New US Envoy in Focus
Amid Growing Expectations

Korea admitted to Visa Waiver Program

Kathleen Stephens appears to have realized her long-cherished dream to be the first top female U.S. envoy to Korea. She has been the very target of attention from Korean mass media because of her long-time relationship with the country.
"Diplomat"can be regarded as a highly political job whose name alone reflects the various particular factors with regard to the sensitive relations between the subject nations.
Given this, Stephens appears to have benefitted from the onset of the President Lee Myung-bak government, which has been pursuing a series of policies designed to refresh the relationship with the United States, soured under the former President Roh Moo-hyun government.
Though the Roh administration came up with U.S.-friendly policies, many of them were rebuffed as "Superficial"by the Bush administration. Rather, the Roh administration had been more focused on enhancing ties with reclusive North Korea.
And this was natural, as Roh himself was the successor to Kim Dae-jung in pursuing "liberal"policies in many areas including inter-Korean affairs.
In contrast, the current government, however, has been employing various policies aimed to mend ties with the United States. It has been speeding up efforts to ratify the prolonged free trade agreement with the United States at as early a date as possible, judging it would greatly help the nation upgrade relations with the United States.
The candlelight demonstrations, which attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the streets, were in defiance of the government's deal with the United States on beef imports as part of efforts to pave the way for the free trade accord.
Multiple modifiers of "the first"can be placed before U.S. Amb. Kathleen Stephens, who arrived in Seoul this week.
Stephens is the first female mission chief representing the U.S. government in Korea. She may also be the first top American envoy to have started her diplomatic service in Korea, has a son with a Korean ex-husband and taught at Korean high schools.
Most of all, no other U.S. ambassadors had a Korean name 33 years ago, all of which indicates the deep knowledge and affection Stephens, or Shim Eun-kyung, has for this country.
No wonder many people on both sides of the Pacific expect her to play a vital role in bridging the two traditional allies at a time when they need to cooperate more closely to jointly tackle regional and global problems, be they North Korea's denuclearization or the ongoing financial turmoil.
When the national interest in Stephens'motherland and her second home clash, she will undoubtedly act in the way a U.S. official is expected to act. This may be a little farfetched, but one can interpret it in the same context that the delay in her confirmation by the Congress was reportedly due to her less-than-unequivocal commitment to tackling North Korean human right issues while here.
Likewise, in a news conference at the airport upon her arrival, Stephens showed an understanding of the candlelight vigil as a "sign of democracy" development in Korea."She did not forget, however, to quickly add that her role is to have more Koreans consume safe U.S. beef without concerns.
It does not take diplomatic expertise to know that the relationship between Korea and the United States over the past decade has been not so smooth, particularly from the viewpoint of Washington. And the change, which came as a reaction to rather unequal bilateral statuses during the preceding decades, mostly took place while Stephens was away from Korea, which Koreans hope would not hinder her correct understanding of Korea today.
This is also why the new ambassador's pledge to mainly "listen to the voices of the Korean government and the people"is all the more reassuring.
Some within the U.S. establishment reportedly expressed concerns about what they saw as her "light-weightedness"as a top diplomat here to handle the many problems expected to crop up during a transition period of a bilateral relationship. Similar concerns were expressed by domestic diplomatic watchers, too, about Washington's long list of demands in military and economic cooperation, capitalizing on the inauguration of a strongly pro-U.S. administration here.
Whether Amb. Stephens will be leaving Korea after serving her full term and leaving a successful stint behind is important for the two countries. Both governments are also advised to cooperate to turn this into a reality.
Given the various positive and sometimes worrisome factors, it seems that most Koreans and Americans harbor high expectations of the new U.S. envoy for her leadership based on a soft approach with a strong mindedness based on her hearty relations with the nation.
U.S. President George W. Bush will announce on Friday South Korea's entry into the Visa Waiver Program, which allows Korean citizens to stay in the U.S. for up to 90 days without visas, and vice versa, Yonhap News reported, quoting officials in Washington on Thursday.
U.S. Visa Waiver for Koreans
Only several weeks after the appointment of the new U.S. envoy to Seoul, U.S. President George W. Bush has announced that South Korea is among seven countries to join the visa waiver program, which already has 27 member states. The other six are Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which belong to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).
South Korea began issuing electronic passports in August as a precondition for entry into the much-awaited program, which is expected to reduce long lines in front of the U.S. embassy in Seoul to get U.S. entry visas.
The program will likely take effect in mid-November, when Seoul and Washington sign an agreement on crime and terrorism prevention.
Those who plan to study, cover news stories or seek employment or a permanent stay are not subject to the program, and thus are required to get relevant visas for entry, according to the officials.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan visited Washington last month to agree on the exchange of information on suspected criminals, removing the last hurdle to South Korea's entry.
Yu met with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at that time on providing criminal records of a limited number of suspects so immigration authorities in each country could access such information automatically at airports.
The minister said the automatic inquiry system is reciprocal and involves the provision of information on certain types of crimes involving only a small number of people.
Bush and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak agreed in April to implement the VWP by the end of the year.
The visa waiver for Korean citizens will likely help promote bilateral travel and trade relations between the two countries and upgrade "strategic alliance"partnership relations. nw

U.S. Amb. to Korea Kathleen Stephens

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