.

Concerns over workforce shortages, particularly in the shipbuilding sector where an extraordinary quota for skilled expatriate workers is being considered, are being addressed. As of June, there were 234,000 vacant jobs, in small and medium-sized enterprises. Additionally, the government plans to sell unused state-owned assets worth over 16 trillion won ($12.2 billion) in the next five years to improve fiscal status, amidst concerns over fiscal soundness and criticism of tax policy. Measures to manage consumer price spikes and a real estate policy to increase home supply will also be announced.

2.2 The Allure of Korea for Employment and Long-Term Settlement

Korea's appeal to New Zealand professionals can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, the dynamic Korean economy offers vast opportunities for career growth and development. The country's technological advancement and innovative business environment are particularly attractive to young professionals eager to engage with cutting-edge industries.

First, the two counterparts share economic, business, trade, and diplomatic ties. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is New Zealand's eighth-largest trading partner, with bilateral goods and services trade totalling NZ$4.9 billion as of June 2019. Both countries share democratic and market economy values and cooperate in various regional and global forums.

Their relationship, established diplomatically in 1962 and deepened with the opening of a New Zealand Embassy in Seoul in 1971, is rooted in their historical ties from the Korean War. New Zealand's ongoing support for peace in the Korean Peninsula extends to military cooperation, including exercises, talks, and exchanges.

The Korea New Zealand Business Council (KNZBC) plays a key role in advancing business ties. Educationally, the relationship has been strengthened since the 1960s, with a significant number of Korean students in New Zealand and an Education Cooperation Agreement signed in 2009 to bolster policy-level collaboration.

This robust bilateral relationship lays a strong foundation for enhanced collaboration in regional and international platforms like the East Asia Summit, APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the UN.

New Zealand and Korea, with their complementary economies, are significant trading partners (see Table 1 for statistics), with Korea ranking as New Zealand's fifth-largest export market. Trade between the two countries has increased more than fourfold since 1990. The Korea New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (KNZFTA), in effect since December 2015, is poised to further boost this growth.

Korea is a popular destination for New Zealand tourists, and Korean tourists constitute the seventh-largest group of international visitors to New Zealand, with 93,744 Korean and 19,860 New Zealand visitors traveling between the two countries in the year ending June 2018.

Additionally, New Zealand is involved in negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a broader regional free trade agreement that includes Korea. Korea is important to Māori business as a market for logs, horticulture, and seafood products, as well as tourism. A Korean company, Hansol, has partnered with Ngati Porou interests in an East Coast forestry investment.

Table 1: Economic Trade 2019 Statistics

(Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

Total two-way trade

$4.9 billion


Exports to Korea

$1.8 billion

Top exports: wood, dairy, meat and edible offal

Imports from Korea

$2.4 billion

Top imports: mineral fuels and oils, vehicles, machinery


US$1,513 billion


GDP per capita


(NZ GDP per capita is US$42,940)

GDP growth 



2.2 continued: The Allure of Korea for Employment and Long-Term Settlement

Regarding future projections, South Korea is experiencing an economic slowdown, with negative growth in Q4 2022 and its first trade deficit in over a decade. Predictions suggest a modest economic rebound in the latter half of 2023, although full recovery could take years. The government projects a GDP growth of 1.6% for 2023. Inflation, peaking at 6.3% in July 2022, is expected to decrease but remains above the target. This economic situation is widening the income gap and increasing living costs, with significant hikes in energy prices.

2022 was a record-breaking year for New Zealand-Korea trade, reaching NZ$7.18 billion, a 50% increase from the previous year. Dairy, valued at NZ$371.46 million, emerged as the top New Zealand export to Korea, surpassing traditional leaders like wood and aluminium. New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) in Seoul reports a growing interest among New Zealand exporters to diversify into the Korean market, especially in meat exports. Notable successes include Fonterra and Zespri, leveraging improved tariffs under KNZFTA and focusing on value-added products.

Despite Korea's economic downturn, New Zealand companies continue to thrive in the Korean market. However, to maintain success, New Zealand exporters must focus on marketing, brand strengthening, in-country partnerships, and product value addition. Total trade between New Zealand and Korea for the year ending September 2022 stood at NZ$7.18 billion, with exports at NZ$2.78 billion and imports at NZ$4.40 billion.

3. Method and process

3.1 Data collection

Overall data for this study were derived from a series of semi-structured in-depth interviews that informed the broader project to document the experiences of New Zealanders living in South Korea. The complete dataset consists of nine interviews that were held over zoom over a two-month period. Semi-structured interview guides were initially developed according to the research aims. These guides iteratively evolved throughout data collection with each interview informing the subsequent interview, and each component informing the subsequent component. Interviews lasted between 60 and 60 minutes. With participants’ permission, all interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed.

