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How South Korea Handles Piracy

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Posted on Feb 3, 2011
Yonhap via AP / Jo Jung-ho

South Korean police officers lead five accused Somali pirates, hooded, to a court appearance in Busan.

By Steven Borowiec

Five Somali men, facing the possibility of life in prison, will soon be tried in South Korea for piracy that occurred thousands of miles away. They have been taken to the southern city of Busan, where warrants were issued for their arrest.

The alleged pirates were apprehended 800 miles off the coast of Somalia after the South Korean-owned Samho Jewelry, hijacked in the Arabian Sea, was stormed by South Korean navy commandos. The commandos rescued all of the vessel’s 21 officers and crew members, eight of whom were reported to be South Koreans.

Eight Somalis were killed and the remaining five brought into custody. The ship’s captain remains in critical condition after being shot, allegedly by the Somalis who took over his vessel. 

Dealing with pirates has long left legal professionals with a bleak calculus. Captured pirates who come from a state without a functioning judicial system (such as Somalia) and commit their crimes in international waters are in a legal gray area. It’s difficult to decide how and where they should be tried and who should foot the bill for it all. This has resulted in what some consider a culture of impunity for pirates.

There’s little ambiguity about how the accused will be handled in South Korea. Article 6 of the country’s criminal law code allows noncitizens to be tried in South Korea for crimes committed against South Koreans on foreign soil. Article 340 of the code specifically rules on hijackings at sea. There is a precedent of 10 Chinese fishermen in 1996 being tried and convicted for robbing a South Korean boat.


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“I think it’s only natural that we ourselves deal with the pirates who inflicted harm on our people and attacked our forces,” said Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan.

This case could set a new precedent for how pirates are dealt with, as other countries might follow South Korea’s lead by dragging accused men back within their own borders to face trial.

As an alternative, Jack Lang, a special adviser to the United Nations on maritime piracy, is seeking the creation of special courts to process alleged pirates. Somalia is unable to handle the cases internally and it’s difficult to find third countries willing to host trials.

According to a statement by the U.N. Security Council, “Ninety per cent of all pirates captured by national navies were released because no states were prepared to accept them and no jurisdiction was prepared to prosecute them.” Lang argues for setting up courts in Somalia and Tanzania.

The International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau has found that incidents of piracy have increased every year for the last four years. Record highs were set in 2010 in the number of people captured. This has taken place despite increased sea patrols by foreign vessels in pirate hot spots. The South Korean example may inject new ideas into what seems a hopeless situation.

The attendant contrasts of the alleged pirates’ trial in South Korea will be sharp. They have been taken from a country with no government to one with an ambitious leadership where everything gleams, from a fractious, clan-based failed state to a unified, nationalistic democracy.

Processing the alleged pirates presents complications for South Korea, and any other country that follows such a strategy is likely to face similar problems. According to Kim Hyun-soo, professor of international law at Inha University, “The expense and resources associated with the handling of the pirates may be high, but unavoidable. The government has to take care of the consular service and interpretation assistance, transportation and housing for the accused, transportation for the witnesses, identification of the victims and their presence at the court, and the cost associated with the lengthy custody of the pirates.”

The South Korean administration will probably be willing to handle the costs. This act of decisive protection of South Korean citizens has given a boost to public morale after ill-fated 2010 incidents like the March sinking of the warship Cheonan and November’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea. Many South Koreans have expressed fear that their nation is being seen internationally as a weak state that may be attacked without forceful response.

According to a column in the Joongang Daily, one of the main newspapers in a country where people still actually read newspapers, “It was a face-saving event not only for the government, but for the entire nation. We take comfort from the victorious news from the Gulf of Aden that this nation is willing to stake its name and life for its people.”

South Korea is already home to the world’s only prison designed to exclusively hold foreign prisoners, and the alleged pirates presumably will be held in the facility, if convicted. In the years before 2010, the number of foreigners in South Korean jails increased sharply to 1,500, leading to the opening of the Cheonan Correctional Institution for Foreign Nationals.

Prisoners there receive classes in the Korean language and culture and may choose between Korean and Western meals. The prison also has a library with some books in foreign languages and a satellite television system that carries foreign-language programs.

