Bitter aftermath of a killing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 June, 2004, 12:00am

The beheading of hostage Kim Sun-il in Iraq gives anti-American protesters in South Korea another excuse to pillory the Korea-US alliance. The same leftist students, clerics, labour leaders and politicians who have opposed the alliance, and Seoul's support for the coalition in Iraq, are back on the streets. They carry banners calling US President George W. Bush and President Roh Moo-hyun terrorists and killers, and demanding 'give Iraq to the Iraqis'.

The outpouring of grief over Kim's killing presents both South Korea and the United States with a serious problem on top of their differences over how to deal with North Korea. It was Mr Roh's decision to send 3,000 more troops to Iraq, in addition to 600 non-combat army engineers and medics, that led Kim's captors to put him before a camera - begging for his life and pleading for Mr Roh to change his mind. It is easy to blame the South Korean government for any number of terrible mistakes that might have been avoided before Kim's execution.

There is the matter of the inquiry to the Korean Foreign Ministry made by Associated Press television news after its Baghdad bureau received a videotape of Kim - denouncing Mr Bush and American forces in Iraq - at least two weeks before his death. The question is why the ministry did not ask its embassy in Baghdad to try to find out more about him.

And there is also the question of whether the government should have stood firm behind the decision to send troops to Iraq after the kidnappers announced their 24-hour deadline. Might silence on that topic, along with a declaration that South Korean troops in Iraq were only there on a peacekeeping mission, have been preferable? Mr Roh now faces a storm of criticism, from within his own governing Uri Party as well as from conservatives, happy to seize upon any pretext to attack him. For all the recriminations, however, the fact remains that the kidnappers would probably have killed Kim anyway, just as their colleagues in the region have killed other hostages.

All that could have saved Kim would have been prior knowledge at the highest level of the South Korean government that he was being held, postponement of the announcement to send more troops to Iraq, and negotiations for his release.

The thought that there might have been a way will continue to haunt everyone who followed the case.

Now Mr Roh seems to have no choice but to follow through on his pledge. To back down at this stage would look like an act of abject surrender, a confession that all terrorists need to do is capture someone in order to realise their demands.

Criticism of the government is widely described as a 'backlash' against Mr Roh's insistence on carrying out the mission in Iraq. There is also the possibility of a backlash against demonstrators who use Kim's death as an excuse for glib sloganeering.

For Mr Roh, it is a time of testing, perhaps the most critical since his return to full power after the Supreme Court refused to uphold his impeachment - by the same assembly that had voted to send troops to Iraq in the first place.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals