- Mar 21, 2009
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.