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U.S. Congress Weighs Temporary Visa Waiver for Koreans
Visa applicants at US Embassy in Seoul

The U.S. Senate and House each submitted bills that could expedite the process of waiving visas for visitors from South Korea on a probationary basis, according to Yonhap News.

Sen. George Voinovich introduced a bill on Jan.23 to expand the visa waiver program (VWP) to countries on temporary terms on a recommendation from the administration. Four other senators have co-sponsored the bill that was resubmitted after it expired at the end of last year. It has now been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Philip English introduced a similar bill on Jan. 25 in the House.

Tentatively named the "Security Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Act," the bill proposes a pilot program to permit up to five countries to join the VWP.

Visitors from these countries can enter and stay in the United States without visas for up to 90 days. South Korea has long desired to be included in the program, being one of the largest sources of students and travelers to the U.S.

Eligible countries would initially participate for three years and for another two years upon consultations between the secretaries of state and homeland security.

Established in 1986, the VWP currently covers 27 countries. No nation has been added to the program since 1999, and efforts to expand it have been discouraged following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Sen. Voinovich's bill is primarily intended to benefit East European countries, but South Korea, Greece and Malta are at the top when it comes to meeting the criteria," Yonhap News quoted a South Korean diplomat asking not to be named as having said.

Eligibility includes U.S. determination that the nation does not compromise America's security and that it cooperates fully with counterterrorism initiatives.

It also considers visa refusal and overstay rates. South Korea's visa refusal rate hovers near 3.5 percent, but the standing U.S. regulation calls for under 3 percent.

U.S. President George W. Bush indicated some flexibility in November, saying that credible preventive measures on passport forgery and extensive counterterrorism cooperation could override visa rejection numbers.

The latest bill also calls on the U.S. government to review the U.S. visa issuance fee and submit a report on improving it.






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