3.2 Purposeful participant recruitment

Given the exploratory nature of this research project to capture rich descriptions of the lived experiences of New Zealanders in South Korea, a purposeful recruitment method was adopted.

Interview participants represented a mix of ages, genders, geography, and occupations (see Table 2). Participants received a ‘Participant Information Form’ as part of the recruitment process and verbally agreed to a ‘Consent Form’ before their interview. Each participant received a gift voucher as a thank-you token for their participation.

Table 2: Participant Demographics





Age Bracket


Associate Professor





TV Personality; Teacher



































4. Findings

Provided below are descriptions of seven different themes:

4.1 The ‘expat’ version of the self
4.2 The importance of networks
4.3 Embedding into culture
4.4 Language skills
4.5 Technology facilitation
4.6 The good, the bad, and the path forward
4.7 An overview of pathways

4.1 the ‘Expat’ Version of Self

This theme explores the identity transformation of expatriates in South Korea. Most participants began by sticking to their own cultural networks by finding other expat or kiwi groups. However, after finding a foothold in South Korea, many participants highlight how expat life leads to engaging in new activities and building networks in South Korean communities:

"Living in Seoul with such a small expat community felt like a small town and I felt straightaway at home." - Dain​​
"I found all the Kiwis, Australians, South Africans, Irish, English, and Fijians... That was my little taste of home, it eased the homesickness..." - Joanna​​

New Zealander expatriates adapted their identities in the Korean context, balancing conformity to local culture with the uniqueness of being foreign. It includes experiences where networking and community-building among expats and locals occur:

"I came as a high school English teacher straight out of university... eager to get out into the world and travel..." - Malcolm​​
"I was struggling to find a kiwi when I first moved to the countryside…. So, every time I went closer but now, I feel like I'm at the point where if I moved back to a smaller city, I could manage it much better." - Andy​​
"But once you're in it's just a completely different thing - so many foreigners come over... They don't get to the core of the cultural things…. Try not to just stick to the expat scene. Get to know the locals... which is difficult because the way Korean society works… getting into their circle is very difficult." - Matthew​​

4.2 The Importance of Networks

This theme explores the significance of both professional and casual networks for kiwi expats in South Korea. It covers how these networks facilitate support, opportunities, and business ventures. The theme also examines the enduring global advantage of these networks:

"We were very lucky. And we're still friends with some of those people today." - Dain​​
"I've done TV shows here as well... they reached out to me - hey you're from New Zealand. We want someone from New Zealand for this TV show… it's called ‘Welcome First Time in Korea’... It was a great way to meet people initially." - Andy​​
"My coworker played touch rugby... That's where I found all the Kiwis... and then from that I went to alumni events and New Zealand embassy events..." - Joanna​​
"I'm also involved with kiwi alumni, which is a volunteer-run community here for anyone who has been to school in New Zealand..." - Lynn​​
"I started off with... foreigners... But then gradually I ended up joining language exchange groups. And just befriending our Korean co-teachers. So, I think I can say now I have more Korean friends then foreign friends." - Sia​​
"Joining Pasifika, attending the language exchange, or just going out hanging out with people at the cafe... is a big thing here." - Sia​​
"I knew that I had to embed myself into a network. So, I did that actually by getting involved with the Korean Scholars of Marketing Science that year." - Tony​​

4.3 Embedding into Culture

This theme focuses on the deep cultural immersion experienced by expats, often facilitated by having children in the country or wanting knowledge of the culture. It highlights the mutual cultural exchange, the ease of overcoming culture shock, and the nuances of navigating hierarchical structures:

"But then the job... we had friendship for life. So, I mean I would always say to people you know try and make some Korean friends." - Dain​​
"I had to show them that I was working in order to open a bank account... living in Seoul... it was overwhelming all the time..." - Lynn​​
"Koreans are very welcoming and warm... but I do find a lot of people are very much in their own bubbles..." - Joanna​​
"Coming to Korea is totally different. They have their own style... it's good to go to another country that really has their own unique kind of taste of what they are… I really love it because coming as a Pacific Islander with such a family base back home... So, like no matter where you are, family is always there." - Sia​​
"If you told me in July 2006, I would be living in Korea I probably would have laughed at you and laughed you out of that place. So, clearly as time goes on you do become a lot more embedded." - Tony​​

4.4 Language Skills

This theme reflects on the importance of language skills in South Korea, particularly in smaller towns. It underscores the pride in learning to read Korean and the necessity of demonstrating effort in language learning, despite the possibility of residing in English-conducive environments like Seoul. Further, it highlights the difficulty of learning the language for other expats, due to time constraints, professional responsibilities, and geography:

