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Seoul to resend troops to Afghanistan

By LEE JONG-HEON, UPI Correspondent

SEOUL, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- South Korea has made a domestically unpopular decision to dispatch troops to Afghanistan in a bid to bolster its alliance with the United States, which plays the key role in deterring nuclear-armed North Korea.

The South Korean foreign ministry announced on Friday that South Korea would send more civilian aid workers to help rebuild war-torn Afghanistan and dispatch some 300 troops to protect them.

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Currently, 25 South Korean medical staff and vocational training experts are working at the U.S. Air Base in Bagram, north of Kabul, to support the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team. The government will send 100 to 130 more civilian aid workers to expand its role in the rehabilitation campaign.

"In an effort to more actively participate in the efforts, the government has decided to expand the PRT," the foreign ministry said in a statement. "The Afghan government has so far asked our government through various channels to expand support for the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan."

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Some 270 to 280 troops will be dispatched to protect the civilian aid workers, the ministry said. They may include highly trained troops, such as those from the Special Warfare Command or the Marines. They are expected to leave for Afghanistan early next year.

The ministry spokesman said the troops would not take part in combat operations.

"Our security troops will not take part in any battle other than protecting the aid workers," spokesman Moon Tae-young said at a news conference.

The decision was made amid public concerns that South Koreans could be targets of terror attacks over the troops dispatched to Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency is increasing its attacks. South Korea withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 2007 following a fatal hostage crisis.

In July 2007 a group of 23 traveling South Koreans were seized by Taliban militants who blasted Seoul's participation in the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan fighting against Taliban insurgents. Two of the hostages were killed before South Korea withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in December 2007, ending its six-year military presence.

In March, four South Korean tourists were killed and three others injured in what appeared to be a terrorist bomb attack in Yemen, where al-Qaida has a strong presence.

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In June 2004, a South Korean worker in Iraq was Killed by Islamic insurgents after Seoul refused to bow to their demands to pull its troops out of Iraq. South Korea sent 3,600 troops to Iraq in 2004 as the United States' second-largest coalition partner after Britain in the U.S.-led war against terrorism. It withdrew all troops last December.

South Korea's anti-U.S. civic groups have protested at the troop dispatch plan. They may use the dispatch to rekindle anti-American sentiment that swept the country years ago, which helped the election of anti-U.S. President Roh Moo-hyun.

The progressive opposition parties vowed to block the troop dispatch plan. The decision to dispatch troops is subject to parliamentary approval, but the bill is likely to be passed because the pro-U.S. ruling party dominates the National Assembly.

The troop dispatch decision is widely seen as a move to reciprocate Washington's pledge to step up its military forces to shield South Korea from North Korea's military threats. During his visit to Seoul last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates promised to provide conventional forces and missile defense on top of a nuclear umbrella to shield South Korea from North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.

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Under the nuclear umbrella, the United States could launch a nuclear strike on North Korea in case of an atomic attack. To bolster the nuclear umbrella, the United States will use its regional missile defense network, which can intercept projectiles from North Korea.

In addition, the United States will mobilize its military assets to their maximum capacity if needed to defend South Korea against North Korea.

Analysts say the troop dispatch decision will strengthen the alliance with the United States, which is vital to the security of South Korea facing off against the North's 1.2 million-strong armed forces, which possess nuclear and biochemical weapons and missiles.

"It is inevitable for South Korea to expand cooperation with the United States outside of the Korean peninsula to maintain close security ties with it on the peninsula," said Park Tae-gyun, a Seoul National University professor.

The Korean peninsula remains technically in a state of war, as the conflict ended without a peace treaty. The inter-Korean border area is a flash point with nearly 2 million troops stationed on both sides.

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