Figures show that around 70,000 Koreans attend English hagwons. English in Elementary school from 3rd grade on, and 1 in 5 TOEFL test takers in the world is Korean. The English teaching business is a 10 billion dollar business. Yet few Koreans seem to be proficient in English conversation. Why is that?
First of all, I did not get grants or money to do research, but I am convinced that more than 71,000 Koreans speak fluent or proficient conversational English. As to those school children who seem unable to speak conversational English, I would ask how many of us are able to have conversations in that French, Spanish or Japanese that we studied since Junior High school...
Korean people don't like foreigners moralizing them on how they should learn or not learn a language, as much as Americans don't like French people moralizing them on how they should learn French. Several factors need to be taken into account when judging Korean people's language ability.
First, Koreans learn English to enter a job market which does not require knowledge of conversational English. In fact, if there is any language Koreans should learn, it should be Chinese, because half the 850,000 legal immigrants living in Korea are Chinese. English speakers only represent a small proportion of the foreigners living in Korea, and Korean workers will encounter very few opportunities to meet such people.
When it comes to tourism, a vast majority of tourists entering Korea are Japanese, and they don't seem to complain about communication problems. Most touristic venues have fluent Japanese speakers in Korea, but due to the lack of English speaking tourists in Korea, Koreans don't see the need to employ fluent English speakers in that industry.
Academia is one area where you will be likely to meet English speakers. In a competitive educational system, Koreans highly value degrees from the US and most professors do speak English fluently. However, such professors will refuse to speak English the Korean introduction etiquette was not respected by English speaking foreigners. Korean professors have no reason to act like Americans when dealing with foreign students, as much as American professors have no reason to act French when dealing with French students.
Universities and the job market are highly competitive in Korea. There are only three top ranked universities requiring very difficult examinations -examinations including questions that students may not have come across during their high school years and involving very specialized knowledge - and prestigious jobs require three, four, or five rounds of selection. Koreans are too busy preparing entering such universities and getting such jobs to meet foreigners on regular basis with whom they may practice conversational English.
What matters is the grade, grade to enter college, grade to get that prestigious job. English teachers in Korea can't tell Koreans "listen, forget about entering that prestigious university or getting that prestigious job, try to learn conversational Korean, will you?" As for usefulness, the only people Koreans may actually practice their English with are English teachers or Philippino migrant workers. Might as well learn Chinese or Japanese, which have much more diverse populations living in Korea. Ironically, those Chinese and Japanese people are learning Korean, not asking Koreans to speak to them in English. Finally, if native English speakers are complaining about Koreans speaking to them in English rather than Korean, then why are they putting so much pressure on them to learn English?