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Digital nomads gather for a Coworking Day event held at the Yaksuteo cafe in eastern Seoul, June 23. Courtesy of digitalnomadskorea.com

By Jon Dunbar

Korea was recently named the most attractive Asian destination for remote workers, and 17th out of 108 countries worldwide, according to cybersecurity company NordLayer’s Global Remote Work Index (GRWI) 2023.

It’s an impressive feat, all the more surprising considering that Korea has no legal means of welcoming remote workers, who are also sometimes known as digital nomads. This situation persists despite earlier promises made by the government to introduce a visa for digital nomads, which remain unfulfilled.

In fact, many people even consider digital nomads working in Korea – working remotely for an overseas employer and also receiving pay through transactions not taking place in Korea – to be working illegally under Korea’s uncompromising immigration law.

Jang Man-ik, a licensed immigration specialist who runs the visa consulting agency Visa in Korea, initially assessed that remote work could be illegal in Korea. “The Ministry of Justice has not created this kind of visa yet. So, if someone works like digital nomads in Korea, it is illegal,” he said.

“One can’t work in Korea on a tourist visa,” agreed Alex, a Romanian who worked remotely in Korea in 2021. “But I am not aware of any restrictions on being employed in another country during your visit there. Most tourists have jobs or businesses in their home countries. I don’t think it is illegal to answer a job-related email during your stay in Korea, right? The same logic applies to digital nomads. They are free to visit Korea for up to three months on a tourist visa or if their countries of origin have visa-free travel agreements with Korea. They can’t be employed in Korea but no one can stop them from using their laptops or mobile phones from time to time.”

Based on this premise, Jang reconsidered his assessment of the legality, and reframed what the actual outstanding legal question should be. “Just visiting and doing some work for their company located overseas is okay — all workers do that while traveling,” he agreed. “This main point is whether they can stay in Korea with an alien registration card or just as a temporary visitor.”

He explained that currently, digital nomads are free to enter the country visa-free, but they can stay only for a maximum of three or six months, depending on the terms their country of origin has agreed upon with Korea. To stay longer than this limited period, they need a valid working visa, such as the proposed digital nomad visa.

“As far as I know, it is in progress or the Ministry of Justice will do it later, because there are many issues if the ministry allows someone to get a digital nomad ARC in Korea,” Jang said. “All we can do is wait for updates from the ministry.”

Needs of digital nomad community

As Jang mentioned, the digital nomad visa would enable longer stays in the country, and also entitle the holder to a residence card, formerly called an alien registration card (ARC).

“Not having a local ID card, a local bank account or a mobile subscription can be troublesome, and I believe it discourages many digital nomads from considering more than a three-month stay,” said Alex, who said he had worked for a multinational company with a Korea office that managed to get him an E-7 visa. He said on his website, Zen Moments in Korea, that this enabled him to get an ARC, though it was a time-consuming process that took over two months.

Silas, a U.S. citizen residing in Korea for nearly six years, three of which were as a digital nomad, believes the biggest liability issue facing remote workers in Korea is access to health care services. “I will say that it can cause problems if there aren’t precautions,” he said. “I’ve been working and traveling overseas even in countries where it is technically forbidden. I’ve been lucky enough to not become ill in those situations or need to make use of any public service, but there are unfortunately instances of illness, death or criminal activity such as theft etcetera that cause serious problems for the public sector. Of course nobody plans this, and it is always an accident, but on a large scale it is quite costly. This is my biggest concern with nomading.”

He runs a social media forum with a little under 200 members for remote workers and digital nomads in Korea, and has seen various complaints there, as well as experienced some of the inconveniences himself.

“Limitations on access to financial resources due to payment gateways is a big problem as well,” he said. This results in various disadvantages, such as being unable to use taxi-hailing apps, order food online or purchase tickets for K-pop concerts. “I’m not personally a fan of K-pop,” he was quick to add, “but I do know from friends that this is a very challenging feat.”

Most of the remote workers he knows are long-term residents like him who he believes hold valid working visas.

“They tend to rent shared office spaces such as WeWork and FastFive, and they tend to meet regularly with other professionals in tech — the No.1 remote work industry,” he said. “But in the last months more and more people have requested access to the group which leads me to believe that the need (for guidance) is growing.”

Cho Jeong-hyun, founder of the Digital Nomads Korea online community, also stressed the importance in receiving an ARC, and additionally identified the primary need of digital nomads as “a space for a welcoming community.”

According to Cho, many digital nomad destinations around the world have built strong communities through coworking spaces and community events. Korea, while rich in laptop-friendly workspaces and great internet infrastructure, lacks targeted offerings for international digital nomad communities.

A Korean national, Cho became involved in the community a little over a year ago, after exploring various locations popular with digital nomads. The enthusiastic response to her initial meetups led to the establishment of the Digital Nomads Korea project, aimed to position Korea as a new hub for digital nomads.

