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Killing Brings Home a New National Threat for South Koreans

June 24, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — For South Koreans, the beheading of one of their own by Islamic militants has been a cruel initiation into the post-Sept. 11 world.

Until the killing, this Asian nation watched terrorist attacks from a distance. Although the decapitation of Kim Sun Il, 33, took place in Iraq, the horror was thrust into living rooms via television footage of the blindfolded hostage in the moments before his death and the cameras that shadowed his distraught parents as they awaited news of their only son's fate.

"Until now, terrorism did not feel like our problem. Kim Sun Il was the first South Korean victim of this kind of terrorism," said Won Hee Ryong, a national assemblyman from the opposition party. "Through him, we have come to realize that we are not exempt as targets for this kind of inhumane act."

Virtually all previous terrorist attacks against South Korea implicated communist North Korea and date back many years. The last major attack was in 1987 when a Korean Air passenger plane was blown up, killing all on board.

"This incident has awoken South Korea to the fact that national security is not only a question of heavily armed North Korea at our borders," Won said. "There is a new national security reality that people will have to digest."

Kim's headless body was found Tuesday afternoon west of Baghdad. There were reports that the body had been booby-trapped with explosives.

Kim worked as an interpreter for a company supplying U.S. military commissaries. He was kidnapped by an Islamic militant group that said it would decapitate him unless South Korea canceled plans to dispatch 3,000 troops to Iraq this summer and withdrew 670 noncombat personnel already there.

South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun rejected the kidnappers' demands, saying the troop dispatch would go forward as planned. Although the president was an early opponent of the Iraq invasion, he has said that South Korean troops are needed to maintain Seoul's historic alliance with the United States and to help in the reconstruction of Iraq.

If the troops are dispatched as planned, South Korea will have the third-largest presence in Iraq after the United States and Britain.

The shock of the killing is too fresh for analysts to predict its effect on South Korean politics.

"People are still trying to decide who they should blame -- the South Korean government, the United States or the terrorists," said Chang Noh Soon, a political scientist at Halla University.

News of Kim's beheading hit South Korea early Wednesday. Throughout the day, South Koreans offered one another condolences as though family members had died.

Park Dong Sun, a 57-year-old real estate agent, said she walked into a stock brokerage in the morning and found many employees not at their desks but in the hallway, hugging one another and crying.

"This is not something people will forget," she said. "It will be a lasting trauma for Koreans."

Polls suggest that the slaying is not, as some predicted, causing a burst of anti-Americanism and that sentiments in favor of the troop dispatch are on the rise.

A snap poll taken Wednesday by Korean Internet portal showed that support for the troop dispatch increased after the killing, with 63.5% in favor of sending troops. On Monday, a similar poll showed 78.9% opposed.

In the South Korean National Assembly, 50 members -- including 27 from Roh's left-of-center party -- submitted a resolution Wednesday calling for reconsideration of the troop dispatch. But its sponsors conceded that it had little chance of passing and that they would not push very hard because they did not want to appear as if they were exploiting a national tragedy for political gain.

"This is not the time to discuss recalling the troop dispatch," said Park Yong Seon, a ruling party assemblywoman. "We are concentrating our efforts on consoling the surviving family."

South Koreans held heated debates Wednesday about the reason for Kim's killing and what the appropriate response should be.

During the lunch hour, about 100 antiwar activists in downtown Seoul set up a makeshift shrine for Kim with candles and incense flanking a black-framed photograph of the dead man.

"The lesson is that if we send our troops to Iraq, these kinds of kidnappings are bound to reoccur," Jeong Young Kun, one of the organizers of the demonstration, said as he lighted a candle. "Kidnapping an innocent civilian is, of course, wrong, but we understand the reason they did it. The reason is because of the United States' unjustified attack on Iraq and the forceful occupation of Iraq."

Park Seong Kyu, a 52-year-old civil servant watching the demonstration, said he had a different reaction to Kim's slaying. "I'd like to see Korea send more troops and send combat troops so we can take revenge," Park said. "We need to be strong."

Many South Koreans said they believed that Kim could have been saved by wiser and swifter action.

South Korean government officials said Wednesday that Kim was seized May 31 and that his employer did not notify authorities until June 20 because Kim was trying to negotiate his own release.

Associated Press reported that its television unit had received a video of Kim in early June but that it was not clear from the tape whether Kim was a captive. It said the television unit contacted South Korea's prime ministry and was told the ministry knew of no Korean who had been taken captive, so the matter was dropped.

Kim's body was flown Wednesday on a U.S. military transport plane from Baghdad to Kuwait City on its way to South Korea.

Hundreds of South Korean dignitaries went to Pusan, the family's hometown, to pay their respects.

Jinna Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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