Taking the Korean Government's TOPIK examination as a standard, is it necessary to be able to recognize Hanja characters to get an intermediate or advanced level in Korea? Or if someone wants to take his Korean ability further and aim for almost native level fluency, is Hanja still completely unavoidable?
It certainly isn't necessary to study Hanja to learn Korean or to take the TOPIK examination. The TOPIK contains no Hanja, so it's possible to get the highest level without studying Hanja. Also, many Koreans, especially younger ones, don't know Hanja very well. Even if they've studied them in school, they often don't retain them, because their use just isn't very widespread anymore - even in newspapers their use is very limited.
There are some benefits to learning Hanja though, and depending on personal needs, you may want to learn just a few or learn them more thoroughly. Some benefits are:
- There are a few Hanja which are used by themselves quite frequently, often in public places, posters, newspapers, in graphic design, etc. They're almost used the same way that symbols are used in other languages. Examples are 大, 中, 小 (large, medium, small - used in menus, etc.), 男, 女 (male and female), 美, 英, 日 (used to represent America, UK and Japan in newspapers), etc.
- A very large portion of Korean words are derived from Hanja, so knowing what they mean is very helpful for learning words (including ones that don't appear in the dictionary). You don't actually need to learn what the Hanja look like, as long as you know the meanings associated with each Hangeul character; but often there are many Hanja associated with a single Hangeul syllable. For example, 시 has dozens of Hanja, several of which are common: 時(time), 市(city), 施(do/act), 詩(poem), 始(start), 示(show), etc. Knowing Hanja can help keep these different meanings straight.
- Also, Hanja are used to separate homonyms in the dictionary, so knowing them can help when using the dictionary too.
- If you are interested in visual arts, learning how to draw the Hanja then how to paint the Hanja can be fun. It's always beneficial to connect your interests to your language learning, so if you enjoy that kind of thing, learning to paint Hanja the traditional way can be a motivating way to connect your interest in visual arts with your language learning.
- If you are going into certain academic fields, there are some fields where they are still used for technical words. For example, in my Semantics textbook, Hanja were common. I believe there are still non-linguistic fields that use them too.
All in all, you shouldn't feel you have to learn Hanja, as they are not strictly necessary for most people. But if you want to learn them, there are certainly benefits.