"I still don't know how I did it. But yes, that's impressive. Because a lot of people I've been talking to - some of whom have lived there for over 20 years have not learned the language… So, I started level three which is a lower intermediate and thought - you'll probably fail this semester." - Andy​​
"My Korean definitely got better when I taught English; my Korean really improved because I was using it every day..." - Lynn​​
"Oh, I absolutely love my Korean skills..." - Malcolm​​
"The first year of teaching I was learning how to teach... And you do just get better and better… It's all grammar. It's with a Korean teacher who can teach them the grammar." - Matthew​​

4.5 Technology Facilitation

This theme addresses how technology eases integration into South Korean life. It covers aspects like language translation, housing, visa processes, and professional work. It also highlights the efficiency and ease of life in South Korea, particularly in the context of healthcare and lifestyles:

"With translation apps and things, it's a lot easier now... I understand more than I can speak..." - Joanna​​
"Instagram became a really sharp way to find categorized places... it was how people found out about places..." - Malcolm​​

4.6 The Good, the Bad, and the Path Forward

This theme encapsulates the full spectrum of expat experiences in South Korea, including the challenges and the rewarding aspects. It touches on societal structures, the rise of Korean culture globally, and the nuances of being an outsider. It also offers advice for career building in Korea. It reflects on the cultural impact of Korea globally and personal growth through these experiences:

"So many people that come here under 30. They've spent a lot of effort on their own to learn it before they [arrive]." - Dain​​
"My whole career journey -  being bright, putting myself out there, and just creating room for an opportunity to come." - Andy​​
"So many people wanting to come over and do it... coming over here to travel, soak up the food, the modern culture, the history, there's just so much to offer...Absolutely spectacular... just so many opportunities - and yeah, I definitely recommend people take them with both hands..." - Malcolm​
"I knew if I made an effort to talk to people, learn the language, understanding history, I knew that it would broaden my experience here in Korea." –Joanna
"I'm the type to assume the best in people... it's been overwhelmingly positive." - Sia

4.7 An overview of pathways

This theme provides off a broad overview of the professional pathways that participants took in their professional endeavours in South Korea:

4.7.1 Academia and Teaching:

Expatriates like Tony and Malcolm have pursued academic careers in South Korea. Tony, for instance, transitioned from a senior lecturer position in New Zealand to working in Korean academia. Malcolm began his journey as a high school English teacher, a common entry point for many expatriates in Korea:

"Before I came to Korea, I was a tenured senior lecturer at the University of Otago in marketing… I had a lot of experience in Asia before... I knew when a fun opportunity arose, I had to either take a decision to move abroad or stay. So, Korea was definitely a cognitive decision." - Tony​​
"I came as a high school English teacher straight out of university... eager to get out into the world and travel..." - Malcolm
"I applied for the EPIC program - I got in thankfully... I requested to go in this countryside province and teach high school." - Steven

4.7.2 Corporate and Private Sector Jobs:

Steven works as a data analyst, a profession that reflects the broader trend of expatriates finding opportunities in Korea's diverse corporate sectors. This reflects a pathway for those with specialized skills and experience:

"I'm a data analyst. I've got about 10 years of experience of being a data analyst. Most of it was in New Zealand." - Steven​​

4.7.3 English Language Education:

Many expatriates, like Matthew, begin their careers in Korea as English language teachers. This role is often an entry point for foreigners, providing an opportunity to live in Korea and experience its culture while working:

"Okay um, well most kiwis and most foreigners who come is to work in a private institute. That's where almost everyone starts." - Dain​​
"They come, they do a year here, and they leave... Basically if you're from the right country and you have a bachelor's degree, you're apparently qualified to teach English." - Matthew​​
"I was very fortunate to have good relationships with the teachers I worked with... through say church group or language exchange." - Sia

4.7.4 Cultural Exchange and Networking Roles:

Several expatriates engage in roles that bridge their home cultures with Korean culture. This includes participating in or leading cultural exchange groups, alumni networks, and community organizations:

"Recently I've been going to the kiwi alumni meetups." - Steven​​

4.7.5 Entrepreneurship and Business:

Some expatriates venture into starting their businesses or taking up roles in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Korea. This path requires navigating a separate set of challenges and opportunities in the Korean market:

"I've done TV shows here as well... The mentioned - hey, you're from New Zealand. We want someone from New Zealand for this TV show." - Dain
"I think my personality fits well with an entrepreneurial mindset." – Sia

5. Discussion: forging pathways

The expatriate experience in Korea, as revealed through the interviews of various individuals like Joanna, Malcolm, Lynn, Matthew, Sia, Steven, Tony, and others, highlights a various approaches and strategies employed by expats to adapt, integrate, and succeed in a culturally distinct and dynamic environment like South Korea.

