[Viewpoint] Much ado about a stray bullet

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[Viewpoint] Much ado about a stray bullet

The National Forensic Service officially confirmed that one of the four bullets removed from the body of Seok Hae-gyun, the heroic captain of the Samho Jewelry, had been fired by the naval commandoes who rescued the freighter from Somali pirates. An inquest and heated debate over the overall mission and that particular misfire will likely ensue. Before we get into the eye of the storm over the case, we could take a similar incident into account.

On Sept. 26 last year, Linda Norgrove, a Scottish aid worker, and three Afghan colleagues were kidnapped in Kunar Province, eastern Afghanistan, by members of the Taliban. She had been working as regional director of an international aid group that helped Afghan locals grow crops other than opium poppies. Her truck was ambushed on a highway and was killed on her 13th night of captivity during a rescue attempt by U.S. special forces.

International aid workers, in essence, are opposed to ransoms being paid for their release. Captors’ demands for humanitarian aid can be accepted, but not money in exchange for freeing hostages.

“We cannot use the valuable contributions from our donors to pay for our lives,” wrote Han Bi-ya, a well known Korean travel writer and relief worker, in a book. “If we pay [kidnappers], they will be stronger and threaten the people we are trying to help.”

When negotiations over Norgrove’s release hit a deadlock, the British government authorized American special antiterrorist forces to rescue her. On Oct. 8, 2010, a Navy Seals team staged a predawn raid on the Taliban hillside compound where Norgrove was being held. After a 30-minute exchange of fire, all seven Taliban gunmen were killed, but Norgrove was injured in an explosion and died from her injuries. It was initially reported by the U.S. military that she had been killed when one of her captors detonated a suicide vest during the rescue.

But British Prime Minister David Cameron said Norgrove may have been killed accidentally by a U.S. grenade.

A joint U.S. and U.K. investigation was launched that concluded she had indeed been killed accidentally by a grenade thrown by a U.S. soldier.

What we should take note of is the aftermath.

The U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan and the Department of Defense expressed sincere condolences, and the British government and her family accepted them. In a statement, Cameron said, “Decisions on operations to free hostages are always difficult. But where a British life is in such danger, and where we and our allies can act, I believe it is right to try.”

People of both countries blamed the Taliban kidnappers for the tragic loss, not the American soldier. They were wise to see the essence of evil in that sad tale.

Compared to this story, we have been overly rash. We raised a hoopla over our naval forces’ brave rescue operation. The military’s tooting of its own horn over the mission was an annoyance, but critics’ obsession with the bullet found in Seok is also tasteless.

One cannot wonder about the political motive for using the incident to attack the government and navy. What we should concentrate now are the Somali pirates. Our ships face lifethreatening danger every time they sail on the Arabian Sea. Instead of wrangling over one bullet, we should summon the wisdom to establish defenses against pirate attacks.

We still remember the kidnapping of South Korean church volunteers in Afghanistan four years ago. The Qatarbased Al Jazeera network reported that the South Korean government paid 37.8 billion won ($34 million) in cash to the Taliban group in exchange for the release of 23 Korean citizens.

The government said it will have the church pay for part of the ransom, but reportedly has not followed through with any action.

Instead, it was sued for a total of 350 million won by the families of the hostages, who claimed the government had been incompetent in assuring the protection of its citizens overseas.

We cannot go as far as Israel, which proclaims in its constitution that it will not negotiate with kidnappers. But our Constitution, which states the government’s duty to protect citizens overseas, is not supplemented with any details on the scope of protection and responsibility. It’s no wonder the government staggers every time a kidnapping takes place. Even at this moment there are Korean nationals in dangerous conflict areas. The government shoulders all the responsibility when they are kidnapped.

American and British people know that their governments cannot be omnipotent. Their opposition and media didn’t attack the government or the military for Norgrove’s death. Her family has not filed for a lawsuit against the U.S. military and it is not known whether the U.S. soldier who threw the grenade received disciplinary action.

It is time we too become mature in such a crisis. Raising a racket over a bullet only makes us look ridiculous.

Norgrove returned home in a coffin, but at least captain Seok is still with us. We pray for his fast recovery.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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