Caught in the middle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 August, 2007, 12:00am

The crisis of the South Korean hostages captured by Taleban forces in Afghanistan hits Korean leaders where they're most vulnerable. Seoul might have preferred not to have sent troops to Afghanistan or Iraq, but did so under United States pressure. As long as the US is keeping 29,000 troops in South Korea - on guard against a perpetual threat from North Korea - the Americans believe their Korean friends should show their gratitude by joining the grand alliance in the Middle East.

Now South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, whose policy of rapprochement with the North has won only reluctant US support, is caught between the desire to show firm resolve and the need to win freedom for the hostages. He is running out of time. Taleban terrorists have killed at least two of the original 23 hostages and are threatening to kill the others.

The quickest way to placate the terrorists would be to arrange an enormous payoff, release Taleban prisoners held by the Afghan government and speed up withdrawal of South Korea's 200 troops, medics and engineers from the country. That solution would be fine by the same South Korean leftists who oppose the despatch of their people to the Middle East and have been calling for American troops to get out of South Korea.

While conservatives have been steadily regaining their strength in South Korea over the past two or three years, Mr Roh's left-of-centre government is appealing to the US to intercede with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.

That request puts the US in a difficult position. How can Washington ask Mr Karzai to yield to Taleban demands when the US, allied and Afghan troops are fighting the Taleban?

The position of the US, South Korea and the Afghan government is all the more difficult considering that the hostages are all members of a Christian congregation which had gone to Afghanistan on a do-good 'volunteer' mission. South Korean negotiators are accustomed to dealing with the North Koreans, rewarding Pyongyang with infusions of aid in response to such good behaviour as the shutdown last month of the North's nuclear reactor.

The enemy in Afghanistan is far different from the North Koreans, but the bottom line is the same - the Taleban hold hostages and threaten to kill them, while North Korea holds South Korea hostage under the threat of a nuclear war.

The possibility of the imminent death of more members of a delegation that consists mostly of young God-fearing women dispensing medical aid is more personal and compelling than that of a nuclear holocaust.

The hostage issue is laden with implications for the US-Korea alliance. Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the US Pacific Command, tried to help by saying his forces would be 'quick to respond' to a request from South Korea. Exactly what could Americans do, though, that Koreans aren't already doing - other than try to get Mr Karzai to agree to the Taleban's demands?

For US President George W. Bush, the hostage crisis in Afghanistan raises familiar issues. The question is whether Washington is trying to persuade Seoul to tough it out on the hostage situation.

US military people, of course, see the taking of hostages as a tactic that cries out for defiance.

Negotiations with Islamic terrorists are, if anything, more difficult than those with North Korea, because no one knows quite who they are and with whom to talk.

Like Mr Bush, Mr Roh cannot risk confrontation with an enemy on two fronts - with North Korea on the Korean peninsula and with the Taleban in Afghanistan.

The Taleban may appear far weaker than the North Koreans, but they and their friends and allies in al-Qaeda are capable of acts of terrorism that are as bloody and violent as some of those perpetrated over the years by North Koreans.

Moreover, South Korean negotiators have little or no experience in fathoming the minds of Islamic zealots willing to kill - and 'martyr' themselves - for a cause.

But there is one crucial difference between negotiating with the North Koreans and the Taleban.

The Taleban may call for South Korean troops to leave Afghanistan but it is not asking for the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea.

Nor is it likely that leftist demonstrators will take to the streets in support of the Taleban - though they are already using this episode as another reason to demand that South Korea refuse to support the US in the Middle East or anywhere else, including on their home soil.

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