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Drawing the Line

Visa Frustrations Prompt S. Koreans to Take Money Elsewhere


SEOUL — It was 9 a.m. and Hong So Yong had already killed more than an hour outside the U.S. Embassy. Her only comfort was that she was with nine of her closest friends. They were all steamed.

They were scheduled to take a long-awaited vacation in Hawaii in less than two weeks. But first they had to get tourist visas, which meant waiting in line here in the summer heat to get grilled about their economic and personal well-being.

Had they been Japanese or Andorrans or Liechtensteiners, they wouldn't need visas for a short visit to the land of Don Ho. But South Korea--fast becoming a preeminent industrial power, one whose globe-trotting citizens have money to burn and international business deals to strike--is still treated as a Third World country by the United States. Thus, South Korean citizens must obtain visas to enter the U.S.

"It hurts our pride," said Hong, 49, a petite, well-dressed woman. "We are asked such tedious questions. 'How much wealth we have? How much we have saved?' Who would want to be questioned like that? We just want to go visit your country."

The long line of frustrated South Koreans waiting outside the Embassy every morning illustrates the difficult balancing act facing the U.S. government as it tries to further open its borders to trade and tourism while tightening controls on illegal immigrants and terrorists.

Here in South Korea, growing prosperity and a relaxation of government controls have led to an explosion in foreign travel, particularly to the United States. In July, the embassy processed more than 83,000 visa applications, an 82% increase over the previous year.

Last year, 733,000 South Koreans visited the United States and spent more than $1 billion on meals, trinkets and hotel rooms.

At the same time, budget cutbacks at the U.S. State Department and heightened concerns over illegal immigration and terrorism have created a bureaucratic nightmare at several overseas posts.

The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York was linked to individuals who had entered the country under questionable visa status. The July 25 crash of TWA Flight 800 off the East Coast and the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics have increased pressure from the public to make it harder, not easier, for foreign citizens to get into the country.

Although visa backlogs are common in many countries--notably Russia and Brazil--the South Korean one has taken on particular urgency because of its growing importance as the U.S.' sixth-largest trading partner and a key military ally.

South Koreans emboldened by their newfound prosperity resent being treated as potential immigration risks. Besides, Americans can enter South Korea without a visa for as long as 15 days.

The mounting frustration has led to quashed business deals and lost tourism revenue as South Koreans opt for more hospitable destinations, according to U.S. and South Korean business leaders and politicians.

"It's not just the business loss. . . . If this problem continues, I worry about some anti-American Korean sentiment surfacing in uneducated segments of Korean society," said Jay K. Yoo, a newly elected member of South Korea's National Assembly and vice president of the opposition National Congress for New Politics.

The visa issue was raised by Yoo and six other South Korean congressmen during a visit to Washington last month.

It is particularly worrisome for officials in California, which has the nation's largest Korean American community and is the leading destination for Korean travelers to this country. In 1994, California was visited by 256,000 South Koreans, representing more than half the number of South Koreans who visited the United States that year.

"Without question, this concern about Koreans getting visas to America is affecting both commerce and tourism," said John Poimiroo, director of the California Trade and Commerce Agency's Division of Tourism.

Although travel by South Koreans to the United States continues to expand dramatically, the U.S. share of the total South Korean travel market dropped 6.4% last year. This trend comes as the U.S. tourism industry is struggling to boost business from overseas--its share of the international travel market has shrunk from 19% to 15% over the past three years.

Other countries are wooing those increasingly affluent South Korean travelers; these travelers last year spent an estimated $2,070 apiece during their stays in this country, excluding air fare. Canada and New Zealand have abolished visa requirements for short-term visitors from South Korea, and Australia has instituted a 24-hour visa processing system.

"We do not want to see that the security of the U.S. is being undermined in any way," said Patti North-Rudin, assistant executive director of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Government Affairs Council, a travel industry lobbying group. "But we need to find the right balance, and we're not sure that balance has been found."

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