Over thereDuring the time of King Heonduck (809-826 A.D.) in the Unified Shilla period, we sent troops to another country for the first time in history. Despite pressures from the outside, the dispatch of Korean troops to other countries occurred three times during the Goryeo and Joseon eras, according to the book containing the pertinent historical records.
The Joseon Dynasty saw the emergence of the idea of security diplomacy. During the time of King Gwanghae, the Ming Dynasty demanded that troops from Korea strike a burgeoning hegemon in Northeast Asia called the Later Jin. King Gwanghae adopted a pragmatic neutrality. He secretly ordered the general who led 13,000 troops to decide which state to ally with in the course of the war. The next king, however, who took the crown after overthrowing Gwanghae, turned clearly in favor of the Ming Dynasty ― only to suffer the humiliation of defeat in war by the state of Jin, which became the Qing Dynasty.
The Vietnam War changed the horizons of the dispatch of troops. It not only gave Korea the cause of anti-communism, but many other practical benefits, such as consolidating its alliance with the United States and bringing huge profits from war supplies to Vietnam. The Institute of Military History of the Ministry of Defense says the direct and indirect economic benefits of the war came to more than an estimated $5 billion. Indeed, the Korean economy developed at a dazzling speed in the 1960s and 1970s. In the year 1964, our GDP per capita was $103, while North Korea had $153. Yet a decade later, in 1973, it leapt to $396, surpassing North Korea’s $348. Around that time, Koreans saw the birth of the black-and-white television set, the radio, the sewing machine and C-rations (also known as combat rations) given to the U.S. troops.
Korean troops joined the war for six months, starting in September 1964. Of 320,000 soldiers who were sent to Vietnam, 5,059 died or were killed in action and 110,000 were injured. Some called the Korean soldiers mercenaries who participated in a dirty war.
Due to this background, sending troops to another country is a highly sensitive political issue. The issue of extending our troops’ stay in Iraq has become a big political issue. It is about stationing the 650 non-combatant soldiers for one more year. Korea ranks 13th in economic power and eighth or ninth in military power worldwide. Yet our troop dispatches overseas had been only to a total of 1,800 soldiers in 13 countries. We should establish a social consensus on this matter, which goes hand-in-hand with our claim that we are a global Korea.
The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Yang-soo [firstname.lastname@example.org]