The ordeal of Korean Christian aid workers at the hands of Taliban captors in Afghanistan has provoked bitter questioning over whether Korean authorities should have negotiated to win their release.
The 19 who arrived Sunday at Incheon International Airport face a barrage of criticism amid a national outpouring of relief that their harrowing saga is over.
Despite repeated official denials, most Koreans assume the government paid a sizable ransom to win the release of the 17 women and two men, most of them young nurses, after two men in the original party of 23 people were killed by their captors. Two other hostages, both women, were released Aug. 13, ostensibly over health concerns, just as Korean officials were opening talks before the Taliban made good on threats to kill more of them.
"I was unhappy when the hostages arrived because we have paid money," said Lee Dong Hoon, a businessman. "I am angry with them because they went there due to their religion."
The hostages' church, a large Presbyterian congregation in the Seoul suburb of Bundang, has apologized for sending the group six weeks ago in defiance of government warnings, but says their mission was to provide medicine and set up clinics, not to win converts in a deeply Islamic society. The group was riding a bus when taken hostage soon after their arrival.
Neither set of denials – those by the church of a missionary role in Afghanistan nor those by the government of a payoff – have convinced Koreans. Yonhap, South Korea's quasi-official news agency, described the denial of ransom by South Korea's top intelligence official, Kim Man-bok, as "ambiguous."
Mr. Kim, accompanying the hostages on their return, said "foreign media speculation about a ransom trade is wrong." Yonhap said that comment was less than "an outright denial," while reports from Kabul quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying $20 million was paid.
Korea officials say the conditions for the hostages' release are that the South withdraw its 200 troops, mostly medical workers and engineers, from Afghanistan by the end of the year as previously promised, and that Korean churches live up to earlier pledges to refrain from missionary work there.
South Korean negotiators came to terms after both the US and Afghan governments spurned Taliban demands for an exchange of hostages for eight high-level Taliban prisoners. At the same time, responding to Korean officials under fire at home for allying with the US in Afghanistan, the US ruled out a risky military operation to recover the hostages and did not try to impede talks.
Now that the hostages are back, Koreans are debating the issue of ransom and the implications in emotional terms. "Everyone thinks the government paid," says Kim Mi Jeong, a mother of two small children. "How else could we have gotten our hostages back from the Taliban?"
A member of the fast-growing evangelical Christian movement in Korea, Park Ju Young, said she hopes that "those who criticize them now can think of a better way of dealing with the situation without raising their voices." As for the hostages, she said, "They came back but cannot just rejoice because of the criticism in and out of Christianity."
Bae Ok-kyoung, a homemaker, says she believes the special forces of the Korean Army could have rescued the hostages. "I am not angry with the hostages but am very angry with the church," she says. Those who went to Afghanistan "should be punished," she says, while the church should compensate the government for costs. Still, like many, she says, "I am happy they arrived." And, she adds, "after a month, everyone will forget this, and we will be concerned with a new crisis."