Kidnapped Korean official freed in Libya

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : Jan 23, 2014 - 19:33
  • Updated : Jan 23, 2014 - 19:33
Han Seok-woo

A Korean trade official abducted in Tripoli was released after Libyan authorities arrested the gunmen Thursday, capping a three-day kidnapping that prompted Seoul to issue a travel alert and highlighted the instability of the North African country.

Han Seok-woo, head of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency’s Libya unit, was handed over uninjured to the Korean Embassy in the capital at about 4:15 a.m., Seoul time, the Foreign Ministry here said. He was kidnapped by four men while heading home from his office Monday.

The assailants are believed to be members of a small armed group based in Tripoli. Ministry officials said they have not yet found clear evidence showing that the attack specifically targeted Koreans, adding the Libyans will conduct a formal probe.

“The Libyan authorities managed to arrest the kidnappers without much struggle while securing the safety of the abductee, by grasping their identity and location and then effectively carrying out an operation that combined persuasion and threats,” a senior ministry official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

Han, 39, apparently did not experience violence or any other harsh treatment during captivity, the official said. He is expected to leave for Seoul with his family staying in Malta for safety reasons, after a medical checkup and investigation at the Korean Embassy.

While the Libyan officials led the negotiations, no ransom was paid, despite previous news reports that the attackers demanded $2 million.

“Han was safely rescued and we made sure once again after his release that he was in good health,” he added.

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, who was accompanying President Park Geun-hye on her trip to Switzerland, phoned and expressed gratitude to his Libyan counterpart Mohamed Abdulaziz shortly after Han was freed.

Cho Dae-sik, chief of planning and coordination and Seoul’s former ambassador to Tripoli, had been in the country as Yun’s special envoy since early this week to expedite cooperation with the Libyan government, militia groups and nongovernmental organizations.

The ministry issued a special travel warning across the country advising swift evacuation on Monday, while running an emergency response team at its Seoul headquarters and embassy in Tripoli.

Known for his knowledge of the Arabic language and trade affairs in the Middle East, Han began his second stint in Tripoli in July 2012. He is the only Korean staffer at the regional KOTRA office and works with six other locally hired employees.

The Seoul-based agency runs 15 units across the Middle East and North Africa including in Dubai and Cairo.

More than 550 Koreans reside in the oil-rich nation; most of them work for some 20 companies chiefly engaged in construction and engineering.

There have been about 10 robberies and other criminal cases involving Koreans over the last 13 years but no abductions, ministry officials said.

Korea and Libya have been working to boost trade and cooperation on infrastructure construction since the death in late 2011 of Moammar Gadhafi, who ruled Tripoli for about four decades until the Arab Spring broke out.

But safety concerns persist due to simmering religious and sectarian clashes, with the Tripoli Tower housing the KOTRA office seized by militia for several days last month. The country’s lawlessness was highlighted in October, when its prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was snatched by rebels from his hotel room and held captive for hours.

By Shin Hyon-hee (