South Korea's Secret War
Image Credit: Anja Johnson

South Korea's Secret War

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More than half a century since the end of the Korean War and the beginning of a long period of relative military isolation, South Korea is gradually, and quietly, playing a larger role in world security.

Despite strong US support, South Korea’s rise as a military power is complicated by domestic politics, and by a belligerent North Korea. To avoid provoking foreign and domestic opposition, Seoul has cleverly disguised its newest overseas military operation as a strictly peaceful affair.

Despite a technologically advanced military and a gross domestic product just shy of $1 trillion, making it the world’s 15th wealthiest country, the Republic of Korea has rarely deployed troops outside its borders. Granted, more than 300,000 South Koreans fought in the Vietnam War, and about 5,000 died. But it wasn’t until 1999, when Seoul sent 400 soldiers to boost a UN force trying to stabilize East Timor, that the country of 49 million participated in an overseas military campaign.

South Korean medics and engineers joined the US-led coalitions in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003. The Afghan mission was curtailed after the Taliban kidnapped a South Korean church group in Afghanistan and murdered 2 of its 23 members. The extremists released the surviving captives when Seoul promised to stick to a planned withdrawal by the end of 2007; the departing South Koreans left behind only a small civilian-run hospital at Bagram Air Field, outside Kabul. The Iraqi mission ended peacefully in 2008. That year, Seoul also sent a warship to patrol Somali waters for pirates.

But it was a second deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 that marked South Korea’s true debut as a military power. In response to US President Barak Obama’s call for a bigger international coalition in Afghanistan, Seoul last year pledged a Provincial Reconstruction Team and a powerful infantry force to accompany the team—a total of around 500 troops.

South Korea also plans to send helicopters to support these ground troops. The aircraft, scheduled to arrive this year, will integrate into the US Army’s 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade based at Bagram, according to brigade commander Colonel Don Galli.

Engineering and reconstruction are core strengths of the Korean military. But the planned Afghan PRT represents a ‘face-saving vehicle’ for Seoul, providing political cover for the combat force, according to Scott Snyder, an analyst with the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation. While South Korea is committed to making a meaningful contribution to the Afghan war, sending fighting troops ‘is somewhat sensitive in the South Korea political context,’ Snyder told The Diplomat magazine. Hence the ‘reconstruction’ rubric.

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