Midnight Run: My Escape from South Korea

Midnight Run Korea: I have a confession to make. When I wrote about my experience living in South Korea as an English Teacher, and the Hagwon horror story that made me depressed and inspired me to leave the country, I wasn’t being completely open about the conditions of my departure. Not that I lied about it in any way, just that I know that I gave the impression that I sort of breezed out of the country, onto a flight to Italy, and the next minute I was sitting opposite the Duomo in Milan sipping an Aperol Spritz. No that’s not it at all.

Midnight Run Korea
Midnight Run Korea

The truth is, I didn’t just tell my boss one day that things weren’t working out and we’d have to part ways. I didn’t wave goodbye to my colleagues, have a leaving party and share cake and stories. I did a midnight run. I fled the country.

What is a Midnight Run?

Midnight Run Korea
Midnight Run Korea

A midnight run is a controversial term that most ESL Teachers in Korea are familiar with. It is essentially when a Teacher just packs up and leaves, seemingly disappearing in the middle of the night as if they’ve been snatched from their beds by the BFG.

A midnight run is frowned upon by most expats and ESL Teachers as many believe that it adds to the already negative perception of western expats that many Koreans possess. By all means, the decision to do a midnight run is not something that should be taken lightly, but sometimes it can feel as though it is your only way out of a bad situation.

Why Did I Do a Midnight Run from Korea?

Midnight Run Korea
Midnight Run Korea

I’ve already written a (somewhat rambled) article about my hellish experience at Lykeion Language Forum in Korea so I won’t repeat the reasons as to why I felt that a midnight run was the only option for me in so much detail.

However in summary: I discovered many illegalities within my contract, and foreign teachers were treated incredibly poorly by the Hagwon’s administration. When a colleague had to leave, the Hagwon made things extremely difficult for him and made all kinds of false and illegal deductions from his paycheck leaving him with nothing.

In an ideal world, I would have left amicably and provided my notice, but after seeing the way that my colleague was treated, I know that the Hagwon would do the same to me. Since working there was really starting to affect my mental wellbeing, I decided that a midnight run was my only way out.

Before the Midnight Run from Korea

Midnight Run Korea
Midnight Run Korea

I waited until payday to do my midnight run. In Korea, Teachers get paid on the 12th of the month for the previous month, meaning that even if you leave on your payday, you are forfeiting half a month’s salary. I was willing to do this, since I figured I would lose much more if I told the Hagwon I was leaving.

As my last class ended at 10pm on Friday, I waved goodbye to my colleagues telling them I’d see them on Monday, but knowing that I never would again. I felt bad to leave my coworkers, of course, but they knew how miserable working at the Hagwon was making me. I didn’t tell anyone about what I was doing, even though I had planned it weeks in advance, because I couldn’t afford for the news to get back to the Hagwon.

My Midnight Run From Korea

Leg One: The Great Escape

Midnight Run Korea
Midnight Run Korea: The streets of Ingye Dong are always packed and not exactly the best place to make an escape from!

It’s 4am on Sunday morning. Suitcase laid out on the bed, I add the final few things inside before doing a visual check of the apartment and making sure that I’ve got everything. I open the door to the dark corridor outside. The silence is deafening. Heart racing, adrenaline pumping, I feel like I am breaking out of my own apartment. I imagine the awkwardness if I bump into one of my colleagues in the elevator on their way back from their Saturday night out. What would I tell them? It would be game over for sure.

I stand in the doorway for what feels like an eternity staring across at the number on the elevator light, too frozen to move and wondering if anyone else is going to call it, wondering if anyone else is awake.

With a strange surge of adrenaline I decide that it’s now or never, and I drag my suitcase towards the elevator. Once inside, I watch anxiously as the numbers count down, wondering if someone else is going to get on. In any other living situation, I wouldn’t be so paranoid, but in Korea, all Teachers live in the same building and so there was every possibility that I could bump into one of my coworkers. I make it to the ground floor and exit the building. I feel a weird sense of nostalgia as I pass the convenience store and see the friendly, cheerful guy that I always speak to about his studies engrossed in a comic book inside through the window.  

Out on the street, I heave my suitcase towards the metro station. I had initially thought that once I had managed to exit my apartment building I’d be in the clear but the reality suddenly dawns on me that I had massively underestimated the “Red Zone” – aka, any place I had even a slight chance of bumping into a colleague. I live in Suwon’s Ingyedong district and the area’s main promenade of Ingye-Ro is filled with bars, clubs and noraebangs (Korean karaoke halls) full of ESL Teachers and Koreans partying until the early morning.

