The student, who asked to be identified by the name "Park", says that she was supposed to begin an internship at the US embassy to South Korea in Seoul starting in December 2017. She was accepted to the program in July and built her future around it. "I even gave up a full-time paid job which gave me a final acceptance notification to do the internship, because the latter was only allowed for university students," Park said.
She added that she spent a year of her life preparing for the program. She found a residence in Seoul and purchased work clothing — and then in September she received an email telling her that she would not be going.
"The U.S. Embassy will not be moving forward with our Winter Internship at this time," the email read. According to Park, 40 other students accepted to the program had also lost their internships.
"The embassy staff simply repeated the answer that the decision was made due to personnel affairs in the organization," Park told The Korea Times. "The officials said it was an internal matter, but it was rash to do so considering our future careers. If it's true, the embassy should not have posted a job opening, should not have carried out interviews and should not have sent an acceptance letter."
"Personnel affairs are a basic thing any organization should take into account before posting job openings."
Park went on to say that she called the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and lodged a complaint, but she was batted around from department to department without anyone being able to help her. "It was simply like running into a brick wall. It was clearly unfair to me and the government body is supposed to help citizens. How can an individual student like me fight the U.S. Embassy?"
A US embassy spokesman issued a statement where he claimed that the cancellation of the program was a decision "not taken lightly," but instead discussed at the highest levels of the embassy. "Resources normally dedicated to this program are currently needed to support other mission objectives," the spokesman said. "We regret any inconvenience caused by this decision."
While many US organizations, including the embassy in Seoul, prefer unpaid internships, South Korean firms must pay wages to interns. As such, the US embassy has been accused by South Korean commentators of violating the Korean Labor Law. According the law, interns who work for foreign institutions without pay can submit a petition to the South Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor and claim unpaid wages.
"Even though they are called interns or assistants, they fall into the category of workers if they are virtually carrying out their duties in a fixed workplace," said Oh Jong-tae, a labor ministry official, to The Korea Times.