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U.S. visa quota not in sight despite FTA

Dec. 7, 2011 - 16:54 By Korea Herald
Seoul pushing U.S. Congress for visa allocation for Korean professionals

The Korean government once set a U.S. visa quota for Korean professionals as a major goal of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

However, the bilateral trade deal, ratified by the Korean parliament last month, did not include the visa issue at all, disappointing many Korean professionals who hoped to find getting a job in the U.S. easier ― just like Australians who earned a quota of 10,500 a year through a bilateral trade deal with the U.S.

The year before Australia’s specific visa was introduced, the U.S. granted just 900 visas to professional Australians.

The visa quota for Korean professionals was as good as forgotten over the years but a recent book by Kim Hyun-chong, former trade minister and current Samsung chief legal officer, shed new light on the issue. According to Kim, the U.S. administration in 2007 sent a letter to the Korean government saying it would seek help from Congress in securing a visa quota for Korean professionals during FTA negotiations.

After the book, “Kim Hyun-chong Talks about Korea-U.S. FTA” came out, Lawyers for a Democratic Society, a civic group of progressive lawyers, filed an administrative lawsuit against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in May, demanding the ministry disclose the letter Kim said it received.

However, the Foreign Ministry said it did not know such a letter existed until Kim mentioned it and that the ministry did not have negotiations with the U.S. based on an unsigned and undated letter.

In recent months, the Seoul Administrative Court ordered Kim to submit the original copy of the letter and also ordered the ministry to disclose diplomatic correspondence between Korea and the U.S.

At the latest hearing on Wednesday, “The ministry told the court that it would submit diplomatic correspondence before the next hearing set on Jan. 18,” said Song Ki-ho, a member of Lawyers for a Democratic Society and a trade law expert, who ferreted out mistranslations in the FTA text.

Back in February 2006, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced that it would launch Korea-U.S. FTA negotiations, and the two countries concluded the deal on April 2, 2007.

After the Democratic Party won a majority in the U.S. Congress in May 2007, the U.S. requested additional consultations on the FTA ― which the Korean government accepted on several conditions, including a visa quota for Korean professionals, according to Kim’s book.

There were two rounds of additional consultations on the Korea-U.S. FTA ― one in Seoul on June 21-22, 2007, and the other in Washington on June 25-26, 2007.

Kim said in the book that during the June 25-26 consultations he demanded a letter from the U.S. administration promising its cooperation for the visa quota.

Kim received the letter from Tony Edson, then Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services, then sent it to chief FTA negotiator Kim Jong-hoon.

“The Administration strongly supports the goal of comprehensive immigration reform, including provisions that would create a new temporary employment program. Such a program would address the needs of our nation’s economy and offer a secure and legal channel for workers around the world seeking employment in the United States,” stated a copy of the letter submitted to the court, which was obtained by The Korea Herald.

“We will fully and efficiently implement any provisions passed into law that further expand temporary employment opportunities, including for Korean professionals.”

In the U.S., the H-1B visa is temporarily given to foreign nationals who have professional occupations such as architects, engineers, computer programmers, accountants, doctors, veterinarians and dentists, and who also hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Currently, Koreans can apply for the H-1B but face stiff competition from other nationalities for a limited humber of places.

Although the visa issue was not an official part of FTA negotiations, the Korean government told local media in July 2007 that it would directly contact the U.S. Congress to seek a guaranteed number for the quota.

As the Korea-U.S. FTA is more significant than the U.S.-Australia FTA in terms of population and trade volume, the visa quota for Korean professionals should be more than 10,500, the quota for Australia, according to news reports that quoted then chief FTA negotiator Kim.

A government official said that after the 2004 U.S.-Australia FTA visa quota issues were excluded from FTA negotiations between the U.S. and other countries.

“Separately from the FTA, we’re still trying to get a visa quota for Korean professionals by contacting the U.S. Congress. Most of the work is taken up by the U.S. Embassy in Korea and the Foreign Ministry’s FTA Implementation Division,” the official said.

“For us, it will be good to get as many as possible. But the economic downturn in the U.S. makes it really uncertain how big a quota Korea can get.”

The U.S. Embassy in Korea was unavailable for comment on the issue.

By Cynthia J. Kim (