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South Korea debates banning travel to ‘dangerous’ countries

1 August 2007

The kidnapping of South Koreans by the Taliban militia in Afghanistan and the killing of one of the hostages have given rise to a flood of discussions over the nature of travel to conflict-ridden countries and whether civilians should even be allowed to travel to countries deemed as dangerous.

In all, 23 South Korean nationals were kidnapped in Afghanistan by Taliban insurgents on July 19, 2007. One of them was found dead on July 25, while the other 22 – 18 women and 4 men – are reportedly alive but in declining health.

The South Korean government is struggling to arrange safe return of the hostages amidst the Taliban’s changing demands and extended deadlines.

A revised passport law, if passed, would limit civilian travel and levy fines against citizens traveling to ‘off-limits’ countries.

In the midst the hostage crisis in Afghanistan, the South Korean government has joined the discussion, with a special governmental committee being convened for the first time to debate whether a few nations should be designated as ‘off-limits’ for travel by South Korean citizens.

Under a revised passport law, which came into effect on July 24, 2007, South Korean citizens who enter the listed countries without the government’s permission now face punishment.

The governmental committee plans to hold a second meeting on the issue, according to a government official involved with the committee. Some have maintained, he added, that the nation’s basic rights should be limited in extremely exceptional cases, while others have urged that the government should ban people from traveling to dangerous nations for their safety.

The official admitted that there was “a significant controversy over principles regarding targets to be classified as dangerous countries.”

The committee consists of 11 experts from the civil sector and related government agencies.

Observers expect that visits to three nations – Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan – would be prohibited.

The new passport law not only bans South Korean nationals (except journalists and permanent residents of the countries concerned) from traveling to the countries designated as dangerous but also requires South Koreans who are temporarily staying in the countries to leave as soon as possible.

South Koreans who visit a country that is designated as ‘off-limits’ by the government without prior authorisation would be fined up to 3 million won (US $3,261) or face imprisonment of up to one year under the new law.





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