S. Korea may rethink commitment
SEOUL — Renewed protests at home and an upsurge in violence in Iraq have cast confusion over South Korea’s promise to bolster the U.S. occupation forces in the country.
Earlier this week, an unnamed national security official said South Korea had decided to send from 2,000 to 3,000 combat troops to the Middle East. But on Tuesday, the country’s Defense Minister denied those reports.
“Who on earth said so? We have not yet come to the point of determining that,” Defense Minister Cho Young-kil told reporters before a cabinet meeting at the South Korean president’s office.
U.S. officials are counting on South Korea to be among countries providing enough troops to bolster an “international division” of peacekeepers in Iraq. After weeks of controversy, president Roh Moo-hyun said last week he would send troops.
South Korea already has 700 noncombat soldiers in the Middle East, but the next deployment was to be combat troops meant to patrol cities and pacify local resistance, modeled after the mission of 2,000 Polish troops now in Iraq, officials had said.
Concerns resurfaced after a series of nationwide protests this week against sending the troops. In polls, most South Koreans have said they would support a troop dispatch if it was given U.N. approval. But even after the United States secured a U.N. resolution, the opposition remains.
The South Korean government also formed a second “investigation team” to survey the security situation in Iraq. The report of the first team, sent in early October, was criticized; its members said the U.S. military did not give them full access to conditions on the ground.
“We are set to make the decision after the second investigation team completes its assessment,” Cho told reporters. “Further talks are necessary regarding the exact position and assignment in Iraq.”
Several South Korean news outlets also quoted unnamed sources as saying the government is considering sending civilians instead of combat troops. Who those civilians would be, or what role they would play, remained unclear. The speculation arose when it was announced that members of the Korea International Cooperation Agency and the Health and Welfare Ministry would be among the new investigation team.
Japanese leaders face similar questions about how to answer the U.S. call for allies to pitch in on the reconstruction effort.
The Japanese foreign minister, meeting with Tunisian leaders earlier this week, reiterated Japan’s commitment of reconstruction money and said Japan is considering dispatching Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq.