[VIEWPOINT]An exemption of reason, not visasFew Americans heard about it, but a strange incident took place in the U.S. Senate three months ago. An immigration law revision bill that added only Poland to the list of countries with visa exemptions passed unanimously. Poles will be allowed into the United States without a visa, but not South Koreans and people from six other countries who have long wished to be exempted from visa requirements.
The reason for Poland’s visa exemption was peculiar. “The United States will give visa exemptions temporarily for two years to an ally, among the members of the European Union, which contributed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the Senate announced. The sponsor of the revision bill, Senator Rick Santorum, said in his speech that an ally, if faithful in helping in the war against terrorism, should naturally be included in the list of visa-exempt countries. He also emphasized that the people of an allied nation should be free to come visit their relatives’ weddings or funerals in the United States without having to go through the bureaucracy of the U.S. Embassy.
At present, Poland, praised as a faithful ally of the United States, has only 900 soldiers abroad; at its height, that number was 1,500. Compare this to the 3,200 Korean soldiers stationed in Iraq. This is the third-largest contingent, following the United States and Britain. Moreover, Poland is planning to withdraw all its soldiers by the end of this year.
Senator Barbara Mikulsky, a co-sponsor of the bill, stressed Poland’s loyalty as an ally, pointing out that in the war with Iraq, 17 Polish soldiers were killed and 20 injured. The number of Korean soldiers killed in action in the Vietnam War, however, was over 5,000. In his State of the Union address in 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush mentioned all the nations that sent troops to Iraq ― all, that is, but Korea.
The absurdity does not end there. The United States said its reason for refusing Korea’s addition to the visa exemption list was that its rate of visa rejection was 3.2 percent, which is above the limit of 3 percent permissible for visa-exempt nations. But Poland’s visa rejection rate for last year was as high as 26 percent. Of course, it should be considered that Polish immigrants have deep roots in the United States and have formed a powerful political bloc. Even so, we cannot help but feel displeased that Korea was not treated as it deserved to be due to its lack of diplomatic competence.
There is another ridiculous reason for hindering Korea’s visa exemption, which is the opposition of ethnic Koreans in the United States. According to ethnic Korean groups, many Korean-Americans strongly oppose giving Koreans visa exemptions. One person concerned about the issue said that when he contacted Representative Peter King of New York, who is in favor of visa exemptions, the lawmaker told him something surprising: “There are many Koreans who phone or send letters telling me to never exempt South Koreans from visas because it would cause a lot of trouble.” In this situation, American politicians will never work hard for a Korean visa exemption.
There are two major reasons for ethnic Koreans to oppose Korea’s addition to the visa-exemption list. One is their concern that the number of illegal immigrants will drastically increase, and another is their anxiety that Koreans involved in the “entertainment business” will rush in and embarrass the Korean-American community. Their opposition has a point, to a certain degree. The news occasionally will report that Korean illegal immigrants and groups of prostitutes have been caught by the U.S. police. A U.S. Congressional report in January this year pointed out that some have argued that in order to increase tourism revenues, the United States should add Korea to its list of visa-exempt countries, but it would be hard to do so because the country does not try to prevent illegal immigrants and prostitutes from entering the United States.
That is to say that to achieve the visa exemption, the Korean government needs to take measures against the spread of prostitution. The government also should convince ethnic Koreans of the need for visa exemptions. Those who had to line up before the U.S. Embassy in Gwanghwamun for hours under the sizzling sun to get a visa will realize why Korea should be added to the list.
The government should let these snarky ethnic Koreans know that without a visa exemption, their relatives will receive the same treatment as every other Korean. It should also let them know that the Korean-American community will benefit from visa exemption too. If more tourists visit the United States, more money will flow into the ethnic Korean communities to restaurants, cabs and tour guides.
We must ask if the government is doing its best to earn a visa exemption from the United States.
* The writer is the New York correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nam Jung-ho