Congress yesterday approved legislation to upgrade South Korea’s military procurement status to equal that of members of NATO, Australia, Japan and New Zealand (“NATO+3”). The legislation, authored by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), is expected to be signed by President Bush within the next few days.

With this action, Congress has remedied a long-standing disparity in U.S. treatment of a critical ally by recognizing the vital contribution made by South Korea to peace and stability in Asia.

South Korea has been a stalwart defender of democracy in Asia and stands poised to assume a larger role in international counter-terrorism and peacekeeping operations. Yet, until Royce’s legislation was passed, South Korea was rated below the five former Warsaw Pact countries and three former Soviet states that joined NATO for purchase of foreign military sales.

Despite perceived progress in the Six Party Talks to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons, South Korea remains threatened by Pyongyang’s conventional military, chemical warfare, and missile forces. Moreover, South Korea will assume a greater responsibility for its national defense when it assumes wartime operational command authority from the United Nations Command in 2012.

Seoul will need to purchase extensive foreign weapons and support systems to fully address its security needs. South Korean purchases of U.S. military equipment, facilitated by Royce’s legislation, would enhance the interoperability of U.S. and South Korean military forces and strengthen their deterrent capability. During the past 10 years, South Korea has been one of the largest customers for U.S. military equipment, more than any NATO country. Congress vouching for South Korea’s status as an ally on par with NATO will help facilitate the transition of the US-South Korea alliance into a more secure, more effective partnership of equals.