A deal with the devil

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2007, 12:00am

A week after the liberation of a group of South Korean Christians from a six-week hostage ordeal in Afghanistan, the head of South Korea's spy agency, the government and the church that sponsored the mission are still under fire from a press and a public who believe their nation's name has been dragged through the mud.

Rumours of a secret deal to free the hostages were confirmed on Thursday. South Korea's top spy admitted that concessions beyond what has been announced by Seoul were involved in the release of 19 Korean Christian hostages from Taleban custody in Afghanistan, but declined to give details.

'There were other things than what we have already announced, but I cannot disclose them,' Kim Bok-man, head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), told parliament on Thursday, according to the Yonhap news agency. 'It's not proper for you, intelligence committee members, to ask whether a ransom was paid. I think it is better to leave it for a while.'

Mr Kim was vague as to whether the release of Taleban prisoners was part of a deal. There has been speculation that such a deal could have been done in return for a package of South Korean aid to Afghanistan.

South Korean officials had previously said the only conditions for the liberation of the abductees were a pledge to withdraw Seoul's 200 troops from Afghanistan by year's end and to prevent Christian missionaries operating there. But there have been strong rumours of a back-door deal, and news reports from Afghanistan have quoted a Taleban spokesman as saying that a US$20 million ransom was paid.

The spy master found himself in an unusual position on Thursday: under interrogation from the National Assembly. Following national and international speculation of a secret deal for the release of the hostages, the assembly's intelligence committee questioned him, behind closed doors, about his role in the affair.

Mr Kim is facing a barrage of public and press criticism. Unusually for an intelligence chief, he showed up in Kabul nine days ago where, beaming, he announced the hostage release deal to reporters, telling them that he 'had to direct negotiations from the field'. He was photographed alongside the freed hostages and a mysterious Korean in sunglasses who, it is believed, was the key NIS negotiator.

With a presidential election in December, the knives are out. Conservatives slammed Mr Kim for the breaches of his agency's customary secrecy, and speculated he might have political ambitions (which he has since denied). The right-wing press has gleefully reported that Mr Kim, a 33-year intelligence veteran, abused his position, allegedly inviting friends to the NIS headquarters where they drank fine wine and fired guns. Unflattering comparisons have been made to James Bond.

If a ransom was paid, it could return to haunt President Roh

Moo-hyun. His predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, was raked over the coals, some aides were jailed and his Nobel Peace Prize tarnished after it transpired he had directed the secret dispatch of US$500 million to Pyongyang to secure the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.

One of Mr Roh's main legacies is improvements in transparency, and there are laws that require the dispersal of state funds to be approved by the National Assembly. However, the one agency not obliged to answer to this oversight is the NIS. Mr Roh has expressed support for the spy agency chief - reportedly a key player in negotiating the upcoming inter-Korean summit.

Meanwhile, the administration is on the defensive. After the crisis, the Taleban said publicly that it would step up kidnappings. Both the Afghan and German governments have said they will not negotiate with terrorists, and newspaper editorials from Canada to India have put the boot into Seoul.

'The government struggled to strike a balance between international norms and customs concerning this kind of issue and the absolute premise that we had to save people's lives,' South Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Song Min-soon said.

Public anger has also been aimed at the Presbyterian Saemmul ('Spring Water') Church for sending an aid group to Afghanistan in defiance of strong government warnings not to travel there, and for the kidnap which compelled Seoul to deal with a group many regard as the devil.

The church based in Bundang, one of Seoul's satellite cities, sent 23 members to Afghanistan ostensibly to give medical aid. The group - mostly women and in their 20s and 30s - were photographed making V-signs near an airport poster warning of the dangers in the violence-wracked nation. While they claimed they were not on an evangelical mission, a Pashto-language bible was reportedly found on their bus when it was stopped in Ghazni, southern Afghanistan, on July 19 and the group taken away by armed Taleban.

Group leader the Reverend Bae Hyung-kyu, and another man, Shim Sung-min, were executed by the militants on July 25 and July 31.

Shaken, the government in Seoul entered talks with the Taleban, reportedly through Indonesian intermediaries, on August 10. On August 13, the Taleban, in a goodwill gesture, released two women. Then a deal was announced on August 28; on Sunday, the surviving hostages returned home.

Their case followed that of Kim Sun-il, an interpreter and evangelical Christian captured by Islamic militants in Iraq in 2004. His death was captured on video when militants beheaded him with a knife. While Kim was working as an interpreter at a trading firm, he had hopes of becoming a missionary. His death fuelled national angst and calls for the government not to commit troops to Iraq.

Christianity is firmly entrenched in South Korea. Catholicism arrived on the peninsula in the 18th century, largely due to French missionary activity; Protestantism in the 19th century, mainly via Americans. The religion has made huge inroads, with South Korea believed to be Asia's most Christian nation after the Philippines. Today, there are about 8.7 million Protestants and

2.9 million Catholics, along with 10 million Buddhists, in a population of 44 million.

The extreme zeal that characterises so many areas of modern South Korean life has also infiltrated churches, one analyst said. 'Koreans have Olympian ambitions as their parents are particularly devoted to them, so in modern times they have exhibited great energy - the most extreme communist personality cult, the world's biggest churches, the most dramatic economic rags-to-riches story in the world, and so on,'

said Michael Breen, author of The Koreans. 'There are a lot of people doing extreme things with great passion in this culture, but there is also ignorance about the wider world.'

Today, according to estimates published in the local press, there are about 16,000 Korean missionaries working abroad - more than from any other nation bar the US. In Yeouido, central Seoul, the world's largest church congregation gathers to worship every Sunday. After Kim Jong-il, arguably the most famous living Korean is the Reverend Sun Myung-moon, head of the powerful Unification Church, or 'Moonies', which some criticise as a cult.

Nighttime Seoul is ablaze with thousands of red neon crosses. Loudspeaker-equipped fire and brimstone street preachers are a common sight in city centres, and in the mid-1990s, a number of Buddhist temples were burned down or damaged by fundamentalist Christians.

The hostages returned to a less than ecstatic welcome. During their ordeal, the nation had rallied, with Seoul office buildings draped with banners in Arabic, English and Korean praying for their safe return. But when Koreans realised a deal with the ruthless Islamic fundamentalists had impacted their nation's reputation in the international community, a flood of criticism was released.

On the internet, angry Net users wondered what the church members thought they were doing, and agonised over the blow to their nation's international prestige for negotiating with the Taleban.

Editorials were scathing. The mass circulation Joongang Ilbo's said: 'This crisis raised grave questions about the divide between the country's responsibility and the responsibility of individuals ... [the hostages] put a heavy burden on their country.'

Shim Jin-pyo, whose son Sung-min was killed by the Taleban, slammed the church leadership. 'While taking people to a place like a war zone, [it ] did not say a word to the parents and the families.'