SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea’s relief at the release of 19 countrymen held hostage by the Taliban gave way Friday to anger at the victims themselves, members of a Christian church who are being criticized for ignoring warnings against travel to Afghanistan.Critics said the group’s actions forced their government into negotiations with the Islamic militants that damaged the nation’s international reputation.
A day after the last hostages were let go, some of the church workers apologized for the trouble caused by their captivity, and a few collapsed when told the militants had slain two male colleagues. One said she secretly kept a diary on the lining of her pants.
With the crisis over, South Koreans turned their focus to what went wrong, who is to blame and what lessons can be drawn from the six-week ordeal. Public anger toward the hostages had been expressed in one form or another from the beginning, and it was rising on Friday.
Scathing comments, written with the cloak of anonymity, flooded Internet message boards. Newspapers published critical editorials.
Most noticeable was the feeling the hostages themselves and the church that sent them to Afghanistan were to blame because they did not heed repeated government warnings to stay away from the volatile Central Asian country. One advisory cited an intelligence report that insurgents were targeting Koreans.
“They were told not to go,” said Kim Young-soo, 42, a travel agency employee in Seoul. “They shouldn’t have gone there in the first place.”
The apparent ignoring of the warning levied a high price on the government, critics argued, forcing it to deal directly with the Taliban in violation of the international principle of not negotiating with terrorists. Seoul is also alleged to have made a secret ransom payment to the insurgent group, although the government denied it.
The U.S., a South Korean ally, welcomed the hostages’ release, but it also alluded to the talks with the Taliban.
Asked Thursday if meeting with the militants set a dangerous precedent, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said: “I’d simply reiterate that the long-standing U.S. policy is … not to make concessions to terrorists.”
The hostage crisis has hurt the pride of many South Koreans, who have sought international recognition for their homeland’s rise from the rubble of the 1950-53 Korean War to become one of the world’s richest nations.
“Of course, the country has a duty to protect its people, but I’m worried that the status of South Korea will slip a lot in the international community,” said Kim Kwang-ho, 32, an employee at a consulting firm.
Local media also raised concerns about the ramifications of any ransom being paid. A senior Afghan official close to the negotiations alleged Friday the South Koreans had paid money to win their release.
“Speculation has been rife over a ransom payment. And we are concerned that other kidnapping incidents targeting our nationals might occur,” the newspaper Dong-a Ilbo said in an editorial.
Officials have hinted at the possibility of seeking compensation from the former hostages for expenses incurred by the government in winning their release â€” at least airfare and medical fees â€” an unprecedented move seen as reflecting public anger over the crisis.
Still, there were some calls for sympathy.
“Two of them have already died in the crisis. They are also victims,” said Kim Kwang-il, an activist with an anti-war group that has argued Seoul’s dispatch of some 200 soldiers to Afghanistan caused the hostage crisis.
The Taliban freed the hostages after South Korea’s government repeated a pledge to withdraw those troops before year’s end.
The two male hostages were slain soon after the Taliban seized 23 South Koreans on July 19. The militants freed two female captives last week, and the remaining 19 hostages this week.
Yonhap news agency reported that some of the former captives fell to the ground in shock when they were told that the two members of their group had been slain. Television showed the former hostages tearfully reuniting and hugging at a hotel in the Afghan capital.
It was too early to tell if emerging accounts of the hostages’ ordeal and profuse apologies could cause more widespread sympathy.
“I can’t sleep due to concerns that we caused so much trouble,” Yoo Kyung-sik, 55, one of the hostages, said in an interview shown Friday evening on South Korean television.
He said the captives had been separated into groups of three or four and were repeatedly moved, mostly by motorbike or on foot.
Suh Myung-hwa, another freed hostage, also apologized.
“We caused so much anxiety to the people and our government was hit hard,” the 29-year-old said in a televised interview.
Suh showed reporters a pair of white pants on the inside of which she had written detailed records about when the kidnappers moved her, the times they had meals, the kinds of Korean food she longed to eat and other details.
“All I could think about was staying alive,” she said. “I didn’t feel any pain under captivity, I guess because I was in a panic the whole time. But now that the tension is gone my body aches all over.”
As another condition for winning the hostages’ release, the government promised that it will stop Christian missionary activity in Afghanistan, and Korean media raised questions about what they called “rash” evangelical activity in a Muslim nation.
The suburban Seoul church that sent the 23 volunteers to Afghanistan and the hostages’ relatives have said the group was working on humanitarian projects and not evangelizing.
But their trip has been widely seen by their countrymen as being related to mission work in a country of which many South Koreans have an unclear understanding.
“I really can’t understand they tried to do missionary work on the streets of an Arab nation,” Kim, the travel agency worker, said, confusing the ethnic makeup of Afghanistan, which is largely Pashtun, with that of many Middle Eastern countries.
Referring to the government’s move to seek reimbursement for its expenses, the liberal newspaper Hankyoreh said, “The Protestant churches should thoroughly reflect (on their behavior) with regard to why such demands have been raised.”