[OUTLOOK]Zaytun fighting for others to profitAs a member of the advisory group for the military’s human development, I had the chance to visit the South Korean Zaytun Unit serving in Iraq. They were doing a great job. Their encampment stood imposingly in the vast land, and some 3,000 soldiers were buoyed with spirit, obvious to the observers. I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, as my travel companions all agreed with me. Our hearts swelled with pride in seeing how gallant our young South Korean soldiers were during their tour in Iraq.
In particular, watching the soldiers play and sing together with kids from villages near Irbil in so-called “civil operations” was rather touching.
We, however, should not be the ones patting our own backs. Others must agree with us, so I set out to find how the Irbil residents were receiving the South Korean Zaytun forces. Fortunately, I had a chance to do that as our tour of the Zaytun quarters included meeting several of the local Kurdish leaders. We held discussions at the Saladin University located in downtown Irbil and were invited to the prime minister’s official residence for a sumptuous dinner. The popularity of the Zaytun forces soared. At the same time, I could not shake off a certain sense of confusion. It was a confusion that stemmed from not quite knowing the true identity of the Kurdish people or the relationship between the Kurdish government and the central government in Baghdad.
The ministers added to my confusion by sometimes referring to their government as Iraq and sometimes as Kurdistan. There was a separation between the prime minister and cabinet, and I could not see one Iraqi flag flying anywhere in the region. What was clear, however, was that Irbil was a far more independent region than we had understood. And from Irbil, the Kurds exercised a high level of political and economic autonomy. Our discussions with the local leaders flowed relatively freely and they did not hesitate to ask even hard questions of us.
Mohammed Ishan, the Kurdish minister for human rights who is known as an powerful insider, lashed out at the South Korean government. “This is Irbil, not Iraq. It is safe here. And we have much oil. Foreign companies are coming to invest, but I don’t know why the South Korean government bars corporate investment here. It’s difficult for me to understand why South Korea, which sends its Zaytun forces to secure safety here, would bar its companies from making entry.” It was frustrating because South Korea, more than anyone else, should know that the dangerous place is Baghdad, not Irbil. I asked Chung Seung-jo, commander of the Zaytun Division forces if what the minister said was true and he confirmed it. Since the death of Kim Sun-il, South Koreans have basically been barred from traveling throughout Iraq.
Karim Sanjari, the Kurdish interior minister, comparing cases of terror strikes in Irbil with tallies from London and Paris, asked if we still thought Irbil a more dangerous place. The young Prime Minister Massoud Barzani was much more frank. “Till now, Norway, China and Turkey have clinched huge investment opportunities. We would give priority to South Koreans if they would only come.” He jokingly added that “Maybe we should name Chung Seung-jo as the Kurdish ambassador to South Korea,” starting the entire room roaring with laughter.
With the local response this ardent, I think it’s safe to say that the Zaytun Unit’s “civil operations” are a whopping success. We confirmed this through the words of high-level Kurdish officials.
This is where the Zaytun Unit’s dilemma lies. They would like to ask the government what is the use of securing the safety of Irbil by putting their lives at stake? In Irbil, other countries’ companies enjoy the safety they have provided, while in Seoul, public opinion calling for withdrawal or reduction of the Zaytun Unit gains strength.
One lieutenant-colonel put it this way: “I am a soldier, and therefore I don’t know much about politics. Even if we came here because the United States asked us to, are we going to let our efforts be foiled like this? In this energy-rich region, shouldn’t we volunteer to set up a military encampment?” He aired his lack of patience with the shortsightedness of his high-level compatriots back in Seoul as he looked down on the Zaytun Unit’s quarters that lay in the scenic desert.
* The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Magazine. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Chang-kyu