Time for a waiverIn a statement released on Saturday, U.S. President George W. Bush reaffirmed his commitment to developing an accelerated admission process for South Korea into the United States’ Visa Waiver Program. The visa waiver program allows travelers intending to stay for a period of 90 days or less to enter the United States without obtaining a visa. This is the second time President Bush has released a statement in support of Korea’s inclusion in the U.S. visa waiver program. The first time Mr. Bush spoke positively of the issue was in the summit meeting held last year. This second statement is all the more significant because it came on the same day as the signing of the free trade agreement between the two countries.
Until now, Seoul and Washington have held numerous negotiations on the program with little progress. In a meeting last September, the United States refused to approve Korea’s inclusion because it had failed to meet the requirement of an extremely low rejection rate by U.S. consular officials of visa applications by Korean nationals -- less than three percent of the total.
However, the rapid progress of the FTA negotiations has acted in favor of Korea’s inclusion in the visa waiver program. It is only natural that the guarantee of a free exchange of goods under the principle of free trade require the inclusion of human exchange. The signing of the FTA between the two countries means that the United States must listen to Korea’s argument that visa issuance is not only a consular issue but also an important aspect of trade.
For many Koreans, obtaining a U.S. visa has been a source of frustration and annoyance. Regardless of who is to blame, the relatively high application and interview fee of 120,000 won ($130), the long waits in lines and the waste of time involved amount to some 100 billion won in expenses that our people pay each year.
At present, the U.S. Congress is reviewing a bill to alleviate the requirement of a three percent rejection rate for countries who want to be included in the visa waiver program. We welcome this and hope that the revision takes place as soon as possible. Above all, we hope that President Bush’s statement is more than just empty words aimed at soothing the Korean public’s sentiments over the signing of the FTA. The Korean government should also work to ensure that there are no delays in implementing the issuance of e-passports (containing biometric data) and the machine-readable passports required for the visa waiver program.