Many in the ESL world and certainly those familiar with the South Korean market have heard of the Korean hagwon. Perhaps conjuring thoughts of over-worked students and profit crazed owners, hagwons are the South Korean for-profit educational institutions designed to supplement the public schooling system for students whose families are able to afford it.
While there is no equivalent in the United States, small after-school tutoring agencies provide a comparison. Kumon, the Math and Reading Learning Center that practices rote learning and claims to “unlock your child's full potential,” comes to mind. I recall classmates in elementary school who were unable to come over to play after school and weren't on any sports teams because their afternoons and evening were spent doing math worksheet after math worksheet at Kumon. Once jealous of the fancy blue binders with velcro flaps they toted around in their backpacks, my mother sent me to a Kumon group tutoring session one evening. My already shaky math skills took quite a blow as did my confidence when I was still on sheet one while my neighbors were up to pages five and six. My parents never made me go back. On the other hand, South Korean students from preschool through High School whose families enroll them in a hagwon grow up knowing that after school each day comes more school. The belief being that in order to qualify for a top university, a student must have the competitive edge earned by extra studying.
Hagwons offer curricula in all subjects, but the ones that center on English as a second language offer teaching visas to foreigners and provide a huge percentage of jobs for native English speakers working in South Korea. In her article Hagwon: Private English Academies in South Korea, one ESL teacher explains, “Every hagwon wants to boast it retains a true native speaker, which is why there are so many English teaching hagwon jobs in South Korea. As a hagwon teacher expect to be paraded about like a show dog and introduced to all the parents.”
Sometimes blamed for facilitating an educational disparity between rich and poor, it is precisely this image of capitalist competition that has created controversy around hagwons within South Korea. Often a topic of debate within South Korea's Ministry of Education, government attempts to address the criticisms of hagwons continue despite the fact that they remain privately owned and operated institutions. In a 2009 ruling, the movement to prohibit hagwons from remaining open after 10pm was overturned as the Education Ministry and lawmakers agreed to throw out the proposal. However, other measures were adopted at that time regulating testing and entrance procedures in what the press called an effort to "battle private-education fever".
And not all the hagwon controversy in the Korean media has to do with internal structure. Reports of unqualified native English speakers coming to teach at hagwons have circulated the Korean media for years. A 2005 article in the Korea Herald defends a so-called media bias against foreign teachers in a rebuttal to reports of teachers being fired for coming to school drunk and not meeting health standards.
If it's beginning to sound like hagwons are employment opportunities to be avoided, just do a keyword search on Google and see what pops up. Private cram schools, hagwon blacklist, unforeseen dangers, Hagwon classrooms have polluted air, 10 things I won't miss about hagwons…  It's enough to turn anyone thinking of teaching at a private institution in South Korea elsewhere. Japan, anyone?
The fact is many native English speakers return home after working in a hagwon with horror stories about unfulfilled contracts, mistreatment, and generally poor business standards. One editorial from the Asian Pacific Post sums up the hagwon hubbub:
The average foreign hagwon teacher is brought here to provide a pretty (often European) face to the teaching of English. That they have no particular qualification to teach, other than a university education, is no matter. And what are foreign teachers greeted with here in Korea? Contracts that are not honoured, salary obligations not met, health insurance not paid, requests to teach illegally, threats of punishments that breach immigration law and on the dark side, sexual and physical assaults.

Small, unfurnished, filthy apartments, late paychecks, and harsh treatment by owners top the list of grievances, but the most notorious scam you will find is when a hagwon employer fires a teacher a month or two before the end of a one-year contract to avoid paying the completion bonus. According to the article The good, the bad and the hagwon,

… they wait until the teacher has completed about 10-11 months of the contract and then fire him/her by giving excuses like “we are going to close,” and “we can't afford a native speaking teacher,” or they find some sort of problem and blow it out of proportion.
While the internet is an ideal platform for complainers (allowing one to vent anonymously under the guise of preventing others from making your mistakes), and negative experiences make for popular blogs, there can be found indications of many reputable hagwons that prove satisfying places to teach abroad. Furthermore, with the sheer number of hagwons, the market for ESL teachers in Korea is still booming and job seekers can afford to be picky.
From my research I am tempted to say it is sheer luck that determines a good hagwon experience from a bad one, but research and caution on the job seekers part certainly play a significant role, and one that the job seeker has power over.
In an attempt to respond to a post on the South Korea forum on ESLFocus that linked two websites for rating and reviewing hagwons throughout Korea, I admit I struggled to find other sites of equal worth that might aid a job-seeker in determining which hagwons to consider. Aside from ESL websites open forums that often have pertinent posts from people who have taught in Korea, few other reputable sites provide school specific information along with comments.
The website of Tokyo Jon comes up under a search for hagwon reviews. On this site one can scroll through people's rants about specific hagwons on the "hagwon blacklist,” though there is no way to search for comments on any one school. Boosting this site's value, if not credibility, is the “hagwon greenlist,” which provides positive feedback about schools that met or exceeded expectations. Do any schools appear on the both lists? Certainly. And many fervent postings on the blacklist are followed by attacks from defenders of the school urging the removal of false information.
The best suggestion I found when it comes to deciding on a hagwon teaching position is to get in contact with a current or former employee. An advisory from the U.S. Embassy in Seoulreiterates this message:

We advise anyone considering accepting an English teaching job in Korea to carefully review the terms of the contract regarding working and living conditions and to ask for references from persons familiar with the institution, especially former American employees.

Bad business practices and less than ideal bosses are certainly not unique to South Korea, so judgment of an entire institution, much less culture, based on individual accounts is foolish. According to Hagwon: Private English Academies in South Korea, (which observes differences between teaching ESL in hagwons and teaching in Korean public schools),

Sometimes hagwons get a bad rap on the internet message boards but most hagwon owners, and Koreans in general, are honest, hard-working employers who pay on time. The best you can do for yourself is make a request to your recruiter to speak directly with the English as a Foreign Language teacher you will be replacing for the most accurate information on your prospective hagwon. If you are really lucky they will forward you some pictures of the apartment.

When getting in contact with a former teacher is impossible or research fails in general, look elsewhere. The one thing that remains true about hagwons is that there are plenty of them. Furthermore, there are other ESL teaching opportunities in South Korea. The U.S. Department of State's travel advisory site offers a listing of all different types of teaching jobs available in South Korea. They include public schools, private corporations, government institutes, and university language departments. Though qualifications for some of these positions may be steeper than hagwon positions, programs like EPIK and GEPIK sponsored by the Ministry of Education place foreign English teachers with only a university degree in public schools and provide all of the benefits advertised for hagwon position (housing, healthcare, completion bonus) with more job security.
Furthermore, there are a number of non-profit organizations formed years to support native English speakers teaching in South Korea. KOTESOL (Korea Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) is one such organization founded in 1992 in order to “promote scholarship, disseminate information, and facilitate cross-cultural understanding among persons concerned with the teaching and learning of English in Korea.” More recently, ATEK (the Association for Teachers of English in Korea) was launched as a volunteer based community of foreign English teachers. According to coverage of ATEK's founding,

Membership benefits include temporary accommodation assistance for teachers summarily terminated, and access to a Korean labor attorney. Its web site offers software that allows teachers who don't speak Korean to send letters to students' parents, written in Korean, to serve as progress reports. The site also has an employer rater.

Rather than serving as unions for foreign teacher (which they are not) these organizations are designed to bridge cultural gaps that lead to problems and help both employers of native English speakers and teachers share a positive experience. Both of these organizations provide resources for ESL teachers in Korea and community support valuable to any foreigner living abroad.