The kidnapping of a Korean translator by militant insurgents in Iraq is another blow to rapidly deteriorating relations between the United States and South Korea, according to observers in the Korean and international online media.
Kim Sun Il, a translator working for a private Korean firm doing business in Iraq, was executed Tuesday by his al Qaeda-linked captors, according to al- Jazeera, the Arab satellite news network. Kim’s abduction and subsequent beheading has raised questions among online pundits about South Korea’s role in Iraq and cooperation with the United States on a broader variety of issues.
At risk, say the pundits, is not only Korea’s planned dispatch of 3,000 troops to Iraq later this year but also Washington’s alliance with Seoul in confronting North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
The Korea Herald reported that President Roh Moo Hyun said the kidnappers’ threats would not alter the government’s commitment to send medical and engineering units to assist U.S.-backed reconstruction efforts later this year.
The government’s decision to go ahead with the troop deployment was endorsed by the conservative Chosun Ilbo. The independent Donga Ilbo declared “divided public opinion on the issue will end up helping the abductors.”
But South Korea seems different from Italy and Japan where nationals taken hostage in Iraq prompted antiwar forces to close ranks behind their governments’ refusal to negotiate.
One opposition party, the Democratic Labour Party, is urging Roh to cancel the troop dispatch, according to a report on al-Jazeera.net, Web site of the Arab cable news channel.
“The DLP has urged the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun to ‘expeditiously exercise all available means and measures to open diplomatic channels and spare no sweat to have Kim Sun Il return alive,'” the Qatar-based site said. The DLP, which stressed it was against sending troops to Iraq before the kidnapping, urged the government to bear in mind that “if we keep insisting on any more military deployment, we will end up encountering even more troublesome disasters than we experience now.”
The family of the victim, Kim Sun Il, echoed the call.
“I used to think the troop dispatch must take place even when my son was in Iraq, but now in such a situation, my son must be saved first,” Kim’s teary-eyed mother told the Yonhap News Agency, according to the Korea Times.
South Korea’s ambivalence about Iraq is showing through, says Mike Breen, a Seoul-based journalist interviewed by Radio Netherlands.
“The hostage crisis is putting a lot of pressure [on the government],” he said, “because the decision to send troops, here, was very unpopular, and it was really made with a view to keeping on the right side of the US. Korean themselves have no interest in Iraq, no appetite or real experience of getting involved in issues in other countries. And I think they are rather alarmed to suddenly find themselves with the third largest contingent in Iraq.”
Right before the kidnapping occurred, 34 members of the ruling Uri rule party, issued a statement harshly critical of the U.S. war effort that warned Washington not to handle the confrontation with North Korea in the same way it treated Iraq — with “false information.”
The statement, said the Korea Times, is “expected to further erode the half-century alliance between Seoul and Washington, which has already shown a visible rift” over U.S. plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops in South Korea by a third by the end of 2005. Korean officials had not expected the reductions until the end of 2007.
Last week, this column found “mainstream anti-Americanism” had arrived in South Korea. The State Department’s survey of Korean and Asian press commentary found widespread dismay and recriminations in Korea and Asia over such a “shocking change” in the once-close alliance.
Chief among the perceived dangers: emboldening nuclear North Korea.
“Only a shadow of our alliance is left,” declared the independent JoongAng Daily. “The urgent thing is to secure military power that can counter the North Korean military threat.”
“Disharmony in the U.S.-South Korea alliance cannot be allowed since it will be exploited by North Korea,” said the Daily Yomiuri, a leading Japanese daily.
But North Korea’s reaction is hard to read. The Korea Central News Agency has yet to cover the kidnapping story. Among the news stories getting more coverage on the state-controlled Web site: Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s gift of a floral basket to dictator Kim Jong Il.