[Outlook]A moral quandary

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[Outlook]A moral quandary

British economist Alfred Marshall spoke of the importance of having “cool heads but warm hearts.” A policy approved by someone with both a cool head and a warm heart is undoubtedly a good one. But what if the two qualities cannot be reflected in a single policy? This is the problem that governments often face.
The hostage ordeal, which wrenched the hearts of all Koreans, came to an end after some 40 days. Two of the hostages were executed.
But it is good that the other 21were released. Now we need to look back on the crisis and learn a lesson from it. The events in Afghanistan raise a grave question about government policy and the country’s duty to protect its people.
The Korean government ignored the principles of international society, which say not to negotiate with terrorist groups. Seoul decided to negotiate with the Taliban.
Late last week, President Roh Moo-hyun said that a precious asset ― the lives of the hostages ― and the country’s international reputation came into conflict with each other. The decision to negotiate with the Taliban was made after countless debates and a lot of conflict inside the administration.
He added that in practice, ignoring international society’s norms puts a burden on the country when handling foreign affairs.
However, the president’s remark is not completely right. If negotiating with a terrorist group damages the country’s reputation and burdens it only when dealing with foreign affairs, that is endurable. The truth is that saving the lives of the hostages in Afghanistan puts the lives of potential future hostages at risk.
Let’s suppose that some 20 Koreans traveling in a dangerous country are kidnapped by a terrorist group again. What should we do if the captors demand negotiations and threaten to kill the hostages if we do not comply? What if they kill three of the hostages to prove they mean what they say and then threaten to kill more?
Since the Korean government negotiated with the Taliban, it made other Koreans around the world targets for kidnapping.
In economic terms, a difficult situation like this should be resolved with a cool head, not a warm heart. Negotiating with the captors was only good in the short term because innocent people were released.
But terrorist groups will see kidnapping as being profitable.
Thus, the negotiation will encourage other kidnappings, increasing the possibility of innocent people being held as hostages or even being executed.
To be tough and make it clear there will be no negotiations from the beginning will require sacrifice in the short term, but that is the optimal policy to prevent further kidnappings. This policy has stood the test of time. This is why international society’s principle of not negotiating with terrorist groups is abided by.
The recent hostage crisis in Afghanistan took place very suddenly, and the Taliban kidnapped a large number of people at once. We were ignorant of international society’s strict principle. So it is understandable, to some extent, that the government worked full-scale to resolve the crisis. But it was wrong that the head of the national intelligence agency worked on the front lines and hurried to resolve the case.
In the spring of last year, when Korean vessels were hijacked off the cost of Somalia, the government did not come to the forefront but resolved the case quietly and discreetly.
It should have resolved the hostage case in Afghanistan in the same manner. That would have taken more time and possibly more sacrifices. But at least Korea would not have been labeled as an immature member of international society that does not abide by international norms.
Now what should Koreans and their government do? We need to break free from the precedent we set in Afghanistan to prevent further kidnappings. The president must announce that Korea will not negotiate with terrorist groups again and we should keep the promise no matter what. To replace the head of the intelligence agency is a good way to make the announcement more trustworthy.
Korea negotiated with the Taliban, saying this was an exception.
In the future, terrorist groups might kidnap more Koreans to see whether that is true. So Koreans must be careful not to become victims. When the president announces that the country will never negotiate with a terrorist group again, Koreans must understand that negotiations with terrorist groups won’t happen again; even if their sons or grandsons are held as hostages. This is the right way to prevent further kidnapping and a rite of passage to becoming mature members of international society.

*The writer is a professor of economics at Chung-Ang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Ahn Kook-shin

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