The brutal killing of South Korean hostage Kim Sun-il in Iraq on Tuesday dramatically exposed to Asia the hazards of doing business in the strife-torn nation. But while the deteriorating security situation spells higher risk premiums for companies that venture there, one field stands to make considerable capital from the increased danger: security providers, or what are now being called private military corporations. It is not an area in which Asian companies have traditionally enjoyed much visibility globally. The most high-profile Asian paramilitary security experts in recent years have been state-sponsored - by Pyongyang. North Korean 'military advisers' have assisted the governments of Zimbabwe and Ceausescu-era Romania, and reportedly provide security to members of the Cambodian leadership. Now the financial reward of a dangerous world is drawing their southern cousins to the field: South Korean security firms have been making inroads into Iraq. One such company is NKTS, which was established last year. 'We are the first such company in Korea,' says Lee Woo-jae, a manager with the Seoul-based outfit. NKTS - the initials, prosaically, stand for New Korea Total Services - entered the Middle East last December, providing security for the Jordanian royal family and training for the family's bodyguard. In Jordan, three Koreans now guard King Abdullah II, while female NKTS agents guard the queen, Mr Lee says. 'Undertaking security services for the royal family is an excellent way to further civil/diplomatic relations,' says NKTS' former chairman Choi Seung-gab. All security personnel trained by NKTS in the Middle East prominently display a Korean flag on the breasts of their uniforms. In January, NKTS set up offices in Dubai, and despatched its first security agents to Iraq. Globally, the firm has a staff of 100 Koreans and 300 locally recruited agents, and is now negotiating a contract to handle security at the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar. NKTS also has a subsidiary, GIG (Global Industrial Group), which markets security equipment such as weapon detectors, body armour and scanners. In typical Korean fashion, though, the firm's finances remain a closed book. Company officials claimed capital last year of five billion won (HK$33.73 million), but declined to discuss current revenues, pricing for services - or indeed how NKTS secured its presumably lucrative contracts in the Middle East. Its highest profile job has been in Iraq, where the company's activities are twofold. First, it trains the Kirkuk provincial police force, having signed a contract with Iraqi Interior Affairs Minister Nuri Bardan in March. NKTS staff instruct in counter-terrorism and explosive detection, as well as areas in which South Koreans may be considered world-class: riot suppression, physical training and martial arts. Second, NKTS provides security for clients including Korean electronics firms and Korean and US construction companies, and runs a training camp in Baghdad where it trains local agents. Its protective services encompass personnel, installation and vehicle security. It is a serious business: the equipment used by the company includes head and body armour, AK assault rifles and Browning heavy machine guns. Even so, it is a hazardous task. 'The Iraqi people seem very friendly, but the situation there is perilous,' says Bae Gi-kwang, 32, NKTS' director of training. 'There are weapons everywhere, and the nights in Baghdad are very, very dangerous: you really don't want to walk, go outside or move anywhere after dark.' Contrary to news reports, NKTS sees profit-motivated kidnap or robbery as risk factors as high as politically motivated terrorism. Highway attacks are the biggest threat - hence the vehicle-mounted machine guns. Thus far, NKTS has not been engaged in any incidents involving explosions or shootouts. 'Our agents are very well armed and very careful,' Mr Lee says, adding, 'And so far, we've been lucky.' Not everyone, however, is impressed with the kind of high profile the Korean arrivals have taken in Iraq. 'When I was in Baghdad in February, there were two or three Korean security firms there,' says Dave Campbell, the American chief executive of Seoul-based corporate security agency Prescient Consulting. 'One of them had a compound with a large Korean flag flying over it - basically, they were marketing. One of our guys said, 'If the Korean troop despatch goes ahead, you will be making yourself a target for a mortar attack', but I don't think they listened.' Mr Campbell, formerly an investigator with the famed US private investigation firm Pinkerton, hired security himself for his visit to Baghdad in February. 'The guy I hired was a former SAS man, and he was very, very professional. He was very low key: his guys were armed but were not in uniform, and they did not take the big, armoured SUVs which people over there now are taking pot shots at just for the hell of it. They preferred local Iraqi taxis! They have not been attacked yet.' Mr Campbell decided not to get professionally involved in Iraq due to the extremity of the hazards - and what he considered his then-Korean partner's approach. 'He wanted to have a lot of guards and a lot of guns, and he was running these big, armoured vans, but I said to him, 'What happens if the clients are killed in a roadside bombing?' A great deal of this job is planning, but there seemed to be a lack of that.' NKTS has, however, taken the prudent step of withdrawing its permanent Korean staff from Iraq: the company has handed over its operations there to its newly trained force of domestic agents. So who is NKTS? 'Our key selling point is our people,' says its current chairman, Min Wu-gi. 'Most of our [Korean] staff are from elite military units: special forces, marines, underwater demolition teams, military police special investigators and the 707 counter-terrorist unit.' South Korea, having faced the North Korean threat for half a century, offers a large pool of trained former military personnel for NKTS to draw from - but joining the company is no easy thing. 'In our first recruitment course, 400 people applied; 96 passed the tests,' says Mr Bae. At the NKTS training centre in Gapyoung outside Seoul, Mr Bae - an imposing physical specimen who served five years in the 707 Counter Terrorist Battalion, Korea's equivalent of Britain's SAS or America's Delta Force - puts recruits through their paces. 'There have been guys from special forces units who couldn't hack our training,' Mr Lee says. At the centre, agents learn weapons handling, house clearing, bodyguard skills, vehicle and building protection tactics, and foreign languages. Facilities include mock-ups of aircraft and buses to train anti-hijack scenarios. The core test, though, is decidedly low-tech. 'Running up mountains with full equipment and pack really weeds them out,' Mr Bae says. 'If they can do that, they will have the mental as well as physical toughness we need.' What sets apart Korean security professionals? 'I have trained with Delta Force in the US and on joint exercises in Korea, and while the Americans have better equipment, we have better physical training and martial arts,' Mr Bae says. Martial arts seem to be crucial, with one of the company's four female agents a former taekwondo champion (the female agents are all ex-members of the Korean special forces). Company agents also train in Tukong Mosul, or special forces unarmed combat, and 'White Tiger' - the 707 battalion's specialised fighting method. Despite the extensive training and the skills mastered, Mr Bae is blunt in stating the core aim. 'In this business, the client comes first,' he says. 'Anytime, anywhere, if you keep the client alive, the mission is successful.'