Korean hostage crisis pressures US, Karzai By Donald Kirk
WASHINGTON - The crisis of the Korean hostages in Afghanistan confronts the
United States with yet another seemingly insurmountable problem in negotiations
with South Korea.
Just as Washington and Seoul appeared to have sorted out their differences on
dealing with North Korea, they now have to settle very quickly on what to do to
win freedom for the 22 South Koreans, most of them women, who've been held by
for nearly two weeks.
The crux of the controversy is whether to bring pressure on the US-backed
government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to bow to the demands of the
Taliban for the release of a number of Taliban prisoners in exchange for
release of the hostages. The Taliban have set deadline after deadline for
killing them if their demands are not met.
South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon pleaded the case of his government
in a telephone call to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Word here is
that Song asked Rice to urge Karzai to agree to the release of at least eight
Taliban prisoners - something Karzai is dead set against doing.
Song made his plea after high-level South Korean negotiators appeared to have
failed completely in their efforts at negotiations. First Vice Foreign Minister
Cho Jung-pyo went to Kabul, and then the chief presidential secretary for
security policy, Baek Jong-chun, joined him.
Finally, President Roh Moo-hyun telephoned Karzai, in effect asking him,
please, do what you have to do to obtain freedom for our people. Besides urging
the release of Taliban prisoners, the South Korean government is dangling the
bait of an enormous amount of money if that's what it will take to win their
Authorities are driven by two fears reflecting the passions of the struggle for
Afghanistan. First is the fear that Afghan troops will go on the offensive,
attacking the redoubts where the hostages are held, placing their lives in
jeopardy. The Afghan government has said force may be needed, since
negotiations apparently have gone nowhere.
Second is the contrary fear that the Taliban will indeed begin killing hostages
"one by one", as one of them has said in a telephone conversation sanctioned by
the Taliban, most likely on a Taliban mobile telephone, with a Western
No one doubts the Taliban are capable of doing just that. They claimed their
first casualty last week when they killed the leader of the group, a
42-year-old pastor who had made previous trips to Afghanistan.
Pastor Bae Hyung-kyu was one of six men in the group. Most of the 17 women on
the mission were nurses. The kidnappers have provided no clue, though, as to
whether they might go on killing the men before turning their guns on the
Bae's body, riddled with 10 bullet holes, was supposedly on its way back to
Seoul after some discussion on whether to leave it at a US base until all the
members of his group were released and they could accompany the body back to
That discussion reveals the religious zeal of a group that denies it's
proselytizing or spreading the word of God, that is, the Christian God, among
some of the world's most dedicated Muslim people. The Presbyterian church in a
Seoul suburb that sent the group to Afghanistan has said their mission was
strictly to dispense medical aid.
Reports are circulating in Korea, though, that members of the group seized any
chance to pray - and offended Afghans while they were at it. According to one
report, they entered an empty mosque and began singing Christian hymns.
The religious fervor of the group has been the topic of debate in Korea, where
people seem divided on whether to applaud the group for their dedication and
view Bae as martyr or to condemn them for creating a terrific problem for the
government while on a mission whose main purpose, say some, was to feed their
egos. A photograph that has spread around the Internet shows members of the
group smiling proudly in front of a sign at an airport in Korea warning Koreans
against visiting Muslim countries on just such missions.
The debate in turn raises questions about the entire South Korean missionary
movement, in which thousands of Koreans have gone overseas in recent years,
risking capture and death in predominantly Muslim nations in their eagerness to
do Godís work.
The number of Koreans on foreign missions, mainly to the Middle East and
Africa, ranks behind only that of the United States - an irony for a society
that historically rejected early Christian missionaries from Europe and the US.
By now about one-third of South Korea's 48 million people are Christians,
including both Catholics and Protestants, and Christians often are at the
forefront of political activism in this country.
While some Christian pastors have been widely publicized in South Korea for
demanding withdrawal of US troops and an end to the US-Korean alliance, they
appear to be in a minority. Korean Christians in essence are conservative and
often critical of the left-of-center government.
The church with which the hostages are affiliated - a large Presbyterian
congregation in the Seoul suburb of Bundang - has sent several hundred members
overseas but has recalled others on different missions from Afghanistan and
says it's not sending any more.
As the hours wind down before every deadline, however, the issue of getting all
the hostages home takes precedence over that of the wisdom of such missions.
"In the present circumstances, it is wrong for Koreans to continue arguing
about mistakes the hostages made," said Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's
biggest-selling newspaper and a major conservative voice that is often at odds
with government policy, including concessions to North Korean demands in
negotiations on the North's nuclear program.
"What's most important at this point is to win the release of all the
hostages," said Chosun Ilbo. "This is why the government is exerting all of its
efforts even at the risk of damaging its prestige." Calling for "reason, not
passion", the paper warned that "emotionally charged actions by Koreans not
only help nobody but harm such efforts".
Kristen Suh, a church-going Korean woman, explained the background of the South
Korean missionary movement as an outgrowth of Korean construction projects
throughout the Middle East beginning in the 1970s.
"Korean churches are sending medical mission teams to Afghanistan assuming they
will not be harmed," she said. Now "this terrible current situation may deter
some of the mission teams from going into restricted areas".
As for Bae, she said, "He is leaving behind a great testimony of faith," and
"many will be touched by his life story of faith."
Another devout woman said frankly that many Koreans "showed their anger toward
that church" for having sent people "to the very dangerous place where our
government prohibited a trip".
"Those hostages," she said, "didn't even know how they could be cautious while
they were there." Indeed, she went on, "Many people are blaming Christianity
and the church and even the hostages," but she also defended them.
"As a Christian, I feel so sorry about this situation," she said, "but I don't
think those missionaries deserve to be blamed - even though they were not wise
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.