Seoul has at last finalised a deployment of 3000 additional troops to the northern city of Arbil for early August, despite its own security concerns and the debunking of the alleged reasons for invasion.

The latest dispatch adds to the 660 army medics and engineers already stationed in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya since April 2003.

President Roh Moo-Hyun confirmed the new deployment on 18 June, four days before the decapitation of Kim Sun-Il - a translator employed by one of the 60 or so Korean firms in Iraq.

Unpopular occupation

In a nation where most citizens oppose the government's involvement with US-led occupation, public anger was not only directed at those who beheaded Kim but also on the long-standing US-South Korean alliance.

Many see the issue at the core of a tragedy which is polarising society.

"The truth is the Iraqi people don't want us there - it is that simple.
Yes, I blame ... George Bush for pressuring South Koreans to go against our will"

Park Eun-joo,
human rights activist

"This was not our war. We are there out of responsibility to our alliance with the United States," said a 28-year-old Park Eun-joo - a human rights activist demonstrating in the capital last Wednesday.

"But the truth is the Iraqi people don't want us there - it is that simple. Yes, I blame the militants for what happened [Kim's death]. But I also blame George Bush for pressuring South Koreans to go against our will."

Iraq and North Korea

Unlike other occupation forces involved in Iraq, South Korea's leaders have not focused on the war in moral terms.

Rather, the nation's participation has been presented as a necessary evil.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a government official told the United Press International on Monday that "a major factor behind our final decision [on deployment] is stability on the [Korean] peninsula".

Seoul determined to send troops
days before Kim Sun-Il's death

If South Korea sends troops, the government argues, the Bush administration is likely to moderate its "axis of evil" inflexibility in dealing with North Korea.

In other words, Korean soldiers must go to a war because of regional political considerations.

The strategy calls for more US efforts toward a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula in return for South Korean combat troops in the Gulf.
 
Criticising government policy

Critics, however, say the attempt to connect the Iraq issue to North Korea's nuclear programme may eventually destroy the 50-year-old alliance with the US.

Senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, Sook-Jong Lee, believes that is one of the core reasons for a growing anti-US sentiment.

"A significant number of South Koreans criticise the US for being preoccupied with its anti-terrorism and non-proliferation agendas without heeding its ally's desire for peace."

Korea's younger generations
increasingly reject US presence

According to Sook-Jong, many Koreans - particularly the younger generations - now condemn the Bush administration's policy of isolation and punishment towards their northern neighbour.
 
The inter-Korean rapprochement and subsequent "sunshine" policy since the July 2000 meeting between President Kim and Kim Jong-Il planted the perception of North Korea as a poor brother to be helped by the rich South.

"A new inter-Korean nationalism advocating rapprochement and reunification is on the rise," he added.

Balancing policies

But despite a growing youth movement opposed to the US presence in Korea, Seoul has never been in a position to refuse Washington's request for military support.

No South Korean government yet could afford to compromise on its need for US troop deployments, especially at a time when the US's military is possibly over-stretched.

Korean officials were only ever prepared to argue over how many soldiers it should send to Iraq, rather than if it should send troops at all.

"Isn't it difficult to accept the dispatch of our troops abroad in such an uncertain situation as we don't know how the six-party talks will go?"

Roh Moo-hyun,
South Korean president

Such a move, they argue, will satisfy the White House that South Korea is doing its part in Bush's War on Terror.

At the same time, the government is all too aware that relying solely on the US will disincline regional powers from entering a multilateral security framework.

In recent years, it has become clear that South Korea wants to promote a greater role for China and other regional powers on the Korean Peninsula. 

It was Seoul that encouraged China, Russia, the United States, Japan and the North to return to the negotiation table in 2003 and 2004.
 
"Isn't it difficult to accept the dispatch of our troops abroad in such an uncertain situation as we don't know how the six-party talks will go?" Roh asked in a meeting with journalists last year.

But he has had to authorise the deployment all the same.