Many expats begin their journey by clinging to familiar expatriate circles, as observed in Sia's initial approach. However, over time, there is a natural gravitation towards embracing the local culture and establishing a unique identity within it.

This transformation can be seen in Matthew's shift from expat bars to embracing Korean drinking etiquette and Sia’s gradual transition to having more Korean friends than foreign ones. Steven's experience highlights a hybrid identity where language and cultural knowledge do not necessarily translate to complete assimilation. This highlights a nuanced adaptation where expatriates retain their uniqueness while blending in with the local culture.

The professional landscape presents a blend of challenges and growth opportunities. Tony’s journey from a senior lecturer in New Zealand to working in Korea underlines a strategic shift with a focus on embedding oneself into professional networks. Steven and Tony's reflections suggest that while the nature of work might remain consistent, the dynamics and expectations in a Korean workplace can vary significantly from their home countries, necessitating a recalibration of work approaches and attitudes.

Teaching English is a prominent job opportunity for expats, often not requiring extensive Korean language skills. Other sectors with significant opportunities include IT, administration, manufacturing, and fields related to health, science, research, and technology. South Korea offers a wealth of opportunities for expats in various sectors. By understanding the local job application process, preparing appropriately, and leveraging both online and in-person networking, foreigners can successfully navigate the South Korean job market.

The importance of networks cannot be overstated. Tony’s conscious effort to embed himself into a network upon arrival, and Steven's involvement in Kiwi alumni meetups, illustrate the critical role that both professional and social networks play in easing the transition and opening doors to new opportunities.

Building relationships with locals and other expats helps in not just professional growth but also in personal adaptation, as seen in Sia and Joanna's experiences. Language emerges as both a barrier and a bridge. Tony's admission of his limited Korean language skills juxtaposed with his understanding of the culture illustrates a common expatriate challenge. The ability to speak and understand Korean varies among expats, affecting their degree of integration and experience in Korea.

Experiences in Korea lead to significant personal growth. The reflection of these expatriates shows a journey of self-discovery, adapting to new challenges, and learning to navigate a different cultural landscape. Each expatriate's story reflects unique pathways to working and living in Korea. Whether it is through teaching English, working in academia, or in corporate sectors, these paths are diverse and tailored to individual experiences and goals.

The common thread, however, is the willingness to step out of comfort zones, embrace new experiences, and adapt to the cultural and professional environment of Korea.

In conclusion, the expatriate journey in Korea is marked by a rich array of experiences, challenges, and opportunities. It is a journey of personal and professional metamorphosis, shaped by the individual's willingness to adapt, integrate, and contribute to their new environment.

6. Conclusion

This report has illuminated the diverse experiences, challenges, and opportunities of New Zealand professionals in South Korea. This exploration reveals a diverse expatriate life, offering valuable insights into adapting to a new culture, overcoming professional hurdles, and carving out successful careers in a dynamic and sometimes challenging environment.

A key point that has emerged is the significance of cultural integration and identity adaptation among New Zealand expatriates. Initially, many expatriates gravitate towards familiar circles, finding solace and grounding in the company of fellow foreigners. However, as their journeys unfold, a natural transition occurs, steering them towards embracing local customs, forming deeper connections with South Korean society, and often, reshaping their identities to blend their native traits with newfound cultural elements.

This adaptation process is captured in the experiences of participants who found comfort in expat groups before integrating more deeply into South Korean. Professionally, expatriates in South Korea embark on a range of career paths. From teaching English to roles in academia and the corporate sector, these professionals have navigated a landscape rich with opportunities and challenges. Their experiences underscore the importance of adaptability and resilience in the face of fast-paced work environments and high expectations.

Networking emerged as a cornerstone of expatriate success. Building robust professional and social networks is crucial, not only for career advancement but also for personal adaptation. Deliberate efforts to embed into professional circles and participation in casual networking illustrate the invaluable role these networks play in smoothing the transition to a new country and opening doors.

Language proficiency, or the lack thereof, has a profound impact on the expatriate experience. While some navigate their daily lives with limited Korean language skills, others invest significant effort into language learning. This variable proficiency in Korean shapes the overall experiences in South Korea.

Hear from the authors about the background and motivations for this report

Understanding and empowering Kiwis working in South Korea
Kiwis living and working in South Korea are a growing community. New research explores their experience to understand how this trend can strengthen bonds between the two countries.




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Park, Patel, Varma, & Jaiswal. Accessed by print 2023 (first published online 2022), The challenges for macro talent management in the mature emerging market of South Korea: A review and research agenda

Republic of Korea (South) New Zealand Government. 2023

Skelton. 2023, A new meaning for K-pop: Kiwi businesses proving popular in South Korea