Global Policy Forum

Public Pressure Grows Against Troop Deployment


By Ahn Mi-Young

Inter Press Service
June 23, 2004

Although the government announced that its decision to deploy 3,000 troops to Iraq is unlikely to be swayed by the beheading of a South Korean hostage, mounting public protests, however, could force it to cancel the deployment. In a scene similar to that of U.S. engineer Paul M. Johnson before he was beheaded by an al-Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia on Friday, images of the South Korean with his captors were also broadcast on television. Johnson was kidnapped in an escalating campaign of violence against westerners that aims to drive foreign workers from the Saudi kingdom.

In a video broadcast Sunday on Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera, Kim Sun-il cried in English, "Korean soldiers, please get out of here. I don't want to die. I don't want to die. I know that your life is important, but my life is important." Kim worked for a South Korean supplier to the American military and was abducted on Jun. 17 while making a delivery in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. His captors from Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad), the militant group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, threatened to behead him if Seoul did not cancel its plans by Tuesday to send troops to Iraq. The deadline passed and the beheaded body of the 33-year-old translator was found on the road between Baghdad and Falluja.

But South Korea's President Roh Moo-Hyun was adamant and said he will send more troops to Iraq despite the beheading. ‘'The South Korean plan to send troops to Iraq is not to engage in hostilities against Iraqis or other Arab people but to help reconstruction and restoration in Iraq,'' Roh said in brief, nationally televised speech Wednesday morning after news of the killing stunned the country. On Monday some 700 Koreans took to the capital's streets in a candlelight vigil, urging Kim's release and calling on the government to cancel the troop dispatch. More protests are planned this week.

A coalition of 365 civil organisations announced it would hold massive protests and candlelight vigils this weekend in central Seoul to force the government to reconsider its decision to send 3,000 troops to Iraq's Arbil area in early August. The coalition also wants the South Korean president to order the pull back of 660 medics and engineers already in Iraq. ''We are shocked by the government's senseless response to the threat. At a time when we must spare every word to keep Kim alive, the government was helping to put him at an even greater risk,'' Chung Dae-Yon from the group Contingency People's Action, told IPS. ''If Kim is killed, his death would be seen as a murder by President Roh Moo-Hyun's government,'' said Chung before the news of the beheading.

Opinion polls Monday by the major Internet portal Daum showed more than 70 percent of the 15,351 respondents opposed sending troops to post-war Iraq after hearing news of the abduction. The polls are expected to be higher after the president's comment following Kim's killing. Like their neighbour Japan, South Koreans, too, feel they are now targeted because of their government's support for the United States' so-called war on terror after the tragic events of Sep. 11, 2001.

In Tokyo, public scepticism seems to be growing daily over the deployment of Japanese troops to Iraq as violence there surges, in some cases involving Japanese. Public support for Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government this month fell 14 percentage points to 40 percent because of unease over Tokyo's plans for at least 600 Self- Defense Forces to join a United Nations multinational force in Iraq, the 'Asahi' newspaper said Tuesday citing its own survey. ''We, the South Korean people are standing at a door towards hell -- a door that the U.S. administration of President George Bush has opened,'' said the statement of the 365 civil organisations. Added the statement: ''We know the Iraqi people are suffering under the occupation of U.S. soldiers who abuse human rights there. That's why we are trying to halt the government from sending troops there.''

But at the heart of the matter is South Korea's relationship with the United States. Seoul is very keen to strengthen its relationship with the U.S., thereby winning more support from Washington for a peaceful end to a long-running dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons development. ''And so Seoul is very much aware that its relationship with Washington is crucial at the moment,'' a security analyst told IPS. ''And if Washington needs its help with Iraq, then Seoul is willing to help it out, if indeed Washington then helps Seoul with North Korea,'' said the analyst.

When the deployment of the 3,000 troops is complete, South Korea will be biggest coalition partner in Iraq after the United States and Britain. While politicians are united in seeking measures to save Kim, they are divided on whether the government should reconsider the dispatch plan. A total of 32 lawmakers -- 18 from the ruling Uri Party, 10 from the Democratic Labor Party and four from the Grand National Party -- signed a draft resolution requesting suspension of the troop deployment. ''South Korea is the only nation in the world that wants to dispatch such large numbers of troops to a war that is generally seen as without a cause,'' said Kim Won-Woong, a Uri Party lawmaker.

''Being the largest foreign troop in Iraq to help the U.S. and Britain would put South Korean soldiers and the people at home at grave danger from attacks by militant groups,'' the lawmaker told IPS. ''If the U.S. and South Korea are true friends, then one of them should be able to say 'No', if they have to.''

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