21 June 2004

A Kidnapping and a Presidential Predicament

June 20, 2004 (YONHAP) -- Kim Sun-il, a translator for a Korean military supply provider for the U.S. Army, is abducted by a group led by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, who U.S. officials say is a Jordanian with close links to the al-Qaida leadership and Osama bin Laden. Video footage aired by the Arab satellite TV network Al-Jazeera showed the militants threatening to behead Kim if South Korea does not withdraw its troops operating in Iraq.

Just days after the beheading of Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia by al Qaeda linked militants, a South Korean in Iraq faces the same fate. The demands from the captors include the withdrawal of the existing 650 or so ROK troops in Iraq and the reversal of the June 18 decision by Seoul to send an additional 3000 or so troops to Irbil in northern Iraq.

South Korea will not give in to the kidnappers, and Mr. Kim faces a nearly certain demise. And while on the personal level this is a tragedy, there are broader implications.

First, it is clear that al Qaeda cells and sympathy groups are trading concepts and ideas across borders. Johnson's death in Saudi Arabia followed the May beheading of Nicholas Berg in Iraq. Now it is once again the militants in Iraq who are threatening another beheading, this time a South Korean.

Second, it is sure to increase opposition in South Korea for the troops deployment, already unpopular (note in an earlier blog post the main focus of the Kwangju memorial was Iraq). This is not the only one of South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun's policies that is meeting public opposition - the decision to move the capital (and in particular go back on his election pledge to have a referendum on the move).

Roh has just recovered from his impeachment, overturned by the Constitutional Court only a month ago, and he is pushing through all his projects as quickly as he can before fading into lame duckness. South Korea's political system, in order to prevent another dictator from taking charge, allows only a single five year term for the President, with no vice president. This leaves the standing president a lame duck for the last two years or so of his presidency, particularly if parliament isn't on his side.

While Roh technically has the support of the ruling Uri Party, it only has a slim majority in the parliament and is fractured internally, with members already setting their sights on the 2007 presidential elections. Roh's ability to maintain momentum may be further hampered by the kidnapping, particularly if it does end bad for the hostage.

Ultimately, South Korea may change its presidential system again, or switch to a parliamentary system, as was promised by former President Kim Dae Jung. But until then, wild mood swings and unfortunate incidents will continue to wield disproportionate influence over the ability of the president to lead the nation.

(Well, that certainly ended on a significant note. Now realize that there are many things affecting the presidency, but the system does little to promote the ability of the president to truly direct the nation -- and in fact may even have been designed to prevent that.)

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