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S. Korea unlikely to grant temporary K-ETA exemption to Thailand

Justice Ministry official says temporary exemption would be ‘difficult’ despite drop in Thai visitors

June 25, 2024 - 15:34 By Jung Min-kyung
Visitors look at kiosks installed at a tourism promotion event at a shopping mall in Bangkok hosted by South Korea's the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korea Tourism Organization in March. (Yonhap)

An official from the Ministry of Justice said Tuesday that it would be “difficult” to temporarily waive travelers from Thailand from the requirement to obtain travel authorizations before entering the country.

The official’s remarks follow the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s request to the Justice Ministry to temporarily exempt Thailand from the country’s electronic travel authorization system K-ETA, at least until the end of this year, as the number of Thai travelers to Korea has plummeted.

Despite the Culture Ministry’s request, the Justice Ministry, which decides the scope and details of the travel authorization rules, is currently not considering easing the travel rules for Thai visitors, according to the official’s response to Yonhap News Agency.

“We need to be cautious with implementing K-ETA exemptions for countries of origin with high numbers of undocumented immigrants,” the official said.

“K-ETA is a system that was adopted after recognizing there was a limit to controlling immigration and preventing illegal residency solely with the country’s visa policies,” the official added.

The official also mentioned the reports of complaints from Thai travelers that their planned visits to Korea were scrapped due to entry refusals via K-ETA.

“The cases of some families and group tourists (having failed to enter Korea) due to K-ETA rejections were observed in the early stages of K-ETA implementation. (The K-ETA system) has since stabilized enough to not hinder the demand of travelers to Korea,” the official explained.

K-ETA, which was fully introduced in September 2021, requires travelers from visa-free countries to obtain authorization before entering Korea. It was fully introduced in September 2021 to enhance and streamline checks on foreign travelers while countering illegal residency.

With the Culture Ministry announcing its goal to attract 20 million foreign tourists this year, some observers point to the K-ETA screening as a major obstacle, calling it tough compared to the corresponding travel authorization systems in neighboring countries such as Japan and China.

South Korea saw some 119,000 Thai visitors from January to April this year, down 21.1 percent on-year from the same period last year, recent data compiled by the Korea Tourism Organization showed. The same data showed an 87 percent on-year surge in overall foreign arrivals in the cited period, displaying a stark contrast.

The number of Thai nationals living in Korea unregistered has tripled in the past 8 years, making Thailand a country with one of the largest numbers of unregistered foreign national residents, recent government data showed.