Korean Hostages Freed — at a Cost

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Musadeq Sadeq / AP

Another five released South Korean hostages are seen walking after they were released by Taliban militants in Ghazni province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007.

South Koreans are breathing a sigh of relief now that the country's heart-wrenching six-week-old hostage crisis seems to be coming to a close in Afghanistan. But with reports that as many as eight hostages had been freed on Wednesday, some observers are wondering what it really took to broker a deal with the Taliban.

On Tuesday, the South Korean government announced it had reached an agreement with the Taliban for the release of the 19 church volunteers kidnapped some six weeks ago while traveling by bus from Kabul, the Afghanistan capital, to the southern city of Kandahar. In return for the hostages' release, Korea promised the Taliban that it would stick to an earlier plan to withdraw 210 non-combat Korean troops from Afghanistan by year's end and ban all evangelical activities by South Korean Christian groups in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban backed down from a demand for a prisoner exchange with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

On the face of it, South Korea has struck a fairly good bargain: by agreeing only to let its previous withdrawal stand, Seoul avoids making any concessions to the terrorist group, while keeping overzealous evangelicals out of harm's way helps head off any further embarrassment for President Roh Moo-hyun. (To prevent future kidnappings, a new law takes effect this month prohibiting South Korean citizens from traveling to Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.)

But analysts here are not so sanguine about the deal. While President Roh probably saved the hostages' lives, Dr. Kim Taewoo at The Korea Institute for Defense Analysis worries over what precedent the incident might set: "If there's another hostage crisis,” he asks, “do we pull out of Iraq?" Possibly to head off such concerns, Roh's office released a statement Wednesday saying it remained committed to the international anti-terrorism coalition despite its negotiations with the Taliban.

The government insists that faced with the deaths of the remaining captives it had little room to maneuver and ultimately had no choice but to make a deal with the Taliban despite assertions that Korea did not negotiate with terrorists. The killing of two male hostages no doubt hastened its decision to put together a team of negotiators to meet Taliban representatives. (The Afghan government did not participate in the negotiations, which were mediated by the International Committee of The Red Cross.) But Roh may have been forced down that road after a number of missteps during the course of the crisis, including public appeals to the U.S. to change its decades-old stance on hostage situations. Some analysts say Roh may also have played his cards too early, appearing on television at the beginning of the crisis to explain to the Korean public his plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Meanwhile there is a lingering question of whether Seoul may have slipped the Taliban money to ensure the hostages' safe return. Korean and Japanese newspapers reported two weeks ago that the Taliban was asking for $10 million for the remaining hostages, and that South Korea was willing to pay up to $500,000. "Everyone believes it wasn't free," says Seoul resident Jeon Eunhyung. A presidential spokesman denies any suggestion of a ransom for the hostages' release, however, while Taliban commander Qari Mohammad Bashir also said that there was no secret deal and hence no money involved in the prisoners' release.

Indeed, most Koreans aren't very distraught over how Seoul managed the safe return of its hostages; they're just glad to have them back. Some relatives of the hostages apologized to the public for causing the country such an ordeal; others like Cho Myung ho, the mother of 28-year-old hostage Lee Joo Yeon, just expressed relief. "I would like to dance," she told reporters.