The chances of Korea entering the U.S. visa waiver program has increased after the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill Tuesday.
“If the bill becomes law, there would be a higher possibility that South Koreans could travel to the U.S. freely without a visa,’’ an immigration expert said.
U.S. senators voted 60 to 38 for the security reform bill containing a provision enabling U.S. President George W. Bush to fulfill his promised expansion of the visa waiver program.
Under current American law, countries wanting to participate in the program are required to have a less than a 3 percent refusal rate on their U.S visa applications.
South Korea has failed to join the program because its refusal rate on U.S. visa applications is above 3 percent.
The country has promised to bring the rate below 3 percent before September 2008. In September 2006 it recorded an estimated 3.5 percent refusal rate.
However, South Korea will not be bound by those figures if the U.S. security reform bill becomes law.
The bill sets the refusal rate at 10 percent to ease the concerns of some countries fighting alongside the U.S. in Iraq regarding the possibility that their citizens would not be able to travel to the U.S. as freely as they would like.
In December, President Bush committed to seeking flexibility from Congress to expand the visa waiver program.
Of the 19 countries designated by the U.S. State Department as having a “roadmap’’ to participate in the program, only nine have rejection rates of less than 10 percent and could benefit from the program.
The nine are South Korea, Taiwan, Argentine, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Malta, Greece and Israel.
A Korean official said that if the bill is declared law and South Korea is allowed to join the visa waiver program, South Koreans might visit America for up to 90 days without a visa early next year.
The bill calls for a new high-technology electronic pre-clearance system for visa waiver travelers, which will enable them to be screened against terrorist and immigration watch-lists before embarking for the United States.
The bill also requires better information-sharing for lost and stolen passports, as well as higher standards for document and airport security from 27 countries in the program.
“There are many countries helping us thwart terrorism around the world and they should be rewarded for their continued cooperation,’’ said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, the author of the provision.
He added that the legislation will improve both American national security and economic interests, while helping to solidify relations and improve good will toward the U.S.
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