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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007

What's wrong with talking to save lives?

LOS ANGELES — How much might a human life be worth these days?

That's an utterly absurd question to answer with quantification, to be sure. But apparently it wasn't that tough an assessment for the pragmatic South Korean government. If press reports are correct, Seoul just dished out something like $2 million in Afghanistan to spring 19 of their citizens from Taliban captivity.

The ordeal started earlier this summer when 23 South Korean missionaries, ignoring government warnings, went to the war-torn nation. The Taliban, for whom Christian missionaries are not exactly welcome visitors, grabbed the lot of them and put two of the men to death right off the bat. Facing a furor of anxiety at home, the Roh Moo Hyun government was caught in a bind.

International opinion was virtually united in urging Seoul not to negotiate for the hostages' release, on the principle of not rewarding terrorists by even engaging with them. But domestic opinion was divided, with South Koreans increasingly focusing more on the pressing likelihood of the hostages' death, if nothing was done for them, than on any abstract theory of how best to cope with terrorism.

And nothing indeed was going to be done unless Seoul itself did something. For its part, Washington did little except to repeat the don't-negotiate-with-evil mantra, as did almost everyone else. If the Roh government was going to act, it would have to act alone.

And so the South Korean government made the decision to negotiate with Taliban terrorists in the face of almost unified negative world opinion. And once the decision was made to try to save their citizens, the South Koreans acted with characteristic no-holds-barred decisiveness and commitment.

They agreed to pull out all their forces by year's end (they had previously planned to do so anyway), and pleaded that they had no influence over the Kabul government to release Taliban prisoners held in Afghanistan — as had been Taliban's insistence. Before long, the only remaining question was about money.

Recognizing that the Taliban would prostitute their principles for money, the Korean negotiators calculated that the only obstacle standing in the way of the hostages' release was price. Once an exchange rate was agreed on, the deal was done, and the hostages were in their way home.

Even at that point, international criticism maintained its self-righteousness. However, while some of the criticism was sincere, a measure of it was of the tut-tut variety. After all, when human lives can be saved, it is difficult, if not morally reprehensible, to turn one's back on their plight.

Even so, no government wants to be seen as being weak on terrorism. Yet if the enemy has you in a box and the only way out of it is direct negotiation, is it not moral cowardice to strike the tough-guy pose while real lives are lost?

A parallel might be seen in the so-called "sunshine policy" of the present and past South Korean presidents. Their persistent effort to engage the loathsome North Korean regime was unpopular at home and abroad, but what alternative was there? Invasion was not an option and refusing to negotiate would only prolong the nuclear stalemate.

In point of fact, the iceberg with North Korea only thawed when the Bush administration finally agreed to negotiate with that government of terrorists head to head. The result was the six-party talks agreement that, to date at least, seems to be moving the Korean Peninsula in the right direction.

Once again — in both the North Korean and the Taliban dilemmas — aggressive, even assertive South Korean diplomacy looks to have been the right instinct. Rather than evidencing moral cupidity, that approach took courage and conviction.

At the end of the day, North Korea is moving toward denuclearization and the Korean hostages are safe at home.

Will this encourage the Taliban to snatch more Koreans or whomever they can get their paws on who might have ransom resources? Perhaps, but remember: The Taliban doesn't need any encouragement to inhuman action, it comes naturally to them. Each crisis will need to be judged on its particular merits. Sometimes you should negotiate with terrorists, and sometimes you shouldn't.

Tom Plate, a full-time faculty member at UCLA, is a veteran journalist.

Copyright Tom Plate 2007

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