South Korea troops in UAE signal global plan

BEIJING // When the first contingent of South Korean troops sets off for the UAE today, they will be part of a growing number of military personnel dispatched by Seoul worldwide.

The East Asian country has provided soldiers to UN peacekeeping missions worldwide, including supplying medical and engineering troops to Afghanistan from 2002. It also has participated in non-UN missions, including US-led military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and in multi-national anti-piracy manoeuvres off the coast of Somalia.

But the deployment of South Korean soldiers to the UAE represents the first time that Seoul has sent troops to a nation that is not at war or threatening to fall into one. An advance team of 10 troops arrives in the UAE this week, ahead of the main detachment in mid-January.

The willingness of South Korea to dispatch troops overseas and its desire to extend its diplomatic influence follow from decades of rapid economic growth since the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953, analysts say.

"South Korea, after establishing its credentials in economic development, is seeking to enhance its international status," said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University in Hong Kong.

With South Korea's cities playing host to major international events and its firms involved in large-scale construction projects abroad, experts say it is not surprising that the country's military is also expanding its global presence.

According to Mr Cheng, South Korea is following "a very typical pattern" of establishing itself as a developed nation and then making "an increasingly significant contribution to the international community".

"We saw the 1988 Seoul Olympics, followed by the World Expo, membership of the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] and tremendous efforts in holding the G20 summit recently," he said.

Seoul's deployments, he added, continue this trend, which "enhances its international profile and its contribution to the international community".

South Korea's national assembly approved the 130-troop, two-year deployment to the UAE earlier this month. It comes a year after a Korean-led consortium secured the US$20 billion (Dh73.47bn) contract to build four nuclear reactors for the UAE's civilian nuclear-power programme.

South Korea's defence minister, Chang Kwang-il, last month said the South Korean troops, who will be based in Al Ain, would not be involved in guarding the reactor construction sites. Rather, he said, their role was to "better train [UAE] special forces", including taking part in joint drills.

After a series of modestly sized overseas deployments in the 1990s, South Korea's first major foreign military involvement in the new century occurred when it sent about 200 troops to Afghanistan in 2002. They were withdrawn five years later after 23 South Korean Christian missionaries were held hostage and two of them were murdered. Officials insisted the pullout was set to occur before the kidnappings and murders took place.

This year South Korea returned to Afghanistan when the 320-strong Ashena unit was deployed in Parwan province north of Kabul to protect 100 civilian engineers and 40 police from its own provincial reconstruction team who are doing everything from providing medical assistance to building wells.

In Iraq, the commitment has been on a greater scale, with 600 troops, medical and engineering specialists, arriving in the south in April 2003 under the banner of the US-led coalition. The following year the country formed its Zaytun division - olive in Arabic - stationed in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Many in South Korea opposed sending any kind of troops to Iraq, In June 2004, a South Korean civilian translator in the country was kidnapped and subsequently murdered and Seoul refused to cancel a further deployment.

The size of South Korean force peaked at 3,600, making it the third-largest overseas Iraq deployment in 2005. Many were withdrawn during the ensuing two years, with the last leaving in December 2008.

South Korea's third major deployment of the decade, as part of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, began in mid-2007 and continues, with about 350 troops providing security and medical aid.

With 240 troops in Haiti assisting recovery efforts following the earthquake in January, there are now 643 South Korean UN peacekeepers on 11 missions around the world, up from a little more than 400 a year earlier, according to the government-affiliated Yonhap news agency. Small numbers of troops are based in East Timor, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

This ranks South Korea 32nd of 115 nations contributing UN peacekeepers, up from 39th a year earlier. The rank is likely to rise further, with the government reportedly looking to increase the total of peacekeeping forces to 1,000.

Speaking to Yonhap while in Seoul this month, Anthony Banbury, the UN assistant secretary general for field support, said South Korean troops were "highly professional" and well qualified for various roles such as reconnaissance and medical duties. He urged the country to do more.

"Given the capabilities ... and the size of the armed forces, the size of the economy here, we would hope that in the future, South Korea could increase its contribution to UN peacekeeping," he said.

Mr Banbury said Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in particular, would benefit from having South Korean peacekeepers.

The aim of the deployment to the UAE is "totally different" to previous operations overseas, said Jeong-Min Seo, a professor of Middle East politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

"To the UAE, it has another goal, to consolidate our comprehensive partnership relations with the UAE, so people should understand these very diverse goals," he said.

While the sending of troops to the UAE - South Korea's second largest oil supplier - generated opposition in Seoul from those who believe the country should keep its soldiers at home when tensions with North Korea are high, Mr Seo said overall the country's military benefits from overseas deployments, especially when peacekeeping.

"If we have real experience and real deployments in many parts of the world, it's important training for our troops," he said.

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