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The Conflict in Iraq

South Korean Held in Iraq Is Beheaded

Militant group kills the interpreter after demanding that Seoul cancel plans to send troops. U.S. says it hit a safe house in Fallouja.

June 23, 2004|Peter Y. Hong and Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Carrying out a threat issued two days earlier, Iraqi militants beheaded a South Korean hostage Tuesday, dumping the man's body on the side of the road between Baghdad and Fallouja where it was found by U.S. soldiers.

On Tuesday night, U.S. fighter jets launched strikes in Fallouja on what the military said was a safe house sheltering associates of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant whose network was believed to be responsible for the kidnapping. At least three people were killed in the U.S. strike, hospital officials said.

South Koreans, who had pleaded with militants to spare the life of 33-year-old interpreter Kim Sun Il, shed collective tears upon learning of Kim's beheading.

For two days, the hostage drama played out to its tragic conclusion on Korean television. In footage that was aired constantly, a terrified Kim screamed for his life. Live coverage from inside his family's spartan home showed his distraught parents begging captors to spare him.

"My heart breaks and my breathing stops when I think of Kim's cries," South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun said in a televised address this morning, in which he bowed to offer his condolences to the nation and the family.

"I'm in total shock. I couldn't sleep a wink. I can't work," said Lee Hee Kun, a literary agent in her 40s, one of many Koreans transfixed by the hostage crisis. "I can only hope that Koreans as a nation will not take this news irrationally."

Security was tightened around all Islamic facilities in South Korea after police reported that numerous threatening calls were made to the main mosque in Seoul.

Kim was the third foreign hostage in the Middle East to be beheaded in a little over a month. His body was recovered on another day of rampant violence in Iraq, less than 10 days before the U.S. is to hand over sovereignty to a caretaker Iraqi government.

In one incident, insurgents killed a prominent Iraqi academic and her husband. In another, a bodyguard and a 3-year-old girl died in what appeared to be a failed assassination attempt on an Iraqi Cabinet member.

Kim was kidnapped last week by a group calling itself "One God Holy War." The group released a video, threatening to kill Kim by sundown Monday unless South Korea agreed to withdraw its 670 noncombat troops from Iraq and cancel plans to send 3,000 troops by August.

The South Korean government said that it would not give in to the demands.

Earlier Tuesday, a negotiator who met with Kim's captors said Kim was still alive and talks were proceeding. But later in the day, Al Jazeera satellite television broadcast another video of the group announcing it had killed Kim.

The video showed Kim kneeling in front of five hooded men, one of whom had a large knife tucked in his belt. A black flag in the background proclaimed: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."

Kim, wearing an orange jumpsuit that resembled those worn by inmates at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, rocked back and forth in apparent agony. He appeared to be sobbing.

One of his captors shouted: "Stop lying! Your soldiers are not here for Iraqis, but for the damned Americans!"

Kim worked as an interpreter for Gana General Trading Co., a South Korean supplier to the U.S. military.

Kim's decapitation followed the beheadings of American engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr. last week in Saudi Arabia and Nicholas Berg, an American businessman, in Iraq last month.

The latest video on Al Jazeera didn't show Kim's execution. The TV station said it withheld that footage because "it could be highly distressing to our audience."

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief spokesman for the U.S. military, said it appeared that Kim's body had been thrown from a vehicle.

"The man had been beheaded, and the head was recovered with the body," he said.

It was about 2 a.m. in South Korea when Foreign Ministry spokesman Shin Bong Kil told a Seoul news conference that "it breaks my heart to convey this tragic news" of Kim's death.

This morning, Kim's mother, Shin Young Ja, collapsed upon hearing the news. She was later shown trying to tear up a plastic Iraqi flag that the family had been displaying to show support for the Iraqi people.

Other family members sobbed and hugged one another, averting their eyes from the television cameras.

"How could he be dead when only yesterday the government said he was alive?" demanded his stunned father, Kim Jong Kyu.

South Koreans were touched by Kim's story. The only son of a struggling construction worker, Kim put himself through college and graduate school, obtaining degrees in Arabic and English and studying religion in hopes of becoming a missionary.

He took the job as an interpreter in Iraq with the hope of earning enough money to continue his studies.

As the news sank in, some South Koreans lashed out at their government and at the U.S. for failing to save Kim's life by not canceling the planned troop dispatch.

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