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April 1, 2003
 
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(Reuters Photo)
S.Korea's Roh Takes Gamble on Iraq Role

Reuters


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April 1

By Samuel Len

SEOUL (Reuters) - Taking a big political gamble just weeks into the job, President Roh Moo-hyun urged parliament on Wednesday to act in South Korea's national interest and back the dispatch of non-combat troops to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Roh's intention to send about 700 medical and engineering personnel to Iraq has touched off widespread protests in South Korea, but Roh said cementing close ties with Washington was key to securing peace on the divided Korean peninsula.

An opinion poll conducted by the presidential Blue House that was released on Wednesday showed the fine line Roh is walking.

The survey said 54.9 percent of South Koreans favored sending non-combat troops to Iraq but 86.3 percent were opposed to the war to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

South Korea is one of the United States' closest allies, but many of Roh's supporters, particularly young voters, chafe at the presence of 37,000 U.S. troops in the country.

The president himself, who took office on February 25, won election pledging a more mature and equal partnership with Washington.

In a speech to the single-chamber National Assembly, Roh acknowledged the case made by his opponents that the war against Iraq lacked moral justification. Global politics, he said, were being driven by the "forces of reality."

But Roh said South Korea could not ignore that its national interest lay in maintaining close ties with the United States because of the role it played in deterring communist North Korea. The estranged neighbors are still technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended without a peace treaty.

"It would be imprudent to make a decision that threatens the survival of our people in the name of an equal relationship with the United States," he said.

Opposition to the deployment of troops has prompted parliament to delay the vote on the issue several times. It is now expected later on Wednesday or Thursday.

One of the country's leading labor groups on Wednesday underlined its continuing opposition to Roh's policy.

"Dispatching Korean troops under the logic of 'helping an ally' or 'for national interests' is like helping a friend carry out a murder and sharing the spoils," the Federation of Korean Trade Unions said in a statement.

MISSILE THREATS

Conservatives have backed Roh's initiative, citing the need for U.S. help in defusing tensions generated by communist North Korea's suspected nuclear arms program, which the president said still posed a danger for the South.

South Korea is on high alert in case North Korea seeks to grab attention during the Iraq war by conducting a ballistic missile test that would break deals it reached with Washington and Tokyo.

Pyongyang set alarm bells ringing when it tested a ballistic missile in 1998 that flew across Japan and into the sea beyond, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said a new test was quite possible.

"I would not be surprised to see a test, particularly after the launch of the satellite," Armitage said in an interview with Japan's Yomiuiri Shimbun newspaper published on Wednesday.

Armitage was referring to the launch last week by Japan of two spy satellites giving Tokyo its first independent opportunity to scrutinize North Korea from space.

Pyongyang, which denounced that launch as a "hostile act" that could set off a regional arms race, is demanding bilateral security negotiations with the United States and has sought to sideline Seoul.

The United States wants multilateral talks, but Armitage said Washington would be flexible on the framework.

"We don't have a condition on the size of the table, or the shape of the table -- we just need to make it very clear that this is not a bilateral issue between the U.S. and North Korea, it affects many of the neighbors," he told the Yomiuri Shimbun.


photo credit and caption:
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun (below) speaks to lawmakers at the National Assembly in Seoul April 2, 2003. Roh urged parliament to back his plan to send non-combat troops to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, saying close ties with Washington were key to peace on the divided Korean peninsula. Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 
 
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