South Korea says it will continue to contribute non-combat military personnel to U.S-led stabilization efforts in Iraq. As VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin reports, the deployment is half a world away, but has everything to do with South Korea's neighbor to the north.
President Roh Moo-hyun told his country in a televised address Tuesday that South Korean troops would not be coming home from Iraq just yet. He says South Korea's presence in Iraq will be extended for another year. However, the number of troops will be cut in half, from 1,200 to 600.
South Korea deployed stabilization forces to Iraq in 2003, following the U.S.-led removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The non-combat forces do aid and reconstruction work in Iraq's mainly Kurdish north, which has been relatively peaceful. The deployment's numbers have been gradually reduced by about two-thirds from more than 3,000 originally.
The deployment is unpopular among many South Koreans who view Iraq as irrelevant to their country's main interests. Mr. Roh's plan must be approved in parliament, where even his close allies have expressed a desire to pull out of Iraq completely by the end of the year.
However, President Roh says continuing to play a role in Iraq is crucial in maintaining a strong security relationship with the United States. He says because North Korea's nuclear weapons issue could take unpredictable turns, the South Korea-U.S. alliance, more than anything else, should be maintained.
The United States stations about 28,000 military personnel in South Korea to help deter North Korea from repeating its 1950 invasion of the South.
The United States also has led multinational efforts to end the North's nuclear weapons capabilities. Pyongyang tested its first nuclear explosive in October of last year, despite several international pledges to not develop such weapons.
President Roh's term in office expires early next year, and elections to replace him will be held in December. South Korean media predict the Iraq deployment is likely to become one of the election's hotly contested issues.