April 24, 2024

Seoul, South Korea – Riding the wave of enthusiasm for all things Korean, South Korea has in recent years become one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations.

Now, the cultural juggernaut known for the K-pop band BTS, the movie Parasite and Korean BBQ and kimchi is setting its sights on cornering the market for a new kind of traveller: the digital nomad.

In January, the South Korean government launched its “workation” visa, joining the global trend of countries seeking an economic boost by tapping into the growing pool of transient remote workers.

Marco, a software engineer from Switzerland who has been working remotely in South Korea for more than a year, is among those planning to apply for the visa after falling in love with the country’s culture and food.

“For a lot of things, I have to rely on friends to help me out, which constantly makes you feel left out,” Marco, who asked to use only his first name, told Al Jazeera.

Without longer-term residency, Marco must make regular visa runs and cannot access many services that require documentation. Buying tickets online, ordering food deliveries and registering a phone number all require a foreign resident card, which tourist visa-holders are not eligible to receive.

For prospective applicants like Marco, however, there’s a catch: a substantial income requirement that has locked out many digital nomads from consideration.

Applicants for the F-1-D Workation Visa are required to prove an annual income of at least 84.96 million won ($64,000) – about twice the South Korean average.

Applicants must also have an employment contract and medical insurance coverage of at least $100,000, among other conditions.

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South Korean culture has grown in popularity worldwide [Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]

“It seems to me to be a ‘Cali tech bro’ visa, not a nomad visa,” David, a freelance copywriter from the UK, told Al Jazeera, using common shorthand for the US state of California.

David, who is based in South Korea’s second-largest city of Busan, said he does not meet the salary requirement despite doing work for a string of global companies.

“Twice the national salary seems a little steep and it seems the government wants to keep out people from so-called ‘unwanted’ countries from applying,” said David, who asked to be referred to by his first name.

Seoul has promoted the visa as a means to attract “high-income foreigners” and “stimulate economic activity”.

Under the visa’s terms, holders can stay in the country for 12 months, with the option to extend their stay by a further year, but cannot be employed locally.

When first announcing the visa in 2021, officials said the employment condition was intended to ensure the visa would not be abused by backpackers without sufficient funds to support their stay.

South Korea’s income requirement is one of the highest among countries offering digital nomad visas.

The Czech Republic requires earnings of about $2,700 per month, about 1.5 times the average annual salary, while Dubai asks for a monthly income of about $3,500.

In Asia, Malaysia’s recently introduced digital nomad visa requires an income equivalent to about $2,000 per month. Japan’s new digital nomad visa requires earnings of about $5,530 per month.

Andrea, a digital marketing coordinator in the US whose main client recently established a headquarters in Seoul, said she was disappointed about South Korea’s conditions.

“I live in California and my wage right now is definitely not even close to what is required,” Andrea, who asked to be referred to by her first name, told Al Jazeera.

“Even my current partner who works for an established financial banking company barely makes the cut.”

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South Korea is seeking to attract digital nomads [Ed Jones/AFP]

Despite complaints from some potential applicants that the scheme is inaccessible, Jeong Hyun Cho, founder of the Digital Nomads Korea community, remains optimistic about the programme’s potential.

“Korea has an undeniable strength in advanced technology and fast internet connections, even in rural areas,” Cho told Al Jazeera. “This is both an attraction point and a necessity for digital nomads, who mostly work in the IT and tech industry.”

Cho, who runs the co-living and working space Hoppin House in Seoul, said the scheme could be expanded in the future.

“Understanding this visa as a pilot phase, I see the government’s rationale in setting a high-income bar initially, which could be adjusted based on the programme’s outcomes,” she said.

“We’re hopeful for future revisions to make the visa more accessible.”

Indeed, data from Cho’s Digital Nomads Korea community, which boasts more than 1,300 members, shows a strong interest in the programme, with 84 percent of respondents to a survey expressing a desire to apply.

Still, Cho acknowledges that many in her community have faced challenges navigating the application process and policies that are sometimes unclear.

“They are simply struggling gathering clear information and facing many obstacles with the administrative processes,” she said.

As of February 29, South Korea had received just 31 formal applications for the digital nomad visa.

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K-pop acts like BTS have boosted South Korea’s international profile [Chris Pizzello/AP])

South Korea’s Ministry of Justice said the income threshold was set after a comprehensive consideration of factors, including overseas benchmarks, domestic living costs, potential tourism spending and the risk of illegal overstays or employment.

The ministry reiterated that freelancers are not considered eligible and did not elaborate on whether the salary threshold would be lowered.

“During the pilot operation period, various opinions related to the digital nomad visa will be gathered to review the direction for improving the system,” the ministry told Al Jazeera in a statement.

Despite not yet qualifying, Andrea, the digital marketing coordinator, remains positive.

“I remain hopeful the government will eventually be more lenient on the wage factor or at least allow people to show proof of a stable job,” she said.

“Due to the new and future influx of foreign investments, workers and tourists, it will have to eventually change to cater to the newer generation and times.”

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