- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2003

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, defying a large weekend protest in the streets of Seoul, yesterday signaled that he would respond positively to the Bush administration’s request and send combat troops to Iraq.

Although Mr. Roh did not specifically refer to Iraq in remarks to senior U.S. military officers ahead of the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-South Korea military alliance, he said his country would contribute to international stability as an expression of gratitude for five decades of U.S. assistance.

“The South Korean people are well aware of getting consistent help in the past 50 years,” he said. “South Korea will be able to repay for the big help by contributing to world peace.”

Data from the U.S. Agency for International Development show that between 1946 and 2001 the United States provided nearly $15 billion worth of economic and military aid to South Korea.

Also, according to U.S. military officials in the South, in 2001, the presence of 37,000 American troops cost $2.77 billion, which includes military personnel, operations and maintenance, family housing operations, military construction and procurement.

Also yesterday, South Korean Finance Minister Kim Jin-pyo said he had advised Mr. Roh that troop participation in the U.S.-led operation in Iraq would benefit the South’s economy, because it would reassure investors that the alliance between Washington and Seoul is solid.

“Making a quick decision on the troops’ dispatch to Iraq will help the economy itself,” Mr. Kim told Parliament. “I have conveyed this view to the president in relevant conferences.”

A spokesman clarified later that Mr. Kim had expressed his personal view.

Mr. Roh is trying to balance allegiance to the United States, his country’s most important ally since the two fought alongside each other in the 1950-53 Korean War, and not alienating his electorate before a parliamentary election in April.

Yesterday, he left the Millennium Democratic Party, on whose ticket he won last year’s election, after the party rejected his choice for a state auditor. The party’s leadership, with whom Mr. Roh has been at odds for some time, called his decision to quit a “breach of the nation’s trust.”

Mr. Roh has yet to announce a decision on whether to send troops to Iraq, but South Korean officials and Western diplomats in Seoul say he is leaning toward granting Washington’s request.

Bush administration officials said they hope the response from Seoul, as well as other capitals, will be positive, but they declined to comment on specific countries before they make final decisions.

Mr. Roh has already encountered domestic opposition to sending troops to Iraq. On Saturday, more than 2,000 people marched through Seoul in the largest rally to date against the U.S. request.

“We are just preparing for our decision. We are carefully taking various factors into consideration. Nothing is yet decided,” Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan said yesterday. “We will have to weigh the cost and benefit of sending our troops to Iraq.”

South Korea sent a team of 700 engineering and medical troops to a U.S. base in the Iraqi town of Nasariyah in May.

So far, 31 countries have contributed to Iraq’s postwar reconstruction with military and other personnel on the ground, the State Department said yesterday.

Last week, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, during a visit to the United Nations in New York, pledged to dispatch troops to Iraq.

The final wave of Thailand’s contingent of specialists departed yesterday, completing the transfer of more than 400 personnel who will be based in the central city of Karbala.

“Two hundred and ten officers left today for the mission in Iraq. They are from the engineering division and medical teams,” said Army spokesman Col. Somkuan Saengpattaranetr.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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