By Jung Sung-ki
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Monday that consultations on South Korea joining the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) with the United States were on schedule with the goal of concluding them by the year-end.
Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young denied a newspaper report that the VWP for South Koreans would likely be delayed due to differences between the two countries over ways of sharing the criminal records of tourists.
``The two countries are discussing the issue with the aim of conclusion by the end of this year. We've not heard anything from the U.S. (on a possible delay of Seoul's inclusion in the VWP),'' Moon said.
The report said the U.S. government wants to conclude VWP talks with seven East European nations, including the Czech Republic, by late December before winding up negotiations with South Korea, which have stalled due to different positions on the sharing of criminal records. The U.S. authorities have informed their South Korean counterparts of this position, according to the newspaper.
Some South Korean lawyers claim that sharing the criminal records of citizens is in violation of basic human rights, while Washington insists it is one of the basic standards to be met by those countries wanting to join the VWP to help protect American nationals and interests from terrorists or criminals who have committed felonies.
South Korea began issuing electronic passports to citizens last month to help get the U.S. visa waiver status. Issuance of the ``e-passport'' is a key precondition to the country's joining the VWP under which South Koreans will be able to visit the United States for up to three months without pre-obtaining a visa. Those who want to stay in the United States longer than three months are required to obtain visas.
The back cover of the e-passport contains an embedded microchip carrying the holder's basic personal information, including date of birth and any criminal record, to help deter forgery, a ministry official said.
Washington, for its part, has pledged to include South Korea in its VWP as part of efforts to expand the Korea-U.S. alliance beyond the security arena. The United States has not admitted any new countries since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks after it tightened security measures against possible terrorism.
Currently, 27 nations, mostly European, benefit from the program.
Presidents Lee Myung-bak and George W. Bush agreed in their summit in Seoul last month on a reciprocal visa waiver program called the Work, English Study and Travel (WEST) program. A related memorandum of understanding is to be signed today in New York.
Under the program, up to 5,000 South Korean university students can go to the United States to study English and get internships for 18 months as early as next year.
South Korea will be the first to benefit from the WEST program, which is expected to help promote understanding and friendship between young people of the two nations.
WEST is an expansion of the Work and Travel program operated by Washington, in which international students can enter the United States for up to four months during their vacation and work.