August 08, 2019 12:25
A long line of people formed outside the U.S. Embassy in Seoul on Wednesday, a day after Washington said South Koreans who have visited North Korea even once after March 1, 2011 are no longer covered by a visa waiver. The embassy was flooded with phone calls from visitors seeking information and others complaining about the abrupt change.
Normally, South Koreans simply fill in an Electronic Travel Authorization form for short-term visits. But now the U.S. is classifying people who have visited North Korea in the same category as those who traveled to Syria and other Middle East conflict regions.
The South Korean government was notified of the change a month ago but kept mum. Many travelers were caught off-guard during peak vacation season.
According to the Foreign Ministry, even South Korean citizens who already have ESTA approval need a visa to visit the U.S. if they have visited the North in the last eight years. It said border security may accidentally overlook some of them, but those who are caught could be refused entry.
The Foreign Ministry also suffered a barrage of criticism for its handling of the matter. Diplomatic sources said the confusion could have been avoided if the ministry had at least informed the South Korean public in advance. Asked why it did not, a ministry official said, "We felt that it would not be appropriate for the government here to announce the measure in advance because it is a U.S. government policy."
"Instead, we held talks with the U.S. over a month on how to implement [the change] smoothly," the official claimed. But the ministry did not even know how many South Koreans would be affected by it. The Unification Ministry rushed to tally the number of affected people on Tuesday but was only able to tally approvals for travel to North Korea over the past eight years.
One former vice foreign minister said, "I am curious why the State Department did not give prior notice of the visa-rule change through its embassy here."
Washington usually notifies the public on its websites or through the media in countries where policy changes can affect them, but there was no such notification this time.
The visa-rule change went up on the State Department's website on Tuesday, when it already went into effect. It comes a long 20 months after the U.S. designated North Korea as a terrorism-sponsoring state, and there was no explanation why it had to kick in at this point.
The Foreign Ministry said it is not sure why the U.S. made the change. The U.S. merely told it that it took time for the Department of Homeland Security to "get it ready."
The measure, which applies to anyone worldwide who has visited North Korea in the timeframe, was probably aimed at throttling lucrative tourism to North Korea. Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based attorney, told Voice of America that the measure could prompt foreigners who wish to visit the U.S. to reconsider plans to travel to North Korea and will "deal another blow" to the regime, which is trying to raise badly needed foreign currency from tourism.
But since it also affects South Korean officials and businesspeople who have visited the North, it could be a warning to the government here to slow down in its push to revive cross-border exchanges.
Ironically it came just after President Moon Jae-in proposed economic cooperation with North Korea as a solution to overcoming Japanese export curbs and called for a "peace economy" linking the two Koreas.
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