When it's right to talk to terrorists

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2007, 12:00am

How much might a human life be worth these days? That's an utterly absurd question to answer in dollar terms, to be sure. But apparently it wasn't that tough for the pragmatic South Korean government. If some press reports are correct, Seoul paid US$20 million to spring 19 of its citizens from Taleban captivity in Afghanistan.

The ordeal started when 23 Korean missionaries, ignoring government warnings, went on some sort of godly mission in the war-torn nation this summer. The Taleban grabbed them and put two to death straight away. Facing a furore of anxiety at home, the government of President Roh Moo- hyun was caught in a bind. International opinion was virtually united in urging Seoul not to negotiate for the hostages' release - on the principle of not rewarding terrorists by even engaging with them. But domestic opinion was divided: South Koreans increasingly focused on the likelihood of the hostages' dying if nothing was done for them, rather than on any abstract theory of how best to cope with terrorism.

And so Seoul made the decision to negotiate with Taleban terrorists in the face of almost unified negative world opinion. And once the decision was made, the Koreans acted with characteristic no-holds-barred decisiveness and commitment.

The government agreed to pull out all its forces by the end of the year (it had previously planned to do so anyway), and pleaded that its officials had no influence over the Kabul government to release Taleban prisoners held in Afghanistan - as the Taleban had insisted. Before long, the only remaining question was about money. Once an exchange rate was agreed on, the deal was done and the hostages were freed.

Even at that point, international criticism maintained its self-righteousness. While some of it was sincere, however, a measure was of the 'tut-tut' variety. After all, when human lives can be saved, it is difficult, if not morally reprehensible, to turn one's back on their plight. Even so, no government wants to be seen as weak on terrorism. Yet, if the enemy has you in a box and the only way out is direct negotiation, is it not moral cowardice to strike the tough-guy pose while real lives are lost?

A parallel might be seen in the 'sunshine policy' of the present and past South Korean presidents. Their persistent efforts to engage the loathsome North Korean regime was unpopular at home and abroad, but what alternative was there?

In point of fact, the iceberg of North Korean relations thawed only when the Bush administration finally agreed to negotiate with Pyongyang head to head. The result was a six-party talks agreement that, to date at least, seems to be moving the Korean Peninsula in the right direction.

In both the North Korean and the Taleban dilemmas, aggressive, even assertive South Korean diplomacy looks to have been the right instinct. Rather than evidencing moral cupidity, that approach took courage and conviction.

Will this encourage the Taleban to snatch more people who might have ransom resources? Perhaps, but remember: the Taleban doesn't need any encouragement to take inhuman action. Each crisis will need to be judged on its particular merits. Sometimes you should negotiate with terrorists, and sometimes you shouldn't.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author, most recently, of Confessions of an American Media Man