Building the Infrastructure

Published in the Fall 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

As Korean society modernizes, social work finds its place and social work education continues to grow.

-By Ed Finkel

South Korea has been transformed in the past half century. A country that had regained its independence after WWII and then suffered through the Korean War now has the 14th largest economy in the world. The Korean economy's size as measured by GDP has risen from $2.3 billion in 1962 to $264 billion in 1990 to $970 billion in 2007. Annual income in South Korea has gone from barely over one hundred dollars per capita in the early 1960s to more than $24,000 in 2007.

But with this growth have come social dislocations. "While absolute poverty has decreased over time, increase in inequality is a social problem," says Jae Yop Kim, dean of the School of Social Welfare at Yonsei University, the oldest university in Korea. "[We also have] changes in family structure from large families to nuclear families, increase in divorce, more working mothers, and urbanization with weakened community ties."

A half-century ago, social welfare spending from international social welfare agencies outpaced that of the South Korean government. However, the country's response to societal changes has grown as the country has developed. Korean social welfare spending has increased from 5 percent of GDP in 1990 to 10 percent today, shooting up particularly under the administration of Roh Moo-hyun, who served as president from 2003-08, says Bong Joo Lee, a professor of social welfare at Seoul National University.

Like Kim, Lee is a graduate of SSA's doctoral program, part of a significant coterie of SSA alumni in South Korea. As the profession of social work grows in South Korea to respond to the needs of a changing, industrial society, the educational infrastructure to support the field of social work is also being built. American social work university programs like SSA are partnering with South Korean universities in creating a system that has the rigor, capacity and cultural relevance to serve South Korea's increasing need for social welfare programs.

EVERY SOCIETY HAS ITS PROBLEMS. Before its rapid development, Koreans dealt with issues like poverty, poor nutrition and the need to improve education. In an article published in the April 6, 2009 issue of Research on Social Work Practice, Yojin Kim, a post-doctoral researcher at Yonsei (and also a Ph.D. from SSA) and her coauthors detail how South Korea's fast economic growth has created a new set of issues, including integrating immigrant labor (more than 400,000 workers in the country today are from outside of Korea, nearly half of them illegal), more multicultural families, a burgeoning elderly population, unemployment and the financial instability of the national pension system.

"As Korea made substantial economic achievements, people started to pay more attention to quality of life, as well as helping those who are disadvantaged," says SSA Assistant Professor Jung-Hwa Ha, who emigrated from Korea in 1999 to begin her graduate education in the U.S. "With such changes in perspective, social workers started to play an important role."

In the last 40 years, there has been a steady, strong growth in the field of social work education in Korea. For example, Yonsei University's social work school, one of the top in the country, began with an academically oriented social work department for undergraduates in 1981, with a graduate program coming two years later. In 2001, Yonsei opened the first U.S. style school of social welfare in Korea, and now has about 120 students working toward a B.A., another 120 master's students, including those taking evening classes, and 40 doctoral students.

There are now more than 369 university-based social work programs training students in South Korea, according to the Korean Academy of Social Welfare, with more than 45,000 new social workers licensed in 2007 under a system that began in the 1980s. Bong Joo Lee estimates there are 200,000 licensed social workers in the country; Jae Yop Kim thinks it might be closer to 320,000, which he says puts Korea behind only the U.S. in the world for the total number of social workers.

Yojin Kim's paper notes that the curricula at these schools have been strongly affected by U.S. social work education programs, especially since many pioneering Korean faculty were trained in the United States. "They learned about how social workers in the states take care of marginalized people in society," says Youseung Kim, currently a Ph.D. student at SSA. "Those professors went back to Korea, and they thought, 'If we had that kind of independent school of social work, we could train and educate more professionalized social workers to take care of those people.' Rapid economic growth does not solve every problem in society."

Lee estimates that about 20 SSA Ph.D.s work in the social welfare education in Korea and says they've played a significant role in developing social welfare theories and practices in the country. "I think that the strong tradition of interdisciplinary study at SSA greatly affected my research and teaching," he says. "Also, the hands-on research experiences I gained through working as a research assistant during my Ph.D. program has been an asset for my research career."

At the School of Social Welfare at Yonsei, Jae Yop Kim says three of his 20 faculty members are SSA graduates. "We are proud of them taking a leading role in the field of social work in Korea and Asia, especially in the universities," he says.

SSA's ROLE AS A RESOURCE is not limited to having Korean students return to their country with an SSA education. A decade ago, for example, in a joint effort with the university's Center for East Asian Studies, the School was working on an international program in advanced clinical social work for Korean social workers. The 10-day summer program, funded through the Samsung Welfare Foundation, was designed to serve about 15 practitioners per year. Unfortunately, funding was cut before the program launched, due to the Asian economic crisis.

