Wed, Oct 01, 2003 - Page 5 News List

South Korea celebrates alliance with US

REUTERS , SEOUL

US Korean War veterans in Seoul participate in a ceremony yesterday commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the mutual defense treaty between South Korea and the US.

PHOTO: AP

The US and South Korea marked the 50th anniversary of their military alliance yesterday, praising their joint deterrence of the North but unsure whether Seoul will send troops to Iraq as Washington has sought.

The US -- which has 37,000 troops in the South to help ward off a communist attack -- has asked South Korea for combat troops to help stabilize post-war Iraq. A South Korean newspaper has quoted a US official as saying Washington would like 5,000 troops and a decision by mid-October.

Artillery salutes reverberated around Seoul from the main US base at Yongsan in the heart of the capital and soldiers of both armed forces marched past dignitaries and 200 US and South Korean veterans of the 1950-53 Korean War.

"The mutual defense treaty and the strength of our partnership have successfully deterred North Korea and guaranteed the stability necessary for [South] Korea to rebuild," US Ambassador Thomas Hubbard said in a speech at the ceremony to mark the Oct. 1, 1953, signing of the military pact.

"Today, [South] Koreans are rightly proud of what they have built. They look at their economic and military strength and draw the inevitable conclusion that the South has effectively won the race on the peninsula," he said.

South Korean Defense Minster Cho Young-kil also praised the alliance's deterrent role but, like Hubbard, noted that it needed to be adapted to new challenges and technological advances.

"We cannot be satisfied with the current alliance. We have an important task ahead of us," said Cho.

Hubbard noted that Seoul had peacekeepers deployed in East Timor and non-combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the country's growing role in world affairs.

Asked later whether Seoul could say "no" to the latest US troop request given their alliance, Hubbard told reporters: "South Korea is one of those nations that has a strong military capability and has a very large army, so we think it is appropriate that South Korea considers how it might help."

"Obviously any decision on this is one that only the South Korean government and people can make," he said.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun told senior US military officers at dinner on Monday that his country could repay the US for its help over the past half-century by contributing to global peace. But he did not commit himself on the Iraq request.

Roh is caught between turning down his main ally and alienating the public before an April parliamentary election.

The government has said it is studying Washington's request.

Finance Minister Kim Jin-pyo said on Monday that the deployment of additional South Korean troops to Iraq would aid South Korea's economy by reassuring investors who are worried about any discord between the two over dealing with North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

UN forces led by the US battled Chinese-backed North Korea in the Korean War, which ended in a truce that has since kept the two in a technical state of war.

North Korea used the anniversary of the treaty as an occasion to renew its call for a non-aggression pact with Washington.

Hubbard said that despite changes in the South, the threat from the North was undiminished and the alliance was crucial.

"Even as we pursue multilateral diplomacy to resolve the North Korea nuclear problem ... our two countries must continue to maintain our strong combined deterrent," he said.

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