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Monday, April 15, 2024

New visas to attract K-culture talent, digital nomads

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Students dance at the 1Million Dance Studio in Seongsu-dong, eastern Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Samantha Liem is a Vietnamese teenager whose dream is to debut with a girl group in Korea one day.  
She currently practices dance by following K-pop choreography tutorials on YouTube and would love to come to Korea and learn from the famous dancers who created the choreography she tries to learn.
But a major thing is keeping her back: the visa issue.  

“I would love to fly to Korea and train there, but it’s very difficult to stay long enough to master dancing and singing,” said Liem. “Most of us stick to training in our home country and wait for entertainment companies to open global auditions.”

With many non-Korean performers joining top K-pop girl groups — like Vietnamese-Australian member Hanni of NewJeans, Japanese members Sakura and Kazuha of Le Sserafim and Japanese member Rei of IVE — many foreigners like Liem now dream of becoming a K-pop star.  

To keep up with trends and welcome more foreigners to the country, the government announced last year it will introduce new visas this year, including the hallyu visa.

Also known as the K-culture training visa, the hallyu visa will allow foreigners to stay in Korea for a maximum of two years by registering at local performing arts academies such as acting and dance studios.  

For those not interested in joining the entertainment industry but want to experience Korean culture while working remotely, the government is also preparing to introduce a digital nomad visa.

Also known as the workcation visa, it too will allow holders to stay up to two years in Korea while maintaining their employment contracts abroad.

Hallyu visa

“There are a lot of foreigners who come to Korea because they want to learn how to become a famous choreographer or a K-pop artist, and they mostly come as students,” said Timon Youn, co-CEO of 1Million Dance Studio. “They come through student visas and study majors that aren’t related to their career or interests or come as exchange students, but just practice dancing all day long rather than studying.”

The most common way for teens like Liem to stay in Korea is to become a student at Korean language institutions or universities and attain the D-series visas, such as the D-2 and D-4. After graduation, students can apply for the D-10 jobseeker visa, which can be extended up to two years. 

The problem is that you have to spend huge amounts of time and money to study in Korea, even in fields you are disinterested in.  

“I guess the most practical option would be going to university in Korea and preparing for auditions while you study,” said Liem, “But that’s years away and I think it would be hard for me to balance my studies and dance and voice training.”  

Tourist visas are also available, but they let you stay for a maximum of only 90 days, which is not enough time for most K-pop hopefuls.  

Another option is the E-6 visa, which officially allows foreigners to work in the Korean entertainment industry. However, the visa requires applicants to sign trainee contracts with entertainment companies, which isn’t easy.  

“Foreigners who want to work in the overall entertainment industry have to get E-6 visas, which is very hard to get because applicants must prove in what activities they will engage in Korea and need a company that employs them,” said a spokesperson for Immikorea, a visa agency. “The hallyu visa isn’t in place yet, but it will make the process easier when introduced.”    

The only thing we know so far about the hallyu visa is that to receive it, applicants must be registered at institutions accredited by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. 

While there were 769 dance academies in Korea as of 2021 according to Statistics Korea, not all of them will qualify as accredited institutions.

An official from the Culture Ministry told the Korea JoongAng Daily that “more detailed information on the visa will be announced around March.”  

Aspiring applicants for the visa stress the importance of inclusivity.

Michelle Paris, currently in Korea with a D-10 visa and hoping the hallyu visa could be a fit for her, plays the harp. [MICHELLE PARIS]
Michelle Paris, currently in Korea with a D-10 visa and hoping the hallyu visa could be a fit for her, plays the harp. [MICHELLE PARIS]

“Not limiting the age is important because young people in their twenties can at least get student visas by applying through universities, but what about the rest of us in our late twenties and thirties who want a career change or just want to explore new things?” said Michelle Paris, a Maltese harpist currently living in Korea, who hopes to obtain hallyu visa by registering at a traditional Korean music institution. “It’s also important that the visa allows us to work and properly earn income during the time.”

Discovering her love for Korean traditional music, or gugak, Paris currently stays in Korea through the D-10 visa while performing songs like Arirang on the harp. 

With the hallyu visa, she hopes to be able to stay longer and learn more about gugak.

Timon Youn from 1Million Dance Studio, who has witnessed a lot of students going back and forth between their home countries and Korea because of visa problems, added that a system like the hallyu visa could greatly benefit the Korean entertainment industry.

There are dancers who “are very talented and have great potential to become successful K-pop choreographers by training at 1Million Dance Studio if they are allowed to legally stay longer in Korea,” Youn said. “The K-pop industry has grown enormously and that means we also need more dancers. I think there needs to be a system that can actively welcome talented individuals from abroad.”  

Digital nomad visa

Many countries adopted the digital nomad visa, also known as the workcation visa, with the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Though employees were allowed to work from anywhere in the world with a laptop, some countries — including Korea — offered only tourist visas that allowed short-term stays and prohibited holders from engaging in income-earning activities.

Although the pandemic is slowly coming to an end, Korea hopes the remote work trend will continue.   

“Companies are indeed asking people to come back, and in my industry, which is IT, companies are also going through complicated overstaffing where there are tons of layoffs,” said Alexandria, a remote worker from Russia. “However, I think nomads who started to travel will have difficulty settling back home because if you like to travel a lot, you usually don’t want to go back.”

