Balancing U.S.-Korea exchanges

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Balancing U.S.-Korea exchanges

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Korea-U.S. Alliance and the first anniversary of the entry into effect of the Korea-U.S. FTA (Korus). The two countries have made - and continue to make - great strides in deepening the bilateral relationship.

In addition to the formal ties cemented in security and trade treaties, the two countries are cooperating across a wide range of global initiatives encompassing economic development, clean energy, nuclear nonproliferation, human rights and democratization. In one notable respect, however, U.S. law lags behind the dynamic character of the bilateral relationship - the mutual exchange of highly skilled workers.

Korea places no limit on the number of U.S. professionals who may work in Korea. The U.S., in contrast, offers only 3,500 work visas annually for highly skilled Koreans in the face of substantially higher demand for these computer programmers, engineers and other professionals. To make matters worse, thousands of Koreans obtain these skills in U.S. universities, but are then disqualified from applying them upon graduation with U.S. employers.

This disparity in the treatment of skilled workers places an unnecessary drag on the economic ties that Korus was intended to invigorate. President Obama’s current focus on comprehensive immigration reform presents an opportunity to correct this imbalance that Korea and its friends in the U.S. should seize.

The debate concerning greater access to the U.S. market for Korean professionals occurs amidst a high-stakes showdown between President Obama and the Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives over the reform of U.S. immigration law. The issue is of vital importance to both Democrats and Republicans, but their perspectives differ sharply.

Many Democrats, including the President, seek legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the millions of U.S. workers, mainly from Latin American countries, who entered the country without permission but nevertheless form part of the backbone of the U.S. economy. Many Republicans oppose such an amnesty, and seek tougher enforcement of existing immigration laws and more stringent border security measures. These issues have proved intractable, and various attempts to overhaul U.S. immigration law in recent years have failed.

President Obama, whose second term concludes in 2016, is committed to overhauling U.S. immigration law as a centerpiece of his legacy. Last week, in a major step towards this goal, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a comprehensive bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act.

Among its many elements, the 1,200-page bill would permit the issuance of 5,000 employment visas per year to highly skilled Koreans - the same number granted to other countries, like Colombia and Panama, with which the United States has concluded FTAs. This number would still fall far short of the growing total demand for such highly skilled Korean workers, but represents a marginal improvement over the status quo.

In the House, the path forward on immigration reform remains uncertain, and clouded by deep tension between the House leadership and the White House. Republican House leaders are also concerned that their members who vote for immigration reform will be vulnerable to primary election challenges from more conservative candidates who oppose a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally.

As the House continues to debate immigration reform, however, some Congressional advocates of closer Korea-U.S. economic ties are sponsoring stand-alone legislation - the Partner with Korea Act - to authorize 15,000 visas for highly skilled Korean workers. This number accords much more closely with the actual demand by U.S. firms for such workers.

Korea should press the Obama administration and its allies on Capitol Hill to pursue the more balanced visa authorization provisions of the Partner with Korea Act. In doing so, Korea can stress the clear and uncontroverted benefits that more visas would bring to the U.S. economy.

Today, many of the Koreans who go to the United States to study - there were 72,000 in the 2011-12 academic year - must leave the country upon graduation, taking their skills home or to third countries rather than filling vital positions in engineering and technology companies. Immigrants, including Koreans, also account for a substantial percentage of U.S. high-technology start-up companies.

Further, highly skilled workers are job multipliers; each one creates an additional 2.5 jobs. By retaining the artificially low cap on visas for highly skilled Koreans, the United States is foregoing significant economic benefits and an opportunity to bolster its competitiveness.

Korea should also insist on a higher cap for highly skilled Korean workers in order to enhance parity and reciprocity in the bilateral relationship.

Facilitated by Korus, bilateral trade has nearly doubled in value in the last two years, and investment flows in both directions are growing rapidly. The United States should now take the next logical step in the deepening relationship and open its door fully to highly skilled Korean workers - just as Korea has done for the United States.

*The author is a senior partner at the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington.

by Sukhan Kim

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