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South Koreans Weep, Wait for News of Iraq Hostage

Seoul is reportedly talking to the militants after a deadline for execution passes.

June 22, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — They prayed. They demonstrated. They sent e-mails. And they cried.

In a country that is largely ambivalent about sending its troops to Iraq, the kidnapping of a 33-year-old South Korean interpreter and the televised threats to behead him have brought home a faraway war.

Throughout the day, South Korean television replayed footage of the terrified hostage, Kim Sun Il, screaming, "Korean soldiers, please get out of here. I don't want to die," with masked gunmen standing behind him in a menacing tableau.

The kidnappers demanded on a tape broadcast on Al Jazeera, an Arabic-language television channel, that South Korea abandon plans to send troops to Iraq. Their 24-hour deadline passed Monday with no word from the kidnappers, who claim to be linked to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Behind-the-scenes negotiations were said to be ongoing, and South Korean officials said today they believed that Kim was still alive.

Kim, who speaks Arabic and English, works for a private contractor.

Kim's elderly parents, tears streaming down their cheeks, begged the South Korean government to cancel the troops' deployment to spare their son, the only boy in a family of seven girls.

"My life is over without him," cried Kim Jong Kyu, the hostage's father, to television reporters in his hometown of Pusan.

Although South Korea declared Monday that it would not succumb to blackmail by the kidnappers, today the government appeared to be softening its public statements.

"We'll have to wait and see," Defense Minister Cho Yong Kil told reporters today when asked if South Korea was still planning to dispatch 3,000 troops to Iraq in August.

Some lawmakers from South Korea's ruling party said they would submit a resolution Wednesday calling for a review of the decision to send troops.

South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, who was a vocal opponent of attacking Iraq before taking office last year, has said that South Korean troops would be engaged only in humanitarian work. South Korea now has about 670 medics and engineers working in Iraq. The new deployment would make the South Korean contingent the third-largest, after American and British forces.

"We need to make efforts to explain [to Iraqis] that our troops will focus on reconstruction efforts without conducting hostile activities against Iraqi people," Roh said Monday through a spokesman.

Throughout the day Monday, South Korean officials and ordinary citizens declared their antiwar sentiments when they issued public pleas for Kim's life. So many e-mails were sent by South Koreans to Al Jazeera's online bulletin board that the site was temporarily closed.

"Release him, please. Take Bush instead!" wrote one person to the bulletin board, signing the message, "Crying in Korea."

In an attempt to save Kim's life, South Korea's ambassador to Qatar appeared Monday on Al Jazeera, stressing the humanitarian nature of the South Korean mission.

U.S. officials in Baghdad also promised to work for Kim's release.

"We view as a high priority any hostage taken," said Dan Senor, spokesman for the U.S.-led administration of Iraq. He said "all the necessary resources, both military and intelligence" were being devoted to locating and rescuing Kim.

Polls indicate that South Koreans are deeply divided about dispatching troops to Iraq. Even those in favor describe it as a burden necessary to help the United States, which protected the South against the North's Communists in the Korean War. But the kidnapping appeared to be eroding support for the dispatch. A snap poll taken Monday by the Korean Internet portal showed 78.9% of respondents opposed.

As the countdown to the deadline began Sunday night, hundreds held a candlelight vigil in Pusan to pray for Kim's release.

In Seoul, a similar vigil turned more political. Antiwar activists said they hoped the incident would galvanize opposition to the deployment.

"This makes the war in Iraq reality for many people," said Noh Ju Yeon, a 23-year-old student who was one of about 1,000 people marching in Seoul. She said the kidnapping was a predictable result of Iraqi anger over the occupation of their country.

"We can't really call them [the kidnappers] terrorists. From their point of view, they were attacked by a superpower without justification. As someone from a small country, I understand their feelings," Noh said.

Nevertheless, South Korea's often fractious political parties rallied Monday behind Roh's decision not to cancel the troop deployment.

"The Bush administration cooked the books and falsified information about the links between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The government cannot change its position and surrender to kidnappers, but I am still opposed to the troop dispatch," said Song Yong Kil, a ruling-party assemblyman.

Kim was seized in Fallouja on June 17, but the kidnapping was not initially made public because of efforts to negotiate with his employer, Gana General Trading, a South Korean company that supplies goods to U.S. military commissaries.

The hostage was born into a poor family but graduated last year with a degree in Arabic from Korea's prestigious Hankook University of Foreign Studies. He had earlier studied to be a missionary.

"He is a very sincere, quiet person," said Han Jae Kwang, a humanitarian worker who met Kim recently in Iraq.

Kim had been in Iraq for eight months and planned to return to Korea next month for his father's 70th birthday.

Family members said they had spoken to Kim last in April and that he assured them he was safe.

"Don't worry about me. I feel comfortable here," Kim said, according to one of his sisters, Kim Jung Sook.

He was more candid, however, to a friend in a recent e-mail released to Korean television.

"I live hearing shells and gunshots every single day, but I'm so used to it that maybe I'm totally numb and unaware" of the danger, he wrote.

Special correspondent Ashraf Khalil in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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