— 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
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.
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
"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
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.
|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
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