SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s acting president has ordered boosted security measures, saying the country is a major potential terrorism target because it planned to send more troops to Iraq soon.
There has been no known public threat to South Korea, where there are 37,000 U.S. troops based to deter North Korea, but acting President Goh Kun told security officials that all countries involved in Iraq needed to be wary.
“We need to be very seriously prepared,” Goh stressed, his spokesman said by telephone on Wednesday.
South Korea is sending more than 3,000 troops — half of them combat-ready force-protection troops — to Iraq next month to join some 600 medics and engineers already there.
Train bombs killed more than 200 people in Spain last Thursday and that attack looks increasingly like an al Qaeda operation. France said on Tuesday it had received threats of attacks by another shadowy Islamist group.
“The major targets of terrorism are countries that deployed troops in Iraq or are assisting it,” said Goh. “We can be a possible strong target.”
Goh, a 66-year-old veteran bureaucrat who is also prime minister, took over as interim leader last Friday after President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached for violating an election law.
On Tuesday, U.S. President George W. Bush called on allies to stick with the United States and not cave in to pressure from al Qaeda by withdrawing their troops.
Goh ordered officials to draw up anti-terrorism measures by the end of this week and to start working-level discussions later on Wednesday. Goh was speaking to senior staff, including the security planning chief.
He said the three key points were close cooperation with other countries, security measures for transport including a new high-speed railway opening on April 1 and safety for troops going to Iraq.
Goh has made it clear the troop deployment will go ahead.
The Madrid bombings revived popular anger at Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s support for the U.S.-led Iraq war, helping incoming Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to a surprise victory. Zapatero has indicated he will pull his country’s troops out of Iraq.
South Korea’s troops contribution will be the largest after the U.S. and British contingents, a fact not lost on South Korea’s media.
“The Korean contingent will be the third largest foreign force in Iraq after the U.S. and British troops, enough reason to make Korea a major target for al Qaeda,” said the Korea Herald newspaper in an editorial on Wednesday.
Goh has made stability for Asia’s fourth-largest economy — which borders unpredictable North Korea and has no energy resources of its own — his top priority while standing in for Roh.
The Constitutional Court has to decide whether to uphold the opposition-dominated parliament’s vote to unseat Roh — a process that could take up to six months but most legal and political experts say is likely to take about a month. There is a parliamentary election on April 15.
South Korea’s central bank said on Tuesday political uncertainty arising from the impeachment could delay the country’s economic recovery from a consumer credit bubble burst and a global downturn.