S. Korea Commits Forces to Lebanon, Promises Iraq Troop Reduction

South Korea's government will contribute forces to international peacekeeping efforts in Lebanon, as it plans for a drawdown of the country's military contribution to U.S.-led stabilization efforts in Iraq. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, the moves reflect shifting political situations both inside and outside South Korea.

The South Korean government confirmed Tuesday it plans to dispatch about 400 military personnel, including 270 combat soldiers, to join international peacekeeping efforts in Lebanon.

The United Nations is expanding its peacekeeping force in Lebanon to about 15,000 troops to monitor the ceasefire that ended a month of fighting in July between the Hezbollah Islamic militants and the Israelis.

South Korean authorities also said Tuesday they will extend its troop deployment in Iraq for a year, but will reduce the force there. The government gave no official figures, but news media have reported for several days that troop levels would fall by about 1200, leaving about 1100 troops there. Seoul originally sent 3600 soldiers to Iraq in 2004.

The Iraq force reduction is to be submitted to lawmakers in the coming days as part of legislation on extending South Korea's participation in Iraq stabilization efforts. It will be the second reduction in two years.

Although South Korean personnel serve in a non-combat capacity in Iraq's relatively peaceful, predominantly Kurdish north, there is considerable domestic opposition to the deployment.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has supported it - over his own party's objections - to bolster Seoul's alliance with Washington, which has experienced strain over other issues, such as dealing with North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

International relations Professor Kim Byoung-ki at Seoul's Korea University says Mr. Roh may not have the luxury of going against the party any longer.

"Because the president has one year left in office, it would be extremely difficult for him to maintain the level of troop commitment," the professor said. "And I think the ruling party is putting pressure on the executive branch to withdraw."

President Roh and his Uri party have plummeted to record low public approval ratings, mainly over economic issues. Recent polls suggest only 11 percent of South Koreans believe Mr. Roh's presidency is successful, while less than nine percent back the Uri party.

Kim says rising demands in the United States for President Bush to develop a strategy to leave Iraq are playing a role here in South Korea.

"The perception among the people is that South Korean forces need to be part of the exit strategy … the general public perception is that there is going to be something different about Iraq," Kim said.

Kim and other analysts say even though Seoul's troop reduction may disappoint the Bush administration, the country's commitment to Lebanon sends a powerful signal of support for Middle East peace.