Midnight Run: My Escape from South Korea

A midnight run in Korea is the term used when someone teaching English there suddenly flees the country. The teachers usually go to work one day and are nowhere to be seen the next.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding midnight runs and it is a topic that a lot of people have some strong opinions on. Obviously fleeing in the dead of night is not a great way to end an employment contract.

On the surface, it might come across as immature. When you suddenly run from a job, you have left your employer (and in the case of teaching in Korea, your students) in the lurch.

However, it is important to reserve judgment until you have heard someone’s specific story. There are more than just a few hagwons and schools in Korea that do not treat their foreign employees well, contract illegalities exist all over the country, and there are far too many instances where abuse is written off as a cultural difference.

Until these issues are addressed, midnight runs in Korea will continue to happen. This article is the story of my midnight run in Korea.

My Midnight Run in Korea

Midnight Run Korea
Midnight Run Korea

During my time living in and teaching English in Korea, I felt obligated to always be positive about my time in the country. After all, there are many things to love about South Korea, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to be living overseas and experiencing a completely different culture from my own.

But my employment situation and the shady hagwon I worked for had a profoundly negative impact on my mental health. After ignoring this for a while, I realised that I did not feel comfortable continuing to live in the country and work for this employer.

I felt that I was living in a real-life Hagwon horror story that in hindsight, could have been avoided if I did more research and background-checking prior to moving to Korea. But hindsight is a wonderful thing and I was so excited to relocate to the country that I definitely waved a lot of the red flags that came up with the hagwon I taught at.

On my social media, 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 before moving to Greece. But that wasn’t the case at all.

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 Korea?

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 ex-pats and ESL Teachers. Many believe that it adds to the already negative perception of western ex-pats that many Koreans possess.

By all means, the decision to do a midnight run is not something that should be taken lightly. However, 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 administration. When a colleague had to leave because his father died, the Hagwon made things extremely difficult for him and made all kinds of false and illegal deductions from his paycheck leaving him with nothing.

I realised that I was not correctly documented in South Korea and my employer did not provide me with the health insurance that was legally required. Overtime was often not paid, and the Korean administration would control, micromanage and watch over foreign employees to a creepy degree.

The previous teacher whom I had replaced had fled, which should have been a warning bell. However, the hagwon had painted an image of her being an irresponsible and awful person and them being completely innocent in the conflicts.

Getting sick in Korea

I ended up getting very sick with norovirus (which I probably got from a student) during my time in the county. Our hagwon only gave us 5 days of vacation in any year, and 2 of those days were deducted from me for being sick.

I had to go to the doctor every single day, while projectile vomiting like the exorcist and generally feeling terrible, to obtain a doctor’s note. Then I would take it into my hagwon while the administrators would examine me to see if they felt I really looked sick.

After 2 days of sickness that were taken from my vacation days anyway, the hagwon had had enough and it was demanded I go back to work. I came in, terribly ill, and weak balancing myself on the podium and wearing a face mask so as not to infect my students.

A few days later, the hagwon administrator pulled me into her office and yelled that the red circles that I did to mark my students’ homework were not large enough. As I went to leave to teach my class, she grabbed my arm and twisted it.

Making plans to leave the country

That was the final straw for me and I started to make my plans to leave. In an ideal world, I would have left amicably and provided my notice.

However, after seeing the way that my colleague was treated, I know that the Hagwon would do the same to me. The working conditions were becoming progressively worse and worse.

Since working there was really starting to affect my mental well-being, I decided that a midnight run was my only way out. I wanted to leave immediately, having given up my career in strategic procurement to move to Korea. But I had to bide my time and form a plan.

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, even if it was not ideal. I figured I would lose much more if I told the Hagwon I was leaving.

As my last class ended at 10 pm 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. After booking my flight and waiting for it to be time to leave, I was constantly anxious and stressed about either being caught or how I was going to go through with this in practice.

My Midnight Run From Korea

Even remembering my midnight run from Korea now, several years later, the entire thing fills me with anxiety. But at the same time, I know that I did the right thing.

I started teaching in Italy where working conditions were phenomenally better. Then I was able to make this blog my full-time source of income and now work as a Travel Writer.

You deserve better than to tolerate abusive work conditions. Life is too short to force yourself to stay in situations where you are depressed or do not feel safe.

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 4 am 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.

Fleeing the building

I stand in the doorway for what feels like an eternity staring across at the number on the elevator light. I was 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 decided that it was 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. However, 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 made it to the ground floor and exited the building. I felt 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 the window.  

Out on the street, I drag my heavy 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”.

In other words, any place where I had even a slight chance of bumping into a colleague. I lived in Suwon’s Ingyedong district and the area’s main promenade of Ingye-Ro is filled with bars, clubs, and noraebangs (Korean karaoke halls).

At weekends, the area was constantly full of ESL Teachers and Koreans partying until the early morning. I kept 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 4 am!

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.

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 ludicrous things.

As I went to check in for my flight, incredibly anxious about leaving the country, a lot of these things played on my mind. Having gone through a midnight run, I can tell you now that it’s all complete nonsense.

I anxiously walked toward 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 in case 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. If 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!

Passport control

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, did my last spot of shopping in Seoul, 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 is 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 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 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

Leaving my students behind was the hardest thing about doing a midnight run for me. When you work at a Hagwon, you are typically dealing with relatively small-sized classes.

This means that it’s easy to get to know and build relationships with your students and some of mine were so sweet. Years later, I still think about them and what they may be doing now, and I hope that they are happy and well.

Since I taught elementary kids, 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. So, I know that they understood and didn’t blame me for what happened.

Your finances

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 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 payday 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, there are people who have been able to secure positions in Korea again. It is safe to say that you will be able to return to the country without trouble several months or years after your initial midnight run in Korea. (If you are not too scarred from the experience!)

There are many corrupt hagwons in Korea, or hagwons that simply do not treat their employees so well. 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.

If someone isn’t interested in you working for them because of your midnight run or they give you a grilling? Well, they are someone that you don’t want to work for anyway. There are always plenty of schools and hagwons searching for teachers in South Korea.

Additional note about Immigration

Midnight Run Korea
Midnight Run Korea

If you want to come back to Korea again pretty soon after fleeing (maybe to dive into another teaching role or enjoy a fun Jeju itinerary), then you should hand your alien registration card into immigration when you exit.

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. This can be anywhere up to a year depending on which point in your contract you are leaving.

Final Thoughts

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!  Safe travels! Melissa xo


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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