S. Korea Extends Iraq Mission by One Year

South Korea's parliament on Friday approved extending the mission of its 3,600 troops in Iraq for another year.

The National Assembly approved the plan in a 161-63 vote with 54 abstentions just before the troops' previous mandate in Iraq expired at midnight.

South Korea completed deploying its forces to the Kurdish town of Irbil (search) last month, becoming the third-largest contributor of troops to the coalition after the United States and Britain.

The South Korean contingent is not involved in combat operations and consists mostly of engineers and medics who repair roads and offer free medical services.

The deployment to Iraq has been sensitive, and the South Korean government called for a news blackout on the troops' movements as they arrived in Iraq, citing security concerns. In early December, President Roh Moo-hyun (search) made a surprise visit to Irbil to encourage the soldiers.

The Seoul government decided in November to extend the deployment for another year until the end of 2005, but that move required parliamentary approval. The vote was delayed repeatedly this month while lawmakers argued over a series of unrelated reform bills, including the ruling Uri Party's controversial plan to scrap the anti-communist National Security Law (search).

The parliament postponed a vote on that bill Friday until the new year.

Also Friday, lawmakers approved the national budget for next year ahead of the midnight deadline — averting what would have been the need for an emergency budget for the first time in South Korea's history.

President Roh, a former human rights lawyer and activist, has argued the National Security Law was abused in the past to persecute dissidents by South Korea's previous military dictatorships. The United Nations, the U.S. State Department and South Korea's state-run human rights watchdog have all called for the law's repeal.

The broadly worded 1948 law, which has not been vigorously enforced in recent years, imposes prison terms of up to seven years for open sympathy with anti-state groups and provides for up to five years in jail for failing to notify authorities about anti-state crimes.

The main opposition Grand National Party (search) has opposed totally scrapping the National Security Law, arguing that it is vital to South Korea's security.

In a New Year's message Friday, President Roh called for bipartisan cooperation in parliament to also resolve South Korea's economic problems.

He said the country "can no longer ignore" deepening gaps between big conglomerates and small- and medium-sized companies, between high-tech and traditional industries, and between full-time and part-time workers.

"To solve these problems, ruling and opposition parties, liberals and conservatives should not be divided," Roh said in a statement.

Prime Minister Lee Hai-chan also urged lawmakers Friday to quickly resolve the impasse, saying during a Cabinet meeting that "the country will face big difficulties" if the budget and Iraq mission extension aren't approved.