Korean troops garner wide support from locals through various programs
Although he has to treat scores of patients in Haiti each day, Army surgeon Capt. Park Hae-bong never tires from his crucial mission to heal not only their bodies but also their minds, scarred in the aftermath of the earthquakes in January 2010.
It has been only about two months since he left behind his 22-month-old son and pregnant wife in Korea to join the “Danbi (long-awaited rain) Unit” in Leogane, one of the hard-hit regions of the Caribbean state.
But he already feels at home thanks to widespread support from local residents for the 240-strong contingent that has played a key role in the multinational reconstruction efforts despite the sweltering heat, and poor security and hygiene conditions.
“I feel most rewarded when local people who I once treated came back with healthy looks,” Park told The Korea Herald in a written interview.
“I will try my utmost to treat their scars not only in their bodies but also in their hearts so that our hospital can help them find strength to get through it all.”
At the vanguard of such “military diplomacy” are some 1,450 South Korean troops operating in 15 countries for reconstruction, armistice-monitoring and other peace-keeping missions.
From 2007-2010, Seoul spent nearly 240 billion won ($208 million) to run the four major contingents in Lebanon, Haiti, Afghanistan and off the coast of Somalia.
“We were able to achieve the economic miracle of rising from the ashes of the Korean War as those from foreign soil braved life-threatening situations here and made sacrifices to help us,” Lim Gwan-bin, deputy minister for policy at the Defense Ministry, told The Korea Herald.
“Now that our nation has morphed into a donor state from a recipient of international aid, it is our natural responsibility to join efforts to tackle global issues as a responsible member of the international society.”
Since it was first deployed to Lebanon in July 2007, the Dongmyeong (East Light) Unit has won wide support from locals in the Middle East nation through a variety of programs that offers medical, educational and cultural services.
The 359-strong contingent is now operating as part of the U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon to oversee a cease-fire between the country and Israel.
Located in the city of Tyre, southern Lebanon, the unit has also promoted Korean culture and society to enhance public understanding of South Korea.
“It would be appropriate to call this southern Lebanon a ‘stabilized region.’ This was possible as our monitoring and surveillance missions have laid the groundwork for that, and our various civil activities have garnered wide backing from locals,” said Col. Kim Tae-up, who has led the unit since last November.
For the last four years, the unit has run a “Welfare Life Up” program aimed at enhancing the quality of life for locals. It includes medical services and education on Korean language, taekwondo and computers.
Army Chaplain Capt. Kim Soon-kyu of the Dongmyeong unit in Lebanon poses for a photo with local students on his visit to a school in March for an “Inviting Korea” event to promote Korean culture. (JCS)
Through this and other civilian support programs, the unit has been touted as a role model for the U.N. peacekeeping troops, Kim said.
In August, the unit has designated renowned Lebanese pop opera signer Tania Kassis and Miss Lebanon Rahaf Abdullah as honorary publicity ambassadors to promote Korea.
Kassis has recently appeared in four major broadcasters to introduce Korea. Abdullah appeared in a program to introduce Taekwondo, which was broadcast across the entire Middle East region by O-TV.
“We will continue our efforts to introduce our nation and our unit to the locals as well as opinion leaders here,” Kim said, showing his keen intention to put his unit at the forefront of military diplomacy.
Another unit, which has gained much respect from Koreans, is the Cheonghae Unit, a contingent operating as part of the international anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast.
The 304-member contingent was first deployed there in March 2009 to help protect vessels passing near Somalia with a coastline facing one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
The unit of naval commandos first came into the limelight after its audacious mission to rescue South Korea’s 11,500-ton chemical freighter Samho Jewelry and its 21 crew members from Somali pirates early this year.
“Here, we have shown our strong Navy capable of operating in all parts of the world through perfectly safeguarding Korean commercial vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden,” Capt. Jung Dae-man said.
“Our troop morale is very high as they believe their active military diplomacy has helped enhance our national prestige. We will focus more efforts on our mission here so that pirates would never dare to threaten lives and properties of our nationals.”
Despite such a high morale, their missions against pirates employing smart tactics are quite challenging.
“It is really hard to distinguish between fishers and pirates as they first disguise themselves as fishers and suddenly reveal their identities. They have also been bolder in their recent piracy activities as they disregard our warning shots and run away,” Jung said.
“Thus, we always ensure the highest readiness posture and established all necessary protective equipment to safeguard our sailors.”
Public concerns here have sharply risen recently over the safety of the 350-strong Ashena unit as 10 rocket attacks have taken place this year, apparently targeting its base in Charikar City in the northern Afghan province of Parwan.
Ashena means “friend or fellow” in a local language.
No damage has been inflicted on the troops, but unit chief Col. Kim Mu-soo and his soldiers have beefed up their vigilance, putting the top priority on their safety.
“Though Parwan is seen as safer than other regions, attacks have continued. Prioritizing troop safety, we have installed security structures such as barbed wires, sand bags and other protective equipment along with high-tech surveillance tools such as closed circuit televisions and unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Kim.
“To ensure the safety for off-base operations, we train ourselves by repeatedly practicing contingency response procedures and exhaustively analyze intelligence from a variety of sources.”
The unit was first deployed there in June 2010 to protect the Korean civilians working there as part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team to help rebuild the war-ravaged country.
About 90 South Korean aid workers and police officers are operating in the PRT there. They offer medical services, assistance for agricultural development, and vocational and police training as part of international efforts to stabilize the country.
Kim, who has led the unit since last December, feels proud of his soldiers as they have successfully carried out their missions despite perilous working conditions.
“Attacks from hostile forces such as the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami, high temperatures of more than 40 degrees Celsius, high altitudes of more than 1,600 meters, among others, are the difficulties facing our troops here,” said Kim.
In February 2010, the Danbi Unit was deployed to join the international humanitarian efforts to help rebuild the ravaged Caribbean state. As its name suggests, the unit hopes to serve as a “long-awaited rain” in the country still reeling from last year’s devastation.
“We have a set of difficulties such as the simmering heat, torrential rains, poor security conditions and the spread of cholera among others. Despite all challenges, we have this pride as representatives of South Korea and do our best to help rebuild the nation,” said Col. Lee Hong-woo.
Kim particularly pointed out that its unit’s medical services and efforts to improve the country’s poor drinking water systems have benefited many locals.
“Since March 2010, we have carried out medial services to people here. So far, some 15,000 people have visited our medical facility. We have particularly focused on preventing waterborne infections such as from cholera,” Lee said.
“We have also succeeded recently in digging a very deep well, from which we can get a daily average of 400 tons of clean water to benefit some 5,000 locals in a Haitian region.”
The unit commander also stressed that their support programs focus not on “catching fish for them, but on teaching how to catch them.”
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)