South Korea plans to bring home about one-third of its troops from Iraq next year, the Defense Ministry said Friday. Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung reported the plan to withdraw about 1,000 troops from Iraq to the ruling Uri Party on Friday, the ministry said. About 3,200 South Korean troops are stationed in northern Iraq to help rehabilitate the country, making Seoul the second-largest U.S. coalition partner contributing forces after Britain.
The announcement comes a day after South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met U.S. President George W. Bush in the South Korean city of Gyeongju, where the leaders insisted their countries' alliance was strong and agreed to work together to curb North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions.
South Korea's move caught the White House by surprise. "They have not informed the United States government of that," said National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones.
The Defense Ministry said it plans to include the troop reduction plan when it seeks parliamentary approval for extending the deployment in Iraq, as it is required to do each year.
"We judge it's possible to withdraw some of the troops, considering the scale of projects scheduled for next year, the status of stabilization of Iraq and the trend in coalition forces," Yoon said in a meeting with the ruling party, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
The troop dispatch has been unpopular among South Koreans as many view the U.S.-led war in Iraq as unjustified, and the government had to overcome severe protests from activists in accepting U.S. requests for troops.
There have been previous calls for reducing the troop presence in the Gulf state.
In September, one ruling party lawmaker, Rep. Kim Sung-gon, said about 1,000 troops should be withdrawn from Iraq "considering the worsening public sentiment about the troop dispatch" and the fact that other coalition nations, such as the United States and Britain, are also pushing for withdrawing or reducing troops, reports the AP. I.L.