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SEOUL — Some stories say a full combat division has been requested. Others say it was a light infantry battalion.

Whatever, widespread news reports Tuesday about a supposed U.S. request for South Korean combat troops in Iraq appear to have reopened festering rifts in South Koreans’ attitudes towards the war in Iraq, South Korea’s role on the international stage and the presence of U.S. troops on the peninsula.

All major South Korean dailies published front-page stories Tuesday citing anonymous diplomatic or government sources, saying the United States has asked South Korea to contribute up to half of the 30,000 international troops requested to bolster postwar efforts in Iraq.

“The United States has asked for a division of light infantry soldiers capable of operating on a self-sustainable basis,” an anonymous official was quoted as saying by the Korea Times.

“Rather than expect an immediate return, we should pay attention to how the dispatch itself would contribute to our national interests, our profile in the international society as well as security and peace on the Korean peninsula.”

Polls indicate that the South Korean public heavily disapproves of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. South Korea also faces an unstable security situation with North Korea.

Nonetheless, several newspapers posited that a troop deployment could lead to more favorable terms when the United States and South Korea finalize plans to reconfigure U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula.

Officially, South Korea will say only that it was among one of a dozen countries asked to provide troops.

Wi Sung-lac, head of the South Korean Foreign Ministry’s North American affairs bureau, told reporters at the ministry Monday the United States did not ask for a specific number of troops when making the request.

Wi said Seoul will consider “the significance of its alliance with the United States, the public opinion and security situation on the Korean peninsula” when deciding.

U.S. Navy Cmdr. Jeff Davis, Pentagon spokesman, said the Pentagon has frequent discussions on the subject of Operation Iraqi Freedom with the South Korean government, but “we’re going to keep the details of the diplomatic discussions between us and them” confidential.

“We’ve had a number of discussions with Korean officials about OIF at all levels, just as we have with our other friends and allies. We have conveyed a number of messages to them,” he said.

“Any decision about support [for Operation Iraqi Freedom] needs to be made by the South Korean people.”

Pentagon officials previously have said they want two international divisions of about 20,000 to 30,000 additional troops in Iraq.

In May, South Korea sent 675 engineers and medics; all of the reports this week said the next deployment would be combat troops, possibly including special operations units.

North Korea’s official news agency said a decision by South Korea to dispatch combat troops would be “a mean, pro-U.S. subservient act,” the Yonhap news agency reported.

According to translations of the North’s main state-controlled newspaper, “submission to foreign forces in disregard of the dignity and the interests of the nation would lead the nation to disgraceful ruin and death. The South Korean authorities should ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by their traitorous troop dispatch to Iraq and resolutely reject the U.S. demand for it.”

The South Korean government already is widely viewed as leaning toward answering the call, despite vocal protests from civic groups and opposition politicians.

The Korean National Council of Churches, for one, said it opposes sending combat troops.

“Our government must firmly refuse the issue of dispatching troops, which is shunned by countries around the world that have good sense,” the council leaders said in a written statement.”

But other conservative groups are backing the effort.

“The troop dispatch will serve the country’s national interests as it will strengthen South Korea’s alliance with the United States and bring economic benefits,” Shin Hye-sik, a leader of an anti-North Korean group, told the Korea Times.

“When the United States is reaching out to Korea in times of need, we must answer their call to prove we are a blood ally.”

The last large-scale overseas deployment of South Korean troops took place during the Vietnam War, when Seoul sent three combat divisions totaling 50,000 troops. South Korea also contributed 300 noncombat soldiers to the first Gulf War and 500 support soldiers to the Afghanistan campaign.


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