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Mission Irresponsible

December 8, 2009

"Yay! We're off to Afghanistan...."

On July 19th, 2007, a bus traveling from Kabul to Kandahar stopped to pick up two local Afghan men. The bus was already carrying 23 Koreans that were part of a Christian missionary group which, oddly enough, made for something of a conspicuous spectacle in war-torn Afghanistan. Approximately one hour after boarding the bus, the two men produced weapons and began firing into the air and thus began the South Korean hostage crisis in Afghanistan.

The Korean Christian group was sponsored by the Saemmul Presbyterian Church of Seoul and included a pastor from the church, 42-year-old Bae Hyeong-gyu. They had evidently chosen to ignore the South Korean government guidelines on traveling to Afghanistan which can be neatly summarized as: “Are you fucking nuts? Do not, repeat DO NOT, go to Afghanistan, especially if you’re a bunch of Christian missionaries!” In a further move, perhaps aimed at shocking the entire world with its astounding naiveté, the group decided not to inform the Afghan authorities of their visit, nor arrange for any kind of security detail whatsoever.

"Jihad yer chance!"

Once firmly in the hands of the Taliban, the Korean captives were first kept in a cellar for six days before being split into smaller groups and frequently moved. The Taliban initially demanded the withdrawal of all South Korean military forces from Afghanistan and the release of all Taliban prisoners in the custody of the Afghan government in exchange for the release of the hostages. At the time, the South Korean military presence in Afghanistan was around 200 non-combat troops, a force comprised only of medical personnel and engineers. They were there building roads and other structures and giving medical aid to Afghan citizens. The government of Afghanistan, under Hamid Karzai, was in no mood to consider releasing Taliban prisoners, having already done so earlier that year when five captive militants were swapped for an Italian reporter, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who had been kidnapped by the Taliban in March 2007. This deal had severely embarrassed Karzai and his government as it drew considerable ire from the United States and a barrage of international criticism in general. Three days after the initial kidnapping took place the Taliban reduced their demands to South Korea abiding by the already-scheduled withdrawal of its forces by the end of 2007 and the release of 23 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the 23 hostages.

On the afternoon of July 25th the Taliban executed Bae Hyeong-gyu, the pastor and leader of the group. Fortunately for Bae, he was merely shot dead and escaped the fate of having his head cut off whilst starring in an Islamist snuff film. The Taliban claimed they killed him because their demands were not being met although an Afghan government official stated that Bae was killed because his health was deteriorating and the Taliban lacked any medicine or medical personnel to treat him. A deadline of July 30th was given by the kidnappers for their demands to be met. This date came and went without any further resolution so the Taliban killed another hostage, 29-year-old Shim Seong-min. Shim had also been shot and his body dumped at the side of a road in a small village.

South Korean officials consulted kidnap/ransom specialists from an American private security company, SCG International Risk, and eventually agreed to direct talks with the Taliban kidnappers. The first such meeting took place on August 10th in a Red Crescent office and was attended by two Taliban leaders and four South Korean officials, including one unidentified Korean spook. Three days later the kidnappers released two female hostages (18 of the remaining 21 hostages were women) and the negotiations continued throughout August with Indonesia eventually getting involved as a neutral party. On August 28th it was announced that the Taliban had agreed to release the remaining hostages in exchange for South Korea withdrawing its troops as already scheduled and an end to all Korean missionary activity in Afghanistan. The following day saw 12 of the hostages released with the remaining seven being released on August 30th. Almost immediately after the Korean missionaries were flown home to Korea, an anonymous source claiming to be a senior Taliban commander came forward and claimed that the South Korean government had paid a ransom of $20 million to secure their release. The source triumphantly stated that the money would be spent on arms and suicide bombings. This alleged payment was strenuously denied by Korean authorities, although other sources reported a ransom of around $2 million.

Throughout the crisis the plight of the hostages was met with significant ambivalence by the Korean public. Many Koreans were incensed at what they saw as the astonishingly stupid and irresponsible behaviour of the missionaries and they resented what they felt was the embarrassment that had been inflicted on the entire nation by the affair. The New York Times carried an apt quote by one Shin Yong-guk of the admirably named, People’s Association of Religion Critics.

“Most consider this a man-made disaster sown by Korean churches’ indiscriminate zeal to proselytize and their disregard for safety.”

Although there was certainly grief shown for the two hostages that were killed, the criticism built to an extent that the Korean government asked the public/netizens to “back off” from their online attacks. The hostages themselves, upon their return to Korea, issued a public apology for all the trouble they had caused. In an attempt to deflect criticism, the Saemmul Church behind the ill-fated trip referred to the missionaries as “volunteers” and tried to spin their activities in Afghanistan as aid work. This line was also taken by some relatives of the hostages who denied the group was in Afghanistan to proselytize. Nonetheless, the opprobrium continued in newspapers and online. There was anger and disbelief at the idea that a group of Christian missionaries could ignore government warnings to travel to a war-torn, predominantly (hard-line) Islamic country  and then seem surprised to be kidnapped, ransomed and murdered by members of the vast network of goatfucking, medievalist militants that everyone knew were running rampant there.

Hostages released

Now, more than two years since the hostage crisis, South Korea has recently announced that 350 of its troops are to go back to Afghanistan in July 2010. Their mission will be to protect Korean civilian engineers that are working on reconstruction there. The current Korean government (the hostage crisis happened during the previous administration of Roh Moo-hyun) has stated that, although the agreement reached with the Taliban to abide by the scheduled troop withdrawal of 2007 was adhered to, South Korea never promised that it wouldn’t deploy troops in the future. This is a perfectly reasonable explanation that the Taliban are sure to appreciate.

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