For S. Korea, a win to buy U.S. weapons

South Korea scored a major victory this week after the Senate approved a bill that will allow the East Asian country to buy American weapons faster and cheaper.

The president will sign the bill into law in the coming days. The Senate approved the bill late Wednesday night. The House approved it last weekend.

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The Korean government, congressional supporters and the Bush administration had lobbied intensely to see a more advantageous weapons-buying status.

The legislation had some strong support, both in the House and Senate, particularly from Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who spearheaded the efforts to see Korea’s status changed.

The lawmakers received backing from the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate International Relations panels.

Seoul is the third-largest buyer of U.S. weapons systems, and plans to purchase more than $57 billion worth of military equipment from the U.S. by 2020.

Supporters argued that South Korea — a strong American ally — has to deal with a long, restrictive and cumbersome foreign sales process that some other countries have not had to go through for years.

NATO countries, along with Japan, Australia and New Zealand, have been granted a faster track for military sales. New NATO members automatically enjoy the more advantageous status. That privileged status is known as NATO-Plus-Three. The addition of South Korea will change that to NATO-Plus-Four.

The agreement is seen as not only boosting an already strong relationship with the East Asian country, but also creating a boon to U.S. defense companies seeking to sell their wares overseas to a country willing to spend billions.

The congressional win is the result of an intense push by the Bush administration, particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The Korean Embassy has been closely involved in the issue.

Korean War veterans have also supported the issue, and the head of U.S. forces in Korea, Army Gen. B.B. Bell, said in testimony earlier this year that it is “bizarre and strange” that other countries enjoy a higher sales status, but not South Korea.

Foreign military sales center on the government-to-government method for selling U.S. defense equipment, services and training, rather than buying weapons directly from various defense enterprises.

Among the advantages South Korea will now enjoy are: a significantly reduced congressional review time for a sale — from 50 days to 15 — and waivers for contract administration fees. For a sale of billions of dollars, the fees can add several million more to the price tag. On some deals, for example, the Pentagon adds a 2 percent contract fee.