South Korea said Monday it will go ahead with plans to send troops to Iraq despite the abduction of a South Korean man and the televised broadcast of his desperate pleas to stay alive.
The kidnapping tested South Korea's resolve just days after the U.S. ally announced it will dispatch 3,000 troops to assist in reconstruction efforts in northern Iraq. Once the deployment is complete, South Korea will be the largest coalition partner after the United States and Britain.
On Sunday, the Arab satellite TV network Al-Jazeera aired a videotape purportedly from Al Qaeda-linked militants showing a South Korean hostage begging for his life and pleading with his government to withdraw troops from Iraq.
In Seoul, hundreds of protesters attended a candlelight vigil Monday night to demand the release of the man, Kim Sun-il, and a reversal to the troop dispatch. Some held placards reading "Sending the troops kills, kills, kills."
A similar rally was scheduled for South Korea's second-largest city, Busan, while demonstrators staged a sit-in outside the ruling Uri Party headquarters in the southwestern city of Kwangju.
South Korean media said Kim, 33, is an employee of South Korea's Gana General Trading Co. (search), a supplier for the U.S. military.
As many as 10 other foreigners are being held with Kim, including a European journalist and "third country" employees for the U.S.-based contractor Kellogg Brown & Root (search), South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing Kim's employer.
Kim Chun-ho, head of Gana General Trading told a Yonhap reporter in Baghdad by phone from Mosul that some of the captives were seen by an Iraqi go-between who had visited the kidnappers to try to negotiate the South Korean's release.
The report could not immediately be confirmed.
In the videotape, the kidnappers identified themselves as belonging to a group led by Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search). They gave South Korea 24 hours from sundown Sunday Iraq time to meet their demand or "we will send you the head of this Korean."
Officials of South Korea's National Security Council, and the ministries of foreign affairs and defense, hastily met after news broke of the abduction.
"There is no change in the government's spirit and position that it will send troops to Iraq to help establish peace and rebuild Iraq," Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Young-jin said at a news conference.
President Roh Moo-hyun (search) said the incident was "deeply unfortunate and regrettable" and instructed his government to do all it can to win the release of the hostage, Roh's office said in a statement.
"President Roh instructed the government to increase efforts to explain to the Iraqi people that South Korea is sending troops to Iraq not to engage in hostile acts against Iraq, but to focus on assisting reconstruction there," the statement said.
South Korean military medics in southern Iraq have suspended free medical treatment to Iraqi patients because of security concerns stemming from the kidnapping, said Maj. Chun Heung-soo, a Defense Ministry spokesman in Seoul.
"This should never be interpreted as a protest against the kidnapping," Chun said. "We are doing it because we thought there was a lack of safety for our medical staff."
Kim was abducted June 17 while making a delivery in the city of Fallujah, Choi said. Gana's president, Kim Chun-ho, tried to negotiate his employee's release before notifying the government, Choi said.
"We are sorry that we can't provide further details because sensitive government efforts are under way to save his life," Choi said.
Reports said Gana had evacuated its employees from their Baghdad office and relocated them to a hotel.
A South Korean television news station, YTN, said Kim had been in Iraq for about eight months. His distraught sister, Kim Jung-sook, told the station that his family last spoke to him in April. At that time, she said, he was in the Fallujah area and planned to return to South Korea in July to attend his father's 70th birthday.
The hostage, a devout Christian who is the youngest of eight brothers and sisters, studied Arabic as well as English in South Korea.
On the tape, he screamed in English: "Korean soldiers, please get out of here. I don't want to die. I don't want to die. I know that your life is important, but my life is important."
Kim's tearful mother, Shin Young-ja, told YTN. "The government should do whatever it can to save my son's life. Time is running out."
South Korea on Saturday warned its people not to travel to Iraq, saying its decision to send troops to the country might prompt terror attacks on South Koreans.
South Korea announced Friday that it will send 3,000 soldiers beginning in early August to the Irbil area in northern Iraq. Some 600 South Korean military medics and engineers who are currently in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah will redeploy to Irbil to join the larger force.
Seoul has portrayed the deployment as a way of strengthening its alliance with the United States, thereby winning more support from Washington for a peaceful end to a long-running dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons development.
In April, seven South Korean missionaries were briefly detained by armed men in Iraq.