Since that time, SSA graduates have returned to the School, and faculty from SSA have also visited Korea. Five years ago, SSA's dean and George Herbert Jones Distinguished Service Professor Jeanne C. Marsh visited public agencies such as the Korean Hospital Social Workers Association, as well as faculty from Yonsei and Seoul National universities, where she talked about empirically based practice and building academic infrastructure on the clinical side. "We talked about how we might collaborate and how we can learn from another," she says.

SSA Associate Professor Yoonsun Choi traveled to South Korea last summer to visit several universities, including Catholic University, Seoul National, Yonsei University and Ewha Womans University, which has also recently started a graduate school of social work. Her lectures on the benefits of multiculturalism and her research on multiracial identity are an example of the opportunities and the limits of importing U.S. models.

"[The U.S.] is a country of immigration, and we've done a lot of theory building and intervention building around those issues," Choi says. "Korea has been more homogenous. But in recent years, as migrant workers and foreign brides have come to the country, they've had a huge increase in the multi-racial population and in multicultural families. And at the same time, those born outside the country are filling jobs that native Koreans don't want, but they're not always treated fairly."

While in Korea, Choi spoke about how the U.S. experience can serve as a shortcut to avoid mistakes we've discovered around these issues, such as the negative consequences of imposing a mainstream identity (i.e., "Korean-only") on multicultural children. But she is keenly aware that with different economic, social and cultural contexts, the country's social workers can't just replicate what's been created in the U.S.

"The social welfare system is different, policies are different, the way it's implemented is different, everything at the macro level is different," Choi says. "Plus, they're not starting from ground zero. When we work with them, we want to respond to the complexity and the interconnections."

And at the micro level, social intervention models in the field and contents for curricula in the classroom might not translate perfectly, either. "Cross-cultural studies inform not only our intervention practices but strengthen our understanding of theory," Choi says. "The direct application of each other's model might or might not work, but still, there's much we can learn."

WHILE THE ACADEMIC INFRASTRUCTURE to support South Korea's burgeoning social work field has grown tremendously in the past 30 years, there still is room for growth. Yonsei is considering how to build a global education network that could partner with overseas partners, for example. Choi notes that social work education in Korea is mostly at the undergraduate level, as a social science discipline. And of the 11 peer-reviewed journals that are Korean citation indexed and exclusively social work-oriented, the majority are small and publish unfunded studies.

"Less than 2 percent of the research articles are related to effectiveness studies on what works, under what circumstances, and for whom," according to Yojin Kim's Research on Social Work Practice article. "Moreover, in terms of authorship, little participation by practitioners in writing publications and a lack of collaboration between scholars and field practitioners were identified."

SSA's experience in the country is a rich resource for continued collaboration to develop Korea's academic social work infrastructure. Jung- Hwa Ha cites many opportunities for the School to provide insight, including theory-based interventions, development of programs for underserved city-dwellers, effective coordination of field education, and collaborative work with other professions.

"One of the things we're trying to do there is to strengthen a set of institutional relationships with peers—faculty exchanges around teaching and research and student exchanges, as well," says SSA Associate Professor Robert Chaskin, who leads the school's international efforts. "We're thinking about what contribution we might offer to international social work students at the master's level, as well as forums for research exchanges."

The school's Strategic Initiatives Committee last year put forth a memo outlining a more formalized structure for an international program at SSA, including a structured curriculum that would include international field placements and study abroad opportunities, as well as an international visiting faculty program that will enable scholars to spend three to six months at the School. SSA is also watching with interest as the University of Chicago develops centers for education and research in China and, in the near future, India.

SSA has been involved with social work education in India in the past as well, and the parallels and differences with the U.S. provide another fascinating opportunity for the School. While India has a different culture and history, both countries are large democracies with a notable percentage of the population living in poverty, large government bureaucracies and a growing NGO sector involved in social welfare provision. "It's a very diverse place, with rural and urban populations, and complex dynamics of religion, class and caste. And the country is undergoing rapid change," says Chaskin. "It's very interesting to compare to the U.S."

Choi mentions other Asian nations in which the challenges facing social workers have changed in recent decades, as well: China's wraparound government safety net has frayed, Vietnam's economy has begun to emerge and grow in a similar way to Korea's, Japan's aging population has strained its social safety set and created the need to import workers as Korea has, creating similar multicultural challenges.

"This international initiative is, in many ways, a culmination of interactions that the school has had in Korea and other countries around the world," Marsh says. "The School has always had a strong international reach. In the last few years, we have developed a more coherent set of steps in terms of what we want to do."