“I also was asked to go back to the office, however, I was lucky enough to re-negotiate my location.”

Alexandria hopes the digital nomad visa will be created soon, as Seoul is one of her ideal remote work destinations. 

Rather than choosing to work while on a vacation at a sunny beach, she loves Seoul’s busy city vibe and fast and clean public transportation. 

“Korea is fast-paced, and it’s exactly what I’m looking for,” said Alexandria. “Many other countries provide nomad visas, however, not all of them are close to the largest economies with developed technologies.”  

Over 40 countries offer the digital nomad visa or its equivalent, allowing foreigners to stay in their country for a year or two with an employment contract from their company back home. Requirements differ in each country, but most require visitors to submit proof of employment abroad and income.

With many countries also offering the visa, Korea needs to do certain things to attract the most digital nomads.

“If a foreign developer is staying in Busan while actually remotely working for a company in Silicon Valley, that means his or her salary is paid from an entity in the United States while that money is spent in Korea,” said Heo Jun, a professor teaching global meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) at Dongduk Women’s University. “For those cases, we shouldn’t levy capital gains tax from the money, because that would be double taxation.”

“Unlike tourist visas that only apply to one individual only, workcation visas need to act like work visas that allow people to bring their families because remote workers also tend to bring their family on their vacations.”  

One country that has a digital nomad visa and offers both benefits is Dubai. The country has offered the Work Remotely from Dubai program since March 2021, allowing foreigners to stay for up to one year.  

Visitors are required to submit a proof of employment that lasts at least a year, proof that he or she received a work salary the previous month and have a salary of at least 5,000 dollars per month.  

A remote working station in the Asti Hotel Busan in Dong District, Busan [BUSAN METROPOLITAN CITY]
A remote working station in the Asti Hotel Busan in Dong District, Busan [BUSAN METROPOLITAN CITY]

If all those requirements are met, remote workers are allowed to enjoy the city while being exempt from having to pay income tax, capital gains tax and other local taxes to the Dubai government. The digital nomads only owe the taxes they pay back at home, preventing them from being burdened by double taxation.

An Emirates ID is issued to digital nomads, which allows them to bring their families and enroll children in local schools.

Estonia is another popular destination, known as the first country to offer the digital nomad visa in July 2020.

Similar to Dubai’s, the country also offers a maximum one-year stay if the visitor is employed by a company based outside Estonia and earns at least 3,500 euros per month.  

“We come here without any desire to work for a local company, but we are willing to spend money here for rent, food, clothes and traveling,” said Alexandria. “There are many countries that signed the dual taxation exemption.”

Although tax exemption is an attractive factor for digital nomads, not all countries offer the benefit. Estonia doesn’t require visitors staying on digital nomad visas to pay taxes for up to 183 days, but visitors will be taxed after that. 

Greece also exempts all taxes for up to six months, after which it levies income taxes on 50 percent of the visitors’ income even if it’s earned abroad.  

“For Korea to stand out in the global workcation market, we need to market ourselves through areas we have advantages in, including Korean entertainment and high technology,” said a spokesperson for Kotra. “We also need to create various co-working facilities and accommodations that will make it easy for digital nomads to live and work in Korea.”

Preparations underway

A rendering of CJ LiveCity, where various co-working spaces will be built. [CJ LIVECITY]
A rendering of CJ LiveCity, where various co-working spaces will be built. [CJ LIVECITY]

The government is already trying to attract potential candidates for the digital nomad and hallyu visas.

Ahead of creating the digital nomad visa, the government is working on creating various workcation hubs.  

The port city Busan attracts many tourists due to its vibrant seaside. It is also opening workcation hubs to also host digital nomads. 

On Feb. 6, the city opened a workcation center at the Asti Hotel in Dong District, next to the Busan KTX train station.

Using the 24th floor of the hotel, the office has various facilities such as working areas, meeting rooms and phone booths. Open to workers who registered through Busan city, the venue aims to attract people from abroad by offering 50,000 won discounts for Asti Hotel’s daily accommodation fee.

Another venue is CJ LiveCity, currently being built in Goyang, Gyeonggi. Although known as an entertainment complex, it also aims to build co-working spaces and bring in foreign workers interested in Korean content.  

“Korean content is becoming popular worldwide, definitely making the country an attractive destination for artists from Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas,” said Professor Heo. “There is high workcation demand for IT engineers, but also artists and content creators who want inspiration from different places they choose to temporarily reside in.”

“Offering high-tech facilities is also important, if a recording studio in another country is popular, people from all around the world will flock to that studio and want to work there.”

With the hallyu visa aiming to attract foreigners interested in Korean content, venues where people can experience K-pop and dance are being built.

HiKR Ground, standing in Jung District, central Seoul, was created by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) and the culture ministry in July last year.  

Taking up five floors at the KTO’s Seoul Center building, the venue covers everything ranging from K-pop to Korean dramas.  

People interested in K-pop can freely come to the center and try dancing in studios that resemble music video sets. Visitors can record themselves with professional cameras installed at the sets as well.

BY LEE TAE-HEE [lee.taehee2@joongang.co.kr]