After several months of delay, on February 13th, the South Korean Parliament approved a plan to deploy 3,000 troops to Iraq. The troop dispatch, approved in a resounding 155-50 vote, will add a strong combat force to the 465 Korean military medics and engineers who have been in Iraq since May 2003. This deployment is evidence that the U.S.-ROK alliance remains strong.
A Significant Deployment
This additional contingent of 1,400 combat Marines and Special Forces commandos and 1,600 military engineers and medics will be responsible for security and reconstruction in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The troops are expected to arrive in April and will allow the United States to withdraw some of its173rd Airborne Division. This deployment, expected to cost Korea approximately $200 million, will make South Korea the third-largest contributor to coalition forces after the United States and Great Britain.
This will be South Korea's largest troops dispatch since the Vietnam War, when Korea sent more than 300,000 men over a twelve-year period, forming the second largest army fighting in Vietnam.
South Korea's decision to dispatch troops to Iraq is highly significant, not just for Korea, but for the United States and the U.S.-ROK (Republic of Korea) alliance. The United States should laud Korea's political leadership for overcoming bitter bipartisan bickering and vocal public opposition to the measure. Indeed, this was an important political victory for President Roh Moo Hyun, whose leadership has been tested in recent months by waning public support and an antagonistic legislature.
The United States should also recognize and give due credit to the South Korean government for making a politically difficult decision, albeit one that serves Korea's national interests. These include:
- Boosting South Korea's military alliance and bilateral relationship with the United States and establishing new parameters for continued cooperation in the future. The U.S.-ROK alliance has come under serious doubt in recent months due to perception of anti-Americanism in Korea. South Korea's contribution to U.S.-led efforts in Iraq is an important sign of support for America.
- Providing an invaluable opportunity for the ROK military to test their training and capabilities in a coalition environment. The South Korean military has a worldwide reputation as one of the finest militaries and, yet, they have not tested their capabilities in a combat environment since the Vietnam war. The fact that over 18,000 army personnel volunteered to serve in Iraq shows the commitment and dedication of the ROK military.
- Setting a new benchmark in Korean foreign policy by actively contributing to international security outside the Northeast Asia region in the post-Cold war era. As the 12th largest economy in the world with a significant commercial presence around the world, South Korea should do more to contribute to the peace and security of the international community, commensurate with its economic status.
- Establishing a strong presence in Iraq and the region, which will contribute to securing greater stability of energy supplies. South Korearelies on the Middle East for more than 70 percent of its crude oil supplies, which provide approximately half of its national energy requirements. By contributing to security and stability in the region, South Korea is actively participating in securing resources, rather than solely relying on the United States to do so.
An Enduring Alliance
The U.S.-ROK alliance, born a half-century ago out of necessity to defend the interests of both the United States and South Korea, has endured due to sacrifices and contributions made by both allies. This most recent contribution by South Korea is a significant step to ensuring that the alliance is still strong, resilient, and relevant. America should commend South Korea for its unwavering commitment to securing international peace and security.
Balbina Y. Hwang is a policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.