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ALEX COHEN, host:

In Afghanistan today, negotiations are underway to free 22 South Korean missionaries who are being held hostage by Taliban militants. South Korea is sending a senior envoy to help with those efforts.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this report from Kabul.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The police chief of Ghazni province, where the South Korean church volunteers were kidnapped last week, says he expects up to a third of the hostages to be freed in the coming hours. He declined to say what kind of deal was in the works. But he and others involved in the tricky negotiations are a lot more upbeat about their efforts now than at any time since the ordeal began.

The head of the Afghan team trying to free the hostages says his government is reviewing the list of eight Taliban prisoners the captors want to trade for hostages. The Afghan official says the Taliban has agreed to extend the deadline until noon tomorrow, local time, to come up with a deal. But trading prisoners for foreign captives is something Afghan President Hamid Karzai is reluctant to do.

He was widely criticized when he agreed to a deal in March in which five Taliban prisoners were traded for an Italian journalist. The president vowed never to do it again. The Taliban then killed the Afghan translator who was kidnapped along with the Italian journalist. Many Afghans accuse Karzai of valuing the lives of foreigners more than those of his own people. But the Afghan government is under increasing pressure to act now that the Taliban has killed one of the South Korean hostages.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

COHEN: Joining us now is professor Chai-Sik Chung of Boston University School of Theology. He has written extensively about Christianity in South Korea. Welcome to the program, professor.

Professor CHAI-SIK CHUNG (Boston University School of Theology): Thank you.

COHEN: Can you tell us how many Korean missionaries are abroad, and which countries they're in?

Prof. CHUNG: As of a survey in 2006, there are about 16,000 missionaries around 173 countries.

COHEN: What kind of countries are they in?

Prof. CHUNG: Mostly Asia, Africa, and North and South Americas, and former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Russia.

COHEN: These missionaries are dealing oftentimes, I imagine, with language barriers, significant cultural differences. How successful are they in terms of actually converting people to Christianity?

Prof. CHUNG: Well, I guess they are doing well in some sectors of the world. But they have encountered significant obstacles in countries where Muslim populations are a majority. And their dogmatic attitude and a kind of attitude that lacks cultural sophistication to understand other cultures have rubbed off wrong way in these countries.

COHEN: Has there been any strategy to maybe draw back in areas where it's not working? I would imagine, you know, you go to a certain Muslim country, you're not making many converts, maybe it would be wise not to send as many missionaries there.

Prof. CHUNG: Uh-huh. I think this present incident in Afghanistan might pave the way for radically changing their attitudes and approaches.

COHEN: Professor, there are missionaries coming from a number of different countries, but there are so many coming from South Korea. Is there something about South Korea culture itself that motivates so many of these missionaries?

Prof. CHUNG: Yes. Behind this move is a kind of self-understanding. They see that Korea was once a heathen land and Korea owes much to the rest of the world that are less privileged. And so this kind of zeal drives Koreans to go overseas. And another thing is that toward the end of the 19th century, Korean - Confucian scholars and officials were accustomed to believe that their country stood alone as the last remaining guardian of the ecumenical East Asian Confucian culture against the onrush of West and Christianity.

Now, under the changing condition of the secular world today, many Korean Christians would consider themselves as the good Christian soldiers who would hand on the torch of Christianity to the darker world.

COHEN: Chai-Sik Chung is the Walter G. Muelder Professor of Social Ethics at Boston University. Thank you very much.

Prof. CHUNG: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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