South Korean nightclubs accused of denying entry to foreigners

A screenshot of a TikTok filmed in Daegu, South Korea shows several people being turned away at a nightclub because they were not Korean.
A screenshot of a TikTok filmed in Daegu, South Korea shows several people being turned away at a nightclub because they were not Korean. © Observers

Expatriates and immigrants in South Korea have taken to TikTok to share videos they say reveal xenophobia and discrimination at nightclubs around the country. Our Observers told us that some clubs and venues systematically ban foreigners from entering, a policy which particularly impacts people of colour. 


Many expats in South Korea looking for a night out know that there are some places they just can't enter. On social media, an increasing number of people have been documenting discrimination at the entrances to some nightclubs, bars and even restaurants. 

A video posted on TikTok on May 15 received nearly 400,000 views, reigniting the debate about the treatment of non-Koreans in South Korea. 

The video was posted by Patrick Ramos, who goes by "TheExpatPat" on social media. In the video, we see him with a bouncer, who tells him to stop filming before grabbing him by the wrist and pinning him against the wall. One of his friends who saw the incident told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that the bouncer continued to harass Ramos after the video ended. 

According to the Korea Herald, Ramos was live streaming as he passed in front of a nightclub called the Owl Lounge, which is known to prohibit non-Koreans from entering. The venue is located in Itaewon, an area of Seoul known as the international district. 

A sign on the entrance to the establishment, published by the Korea Herald, indicates that the only people allowed to enter are those with Korean national identity cards and foreigners with an F-4 visa, issued to members of the Korean diaspora. 

@beyonceibnidas Reply to @brittanypanzer ♬ original sound - Krys Tha Sis
"Beyonce Ibnidas" ("I Am Beyonce" in Korean) regularly films herself as she tries to enter nightclubs in South Korea. Here, they would not let her in because she does not speak Korean.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to several expatriates in South Korea who said they had also been refused entry to Korean nightlife hotspots on the pretext that they were not Korean.

Some of these establishments have offered various explanations to justify turning away foreigners. They blame their staff's lack of English-language skills, bad behaviour of foreigners in the past or, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.

This photo on Twitter shows a sign on a restaurant door which says that foreigners are unable to enter due to the pandemic.

These establishments have also pointed to serious abuses committed at nightclubs in the past by US soldiers based in South Korea, such as cases of rape or sexual assault. This is evoked in particular in Daegu, which is close to a major US military base.

The Owl Lounge, which has not responded to FRANCE 24's request for comment, told the Korea Herald that it excludes foreigners because they can flee the country with impunity in case of this kind of criminal wrongdoing. 

Quentin F., a French exchange student who goes by Denoz on social media, filmed the video above. In an interview with the FRANCE 24 Observers team, he recounted the only way foreigners can enter some Korean clubs.

I live in Daegu, where there are very few foreigners and several nightclubs don't let us enter. Some foreigners can go into the clubs reservers for Koreans if they have someone who is South Korean who can vouch for them, preferably a celebrity who can promise they will behave appropriately.

People of colour especially targeted by discrimination

Our Observers in South Korea told us that the discrimination in nightclubs and bars particularly impacts people of colour, especially Black people and those of South Asian or North African descent.

@nya_0152 #racistclubinkorea#expatinkorea #southkorea #daegu ♬ original sound - nya_0152
A TikTok video shows Nysha, an American who lives in Daegu. She told our team that she got angry at a bouncer for not letting her into a club that was playing hip-hop music by a Black American rapper. "This is our music, why won't you let me in?" she says in the video.

Kirsten Keels is a Black American student living in Seoul and friend of Patrick Ramos. Like him, she has tried to raise attention about the discrimination that foreigners, particularly people of colour, face in South Korean nightclubs.  

I went to a pretty popular club in Gangnam two years ago. The bouncer, who looked at my friend, said, "Oh, there's people in your group that can't come in." And the bouncer leans forward and he meets eyes with me and he looks me up and down and he says, "Dress code." And I looked down and thought, "This isn't right, we checked the dress code." But it was the fact that he had made eyes at me that I thought this is not just about the dress code. It seems very obvious that he doesn't want us here. Or we're not welcome here. I'm not welcome here. It's pretty common to say, "There are too many foreigners" or "You can't come in." But then we see white individuals in the club who are being let in or let out.

@theexpatpat What did North Africa do?! #expatinkorea #southkorea #lifeinkorea #movingtokorea ♬ original sound - The Expat Pat
In this TikTok video posted on May 12, Patrick Ramos shows a picture that he says shows a nightclub sign in Seoul that forbids entry to people from "Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt".

There are also clubs where you present your passport to them in order to check your drinking age or things like that. And if they see that you are from, say, a North African country like Morocco, they won't let you in. 

>> Read more on The Observers: Surveillance footage reveals shocking treatment of migrant in South Korean detention

This extract from a livestream posted on TikTok by "Beyonce_Ibnidas" shows a woman in an argument with a bouncer who refused to let them enter because they are foreign. At 0:59 in the video, we can see two white women entering the same nightclub.

Michelle is a biracial woman from the US currently teaching English in Daegu. She told us that she was denied entry into a nightclub because she was a foreigner, before witnessing two white foreigners enter the club. Michelle explained that this kind of discrimination goes far beyond nightclubs and bars.

It's mostly stares in the streets. People touch my hair without asking, old women ask me if it's a perm. 

@chelle_mybelle_ Look but don’t touch #southkorea #korea #lifeinsouthkorea #didyouknow #curlyhair #expatinkorea ♬ original sound - Lorena Pages
On her TikTok account, Michelle recounts her daily life as an American living in South Korea, and also talks about some of the situations she has to deal with.

Daegu is pretty conservative. I've had children who call me 'monkey teacher'. They must have learned it somewhere. Between foreigners, we have learned that the more Korean you learn, the worse time you have because you understand what people say about you. 

Keels, who grew up in the south of the United States, says she is used to hearing racist remarks, and sees it as a sign of ignorance and curiosity – particularly in South Korea, a country where immigration has been on the rise in recent years.

Sometimes people don't want to sit next to me or they tell their kids not to talk to me. But I'd say it's mostly just everyday racism, or sometimes just ignorance or curiousity because some people have never talked to foreigners. So I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. 

In order to help others who want to access nightlife in South Korea, Keels has created a list of venues that are safe spaces for foreigners – especially people of colour. 

A lot of times it's on Black and brown foreigners to have this 'sixth sense' to know that they're going to be discriminated against.

We created this list just to make it a bit easier for everyone involved. And also because we're tired of seeing our communities and multiple other communities harmed.  We're just recognising that we're here, we're not going anywhere. Our culture is valued here. We're valued here. And discrimination and racism are not okay. 

According to our Observers, the places that refuse entry to foreigners are in the minority, but it's hard to speak up against them on social media. Laws punishing defamation in South Korea are strict and can even lead to prison sentences. That means that people are hesitant to share the names of clubs that turned them away. 

There is no law to punish discriminatory practices in South Korea, be it on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.