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Seoul May Send 10,000 Troops to Iraq

Roh has made no decision, but observers say a South Korean deployment could be repaid by U.S. flexibility vis-a-vis North Korea.

September 17, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — South Korea could send up to 10,000 combat troops to Iraq, among them highly trained special forces, in what would be the largest deployment by Seoul on behalf of the United States since the Vietnam War, according to sources here.

The United States has requested help in Iraq from other Asian allies as well, among them Japan, Pakistan and India. However, it is expected that South Korea, which has one of the largest and best-trained militaries of any U.S. ally, will contribute the largest number of troops.

"The logic is very simple. The United States sacrificed for us in the Korean War. We are allies and the U.S. strongly wants help in Iraq," said a South Korean official who asked not to be quoted by name.

The official said South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun was likely to support the deployment despite his often blunt criticism of the Iraq war. "He is very much a pragmatist," the official said.

Roh on Tuesday told reporters that no decision had been made.

The request for troops in Iraq, made this month, comes at a time when South Korea can ill afford to alienate the Bush administration. Seoul and Washington are grappling with several critical issues, ranging from North Korea's nuclear arms program to a proposed redeployment of U.S. troops stationed at the demilitarized zone between the Koreas.

If the South Koreans dispatch a substantial number of troops to Iraq, it could be with the understanding that the White House will support Seoul's call for a negotiated diplomatic solution to the North Korean crisis and be somewhat more flexible in dealing with that regime, sources said.

"There won't be a quid pro quo, but an understanding," said a South Korean with close ties to the government. He said that the South Korean special forces were well trained in riot control, civil disturbances and guerrilla infiltration techniques -- in keeping with South Korea's often turbulent history -- and that they would probably relieve U.S. troops in northern Iraq between Baghdad and Mosul.

"Our special forces are better trained than the [U.S. Army's] 3rd Infantry Division. They are exactly the kind of forces that the United States wants," the South Korean said. The nation is believed to have a total force of 665,000 soldiers.

The United States is seeking a United Nations resolution on Iraq that would authorize a multinational peacekeeping force under U.S. command to relieve some of the burdens on the 130,000 American troops in Iraq.

In addition to the Americans, there are more than 20,000 international troops, with the largest contingents from Britain, Australia and Poland. The South Koreans have about 700 army engineers and medics in Iraq, who were dispatched in May amid protests.

A poll published Wednesday by South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper found that 58.6% of the South Koreans surveyed would approve of sending combat troops if there was a U.N. resolution, while a solid majority would oppose the dispatch without a resolution.

"Allies help each other in need, and this is a case where the U.S. really needs help," said Lee Chung Min, who teaches international relations at Seoul's Yonsei University. "Ultimately, South Korea has no choice but to send troops, with or without a U.N. resolution. But if it is done under the U.N. banner, it will have the seal of approval from most Koreans."

The United States, fighting under a U.N. flag, intervened on South Korea's behalf in the 1950-53 war with North Korea. In appreciation of its ally, South Korea sent 60,000 troops to fight with the Americans in Vietnam.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul confirmed that the South Koreans had been asked for troops. "The message has been passed to the Koreans through official channels, and they have understood," she said.

Elsewhere in Asia, debates are raging about whether to help the United States in what is generally perceived as a mess of its own making. Japan has sent a fact-finding mission to Iraq to study the possibility of sending its forces to help with transportation and logistics, according to Koji Morito, a professor of international relations at Shizuoka Sangyo University.

"The government wants to send personnel on the pretext of aiding the democratization and reconstruction of Iraq, but this action would also be taken as reinforcement of the [U.S.] occupation," Morito said.

Polls show Japanese deeply divided on the question of sending forces to Iraq, with a small majority opposed.

The Indian government said Monday that it would not send troops without a U.N. mandate. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was quoted over the weekend saying that his country's soldiers could "only be involved for the welfare of the people of Iraq and that too [only] if they welcome our soldiers."

*

Rie Sasaki in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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