War on Terror: Reflecting on the 2007 South Korea-Taliban Hostage Crisis
September 3, 2021 – Asia Society Korea's Senior Contributor Dr. Mason Richey interviewed ROK Army General (ret.) In-Bum Chun, a key figure in the South Korean negotiation team during the Afghanistan hostage crisis of 2007. Against the backdrop of the Biden administration's decision to withdraw from Kabul and the rapid gains of the Taliban, Gen. Chun offers a composite picture of the situation in Afghanistan and ROK-Afghan relations.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11 (9/11) attacks on the United States, which caused the dramatic collapse of the iconic World Trade Center in New York City, snuffing out 2,606 lives in fire, smoke, and rubble. With the death toll in Washington, DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania added, in total 2,977 people perished on 9/11—the deadliest ever single assault on US territory by a foreign adversary. In the immediate aftermath, the administration of President George W. Bush decided to invade Afghanistan, whose ruling Taliban had allowed safe haven for Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the attacks.
So began the US “war on terror,” which came to determine a significant part of Washington’s approach to international relations throughout the 2000s. Only now is this chapter of US foreign policy and grand strategy coming to a close, as “Great Power Competition” with China has superseded counter-terrorism and the US recalibrates its international engagement away from non-critical interests and theaters. Most recently, this has manifested in the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan—a symbolic choice considering that it is where the “war on terror” started.
Despite this evolution in US foreign policy priorities, one should not forget that the “war on terror” eventually attained global dimensions, which meant US allies were drawn into the picture. They deployed troops, advisors, intelligence agents, and medical and engineering corps to places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, the Sahel, etc. They fought battles against insurgents and tried to rebuild failed states. They made sacrifices. South Korea was no different.
One of the forgotten stories of the “global war on terror” in Afghanistan is a major hostage crisis involving South Korea and the Taliban in 2007. The tense situation required both delicate negotiations and a back-up military presence to potentially extract the hostages in case talks failed. One of the figures in this operation was Lt. Gen. (ret.) Chun In-bum, who was dispatched to Afghanistan with the negotiation team. Lt. Gen. Chun was awarded the Korean Presidential Citation for his role in the crisis. He recounts his experience in the following interview.
What was the context for your deployment to Afghanistan in 2007? We know that beginning with Kim Dae-jung, South Korea joined the US-led coalition in Afghanistan in 2001, sending medics and engineers accompanied by two hundred soldiers for protection. With the Taliban out of power, conditions in Afghanistan were conducive to greater international people-to-people exchange, and in 2007 a South Korean Presbyterian church group used this opening to dispatch a 23-person missionary team. What happened to them?
In July 2007, while en route from Kandahar to Kabul, the group was taken hostage by Taliban militants, who pressed numerous demands: Seoul’s withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan, assurances of the end of South Korean missionary work in the country, and ransom payment for hostage release. The Taliban also demanded that the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai release Taliban prisoners. On July 22, South Korea sent a negotiating team to Kabul, including military personnel. Initial talks between the Taliban and South Korea failed, and the Taliban murdered one of the South Korean hostages on July 25. A second execution followed several days later. Thankfully, after forty-two days of frustrating and constipating negotiations, the rest of the hostages were released unharmed by the Taliban.
Before deploying from Korea to Afghanistan for this mission, what were your expectations for the situation? And what was the mission?
The primary mission for the Korean military was to support the negotiations that were under the supervision of the Blue House, with the vice-minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) as the local head of the mission. The team in Kabul included the MOFA element and a military support group, which I represented. The MOFA element had negotiators who met with the Taliban and their representatives. Although I can’t elaborate, these negotiators were more than your ordinary diplomats. The military element provided information and transportation, as well as liaison with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters. Afghanistan was a war zone, and so communications, movement, accommodations, etc. required military support. As the negotiations became prolonged—and with the killing of the two hostages—a military option was developed in case negotiations finally failed.
Success was defined as the rescue of all twenty-one remaining hostages; this was a highly unlikely outcome. If we had to use military force there was no way to guarantee “success.” Therefore, supporting the negotiation effort and at the same time preparing for a hostage rescue was the stated mission. Full responsibility for the outcome of a military option lay with me. Thankfully it never came to that.
How many other soldiers deployed with you? Were they in a standing unit, or were they put together especially for the hostage mission in Afghanistan?
Hostage negotiations occurred in Ghazni, which was approximately one hundred and seventy kilometers from Kabul, where the MOFA element and ISAF HQ were located. I and my staff of ten officers stayed in ISAF HQ, while a small military detachment was sent to Ghazni for direct support as well as situational awareness. Also, the ROK military unit that had already been deployed to Afghanistan was still stationed in Bagram airbase, and it provided all logistical support that I needed.
