Next month, 3,000 South Korean troops will leave for Iraq. The mission will be to help in post-war reconstruction but the clear message will be Seoul putting it out for Washington in a strong show of support for South Korea's main ally and protector -- the US.
And the opportunity to show this loyalty -- after the Americans and the British, the Koreans will be the coalition's third-largest troop formation -- could not have come at a more crucial time in the wake of Washington's announcement that up to one-third of its 36,000-strong garrison in South Korea is to be withdrawn.
The US cutback, scheduled to be complete by 2006, is part of Washington's "global posture review." Already 3,600 personnel are preparing to leave for Iraq and although Seoul had expected a reduction, the speed and scale of the proposals have come as a surprise particularly as North Korea remains belligerent.
Ironically, many in the south blame US President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric and his administration's own belligerence for the worsening situation in the peninsula which, as recently as last week, saw Pyongyang threaten further nuclear testing.
The US military in South Korea forms the US' second-largest foreign garrison, after Germany, and most are posted close to the demilitarized zone, which has divided the two Koreas since the end of the Korean War. With the world's third-largest standing army on the other side of the zone, and the Americans talking withdrawal, the South Koreans are waking up to a new reality.
Cost, for one thing. The US has promised compensation with US$11 billion in military equipment, but a report earlier this month by a South Korean Ministry of Defense think tank has estimated the cost of filling the subsequent "security vacuum" -- following the proposed US troop reduction -- at US$180 billion over 20 years, which amounts to more than double current levels of military spending.
But at a deeper level, the South Koreans are perhaps rethinking their whole approach to the US with their historic anti-Americanism becoming less and less strident as they realize support for their old ally is the price they must pay for their continued security.
Speculation has been that Washington has finally had it with the strong and, until recently, unrelenting anti-Americanism running through South Korean society and that a petulant Pentagon has finally withdrawn its hand after getting it bitten once too often.
Lee Sung-hoon, a former South Korean defense minister, and many others, certainly believe this might be the case, in part at any rate. He and others see the Pentagon's new position as a response to the widespread anti-US feeling demonstrated by the South Korean public in recent years.
And here is the heart of the South Koreans' dilemma -- their love-hate relationship with the US. Seoul has put its troops where its mouth is. But a 100,000-name petition said South Korean soldiers should not be sent to the Middle East.
In a comment in the Korea Herald, Lee wrote diplomatically: "I would not deny that there are loud anti-American voices being raised among Korean people, but we should note that most Koreans show confidence in the United States and believe that the United States Forces in Korea ... are absolutely needed."
South Korean students stage political demonstrations across the country each summer. Until recently the issues were clear and consistent: reunification with North Korea and the removal of all US forces from the South. But the enemy is not so obvious any more. This year's "Yankee go home" shouts were much quieter.
"Maybe we won't be able to survive without America," explains Park Mi-sun, a student at Seoul National University and a committed marcher.
"If (the US troops) leave, it will be dangerous for us," she said.
Does she like America?
"No! But these days we must accept it," she said.
Even the decision to send South Korean troops to Iraq prompted only a meager march of around 2,500 students.
"We know it's right to dispatch the soldiers," says another student. "We need a good balance between the US and Korea."
Or, as Lee writes: "I believe that if we take faithful actions with regard to the US, they will understand the current situation of South Korea, their friend for more than 50 years."
South Korea is being held to ransom, and in a dangerous world this is increasingly seen as the price for protection. As an editorial in Chosun Ilbo, the South Korean national daily, put it: "If we could live without protection from a powerful, arrogant nation, we would do it."
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