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SEOUL — Despite the South Korean government’s repeated assurances that a pledged 3,000-troop deployment to Iraq is proceeding as planned, thousands of union workers are promising strikes to force its cancellation in reaction to a South Korean civilian’s beheading by terrorists.

The addition of 3,000 South Korean troops would make this country the third-largest foreign military presence in Iraq, behind the United States and Great Britain. Though the commitment was made months ago, the deployment’s timetable has been pushed back repeatedly amid assurances Seoul would not change its mind.

But now, South Korean politics are complicating the picture. This week, a leading ruling-party member suggested tying the troop deployment to getting a better deal on the Yongsan Garrison relocation issue.

That deal, under which the U.S. would vacate its military headquarters in Seoul by 2007, has been stalled over land issues and burden-sharing of the estimated $3 billion to $4 billion move costs.

Throw into the mix the widespread public outrage over the death of Kim Sun-il, 33, an interpreter working for a South Korean contractor in Iraq, and the troop deployment issue becomes clouded again.

On Tuesday, thousands of Korea Confederation of Trade Unions [KCTU] members rallied in downtown Seoul, demanding the dispatch be dropped.

“We have been opposed to the troop dispatch plan as we had anticipated there would be South Koreans victims like Kim Sun-il,” said the group’s head, Lee See-ho, at the rally.

The group also gave the U.S. Embassy in Seoul a letter of protest, calling on President Bush to apologize for what the union alleged was a “U.S. cover-up” of Kim’s kidnapping to ensure the troop dispatch happened as scheduled in July.

In what South Korean media described as “annual strikes,” some 87,000 union workers walked off the job this week, ostensibly to demand wage hikes and better working conditions. But union statements and media reports indicated the troop dispatch is as much an issue as the economic concerns.

South Korean government officials reacted swiftly, with Labor Minister Kim Dae-hwan warning the unions not to mix labor issues with political issues.

The Korea Teachers’ Union also got into the act, designating June 28 to July 3 as a period to teach “anti-war” materials in their classrooms.

The Education Ministry wrote the teachers union saying those who taught from the anti-war curriculum posted on the union’s Web site Monday would face “legal measures.”

While teachers’ union officials said the curriculum was drawn from newspaper articles and other reports about the war in Iraq, Education Ministry officials said it was drawn largely from anti-American and anti-troop dispatches from civic groups.

In response, the union wrote the ministry, saying in part, “The purpose of anti-war classes is to teach the importance of peace and life. For now, we do not plan to change the materials but we will consider adding some materials.”


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