By Hwang Doo-hyong
WASHINGTON, Jan. 4 (Yonhap) -- Seoul's planned redeployment of troops to Afghanistan should be seen as in the country's national interest as the move will boost U.S. commitment to South Korea's defense, a U.S. scholar said Monday.
"The Lee Myung-bak administration has clearly grasped the negative implications of sitting on the sidelines in Afghanistan while simultaneously seeking constant but necessary reassurance from the U.S. that the defense of Korea remains a priority," Michael Finnegan, senior research associate at the National Bureau of Asian Research, said in the January, 2010 news letter of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation.
"They also clearly understand that Korea's own interests in global stability and security demand Korean contributions," Finnegan said.
South Korea announced late last year the plans to send a 140-strong Provincial Reconstruction Team to Afghanistan this summer, accompanied by about 320 troops for their protection.
South Korea withdrew more than 200 military medics and engineers from Afghanistan in 2007 after 23 South Korean Christian missionaries were held captive. Two of them were killed and the rest released after the Seoul government pledged to withdraw the troops by the end of that year.
"Arguably, one reason the Roh Moo-hyun administration decided to cut and run from Afghanistan in 2007 was that there was no sense of Korea's interest tied to the deployment," Finnegan said. "Instead, the deployed troops were perceived as simply being in Afghanistan to do something for the Alliance, i.e., for the Americans. There was no significant risk to Korea of pulling the plug on the deployment."
Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. Forecs in Korea, recently said that the U.S. does not have any immediate plans for redeployment of its troops in Korea to Afghanistan, Iraq or any other conflict regions, but added that Washington will eventually redeploy some troops in Korea to meet regional and global challenges.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan has said that increased aid to Afghanistan by South Korea is linked to the stable deployment of 28,500 U.S. troops in the Korean Peninsula, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Finnegan also argued that South Korea's Afghan mission will offer South Korean troops "an opportunity to hone their skills even further and develop still greater capacity for stability and reconstruction operations ... should instability arise in North Korea."
South Korean President Lee's decision to send troops to Afghanistan also "suggests that he has greater confidence in the political strength of his administration," Finnegan said. "This is significant and welcome news, given that it has taken time for the Lee administration to regain its footing after a succession of challenges regarding U.S. beef and the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the North Korean nuclear issue, and the economic crisis."
Lee's popularity rating has surged to over 50 percent in recent months as Korea's economy has recovered fastest among major economies hit by the worst recession in decades in late 2008 and growing signs of inter-Korean ties amid talks of a possible summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il this year.
Lee faced weeks of street rallies in early 2008, just months after he was inaugurated as his administration let in American beefs which opponents insist are susceptible to mad cow disease.
Finnegan hoped the deployment of Korean troops will greatly help the efforts by the U.S.-led alliance to stabilize Afghanistan where the Taliban insurgents are gaining strengths due partly to
the corruption of the U.S.-supported government in Kabul.
U.S. President Obama last month announced plans to send 30,000 more troops to the war-ravaged central Asian state early this year to bring the number of U.S. troops there to more than 100,000.
NATO and other U.S allies have also committed thousands of more troops to add to over 30,000 multinational forces already operating in Afghanistan in support of the U.S. effort against Al Queda and Taliban insurgents.
"The fact remains that the ROK military is one of the most capable and professional military forces in the world," the scholar said. "Its participation in almost any capacity will bring much needed capability and expertise to the multinational coalition attempting to build stability in Afghanistan and the region."
"The proposed deployment of some 500 civilians, police and military as a Provincial Reconstruction Team is a significant contribution, second only to the German PRT in size and capacity," he said.
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