By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, June 27 (Yonhap) -- It may be no surprise that young college students are hunting for jobs way ahead of graduation in a frozen employment market.
Kim Jun-hyuck (alias) could be just one of those early birds, but the 24-year-old junior college student living in Seoul is a bit different in that he does not care much about the local job market as he now has set his sights on Japan.
"Since the start of this year, I have been looking for job opportunities in Japan," Kim said. "I was so frustrated with the domestic job market situations that I just gave up hope here."
A growing number of college students, graduates and even those who have already landed work here are looking to Japan for better-paying and more stable jobs in the face of protracted high joblessness, long working hours, unsatisfactory salaries and among other things, the sense of insecurity in Korea.
South Korea's jobless rate has been high for years and the hardest hit are the younger generations like Kim's, which have borne the brunt of high unemployment as evidenced by the latest statistics figures.
According to government data, the unemployment rate in South Korea stood at 4 percent in May, the highest rate recorded for the month in 18 years.
In particular, the jobless rate for those aged 15-29, comprised mostly of college students and graduates, came to 10.5 percent in the same month, the highest ever since the same month of 1999, when relevant statistics started to be complied.
Some experts say that the figures fail to show the whole picture as they do not count those who have given up looking for jobs and chosen to study and advance to higher education instead. They said that the actual jobless rate could go over 20 percent for youngsters.
Young people have been innovative in overcoming the seemingly never-ending malaise in the job market. Some are focusing on building up their resumes to get picked out of red-hot competition, while others are simply putting graduation on hold until the job market gets better.
Things, however, are showing little sign of bouncing back anytime soon, and this is where Japan comes in, providing a rosy alternative that comes with high chances for stability, which many South Korean jobseekers have been in pursuit of but failed to come by here.
There might be many things that could hold them back from venturing out to Japan. Cultural differences, language barriers, and long separation from their families and friends might be among them, but many of the young jobseekers appear undeterred on hopes for job security.
"The top priority in my hunt for jobs in Japan is security," Kim said. "I expect that chances that those companies in Japan will let go of me will be relatively low given that they are reportedly struggling to find people who would work for them."
Japan's job market, especially for young people, has never been better.
Citing a government survey, a Japanese media organization earlier reported that some 98 percent of college students set to graduate this spring were employed, the highest ever since the relevant survey started to be conducted in 1997.
The go-go job market in Japan is attributed to a mixture of economic and social factors.
A recovery in its economic conditions is said to be a driving force for companies to demand more recruits, but a long-running low birthrate and shrinking population appear to be other major reasons for the never-been-better job market as it has resulted in less competition.
The high-demand-but-low-supply dilemma has been granting chances to jobseekers in South Korea, its closest neighbor.
Japan's state data showed that the number of South Koreans working in Japan came to 4,812 as of end-October 2016, up over 16 percent from a year earlier. Though the latest related data were not available, it is sure to remain on the rise, apparently affecting even those who have already landed a job here.
Lee Woo-young (alias) in his late 20s had never dreamed about going to Japan until recently since he could manage to get a job not long after graduation. He is now considering quitting and going to Japan to study, which he thinks is a necessary process to find a better and more stable job.
"I would not have thought about going overseas had it not been for such a harsh employment situation here. All I want is job security, which I am not sure I can have here in Korea," Lee said.
"I am preparing to go to Japan to enter a graduate school there. In terms of job prospects, studying there could provide me with more options to choose from later on," he added.
Such a growing trend of South Korean people going to Japan for jobs comes despite long-strained and checkered relations between the two neighbors.
Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1910-45 and is under fire here for carrying out atrocities and crimes against the Korean people during the colonial era, which is often compounded by its repeated sovereign claims to South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo.
Along with the decadeslong friction between the two countries over their shared dark history, anti-Korean sentiment has also risen in Japan, which was punctuated by recent crimes and discriminatory acts apparently targeting South Korean people living or traveling there.
A 24-year-old college student who asked not to be named said that he is determined to go to Japan to work but concerns over safety and other ramifications that could come from the shaky relations between the two countries will serve as a weight on his mind.
"I would like to return years later after successfully building my career in Japan," he said. "No matter how bright the job prospects are and how well I would be paid there, there is no better place than home."
Song Boo-young, chief of the Korea Japan Association, said that he understands the concerns and admitted that not all youngsters in Japan are successful in finding jobs that they have been searching for.
He cited as downside risks cultural barriers, lack of language skills and such diplomatic issues being translated into unfavorable public sentiment but point out the bright side of the recent upward trend of young people venturing out to Japan in a broader context.
"Compared with other Western countries, the challenges coming from cultural and language differences might be relatively smaller as they are located near each other. Thanks to the proximity, you can adjust your plan once you think it is not right. You can give it a try without much burden," he said.
"Historically, Korea and Japan have had problems, and it will take time to solve all the issues," Song said. "It is necessary to enhance the understanding of each other to build a friendly relationship and to that end, exchanges among youngsters could help, though it might be a small step."
The association organizes a job fair every year intended to help younger people learn what is necessary to get a job in Japan and even match them with Japanese companies in need of workers, something that Song said is intended to enhance mutual understanding.
In an apparently related move, the Seoul government has also weighed in by encouraging younger generations to find job opportunities in Japan.
The labor ministry in conjunction with the foreign ministry and its overseas missions in Japan recently launched a "matchmaking" project linking local jobseekers with Japanese firms in pursuit of workers.
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