Taliban Do a Good Turn?

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that Afghanistan’s

murderous Taliban insurgents had released two sick South Korean women hostages,

stirring immediate speculation over whether Korean authorities had paid a ransom

to get the two released, both of whom were wearing Islamic-style headscarves and crying.

The release of the two hostages risks turning the situation on its head and making

the Islamic fundamentalist militants appear benevolent captors despite murdering

two aid workers earlier. Indeed, wire services said a Taliban spokesman attributed the

decision to free the two women to the group’s supreme council, headed by Mullah

Mohammad Omar, as a gesture of goodwill towards the Korean people and South

Korean diplomats negotiating for the hostages' release.

The kidnap and murder of the Korean Christians thus stands a bizarre chance

of giving the Taliban a propaganda victory despite their actions. A Taliban

spokesman said the leadership wanted to show a “good gesture towards the South

Koreans,” adding that the insurgents would accelerate talks on the other 19

hostages they still hold.

The Korean government has officially ruled out paying any ransom, but there

have long been questions whether the government has publicly vowed not to

negotiate, while privately handing out funds.

The two women, Kim Gina,

32, and Kim Kyung-ja, 37, were part of a group of 23

Korean health workers kidnapped by Taliban fighters on July 19 as they drove between

Kabul and Kandahar

in often-lawless Ghazni

Province. Two of the 23

were murdered when negotiations bogged down. The first, pastor Bae Hyeong-gyu,

was said in news stories to have been shot 10 times before his body was tossed

on a highway in Ghazni.

"Their health condition is okay,"

tribal elder Haji Zahir told AFP before the women were handed to the

International Committee for the Red Cross. A woman who identified herself as

one of the two released hostages told AFP by telephone, "I am okay."

Asked if she was one of the South Koreans,

she said, "Yes, Korean. We are two, we are okay."

The remaining hostages are mostly women in their 20s and 30s. Their plight, as

the largest group of kidnap victims ever from Korea, has focused attention on the

evangelical fervor of Korean Protestants, who often send mission workers into

some of the toughest places in the world. The crisis has turned some Koreans

against the US government

and its allies in Afghanistan

because of the vow not to exchange Taliban prisoners for the hostages. The Afghan government, backed by the US, has said

releasing prisoners would just encourage more kidnapping.

Korean mission workers operate in Africa, the Middle East, China

and North Korea,

where they cross the border illegally and seek to convert their communist

brethren in secret. The estimated 16,000 Korean missionaries abroad are the

second largest group in the world, after those from the United States.

Saemmul Presbyterian Church, which sent the group to Afghanistan,

has insisted that they were not doing religious work, but were instead

providing social services and aiding relief efforts. The church has been criticized

for failing to understand the seriousness of the security situation in Afghanistan and

for sending missionaries to a devoutly Muslim country that might easily be

offended by the gesture.

“Korean churches often follow the concept of aggressive

modernization,” Song Jae-ryong, a professor of religion and sociology at Kyung Hee University in Seoul

told the JoongAng Daily. “Appearances, such as how many

believers does our church have, how much has our church collected and how large

is our church building, are considered important. It is hard to deny that such

a tendency is part of the background for Korean churches’ aggressive sending of

missionaries abroad.”

Korea

diplomats have been in face-to-face talks with the insurgents since Friday.