Thais account for 35% of undocumented foreign nationals in Korea: justice ministry

Tourists walk at Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, May 17. Speaking to The Korea Times on Tuesday, an official at the Ministry of Justice said Thais account for more than 35 percent of all undocumented foreign nationals staying in Korea as the country's strict entry system, particularly K-ETA, its electronic travel authorization, is being blamed for a decrease in the number of tourists from Thailand this year. Newsis

Thais account for more than 35 percent of all undocumented foreign nationals staying here, according to the Ministry of Justice on Tuesday.

A ministry official told The Korea Times that 145,810 Thais were staying without valid visas or permits in Korea as of late May. This figure is about 35.1 percent of the total of 415,230 such foreign residents, far higher than that of other countries, including Vietnam (79,366), China (64,151), the Philippines (13,740), Indonesia (12,172) and Cambodia (10,681).

The release of information comes as the country’s strict entry requirements, particularly its K-ETA system, its electronic travel authorization, are being blamed for a decrease in the number of tourists from Thailand this year.

From January to April, Korea saw some 119,000 Thai travelers, down 21.1 percent from the same period last year, in stark contrast to a surge in foreign arrivals from other countries.

The ministry, which is in charge of reviewing K-ETA applications, does not disclose reasons for its rejections of travel permits. But the official said the same criteria have been applied to review the applicants from all countries subject to the policy.

As discontent is seemingly growing among Thai travelers over the K-ETA, with boycott signs such as the “ban Korea travel” hashtag gaining support on X, formerly Twitter, Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism asked the Ministry of Justice to temporarily exempt Thailand from K-ETA, at least until the end of 2024, as tourism officials are redoubling efforts to meet the target of attracting 20 million foreign tourists this year.

But the Ministry of Justice has expressed caution. Speaking to Yonhap, a Korean news agency, the ministry said a “cautious approach” would be needed as such a policy change could lead to a significant increase in the number of undocumented foreigners in the country.

When issues and complaints about the K-ETA emerged last November, the ministry defended its checking system, saying some 78 percent of all Thais staying in Korea were doing so illegally, and it was its “rightful duty” to reduce the number of those staying here unlawfully.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Thailand was among the top sources of tourists, along with China, Japan, the United States and Taiwan. Many worry that the number of Thai visitors would never recover to the previous level anytime soon and negatively affect the relationship between the two countries.

The ministry official dismissed the claims that the K-ETA was the main reason behind the drop in the number of Thai visitors. But he said the 스포츠토토존 ministry is now trying to improve the system to make it more convenient, adding that it will do so while ensuring border security.

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