Is U.S. Visa-Rule Change a Warning to Moon?

  • By Chosun Ilbo Columnist Ahn Yong-hyun

    August 08, 2019 13:32

    Ahn Yong-hyun

    Rain or shine, there is always a long line in front of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing of people who want visas. Five million Chinese people visit the U.S. every year and spend around W40 trillion there, but China is not included among the 38 countries the U.S. grants a visa waiver to (US$1=W1,216).

    The same queues could be seen outside the U.S. Embassy in Seoul until South Koreans were included in the visa waiver in 2008. They had to fill in forms and sit through an interview. The process was cumbersome and stringent. Former presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok and ex-lawmaker Jung Chung-rae were both once denied visas due to Im's track record of leading pro-North Korea and anti-U.S. rallies as a student in the 1980s, while Jung was part of a group of university students who had staged a sit-in protest in the U.S. Embassy.

    Earlier this week, the U.S. government announced that South Koreans who have visited North Korea since March 1, 2011 will have to apply for a visa again. They include Samsung chief Lee Jae-yong and SK chairman Chey Tae-won as well as members of the K-pop girl group Red Velvet, who traveled to North Korea as part of President Moon Jae-in's entourage last year. An estimated 30,000 South Koreans fall into the category, many of them involved with the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex. Until the complex was shut in 2016, around 1,000 South Koreans stayed there every day.

    The Unification Ministry said the visa-rule change "does not conflict with expanded cross-border exchanges." Is the ministry serious? Around 2 million South Koreans visited the North's scenic Mt. Kumgang resort until tours were halted in 2008 after a tourist from the South was shot dead by North Korean soldiers. And 2 million South Koreans visit the U.S. every year. Given a chance to choose between Mt. Kumgang and visa-free access to the U.S., which would South Koreans prefer? Even South Koreans who wanted to visit Pyongyang and the Kaesong Industrial Complex would think twice.

    North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who went to boarding school in Switzerland, dreams of developing his country into a major tourist destination and is spending heavily to build resorts in his home town of Wonsan as well as Mt. Baekdu straddling the border with China. North Korea earned US$500 million from the tours to Mt. Kumgang. Kim said in his New Year's address this year that he wants the tours to resume, probably to attract South Koreans to the lavish tourist resorts he is constructing.

    The U.S. probably announced the visa-rule change 20 months after placing North Korea on its list of terrorism-sponsoring states because it wants to tell Pyongyang that it needs to scrap its nuclear weapons first before it can enjoy a booming tourism industry. But perhaps Washington is also telling Seoul to stop begging for the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and resumption of Mt. Kumgang tours.

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