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New Visa Waiver for South Koreans Hopes to Boost Economy

New America Media, News Report, Kenneth Kim Posted: Oct 27, 2008

Editor's Note: New visa waiver for South Koreans hopes to boost U.S. economy and improve relations between the two nations, but may increase numbers of undocumented Koreans in America. Kenneth Kim is a reporter for New America Media.

LOS ANGELES President George Bush recently announced a plan to rescind visa requirement for South Korean citizens to travel more freely to the United States for tourism or business. But Korean Americans are mixed on whether the policy whose central aim is to bring more tourist dollars into U.S. markets will deliver on its expectations.

The plan announced in mid-October also extended the privilege of the U.S. visa waiver program to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

It gets implemented in about a month, allowing the citizens of these seven countries to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa. In return, they will allow U.S. citizens to visit their countries without a visa.

Expecting an economic boost generated by an increase in South Korean tourists, Korean American businesses welcomed the new development. In Los Angeles, the preferred destination for South Koreans, the business community was ecstatic over the news.

According to LA INC, a nonprofit business association contracted by the City of Los Angeles, within the first 18 months after the policy is implemented, Los Angeles can expect an increase of 100,000 Korean tourists and $60 million in spending.

In 2007 alone, 191,000 South Koreans visited Los Angeles, and South Korean tourists contribute $120 million to the local economy each year.

Its a bailout plan for local businesses suffering greatly from an economic slowdown and financial crisis, says Stephan Haah, president of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. The trickle-down effect will not only benefit Korean Americans. Hotels, restaurants and even banking industries in the area will also benefit.

He said that with every 1 percent increase in international visitors to Los Angeles, local businesses see a $43 million increase in direct spending by visitors and an estimated $88 million increase in economic impact.

The economic push, however, wont be limited to Los Angeles. Korean news media report that about 1 million Koreans visit the United States every year, and this figure will increase two to threefold by the year 2016, resulting in more than $3 billion in annual spending by tourists.

For many Korean Americans, its also an occasion to celebrate the motherlands elevated prestige as one of the most reliable American travel and business partners. Some even see the policy as a force that could stem anti-Americanism in South Korea which has grown out of a history of U.S. support for military regimes in the country, among other factors.

Just like citizens of Japan, Germany, France and other prosperous U.S. allies, my people wont have to go through the hassle of obtaining visas for a short U.S. trip, says Sung Pyo Park, 53, an engineer. It means my adopted county began recognizing my motherland as a true ally.

This is a proof that the relationship between the U.S. and South Korea has become fair at last, says Hyung-jik Bae, a Korea Times reporter.

South Koreans believe that their country has been a tremendous ally of the United States. It sent more than 300,000 combat troops to assist the U.S. military in Vietnam, suffered more than 20,000 casualties, and has supported the war in Iraq.

But they perceive the alliance to be largely uneven a notion that is reinforced when they see hundreds of people lined up every day in front of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Seoul to get visas for short business, leisure or family-reunion trips to the United States.

The difficulties Koreans had to go through to get visas could be one of the factors that turned generations against the United States, says Bae. But the new policy may win back the lost generations.

But whether the new visa waiver program can accomplish its central goal to bring more tourist dollars into the U.S. economy is unclear.

Some Korean Americans are doubtful about the rosy picture presented by the business community. After all, they say, the ailing South Korean economy has its own problems, having been damaged by the global financial crisis.

Skeptics point out that, among other things, the plunging value of the Korean won against the U.S. dollar would make a trip to the United States more expensive than ever before.

The value of the Korean currency has dropped more than 30 percent against the dollar since August, creating fear among Koreans that the ghost of the late 1990s Asian financial crisis could return in the near future.

Some Korean Americans believe the program will increase the undocumented Korean immigrant population as Koreans overstay the 90-day limit.

According to a report by the Department of Homeland Security, approximately 230,000 undocumented Koreans were living in the United States as of January 2007. Although Koreans made up 2 percent of the U.S. undocumented population, South Korea ranks number seven in countries with the largest number of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Korean Americans are also concerned that the new program could increase the number of young Korean women working at hostess bars and in the sex industry in the United States, further tainting the image of the Korean community.

The South Korean government estimates that more than 5,000 women who came to the United States with fraudulently obtained visas or were smuggled into the country through the Canada border are already working in these establishments.

The visa waiver program, instituted in 1986, selects its beneficiary countries based on strict criteria. The most important requirement is an extremely low rejection rate by American consular officials of visa applications from the countrys citizens less than 3 percent of the total.

The seven countries are the latest to be included in the program which already benefits 27 countries, including Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

Related Articles:

Trust In Short Supply in Korea

Korean Suicide Sparks Internet Regulation Debate in China

Ethnic Doctors Take Leadership in the Fight Against Healthcare Disparities

Why China Won't Have a Similar Financial Crisis


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