Including South Korea in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program
by Balbina Y. Hwang
Backgrounder #1872

July 25, 2005

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that one of the most troublesome issues for South Korean citizens with the United States is not growing tensions about North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons program, but that the Republic of Korea (ROK) is not included in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The VWP allows nationals from member countries to enter the United States as temporary visitors without first obtaining visas at a U.S. Embassy or consulate. The ROK is currently ineligible for the VWP because the refusal rate for nonimmigrant visas for its citizens exceeds the 3 percent maximum allowed under the VWP. The ROK’s refusal rate currently hovers just below 4 percent. [1] Because South Korea is not a VWP member, South Koreans must endure a complicated and protracted process to obtain a tourist or business visa, which has unfortunately contributed to growing animosity towards the United States.

Even when a country meets the criteria for VWP membership, inclusion is not automatic. In the interests of both the United States and South Korea, the Bush Administration should prioritize the incluÂ*sion of South Korea in the VWP as soon as it meets the requirements.

The Visa Issue

Ever since September 11, 2001, the United States has faced two daunting tasks: bolstering border secuÂ*rity and placating disgruntled visa applicants around the world. Because the ROK is not a VWP participant, tightened visa regulations have adversely affected South Korean nationals who want to visit the United States. Each of the hundreds of thousands of South Koreans that visit the United States annuÂ*ally must apply for a visa in person at the U.S. Embassy in downtown Seoul, [2] pay a fee, be interÂ*viewed, and (since August 2004) be fingerprinted. These requirements have made the U.S. consular section in Seoul the largest U.S. nonimmigrant visa processing post in the worldâ€