[Viewpoint] Why we send troops to AfghanistanSouth-Central Asia’s Silk Road, the crossroads of the continent and the focal point of the world’s oldest trade route, had taken ancient merchants, scholars, culture and soldiers from Asia to the Mediterranean Sea. The path to the south led to India, the one to the east lead to China, and to the north lay central Asia, home to nomadic tribes. In 330 B.C. Alexander the Great of Macedon raced through the region with his cavalry in his conquests in Persia and India. The area was reduced to a state of rubble by deadly Mongolian horseback archers led by Genghis Khan.
The harsh, inhospitable landlocked region borders China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. A melting pot of diverse races has been hardened by years of invasions and hardship. Into this land we plan to send 350 South Korean military troops in the summer to help rebuild Afghanistan.
The dispatch was approved by the National Assembly. Still, many Koreans may wonder why we need to send young soldiers to the harsh terrain in South Asia when we appear to have few ties to impoverished and war-ridden Afghanistan.
We can find the answer when we think back on our June 25 civil war 60 years ago. As the unprepared South Korean army was helplessly trying to defend the Nakdong River line, sending aides of President Syngman Rhee to discuss setting up a government in exile in Yamaguchi Prefecture in Japan, forces from 15 countries under the United Nations banner came to the rescue and helped to turn the tide of the war.
During the three-year war, 930,000 young men from 15 different countries fought for the lives of South Korean people and saved them from a communist takeover. To the families and countrymen of those young men, a small country in the far east of Asia would have seemed as distant and strange as Afghanistan is to us. South Korea then was a country taking baby steps as independent democratic state after a 35-year colonial rule by Japan.
Critics opposed to sending our troops to a terrorism-plagued land could sneer at the statistics of 54,000 deaths and numerous injuries among the total of 480,000 American soldiers who fought in the Korean War, saying that the U.S., which funded the war with $30 billion, considered the war their fight against communism.
Then how would they account for the deaths of 741 Turkish soldiers who fought to defend Korea’s freedom? New Zealand dispatched 3,800 men and lost 23. The Netherlands sent 3,500 and 120 were killed. Of 56,000 British soldiers, 1,078 died. Of of 26,000 Canadians, 312 perished. Some 100 of 7,400 Filipinos were casualties. The allies had sent thousands of their young men to the Korean battlefield to help uphold the universal values of freedom and peace.
Their sacrifice has made our society a rich and democratic nation during a year that marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. We can repay some of our debt to the international community by sending our troops to Afghanistan. Our per capita income was once as paltry as $67. Now it tops $20,000. Our gross domestic product was once $1.3 billion. It is expected to reach $1 trillion this year.
Noblesse oblige is the responsibility of a state as well as an individual. As a host country for G-20 summit, Korea has a duty to help the Afghan people fight poverty and war and rebuild their country.
But our venture in Afghanistan will end in a lost opportunity if we don’t repay old debts. We must generate greater value from our contribution. Only one out of 10 soldiers who wanted to go to Afghanistan were selected. These men together with 150 civilian aid workers of the Provincial Reconstruction Team should be encouraged to employ their expertise and language skills to become experts on the South Asian region. The gain to the country will be priceless if dozens of regional experts in diplomatic and corporate fields are born through this process.
As part of their training, they should be educated before their arrival on the country’s economics, history and culture, as well as conflicts involving other countries.
Their eyes will be opened to an entirely new world and their hearts inspired with a pioneering and enterprising spirit. Their experience in Afghanistan and South Asia will be invaluable to them as individuals as well as the country if they can use it to seed their future.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Young-hie