At first glance, Seoul appears to be incredibly English friendly with a smorgasbord of American ads and a few English labels slapped on public transportation signs. Scratch the surface a little, though, and you realize it’s just an illusion.
In general the people speak very little English (aside from the students constantly saying “hello” or telling JP he is "very handsome") and you find yourself searching for restaurants that look like the menus sport a lot of pictures. While every child in Korea now, by law, must have at least two years of English taught by a native speaker, the law was only enacted about 10 years ago leaving the tourists and expats biding their time for those English grassroots to sprout.
Why the sudden interest in their country speaking English? I’m sure it’s a combination of things. English is a popular language affording more opportunities to those that speak it. I also have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of it boils down to one thing: money. Korea supports business growth, much like Japan, and English is definitely the global language of business. Just look at Hong Kong, a place where English is almost second nature and business is thriving. One must wonder if Korea has looked at Hong Kong and tried to follow suit.
Regardless of why, English speaking tourists will have a much easier go at it in about 10 years, once the students have grown up and start running things. Until then if you go to Korea, charades will get you by.
Side note: What do the Japanese tourists do to communicate in Korea? The same as all the other tourists: they speak English!