(News Focus) Visa waiver program in question with rising number of Chinese offenders
By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, Sept. 20 (Yonhap) -- In the wake of the latest stabbing death of a South Korean woman by a Chinese tourist, public demand for tougher border control and concerns about existing visa waiver programs are growing among local residents.
Earlier on Monday, the Jeju District Court issued a warrant to formally arrest the suspect accused of attacking a 61-year-old woman who was praying inside a church on the country's resort island of Jeju last week.
The case has sparked intense public outcry after it was revealed that the suspect, identified only by his last name Chen, entered South Korea under the transit-without-visa program on Wednesday. He was scheduled to leave the country this week, according to police.
The incident took place only a few weeks after police arrested eight Chinese tourists on charges of beating up a South Korean restaurant owner on the island.
The tourists -- six men and two women -- are suspected of assaulting the 53-year-old owner when she prohibited them from drinking alcohol they brought from outside, according to police. They allegedly attacked the victim when she asked them to pay for the food they ordered before leaving.
These are just a few among hundreds of criminal cases that are committed by foreign tourists on the island every year, local law enforcement authorities said.
Since a special visa-free system was first introduced on the island in 2002, the number of foreigners visiting has been constantly soaring from 1,045,637 in 2011 to 1,812,172 in 2013 and reaching 2,624,260 in 2015, according to government data. In the latest figure, Chinese visitors accounted for a whopping 85.3 percent of all foreigners arriving at the island.
Under the program, all tourists except for nationals from 11 terror-sponsoring countries can enter and stay on the island without a visa for up to 30 days.
The number of tourists who enter Jeju under the program increased more than 58-fold in a decade, from 10,793 in 2006 to 629,724 in 2015, according to data provided by the justice ministry. Among them, 99 percent were from China last year.
In line with the rise, the number of foreign tourists who commit crimes at one of the country's most popular tourist sites has also increased.
The Jeju Provincial Police Agency said 347 foreign offenders have been arrested on Jeju as of July. The figure is up by nearly 60 percent from the number tallied in the same period last year, which stood at 218.
Among the 347 foreigners, Chinese nationals accounted for the largest proportion of offenders with 240, or 69.2 percent, followed by Americans with 13.
Reflecting such trends, calls to beef up security by local residents have been rising.
More than 14,500 people have signed a petition filed at a bulletin board of local Internet portal Daum as of Tuesday since it was first proposed on Sunday.
"The country's precious island of Jeju has turned into a lawless zone with Chinese tourists who enter without visas," the netizen who first proposed the petition said. "The safety of South Koreans should be given top priority than what can be earned from tourism."
Still, Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong remains cautious in approaching the possible modification of the visa waiver system.
"Some people have been voicing the need to do something with the program, but we first need to review ways to supplement the existing one after analyzing how other countries run similar programs," Won said during an emergency meeting held at the Jeju government office on Monday.
He said there is a need to comprehensively consider the possible impact on the island's tourism sector, economics and diplomacy when the program is revised or abolished.
Professor Hwang Jeong-ik at Jeju International University also said the matter needs a careful approach, adding it is rather natural for the number of people who break the law to rise as the number of foreign tourists increase.
"What really matters is that the program can be abused by foreigners as a means to stay in the country illegally without visas," he said. "The immigration office should improve the current system to make sure that it can secure more information on the tourists who come in through the no-visa program."