South Koreans Held by Taliban Arrive in Seoul, Offer Apologies

"We are very apologetic and sorry for the trouble we caused our government and our people," said freed hostage Yoo Kyung Sik, flanked by relatives of two slain missionaries. Leaders of the Saemmul Church, which sponsored the group, have not said whether they agree with the ban on missionary work in Afghanistan negotiated by the government. (AP)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 2, 2007

SEOUL, Sept. 2 -- Looking wan and exhausted, and apologizing for the trouble they had caused their nation, South Korean missionaries held hostage for six weeks in Afghanistan arrived home early Sunday.

The 19 young Christians released last week by Taliban captors returned to a country thankful for their safe return but angered by what has been widely portrayed as the recklessness of the missionaries and the church that sent them into a war zone.

Moments after landing at Incheon International Airport, one of the released hostages apologized.

"Unexpectedly, we were kidnapped, and we are very apologetic and sorry for the trouble we caused our government and our people," said Yoo Kyung Sik. "We thank everyone for thinking about us and allowing us to come back home."

The missionaries were immediately taken to a hospital for checkups and a reunion with their families.

The kidnappings have caused a public rift in South Korea's large and prosperous Christian community. Worried about an anti-Christian backlash in this traditionally Buddhist country, mainstream Protestant groups have promised to refrain from sending missionaries into conflict areas and have distanced themselves from the church that sponsored the missionaries held hostage.

The Saemmul Church, a large congregation in an upscale southern suburb of Seoul, ignored a warning from the government in February not to send its missionaries to Afghanistan. The written warning said the Taliban was known to be planning to abduct South Koreans to win the release of prisoners.

Once the missionaries arrived in Afghanistan, their behavior appeared to compound that risk. They made themselves conspicuous targets by traveling overland by night in a rented bus and hired a driver who turned out to be a Taliban associate. He quickly handed them off to armed kidnappers.

In response to public anger over this seeming recklessness, the South Korean government, which negotiated the hostages' release and was reported by the Reuters news agency to have paid a $20 million ransom, is demanding that the church and families of the hostages repay some of the costs of bringing them home, including airfare, medical treatment and the transport of the bodies of two missionaries slain by their captors.

The South Korean government said it has not yet decided whether to demand that the church and families shoulder the entire cost of its negotiations with the kidnappers. That effort, according to media reports here, included the use of agents from South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service.

Quoting an unnamed senior Taliban leader, Reuters reported Saturday that the South Korean government paid more than $20 million to secure the freedom of its citizens. "With it, we will purchase arms, get our communication network renewed and buy vehicles for carrying out more suicide attacks," the commander told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The South Korean government on Saturday denied that any payment was made, as it has several times in recent days. A Taliban spokesman also denied receiving any money.

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