For the military operations, Korean Special Forces were put on alert and the 707th Special Mission Unit was put on isolation operations with some ROK air assets. These units were in Korea at an undisclosed location.
What did you prepare for? Was there any training in advance for this type of hostage mission?
The 707th is a hostage rescue unit. They were in isolation, preparing for a possible hostage rescue five thousand kilometers away. They conducted rehearsals and collected and refined available information, which, however, was vague at best. My immediate task was to gain support from the ISAF special units from Turkey, Germany, and Australia. At this stage, US support was focused on critical information and intelligence. The support that was provided by these nations, and especially by the United States, should not be understated. This was a very difficult mission for Korea. The Koreans were trained for terrorist attacks on Korean soil; the Koreans were trained for urban operations and with immediate support being available. Afghanistan, on the other hand, was a desert with unfamiliar buildings that were like small forts, and there was very limited available support.
Some people accused the missionaries of acting recklessly by going to Afghanistan with a church mission group. Were you irritated to be sent to a dangerous locale for people who may not have acted very wisely?
No. My mission was to protect the Korean people, not to judge their actions. Of course I was frustrated that my men and women would be in harm’s way, and that many of my people might not return alive, but that is the lot of a soldier. In one instance, we received false information that our women were being gang raped by the Taliban terrorists. At that point, of the twenty-one surviving hostages, sixteen were women. I was unable to sleep with this information, and my senior colonel and I volunteered to be exchanged for the immediate release of the women hostages. As the vice-minister pondered this option, I was scared, but in the end this option was not presented to the Taliban and we later found out that the information was false and that the women were treated well.
How did the mission come to an end?
After twenty-six days, two of the female hostages were released as a show of good faith, and for health reasons. When I interviewed them they seemed healthy and explained that they were treated well. One of the women had actually tried to give up her freedom for someone else in the group. I thought that was very courageous. On 28 August, forty days after the abduction, the Taliban agreed to release our hostages. The next day twelve hostages were released in increments of three or four. On 30 August, the remaining seven were released in the same manner. These were nail biting moments that felt like hours and days. A token payment was provided to the Taliban to “cover expenses” for taking care of the Koreans. South Korea also re-stated its intention to withdraw its fixed military presence that was already in-country since 2001. But this wasn’t a concession—Seoul was already planning the withdrawal anyway.
South Korea sent troops back to Afghanistan in 2010, as protection for reconstruction teams. How do you feel about the overall involvement of South Korea in military missions in Afghanistan?
The Korean element provided engineer support to ISAF. As always they were the go-to unit if you wanted something done right and fast. Korea also provided other forms of security assistance to the efforts in Afghanistan. The Korean units made a reputation for themselves as being successful in civil affairs operations. Maybe this was because the Koreans themselves were—just a few decades ago—as destitute and poor as the Afghans. In the end, Korea supported our allies and helped needy people. The Korean military accomplished its mission honorably.
How do you judge the US withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of active military presence there?
It has been sad and unnerving to see the unfolding of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is sad because of the suffering that the innocent will have to endure with the Taliban back in power, and it is unnerving because it is reminiscent of American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. First, the plan for an orderly withdrawal was faulty, to say the least, but I challenge anyone to guarantee such operations would have ever gone as planned. In war, shit happens. Secondly, the American way of war involves a certain nobility, putting itself on a higher moral pedestal, but that has limitations that a less scrupulous enemy will always take advantage of. For the same reason we trust America, American enemies loathe the US military and see the American way of war as a weakness to be exploited.
What do you think the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan—effectively admitting defeat—says about the US’s reputation, credibility, or competence as an alliance partner?
If I were the US, I would have been out ten years ago. Having said that, what a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will turn into and how it will affect the world is the real question. The next point to ponder is what the US has learned from its experience in Afghanistan, as well as what lessons its adversaries and enemies will learn. Again, in the eyes of dictators, it must seem that the US is defeatable. It is not easy to get the US to go to war, and even more difficult for it to conduct a long war. Other than that, the US is a reliable ally and a formidable adversary; all should be warned. Despite this, I would like South Korea to have a nuclear deterrent against North Korea and China.
Lt. Gen. Chun, thank you for taking the time to provide your thoughts.
You’re welcome. I’d also like to add words of thanks to both the Afghan government and ISAF for assistance during the hostage ordeal. The US was the lead in this support, but officers and personnel from other nations, such as the UK, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, Sweden, and Afghanistan, gave tremendous help and aid. The names have faded, but their kindness and sacrifice will always be remembered.
This interview was slightly edited for length and clarity.