South Korean authorities say they are still committed to aiding in the reconstruction of Iraq, although they may reduce the size of their military contingent there next year. News of the possible troop reduction came at an awkward time for President Bush, who is attending summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Busan, South Korea.
Senior White House officials reacted with surprise Friday at news that South Korea might be planning to reduce its troop commitment in Iraq by a third.
More than 3,000 South Korean military personnel are deployed in non-combat reconstruction work in Northern Iraq. The South Korean defense minister briefed members of the South Korean legislature Friday on the planned reduction, in preparation for a vote later this month on whether to extend the deployment. The Defense Ministry later said about 1,000 troops might be brought home.
The U.S. National Security Council spokesman, Frederick Jones, said South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun did not mention such a plan during a meeting earlier this week with President Bush. The two met Thursday, prior to the start of the summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum here in Busan.
U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who is also in Busan, acknowledged that Mr. Roh did not specifically mention troop levels during the bilateral meeting. However, he says Mr. Roh did offer reassurances.
"What President Roh said to the President [Bush] is that, we remain committed to Iraq. It's important to bring democracy to Iraq, and we will continue to provide troops to that mission," said Mr. Hadley.
In a broader briefing at the APEC summit Friday, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon confirmed that Seoul is reviewing the number of South Korean troops that will remain in Iraq.
Mr. Ban admits the troop deployment in Iraq is politically very sensitive in South Korea, and that the government must factor in the views of lawmakers who oppose it.
The possible troop reduction comes amid questions about the strength of the military alliance between South Korea and the United States. Seoul and Washington have sharply different views about how to deal with North Korea, and Mr. Roh has taken steps to distance his foreign policy from that of Washington.
The news also comes as Mr. Bush is engaged in a war of words with opponents of the Iraq war back home.