SEOUL, South Korea – The government said Tuesday it will evacuate all South Koreans working for businesses in Iraq by early next month as the country awaited word on a South Korean man held by militants there.
The Commerce, Industry and Energy Ministry (search) said the move affects the last 22 businessmen still in Iraq. Most of them work for South Korean companies providing supplies to the U.S. military, Minister Lee Hee-beom said.
The man who was abducted, Kim Sun-il (search), worked for a South Korean supplier to the American military. His captors, purportedly Al Qaeda-linked militants, said they would kill him if the South Korean government did not cancel its plan to send troops to Iraq by early Tuesday.
The deadline passed with the government sticking to its deployment of 3,000 soldiers, with the first dispatch coming in August. By late Tuesday morning there was still no word on whether Kim was still alive.
"We have various intelligence and information on that matter, but we cannot give you a definite answer," Foreign Ministry spokesman Shin Bong-kil said.
Shin said South Korea was trying to establish contact with as many countries and organizations as possible that could help win the release of the 33-year-old Kim.
"We are trying our best through all the possible channels," Shin said. He declined to comment on whether South Korea had direct contact with the kidnappers.
South Korean government officials have given numerous interviews to Arab media appealing for Kim's release, Shin said.
South Korea on Saturday warned its citizens not to travel to Iraq, saying its decision to send troops to the country might prompt terror attacks on South Koreans.
Companies hoping to do business there must now first win approval from the Commerce, Industry and Energy Ministry, Lee said.
South Korean conglomerates such as Hyundai Corp. (search) and Daewoo International Corp. (search) have also stepped up security at overseas branches and ordered employees to avoid dangerous areas, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.
The government plans to send its 3,000 troops to the northern Iraqi city of Irbil (search). They will be joined by 600 South Korean military medics and engineers who are currently in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. When complete, the deployment will make South Korea the biggest coalition partner after the United States and Britain.
Seoul has portrayed the dispatch as a way of strengthening its alliance with the United States, thereby winning more support from Washington for a peaceful end to a long-running dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons development. But many in South Korea oppose the mission.
In April, seven South Korean missionaries were briefly detained by armed men in Iraq.