I keep my head down and hurry as fast as I can towards the metro, as if by some magic voodoo, having my head faced down will stop any of my colleagues from being able to recognise me if they should see a white woman in heels dragging a case along at 4am!

When the first train arrives, I head to Seoul Station, and change again to get to Incheon airport. No risk of anyone catching me here, I just have to deal with immigration.

Leg Two: Dealing with Immigration

Midnight Run
Midnight Run

If you have taught English in Korea, considered teaching English in Korea, or even toyed with the idea of doing a midnight run from Korea yourself, you will know that there are all sorts of rumors floating around about what could possibly happen when you get to immigration. I’ve heard whispers that you may get detained, that immigration may contact your hagwon, and any number of other ludicrousies. As I went to check in for my flight, incredibly anxious about leaving the country, a lot of these hearsays played on my mind. I can tell you now that it’s all complete nonsense.

I anxiously walked towards the check in, trying to look as relaxed and normal as possible. I dropped off my checked bags, received my boarding pass and walked away from the counter – an unexpected breeze.

As I went through airport security, and approached the immigration counter, I felt nervous. I had a whole story planned in my head incase the guards asked me where I was going. I was going to tell them that I had a week’s vacation for my (non-existent) sister’s wedding in Italy and I’d be back again in a matter of days. I thought that I said it confidently enough, they’d believe it without a shadow of a doubt. Hell I was thinking about this so much in the queue and the approach to the counter that even I believed it. I was feeling excited about my fake sister’s wedding in Lake Como, the fancy bitch!

Waiting behind the little yellow line for immigration, the agent waved to gesture me forward, hand outstretched for my passport. I handed him my passport and alien registration card. He barely glanced at them and then simply tossed them back at me. That was it. I had made it through.

I relaxed after that, ordered my last bibimbap while I was waiting to board, and strolled onto the plane. I cannot describe how relieved I felt as the wheels accelerated along the runway and my plane took off. I was free.

Things to Consider Before Doing a Midnight Run

I know that a lot of the ESL community in Korea are divided about the matter of the midnight run. Hagwons are notorious for not treating their Teachers well and so it can often feel as though someone, somewhere has it worse off than you, which almost makes you feel bad about complaining in the first place.

Only you can determine as to whether this is the right choice for you. If you feel that you have exhausted all other options, that staying in Korea is affecting your health and well-being, and that you have no chance of making an amicable departure from the school then it’s my personal opinion that you need to do what is best for you. Before that though, there are a few things that you should consider before doing a midnight run.

Your Students

Midnight Run
Midnight Run

This was the hardest thing about doing a midnight run for me – leaving my students behind. When you work at a Hagwon, you are typically dealing with relatively small sized classes which means that it’s easy to get to know and build relationships with your students and some of mine were so sweet.

Since I taught elementary, many of my students would just follow me around or come to class early to help me set up. I felt bad to think that they would wonder about where I was after I left, however I knew that this reason alone wasn’t enough to stay.

Your Co-workers

Midnight Run
Midnight Run

After I left, I know that my coworkers would have to cover my classes for me until a replacement was found. That said, all of my coworkers knew how miserable being at the hagwon was making me. I was becoming depressed and withdrawn and so I know that they understood and didn’t blame me for what happened.

Your Finances

Midnight Run
Midnight Run

English Teachers in Korea make a lot of money (at least when you look at cost of living versus income). I was able to save thousands of pounds in order to prepare me for my next move. If you feel as though you want to do a midnight run, and you are almost certain that you will commit one, try and start building up your finances ready.

You should also bear in mind that you may lose some of your money like I did, since pay-day fell on the 12th of each month and many hagwons are similar. If you think that you can come to some agreement with your employer, such as working until they find a suitable replacement or discussing your feelings about wanting to leave then great.

Your Future

Midnight Run Korea
Midnight Run Korea

What do you intend to do after leaving your teaching role? More than likely, you don’t see your future continuing in Korea, at least not right now. I went on to teach English in Italy and I explained the situation about my Hagwon to my employer. They were completely fine and understanding about it, and impressed that I spent so long living and teaching in the Far East to begin with.

Though I doubt I’ll ever go back to teaching in Korea (now blogging and writing full time as a Digital Nomad) , I do know people who have been able to secure positions in Korea again however many months or years after doing a midnight run. There are many corrupt Hagwons in Korea, or Hagwons that simply do not treat their employees so well and so, other Schools and Hagwons are aware that it is not always the Teacher’s fault, or that the Teacher just got bored or homesick in Korea and left.

