Nearly two years ago, on July 19, 2007, twenty-three South Korean missionaries living and working Afghanistan were kidnapped by the Taliban while traveling by bus from Kabul to their homes in Kandahar. The Taliban initially demanded the release of twenty-three Taliban prisoners in exchange for the release of the South Koreans. The US-led alliance of western nations balked and by the time negotiations between the Taliban and the South Korean government resolved the crisis six weeks later, two of the hostages had been executed. The South Korean government claims to have agreed only to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and ban South Korean missionaries from entering the country again. Still, other nations criticized Seoul for lending legitimacy to the Taliban and encouraging more kidnappings.
What’s interesting about this group of former captives was the response that greeted them in South Korea upon their return: public scorn. The South Korean government sued the group of captives for the cost of securing their return.
South Korea Monday told 19 former hostages to pay some of the costs of their rescue from Afghanistan’s Taliban, amid increasing criticism of the ill-fated trip by the Christian aid workers.
President Roh Moo-Hyun “instructed his cabinet to exercise the government’s indemnity right on strictly legal grounds,” said his spokesman Cheon Ho-Seon.
Cheon has said the government will recoup expenses including air fares and the cost of bringing back the bodies of two murdered hostages.
One Korean newspaper published an editorial called Afghan Honesty and critized the group for ignoring the government’s warnings to stay out of Afghanistan and causing the entire country to suffer.
By ignoring the government’s warning/ and rashly carrying out a mission in a politically unstable Muslim country,/ the captives have laid a great burden on their country.
By violating international principles/ and directly negotiating with a terrorist group,/ our country has invited censure from other countries.
Three Japanese journalists held captive in Iraq in 2004 faced a similar response. This is not to be unexpected in Asian culture, where collectivist societies place greater value on group goals than individual goals. Placing the nation at risk to pursue their own goals was seen as selfish.
Contrast this with the story of Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, two American missionaries in Afghanistan who were arrested after showing the Jesus movie to locals. They were were arrested in August 2001 and were freed during fighting between US and Taliban forces in November 2001. They came home to a hero’s welcome, complete with a Larry King interview and a book about their ordeal.
Now we have two American journalists–Laura Ling and Euna Lee–held captive in North Korea after being arrested by North Korea soldiers on the North Korean-Chinese border (whether or not they had actually crossed the border is in dispute) on March 17. On Monday, they were sentenced to twelve years in a labor camp for their “grave crime” (as yet unspecified by the Pyongyang).
By all accounts, the American government has worked diligently, but silently, to secure the release of the two journalists. Unfortunately, the two have become pawns in a high stakes battle over nuclear weapons in North Asia. On May 25, 2009, just two months after the journalists were captured, North Korea conducted another nuclear weapons test. Given that Pyongyang appears to be in the midst of a power struggle, it’s not clear what, if any, role the capture of the two journalists played in Kim Jung Il’s decision to test another weapon.
To be fair, the extent to which their capture has complicated US foreign policy is also unclear. The Obama administration appears determined to get sanctions from the UN Security Council, a move that the Chinese now seem poised to support. Still, every indication is that the State Department is working hard secure their release. On Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that she had personally gotten involved. And today’s New York Times reported the American government remains engaged at the highest levels.
American officials said that the harsh sentences were likely to be used as a negotiating ploy by the North as it tries to avoid new sanctions being worked out at the United Nations Security Council in response to the nuclear test two weeks ago. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed that the reporters’ case and Washington’s efforts to punish North Korea for its nuclear test are “entirely separate matters.”
Still, American officials appeared to be weighing whether to send a special envoy in a high-profile effort to seek the release of the two journalists. The two most likely candidates are former Vice President Al Gore, whose Current TV channel employs the two journalists, and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who has visited North Korea several times and helped negotiate the release of two Americans in the 1990s.
Asked Monday if Washington will send an envoy, Mrs. Clinton said her government is “pursuing every possible approach” to win their release.
The Secretary of State, a former vice president, and the governor of Mexico all working the diplomatic channels. All this hard work for two journalists who were sneaking around near the border of America’s greatest enemy for what? Footage of the North Korean border?
Now let me be clear. We can and should do whatever it takes to bring these two women back to safety, but after they have been treated for whatever injuries they suffered, the American people are owed a full accounting of their actions. Our culture emphasis on individual goals and achievement have allowed us to achieve many great things. But that doesn’t mean that individuals are not accountable to society. Their stories may be heart-breaking but their behavior may serious be disrupting US foreign policy. The American people deserve to know why were they on the border. What information was so valuable that it justified the risk they took? Did they have the Chinese government’s permission to be there? Do they appreciate the mess that their actions have placed on the Obama administration?
Secretary of State Clinton could be spending her time working on other crises and Governor Richardson certainly has important work to do in New Mexico. But because these two journalists got caught somewhere where they weren’t supposed to be, the Obama administration has to take it’s eye off other issues to rescue them.
The likely scenario outlined by Gov. Richardson is that a prominent envoy will visit Pyongyang and negotiate their release. And if history is any indication, the two women wi
ll come to a heroes welcome complete with talk show interviews and book deals. In the midst of the celebration, will anybody ask them why they took this risk and if it was worst the damage inflicted to U.S. foreign policy? Until those questions are answered, it will not be clear if Laura Ling and Euna Lee are heroes, brave journalists risking their lives to pursue an important story, or headaches who distracted the American government at a moment of crisis.