Somali pirates have threatened to kill all Korean crew and burn Korean vessels in retaliation against a daring Navy raid that rescued the kidnapped crew of the freighter Samho Jewelry over the weekend. "We shall never take a ransom from Korean ships, we shall burn them and kill their crew," Reuters quoted Somali pirates as saying.
The words of greedy pirates cannot be taken at face value, but revenge attacks targeting Korean vessels cannot be ruled out. Perhaps Korea went too far in publicizing the exploits of the Navy's crack Cheonghae Unit and revealed too much information in terms of the tactics and strategy it uses in rescue missions.
The pirate-infested waters off Somalia are a route that handles 29 percent of Korea's import and export traffic. From March 2009 to October 2010, 925 Korean vessels passed the Gulf of Aden, but only 120 or 13 percent were escorted by the Cheonghae Unit. Making matters worse, the pirates have expanded their area of operation to the entire Indian Ocean.
The Navy has dispatched the 4,500 ton destroyer Choi Young, but China has deployed three vessels and Japan and Thailand two each. The Korean military says that only three out of its six destroyers in service are able to fully carry out anti-piracy operations considering the time it takes to move to the region for the six-month rotation missions and for maintenance once they return home. The successful rescue should provide the impetus to strengthen the Navy so it can deploy more ships to Somalia.
According to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, or ReCAAP, which was signed in 2006, the 16 signatories share information about piracy in the Malacca Straits and countries in the region are ready to deploy naval vessels immediately in response to attacks. This has led to a significant drop in the rate of piracy there. In the case of Somalia, the Contact Group on Piracy Off the Coast of Somalia or CGPCS has been in operation since January of 2009 involving 50 naval vessels from around 40 countries under the leadership of a combined maritime command based in Bahrain.
But each country is busy defending its own merchant vessels. Korea should make diplomatic efforts for the creation of a united armada under the UN flag to divide responsibilities among members for specified escort missions or have merchant ships travel down a corridor defended by the united fleet. Since it is impossible for a single country to guarantee complete safety for merchant ships, large freighters should be equipped with self-defense features.