Pacific edition, Thursday, July 5, 2007

WASHINGTON — Visiting America could get easier for spouses of servicemembers in South Korea if President Bush’s proposed change to U.S. visa rules is approved.

On Saturday, Bush issued a statement supporting further expansion of the Visa Waiver Program, including putting the Republic of Korea on that list.

Currently all visitors from South Korea must apply for a visa before traveling to the United States, regardless of their intentions. Tourists from Japan, one of the countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program, can circumvent that paperwork if they are visiting America for fewer than 90 days.

State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus said Korea-born spouses of troops applying for citizenship or work permits would not be affected by any changes in the waiver program.

“But, if they were just visiting as tourists for less than three months, they wouldn’t have to get a visa for those trips anymore,” she said. Korea-born girlfriends and boyfriends of troops would have the same opportunities.

Currently 27 countries enjoy special status under the U.S. program, including Germany, Italy and Singapore. The foreign travelers must have a valid, machine-readable passport and have a return-trip ticket to be admitted into the country.

Bush said he would also like to expand the program, started last November, to include “our closest partners” in Central and Eastern Europe, too.

“It is in our nation’s interest to facilitate travel to the United States, and, at the same time, to prevent terrorists from being able to exploit that travel,” Bush said.

Changes to the program would have to be approved by Congress. Hironimus said the State Department has discussed expansion with legislative leaders but does not have a time frame for any such plans.

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