[Viewpoint]Korea’s duty in peacekeepingIn 1999, East Timor was swept in a wave of atrocities and massacres. More than 1,000 people were killed as a war raged for independence from Indonesian occupation. Hardly anyone remembers today that the United Nations observers there at that time were forced to make a desperate choice.
An urgent situation, similar to the one depicted in the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” began there on Sept. 4 that year, when the result of a referendum on independence for East Timor was announced. As soon as the announcement was made, an armed militia opposed to the separation started ruthlessly attacking locals. About 2,000 terrified refugees rushed into the compound housing the UN observers. Blood thirsty militiamen surrounded the building and laid siege, threatening to attack the observers’ headquarters at any moment.
Forced into the worst possible situation, the UN observers had no choice but to take shelter. Reportedly some Koreans in the contingent were asked whether they would like to stay with the refugees. One member of the UN staff recalled that they all left, saying, “Sorry, we have family back home.’”
However, other observers, especially those from northern Europe, responded differently. Many stayed behind. Strangely, their reason for staying behind was the same. It was also “because of their families back home.” To a man, they said, “What would my children think if I left these people in such danger?”
In retrospect, Koreans seem less inclined to take on danger for other people. After the Vietnam War, Korean troops were dispatched to many foreign lands as a part of UN forces, wearing the blue helmet of multinational peacekeepers.
Korean troops have been dispatched to nine countries — Angola, Afghanistan and Iraq among them.
Whenever the government has decided to dispatch Korean soldiers abroad, it has given first priority to the troops’ safety. Therefore, until recently, engineering and medical units were the main forces of the Korean contingents. Even when an infantry unit is dispatched, the troops only stay in safe zones as they do in Irbil in Iraq.
Although the total number of soldiers dispatched abroad in the past 17 years has reached 28,000, no one has been killed in action due to this policy. A soldier on duty at the main gate of a Korean base in Afghanistan was killed by a terrorist bomb in February last year. Besides him, seven others lost their lives, not in combat, but in accidents. Colonel Park Hyung-jin died in a helicopter crash in Nepal; one soldier drowned in Georgia in 1995; and five others drowned in East Timor in 2003. Korea has been able to boast about troop dispatches overseas while saving the precious lives of Korean troops.
Canada’s contribution to international peacekeeping bears comparison with Korea. Since 2002, about 80 Canadian soldiers deployed in Afghanistan have lost their lives. But the Canadian Parliament last month passed, by a vote of 198 to 77, a bill extending the period of deployment of about 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan. The Canadian government was of the opinion that “the final goal of a peace settlement has not yet been achieved.”
Last year, I visited Darfur, Sudan, which has seen the worst case of genocidal massacres in the 21st century. It is considered a “killing field” where more than 200,000 people have perished in deadly conflict in the past five years. The country and its people have been thrown backward in time; even the killing methods are primitive. The latest weapon there was a helicopter. After learning that a huge number of people were killed under such circumstances, I thought to myself: “Such massacres could have been prevented if even one Korean military unit had been dispatched here.”
The issue of Korean troops’ dispatch overseas is looming as a topic of debate again. It is reported that Kathleen Stephens, recently designated United States ambassador to Korea, who is known for her affection for our country, has suggested the possibility of seeking deployment of Korean troops in Afghanistan again. In response, there are people who shout out that we should stop helping the United States, which started an unjustifiable war in Iraq. There is a point in their assertion.
However, there is something we should not forget. We must remember that peacekeeping activities are basically for humanitarian purposes to aid local people. Whether helping the sick or keeping law and order, such an act is holy in itself. On top of that, peacekeeping activities can be a precious experience for a divided nation like Korea. Who is going to keep law and order in the North after unification?
Korea is the world’s 12th or 13th largest economic power in the world. However, Korea’s record of contribution to UN peacekeeping missions is very poor. Today there are about 109,000 soldiers from many countries in UN peacekeeping operations, but only 404 of them are Korean. Isn’t it hypocritical to wish for acknowledgement on the international stage despite this? Korea owes its survival to the sacrifices of UN forces defending it.
*The writer is the New York correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nam Jung-ho