[OUTLOOK]Troops to Iraq and U.S. tiesThe National Assembly’s decision on Feb. 13 to deploy 3,000 troops to Iraq was viewed with relief and gratitude in Washington, because it will contribute to improving U.S.-Korea relations. But many in Korea may not be satisfied with this decision, either because they oppose the War in Iraq altogether, or worse, they bear anti-American sentiments and oppose assistance to the United States. But these Koreans and others should consider all the reasons why deploying troops to Iraq directly serves the national interests of all Koreans.
Contributing troops to Iraq marks a new benchmark in Korean foreign policy by actively contributing to international security outside the Northeast Asian 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.
The deployment also provides an invaluable opportunity for the Korean military to test its training and capabilities in a coalition environment. Korea’s military has a worldwide reputation as one of the finest, but it has not tested its 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, bravery, and dedication of the Korean military.
In addition, Korea will be able to expand economic opportunities in Iraq and the region. Korea’s business leaders and economic analysts have already projected that rehabilitation and construction projects in Iraq could reach $85 billion in the next several years. Korea’s early presence in the reconstruction of Iraq puts its national firms in prime position to obtain Iraqi contracts.
Korea’s contribution to American efforts in Iraq also sends a strong and positive signal to American and other foreign investors who have reacted negatively in recent months to the perceived strain in the U.S.-Korea alliance relationship. Korea’s economic recovery and future growth is heavily dependent on attracting and maintaining foreign investments. This move will help to boost foreign confidence in the future of the Korean economy by confirming the ongoing strength of the bilateral relationship.
Furthermore, establishing a strong Korean presence in Iraq and the region will contribute to securing greater stability of energy supplies. Korea currently relies on the Middle East for more than 70 percent of its crude oil supplies, providing approximately half of its national energy requirements. By contributing to the security and stability in the region, South Korea is actively participating in securing important resources, rather than solely relying on the United States to do so. In effect, Korea is increasing its ability to exert independent international influence in the future.
The resounding vote of 155-50 in the Parliament supporting troop deployment to Iraq holds great political significance for Korea’s democratic system. It 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. Moreover, legislators should be lauded for overcoming bitter bipartisan bickering and vocal public opposition to the measure in order to act in the best interests of Korea. And to the international audience, this vote begins to redeem the loss of confidence in Korea’s political system, which is viewed as ineffectual, and in disarray due to stalemates over important legislation such as the Korea-Chile FTA.
Finally, contributing to U.S.-led efforts in Iraq boosts Korea’s military alliance and bilateral relationship with the United States, and establishes new parameters for continued cooperation in the future. The U.S.-Korea alliance has come under serious doubt in recent months due to perceptions of anti-Americanism in Korea. This move is a highly symbolic one for the United States, and is an important step in repairing any ill feelings caused by recent friction over alliance adjustments.
The U.S.-Korea 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. Americans remember well their sacrifice of 50,000 casualties in the Korean War, but often forget that Korea sent over 300,000 men to fight in the jungles of Vietnam, in support of the United States.
This most recent sacrifice by Korea is a significant step to ensuring that the bilateral alliance is still strong, resilient, and relevant. Americans should recognize and commend Korea’s contribution to securing international peace and security. Koreans should do their part by being proud of their decision to help rebuild Iraq.
* The writer is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
by Balbina Youngkyung Hwang