By Simon Mundy and Song Jung-a in Seoul
Seoul’s streets are full of Chinese tourists drawn by South Korea’s lavish department stores, its glamorous pop stars – and now its driving schools.
China made it harder to get a driving licence last year. Novice drivers must now take 78 hours of tuition at a cost of about Rmb4,000 ($644) before taking a test that many fail.
Conversely, South Korea drastically relaxed its rules in June 2011, meaning that a very inexperienced driver – local or foreign – can typically acquire a licence after just 13 hours of tuition at a cost of Won 450,000 ($426). Competent Chinese drivers can get a South Korean licence in a one-day process that costs just Won 67,000 and convert it once they return home.
The number of Chinese receiving South Korean driving licences rose more than threefold to 24,687 last year from 7,064 in 2010.
At the Hyundai Car Driving School in Siheung, a satellite city southwest of Seoul, Chinese students now outnumber South Koreans by seven to three, said Park Jong-il, a manager at the school.
Most of these are Chinese residents who work in nearby factories – but Mr Park has noticed a growing number of “driving test tourists” since 2012, with a particularly strong increase since August last year.
“We have no difficulty, since we have a manual on teaching driving in Chinese,” Mr Park said. “Instructors learn some important Chinese terms which are needed for teaching .”
The 2011 test changes cut the number of training hours required for the standard driving instruction process in South Korea from 25 to 13. Inexperienced learners take five hours of theory before taking a written test, followed by two hours of training in basic driving functions.
If they can drive in a straight line for 50m and perform an emergency stop, they progress to six hours of driving practice on the road. The final practical test involves 15-20 minutes of driving on the road, after which a licence can be awarded.
Parking competence is not required.
South Korea’s driving licensing body, KoROAD, said the rules had been relaxed in the interests of public convenience but declined to comment on the growing number of Chinese taking their tests in South Korea.
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong in Seoul and Gu Yu in Beijing