[Overseas view] The Taliban’s mirror

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[Overseas view] The Taliban’s mirror

To general relief, the last seven Korean Christian aid workers held hostage by the radical Islamic Taliban in Afghanistan have been released. They were part of a group of twenty-three missionaries from South Korea abducted July 19. Two were killed as part of Taliban terror tactics in pressuring the government of the Republic of Korea. Two women were released earlier this month.
Seoul did make certain accommodations to achieve the release of the hostages. The small South Korean military detachment of 200 troops in Afghanistan will be withdrawn by the end of this year. This is essentially reaffirmation of a decision already made. The Korean government also agreed to prevent additional missionaries from traveling to Afghanistan. Official spokesmen have refused to comment on whether a ransom was involved, giving grounds to very widespread suspicion for there has been a payoff.
The hostages were turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross in two groups in Ghazni Province. A Taliban spokesman immediately declared that more kidnappings can be expected since the tactic is so profitable, reinforcing the impression that money has changed hands.
Among others seeking media attention on the matter, Rev. Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the enormous World Evangelical Alliance, has denounced any restrictions on missionaries traveling to Afghanistan. Whether he personally plans a trip remains unclear. Various foreign ministries have complained that the government of the Republic of Korea is compromising with terrorism.
For both South Korea and the United States, the hostage crisis has created strains. Washington is now more focused than it has been in several years on the resurgent Taliban threat to the government in Kabul. Announcing a troop cut, however minor, gives the appearance in the media that Seoul is aiding the enemy.
For both Seoul and Washington, now is the time to take steps to reinforce a bilateral relationship that is among the closest and most comprehensive in the world. The recent trade liberalization agreement between the two nations should be used as the foundation for continuing talks to achieve further progress.
The Korean economic powerhouse contains multitudes of ever more prosperous consumers who want lower prices and greater diversity of affordable goods, and business leaders anxious to expand overseas. The Korea Institute for International Economic Policy has predicted that exports under the new agreement would expand initially by 12 percent annually, and grow more in future years. U.S. economic growth and consumer spending is also promising in this regard.
Anticipated future talks will focus on including goods from the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea under the market-opening umbrella. The Bush administration has been opposed to this, but this is a mistake. Over time, engagement of the North in wider economic development will increase Seoul’s influence on Pyongyang. The White House should change its posture on this matter.
Second, Washington and Seoul should undertake very visible measures to reinforce military cooperation, which is also very well established. Joint exercises, at times including Japan, are now a tradition. South Korean military withdrawal from Afghanistan argues for underscoring the continuing significance of the alliance relationship with the U.S. Islamic terrorism is a problem that reaches well beyond Afghanistan, and has been particularly significant in Southeast Asia. South Korea’s military effectiveness remains an important component of guaranteeing stability in the Asian region generally.
Third, diplomats from both South Korea and the United States should begin a private dialogue about how best to respond to kidnappings in the future. Paying ransom generally is a bad practice which only reinforces the notion that grabbing people is profitable. Yet this is often the reaction.
For many years, American corporations operating in Latin America have regularly paid off radical leftist terrorists in order to secure the return of kidnapped executives or to try to forestall such incidents. Diplomatic dialogue on the subject might lead to useful guidelines, at least in general terms.
South Korea’s economic development and democratic political evolution are direct testimony to the wisdom of American foreign policies over many years. President Harry Truman demonstrated great courage in 1950 in immediately intervening in the Korean War. The new United Nations was confirmed as a viable institution through American backing and leadership of the effort to defend South Korea against brutal military aggression.
Korean UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was prominent in efforts to secure release of the hostages in Afghanistan. Taliban terror is vexing but also very manageable in the context of not only a very strong South Korea-U.S. alliance, but also a global network of institutions, such as the Red Cross and organizations under the UN umbrella.

*The writer is director of the Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Wisconsin. He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu.

by Arthur I. Cyr
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