The Cabinet on Tuesday approved a bill on sending up to 150 combat troops to the United Arab Emirates in January for a two-year mission to help train the Middle East country’s special forces.
In a meeting presided over by Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, the Cabinet members endorsed the troop dispatch, which Seoul officials say will promote national interests and further boost military and economic ties with the oil-rich country.
The dispatch, which requires parliamentary approval, is likely to face controversy at the National Assembly as the main opposition Democratic Party has vowed to vote against it. The DP says that it will agree only to overseas dispatches for peacekeeping operations, and that the troops could become a target for terrorists in the region.
The DP holds 87 seats in the 299-member legislature while the ruling Grand National Party controls the majority of 171 seats.
The UAE requested the troop dispatch in August, expressing hope that it wants to train world-class special warfare troops with assistance from South Korea.
After the landmark $20 billion nuclear power plant deal, which South Korea clinched last December, the bilateral relationship was elevated to a “strategic partnership.” The UAE has since requested expanded military cooperation with Seoul, which is “commensurate with the upgraded ties,” officials explained.
The primary roles for the contingent will be helping educate and train UAE special forces, engaging in combined exercises and protecting South Korean citizens in case of emergencies, officials said.
The contingent will not take the role of protecting South Korean workers who will begin construction of the nuclear power plant project early next year, officials at the Ministry of National Defense said.
During his meeting with editorial writers from local media companies, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said that aside from the combat troops, the ministry is also seeking to send military retirees to the UAE.
According to sources, the UAE said that it hopes to hire 48 military retirees with experience in areas such as the operation of UH-60 helicopters and the management of military supplies and military training, and 22 civilians with medical expertise.
Since inking an agreement with the UAE, the state-run Human Resources Development Service has been proceeding with the recruitment process, officials said.
The Korean contingent will be located within the UAE special warfare school in Al Ain, where military officials say there is “no danger of any military conflict.” It will use the on-site garrison facilities and training range, which will be offered for free by the UAE.
The ministry plans to dispatch the contingent until December 2012. If necessary, the dispatch period can be extended, officials said. The troops’ rotation cycle will be four to six months. The ministry tentatively estimates a budget of some 14 billion won ($12.5 million) for the first year of the troop dispatch and 8 billion won for the next year.
Currently, some 2,800 troops from nine countries, including some 1,600 from the U.S., 500 from France and 400 from Australia, are stationed in the UAE.
The Cabinet also approved a bill on extending the dispatch period for the Cheonghae unit by one year until the end of next year. The unit was deployed in March 2009 to join an international anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast.
By Song Sang-ho