Pirates Bringing Us Together

Kongdan Oh
Kongdan Oh Former Brookings Expert, Asian Specialist - Institute for Defense Analysis

March 7, 2011

Thanks to the current media coverage of Middle East turmoil, I almost missed reading a very heartening report on Chinese-South Korean cooperation, namely the February 10 Chinese navy rescue of the South Korean cargo ship Daisy that was being pursued by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. Given the less-than-cordial state of Chinese-South Korean political relations, which have suffered from China’s failure to condemn recent North Korean attacks on South Korea, this anti-piracy incident is a particularly welcome sign of Korean-Chinese relations.

Trends in the piracy business are not encouraging. Somali pirates have attacked hundreds of ships, and as of February 2011 they were holding about 50 ships and 800 crewmembers for ransom in Somalia. Most ships and crew are eventually released unharmed after payments of millions of dollars, but some crewmembers die of natural causes and others have been killed in rescue attempts. The pirates have enlarged their area of prey to cover much of the western Indian Ocean. With their ransom lucre they can buy the latest in navigation and communication equipment and arms to help them find and attack vulnerable targets. Pirate mother ships, often ships they had already hijacked, act as floating pirate bases seemingly protected by the law of the sea. Even when pirates are apprehended, they are usually freed unless they are caught in the very act of attacking a ship. In short, the rewards for piracy are big and the punishments small.

Over two dozen nations have sent ships to the region to participate in or cooperate with a NATO-EU Combined Task Force against piracy, including naval assets from Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand, and Turkey, not to mention the larger military powers such as the United States, Great Britain, France, China, and India. South Korea has stationed one of its six destroyers in the area, and Japan has two. Unfortunately, the Task Force has been unable to find a winning strategy to defeat the pirates, who always seem to be one step ahead. The obvious solution, which is to hit the pirates in their home bases in Somalia, would mean conducting intensive and long-lasting military operations in a country with no government and many poor and desperate people, and no nation is ready to undertake such a task.

As a consequence, counter-piracy operations have been piecemeal maritime affairs. Some operations have been great successes, killing pirates and rescuing ships and crews. In January of this year, South Korean commandos from the destroyer Choi Young, which had been shadowing the hijacked South Korean ship Samho Jewelry for a week, attacked the pirates and freed the ship’s 21 crew members. Other operations have failed. Recently, four American sailors were killed on their ship when pirates, perhaps made nervous by U.S. Navy vessels, shot them. Even the Samho Jewelry rescue was not without casualties: The ship’s captain was shot in the stomach but survived. This was the ninth South Korean ship to be hijacked since 2006. One of those ships, the Samho Dream, was released only after payment of a reported $9.5 million ransom.

Fighting piracy cannot be a man-against-man, ship-against-ship operation. Even in the absence of a winning strategy to fight piracy it is clear that a key ingredient of success must be international cooperation. Because finding pirate boats is like finding a needle in a haystack, many navy ships are needed to cover a large expanse of ocean. Out on patrol, ships from every nation help whatever vessels are in distress, no matter their nationality, sometimes making for unusual acts of cooperation. In May 2009 a South Korean naval helicopter chased off pirates pursuing a North Korean freighter. And in October 2007 a helicopter from a U.S. navy ship, coming to the rescue of hijacked North Korean freighter, distracted the pirates so that the North Korean crew could fight them off and regain control of their ship. After the firefight, three wounded North Korean sailors were taken on board the U.S. navy ship for treatment.

People and nations learn to cooperate when they are faced with a common threat. This is probably the only virtue of the piracy threat: that it provides an occasion where nations that do not otherwise enjoy close relations can cooperate, if only for the moment. Such cooperation opens the possibility that nations can discover the common values and interests that they share, and with this discovery, take the first steps toward a better relationship.