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S. Korean President Wants Non-Combat Troops Sent to Iraq - 2003-04-02

South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun has urged the National Assembly to overcome widespread misgivings and back his pledge to send 700 non-combat troops to support the U.S. war effort in the Persian Gulf. This comes as Mr. Roh works with the United States on ending an international dispute over North Korea's nuclear programs.

South Korea's National Assembly Wednesday starts debate on whether to send 700 non-combat troops to the Gulf. President Roh Moo-hyun's plea for support for sending the troops is a political gamble. Thousands of South Koreans have demonstrated against the proposed deployment in recent days.

Mr. Roh was elected last year mainly with the support of younger Koreans, many of whom favor a different relationship with the United States and oppose the war in Iraq.

Mr. Roh, however, is concerned that sending South Korean troops is essential to maintain a strong relationship with the United States. He has said that American support is essential to ending the standoff with North Korea over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Wednesday morning in the National Assembly, Mr. Roh suggested his decision was one of need rather than principle. President Roh says that by sending the troops, South Korea will strengthen the relationship with the United States by helping them when they are in severe situation. This will lead to solving the North Korean nuclear issues.

This was his first speech to the National Assembly since taking office in February. Lawmakers will vote later Wednesday or on Thursday on the motion to authorize the troop dispatch.

Tensions have been high on the Korean Peninsula since last October, when the United States said North Korea had an illegal program to develop nuclear weapons. Washington then ended fuel aid shipments to Pyongyang. North Korea has responded by withdrawing from the global nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and reopening an idled nuclear facility.

North Korea says the United States plans to attack it, and many South Koreans fear an attack is possible. Washington and Seoul both have denied there are any plans to attack the North.

South Korea and the United States have pledged to solve the issue peacefully, although Washington says it can not rule out any option, including military action, in resolving it. However, North Korea insists it can be solved only through direct talks with Washington, which the Bush administration has refused to do.