[Viewpoint]U.S. visa requirements need to go

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[Viewpoint]U.S. visa requirements need to go

The U.S. Embassy in Korea broke its own record by issuing 45,000 visas in January this year. The embassy issued 450,000 visas last year, and it expects the number to reach 500,000 this year.
The Embassy is the busiest American overseas mission in the world. Although 125 people work in the visa section, all of them are fully occupied every day.
An American diplomat said, “It is difficult to understand Korean people. Usually, poor people from less developed countries rush to the United States. People from Mexico and other South American countries might belong to this category. In the case of South Korea, however, it is rather well-to-do people who wish to go to the United States. I can’t understand why.”
People go to other countries when they cannot find what they want in their own country. Korean people who head for the United States go there to fulfill a desire that cannot be satisfied in Korea. And the most common thing they look for is a high-quality education.
According to U.S. State Department statistics, there were 53,358 Korean students studying at American universities and in graduate courses in 2005, the third most in the world after 80,466 from India and 62,123 from China.
As 5,500 were added to this figure last year, the ratio of Korean students among all foreign students in the United States is well above 10 percent.
On top of that, if we add the number of young Korean students studying at primary, middle and high schools in the United States, Korea will, no doubt, rank in first place in terms of the number of students studying in the United States.
As long as we do not change the problem-ridden Korean education system, which has deteriorated to the point where it can be called “hellish,” this trend will persist.
Korean parents, who are well known for devotion to their children and readiness to make sacrifices for their education, not only send the education fees, but also visit the United States to see their children’s dormitories or boarding houses.
When they travel to the United States, they naturally want to enjoy themselves visiting tourist resorts, playing golf or buying high fashion brands that cost less than they do in Seoul. If wealthy Korean visitors spend money in the United States, not in Korea, it will help the American economy that much, while it will work as a negative for the Korean economy. People do not go to the United States to rob American workers of their jobs, but to spend money.
So they, on the contrary, contribute to the creation of jobs there.
It is difficult to understand, therefore, why the United States does not give visa exemptions to such Korean visitors. The United States has been permitting people from 27 countries to enter the country without a visa.
Considering the economic and diplomatic relations, as well as the military alliance between our two countries, it is not easily understandable why Korea is not included among the countries exempted.
The American diplomat agreed. “We also fully recognize that South Korean visitors contribute financially to the American economy. Unfortunately, however, South Korea is slightly short of meeting the standard set by the U.S. government for visa exemptions. The visa rejection rate should be below 3 percent, but the figure is slightly higher in the case of South Korea.”
“In fact, President Bush said, a couple of months ago, that American missions overseas should not be too strict on the 3 percent criterion. It was actually an instruction to give visa exemptions to countries that use passports with an electronic data system even if the country’s visa rejection rate is slightly above 3 percent. Passports with the electronic data system are equipped with a chip that stores personal information about the passport holder. The United States government believes it can cope with problems related to illegal border crossings with the passport. We understand that the Korean government is preparing to issue the electronic passports. Therefore, I believe that Koreans will be able to travel to the United States without a visa in near future,” he said.
However, a visa exemption could have side effects on Korea, if it is given before the dissolution of the Ministry of Education of Human Resources, which refuses to give educational autonomy.
If Koreans are allowed to visit the United States without visas, the number of students who rush to the United States will increase drastically.
That could further dampen a domestic economy that is already faltering.

*The writer is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Shim Shang-bok
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