South Korea has announced plans to send troops to Afghanistan to protect its civilian aid workers, two years after withdrawing its forces following a fatal hostage crisis.
The South Korean government intends to expand a reconstruction team now helping to rebuild Afghanistan and will dispatch police and troops to protect them, Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said on Friday.
The decision to dispatch troops is subject to approval in parliament, where the ruling Grand National Party has enough seats to guarantee passage.
The announcement comes about two years after South Korea withdrew some 200 army medics and engineers from Afghanistan. The pullout, though previously planned, followed a hostage standoff in which the Taliban killed two South Koreans after demanding that Seoul immediately withdraw its troops.
Moon stressed that the troops would not take part in combat operations.
“Our security troops will not take part in any battle other than” defending aid workers, he said.
The spokesman did not say how many troops will be sent or when, or how many more aid workers would be added to the current team of 25.
However, local media reports say the government is considering increasing the number of aid workers to 130, and plans to send about 300 troops. The troops likely will be deployed early next year, the reports said.
The U.S. State Department welcomed South Korea’s decision, saying in a release Friday that Washington considers Seoul “to be a vital partner” in efforts to address problems of global concerns.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai, also said in Brussels that the alliance “welcomes the South Korean intention to step up its support for Afghanistan.”
Many South Koreans oppose sending troops to Afghanistan because of the 2007 hostage crisis, which dominated headlines here for six weeks. The Taliban kidnapped 23 South Korean religious workers and killed two of them before freeing the others after Seoul promised to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.
The main opposition Democratic Party said it does not yet have an official position on the plan. Secretary—general Rep. Lee Mi—kyung voiced concern Friday that South Korean troops could come under attacks if redeployed to Afghanistan.
South Korea, a key U.S. ally, also dispatched troops to Iraq from 2003—2008, part of efforts to bolster its alliance with Washington.