Midnight Run Korea:
Additional Considerations

Midnight Run Korea
Midnight Run Korea

Note about immigration: If you want to come back to Korea again pretty soon after fleeing (maybe to dive into another teaching role or for a nice Busan vacation), then you should hand your alien registration card in to immigration and tell them that you are not returning. To be honest, I didn’t do this since I knew I wasn’t going to be returning to Korea any time soon, and I didn’t want to raise any suspicion. If like me you do not hand your alien registration card in, you will not be able to reenter Korea again before it expires – which can be anywhere up to a year depending on which point in your contract you are leaving.

Do you have any thoughts on the matter of doing a midnight run from Korea, one way or another? Have you done the same, or always wondered about what happens if you commit one? Let me know!  

Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer and Blogger based in Athens, Greece. She writes for numerous high profile travel publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, Matador Network, The Times of Israel and The Huffington Post.

6 thoughts on “Midnight Run: My Escape from South Korea”

  1. I’ll be travelling to Korea in a couple of weeks for a holiday and chanced upon your blog. So sorry to have read all that you’ve gone through. I couldn’t have imagined that a situation like this is possible in modern day Korea, always had a generally positive impression except for their drinking habits and gender inequality. I really hope that all our future endeavors are smooth sailing from now! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences!

  2. I taught for 3 years in South Korea. I really miss that country, because I had some amazing times there, made great friends and ***enjoyed*** teaching in ***hagwons*** quite a lot of the time. But that’s because I am somewhat careful about the hagwons I choose. I tend to be suspicious. For example, a week or two ago, a hagwon interviewed me. I was excited. WOW! They would let me, a non-American, teach in SEOUL! I had previously taught in Gyeonggi-do. All my friends lived in Seoul, but getting back from Itaewon at night had been a headache sometimes. The location was more convenient than where I had lived before. The hagwon said it was ASAP, so they could NOT process my visa in London. They could NOT pay for my flight to Korea from the UK, and would not pay to fly me home after the contract. They would pay for me to do a visa run to Japan, but I’d have to do some teaching BEFORE I got a visa. To me this was bang out of order. Reading the long list of fines in my contract put me right off, even though they got an American teacher to say some good stuff. I felt they were trying to manipulate me. So I said no. Now, it’s quite possible that if I took the job, I’d want to do a midnight run. I later found out that it was a terrible place to work, and some people had done midnight runs from there.

    However, you can’t always know in advance. So I would say that before reaching the midnight run stage, a teacher should try everything reasonable, and consider resigning or giving notice first (unless there are big penalties). I once had to leave a hagwon, but it was amicable, and I got my release letter.

    • Hi John,
      I love Korea too! I had a negative experience with my hagwon, but it definitely didn’t put me off the wonderful country and the Korean friends I made.

      Yes, it was my point exactly that a midnight run should a last resort. As I wrote in the article – a midnight run should be if you have exhausted all options. Sometimes people get stuck with a shady hagwon that will not give them a release letter, or who makes illegal deductions as mine did. In a normal circumstance, I would have liked to have came to an amicable arrangement but given the Hagwon I was at was doing all manner of illegal things and had stolen from other teachers who left, I simply could not trust them and a midnight run was the option with minimal losses.

      Sometimes they are necessary. There is only so much due diligence you can do beforehand. Some people just get dealt a bad hand on arrival in Korea. Better to leave the country and protect your own well being and sanity than spiral into misery and depression at a sketchy hagwon.

  3. I’m SO glad you wrote this article. It aligns very similarly to my current situation, and I was looking for others’ stories. I found it upon googling “midnight escape Korea”, as in my current situation, I too am considering it… 🙁 I love my students, and am having a great time here, but similar to the situation you had, I have recently found out there there are many illegalities in my contract. One of them being that if I leave before six months, I must pay back the initial airfare and recruiter fee (which is illegal, as Korean labour law has a rule against making such predeterminations with punishments in a contract [Article 20: Prohibition of Predetermination of Nonobservance]). So if I give them notice, they will take most of my final paycheque… I was also told stories by previous employees of this hagwon who are still in Korea, that they had a hard time getting their final allowances upon completing their contracts, and have also found out that they’re skimping on the legal requirements for vacation, health insurance, and pension… 🙁

    So thank you for sharing your story. It has really helped me sort out my thoughts on mine 🙂

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