Over the last six months, Cho has focused on building a team to provide resources for digital nomads in Korea. As well as developing an online community, they also host in-person community events in Seoul, including “Coworking Days,” to foster a sense of community among digital nomads. Recognizing their needs, Cho recently launched Hoppin, a service for workation experiences throughout Korea. Additionally, she has also opened Hoppin House, a coworking and coliving space in western Seoul’s vibrant Yeonnam-dong, to further support this community.

“Our community welcomes digital nomads or people interested in that lifestyle. Around 70 percent of our members are international digital nomads. The rest are local digital nomads and remote workers,” she said.

“What we’ve observed in our community is that digital nomads tend to come on average for a minimum of one month. Some stay up to three months — which is the maximum they can stay on a visa exemption.”

Over the past year, she has collected data on the comings and goings of this migratory community.

“Our community was born last year in November, so we only have data from that period of time. But among our observations: a lot of people from last year are coming back for the same season; high seasons are mid-august to end-October and April to end of June,” she said. “There are people all year long; we’ve seen a lot of people coming for a short trip, falling in love with Korea and wanting to extend as much as they could.”

Digital nomads want to be welcome

NordLayer’s GRWI 2023 may have missed one very big problem, but it wasn’t totally wrong about Korea being an attractive destination for digital nomads.

“Korea has really hit the global stage and I think has finally become more visible globally. The wicked fast internet, safety and incredible transportation are not just eye-catching for travelers but for long-term residents,” Silas said. “Traveling abroad and working online is fun, but extremely challenging. Internet problems, rough transit, food costs, etc. These things make many traditional tourist destinations — Europe mostly — a vastly inferior destination for traveling long term. Korea is comparatively low cost, and yet so highly functioning, clean and safe that it is really — in my mind — no contest. Having been to many countries in Europe and all over North and South America, life both as a visitor and resident is far more comfortable here in Korea and I think that secret has reached the rest of the world.”

The index analyzed Korea highly in its four categories: cybersecurity, economics, social safety and digital and physical infrastructure. Korea did particularly well in the last category, ranking second overall.

“The GRWI is just looking at infrastructure in general, like the speed of the internet or the cybersecurity level,” Cho said. “It’s not looking at the affordability of the country, the cultural aspects, the weather, etcetera. I believe those indicators are usually more relevant to figure out what the ‘best’ digital nomad destination is.”

All three interviewees from the digital nomad community urged Korea to introduce the long-promised digital nomad visa soon.

“I believe it is in the interest of Korea to do so,” Alex said. “Not only will it help promote their country to the world, but they might directly benefit in the form of taxes paid by the future resident digital nomads. Furthermore, they’ll spend their earnings here instead of in other more nomad-friendly places. If Korea is to continue its global ascension, they have to open up to the world or remain behind. When I was a teenager, Japan was supposed to take over the world … 30 years later they are slowly fading away, unfortunately. Korea should learn something from their rival’s self-made misfortune.”

When asked what Korea would gain from welcoming digital nomads, Silas replied with one word: “Money.”

“If Americans in particular are allowed to work for companies back home while also living here in Korea, there would be a massive influx in cash as the dollar is worth significantly more than the Korean won,” he added. “Their salaries are often tripled compared to the average income of a Korean employee. Having this money in the Korean economy is a slam-dunk in my opinion. This also brings in a younger populace which is something Korea is lacking in as our population grows ever older. International talent is also helpful in opening up new business connections abroad and locally. These business connections will bring Korea into new international horizons and attract incredible global talent.”

He identified problems with implementing the visa, including incompatibilities and redundancies in countries’ taxation and insurance systems. “If someone who is a nomad comes into a foreign country with no insurance it can be very complicated to handle for them. Also depending on the country of origin there may need to be tax filings that need to take place. My first thought (is) they may need to accept global travel insurance as an alternative to the traditional public health insurance,” he said. “Opening a digital nomad visa would cause significant complications, but I don’t think that it’s unmanageable if there are specific requirements/steps in place to help foreigners traveling and working as a nomad here.”

Digital nomads transplant rice seedlings into a paddy during the Hongseong Workation event in the South Chungcheong Province county organized by Digital Nomads Korea, May 30 to June 2. Courtesy of digitalnomadskorea.com

Cho highlighted the immediate effects of allowing in digital nomads, as well as longer-term advantages she suggests could solve the country’s worst problems.

“In terms of immediate effects, it would be beneficial because digital nomads tend to be high-salary earners. They like spending money on food, activities, travel …” she said. “In terms of long-term effects, I believe remote work could be a solution to common urban issues caused by rapid urbanization — for instance, overcrowding, high living costs, pollution and shrinking cities with aging populations.”

She pointed to the increasing population concentration in the capital region, especially Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, as all other regions see their populations dwindling.

“It’s been a tough problem to solve: how do we spread out the population and encourage young people to live in smaller cities?” she said. “I think remote work could be the answer. When you can work from anywhere, you can choose where to live based on what you value most, like nature or community. If smaller cities cater to remote workers, they could become attractive with lower costs and a better quality of life.”

She said members of her community are very interested in the introduction of the digital nomad visa. “The government announced last year that they would launch the visa by this year,” she said. “But at the moment, there’s been no official announcement about exactly when it’s going to happen or under which conditions.”

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