With troops' deployment to Iraq, South Korea ups threat level, bolsters security
SEOUL — Security concerns sparked by the deployment of South Korean troops to Iraq increased Monday, with both South Korean and U.S. military and government agencies at heightened states of alert.
The South Korean military and national police ramped up their terrorism alert levels, deploying armored vehicles and special anti-terror teams to guard possible targets such as the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and Incheon International Airport.
Higher force protection levels at installations and a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew imposed Sept. 24 remained in effect, U.S. officials said Monday. The curfew applies to all U.S. servicemembers, dependants, Department of Defense civilians and most contractors.
“We are encouraging everyone to think safety, and to report any suspicious activities they might observe,” said Kevin Krejcarek, a U.S. Forces Korea spokesman.
The increases to U.S. security were imposed after South Korea announced almost 3,000 troops would be deployed to northern Iraq. U.S. officials reportedly feared the announcement would spur either protests by South Koreans against the deployment, or terror attacks similar to those in other countries, like Spain, that sent troops to Iraq.
U.S. Embassy officials in Seoul also issued a strongly-worded warning Sept. 24, citing “indications” that al-Qaida and other terror groups “continue to prepare to strike U.S. interests,” including through suicide operations, bombings or kidnappings.
South Korean officials increased their terror alert levels Sunday and Monday after a tape attributed to al-Qaida’s reputed second-in-command surfaced Friday, naming South Korea as a target along with other allies of the United States in Iraq.
On Monday, Korean officials confirmed heightened immigration screenings at airports and increased scrutiny of a government list of about 4,000 suspected terrorists. The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency will conduct bomb sweeps at major airports and subway stations and has warned tenants of specific buildings — including embassies, official residences and other “potential targets” — to increase their security measures.
More than 5,300 additional police were deployed at almost 250 potential targets, including the National Assembly building and government office complexes.
South Korean military bases both on the peninsula and abroad also increased their alert status, officials said. An emergency meeting of the South Korean National Security Council and 20 other government agencies was to have taken place Monday, said a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade official.
Adding to the week’s intensified focus on security issues was a report by the Office for Government Policy Coordination Monday, which concluded that 180,000 of the estimated 420,000 foreigners living in South Korea had overstayed their visas.
Earlier in September, the U.S. military cited security concerns in limiting the attendance at an Osan Air Base air show. After the base’s Office of Special Investigations and other agencies assessed reports forwarded by unspecified South Korean intelligence agencies, base officials scrapped an open house event.
Instead, they sent invitations to 8,000 South Koreans, including civic leaders and Republic of Korea Air Force members, to the 2004 Air and Space Power Day.