For some critics, the Cheonan prison has highlighted South Korea’s discomfort with outsiders. Many questioned the need for a facility for foreign nationals when foreigners made up only 1,500 of the country’s prison population of more than 62,000. Others complained that foreigners were receiving unfair benefits in the form of education and food choices that are not available in typical South Korean prisons.

South Korean authorities are now questioning the accused Somalis. While the arrested men have admitted to taking part in the hijacking, the details of the incident, particularly who shot the ship’s captain, have yet to be clarified. 

South Korea’s approach to maritime piracy may be useful to consider, although it depends in part on the country’s unique character. The existence of a prison created to isolate foreign prisoners and South Korea’s historical suspicion of outsiders expedited the case, facilitating public approval for the apprehension and trial of the accused.

Jack Lang’s proposed alternative would standardize the method of handling alleged pirates and not leave them vulnerable to the idiosyncrasies of individual states. Piracy is an issue that disregards state boundaries, and could therefore use a global solution.

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By jimch, February 5, 2011 at 9:33 am Link to this comment

Aw hell. Just put a 50 Cal. gun mount on all vessels and teach a guncrew to use it. Then shoot up every Somali craft in the waters within 500 - 1000 yards from the vessel. Problem solved!

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By Inherit The Wind, February 4, 2011 at 11:28 pm Link to this comment

Get real! The Somali pirates aren’t revolutionaries or freedom fighters—they are businessmen just like The Godfather, the Russia Mafia, the organized hacker companies of East Europe and Asia, or the Tongs.  They have stocks and investors and are expected to turn a profit—by way-laying cruise ships and freighters and oil-tankers, all to hold the crews and passengers (as well as the vessels) for ransom.

Apologizing for them is like apologizing for John Gotti or Al Capone.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, February 4, 2011 at 9:57 pm Link to this comment

By vote, February 5 at 2:10

If acts of piracy are being committed as civil disobedience

Civil disobedience rarely involves guns and trying to take shit from people at peril for their lives.

Admiralty or Maritime law is one of the earliest examples of current international law in which piracy is defined.

Article 100 - 110. piracy everywhere.

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By vote, February 4, 2011 at 9:10 pm Link to this comment

If acts of piracy are being committed as civil disobedience then what about that would cause the pirates to not be held accountable for their actions?
  There are many cases of people fighting nonviolently for justice.  It takes longer and requires more work on the part of the victim.  It also tends to bring about lasting positive change.

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By Mainspark, February 4, 2011 at 6:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hey, FRTothus!

“The alleged pirates were apprehended 800 miles off the coast of Somalia…”

Check me on this, Skippy, but I don’t think that the territorial waters of ANY nation extend that far from their coasts.

You know, your defense of the pirates would be sound, if only they - the pirates - had attacked a ship that was fishing or dumping toxic waste in the territorial waters of Somalia. However, that was not the case. Actually, I’ve yet to read about any of the pirates attacking any vessel doing either.

Exactly how many of those pirates were actual fishermen? How many of them were ecological warriors?

Face it. They’re not in it to stop over-fishing, nor to stop the dumping of illegal waste. They’re in it for the money, pure and simple.

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BR549's avatar

By BR549, February 4, 2011 at 5:44 pm Link to this comment

It’s tragic that the captain was shot, although he is still alive, but were these pirates responding as others in the past to the vast number of ships from Europe who keep dumping their toxic waste in Somali waters? And when their fishing stocks go to hell, we wonder they they can’t feed their families and resort to this crap.

It’ll be interesting to learn if these were actually pirates or just angry fishermen that the press and the west needs to vilify. None of this still addresses why the barrels of toxins have been washing up on the Somali beaches. I don’t see those people on trial.

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By Inherit The Wind, February 4, 2011 at 4:59 pm Link to this comment

Oops.  Wrong thread..should be the Egypt Army thread.

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By Inherit The Wind, February 4, 2011 at 4:58 pm Link to this comment

I’m surprised Gulam doesn’t claim the Aswan High Dam was a Mossad false flag op aided by the CIA to weaken Egypt.

It’s right in line with his warped Jew-hating neo-nazi psyche.

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By Jim Yell, February 4, 2011 at 12:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I don’t think that the problem can be completely solved by just draconian responses, but I agree that letting them get away with Piracy can not go unpunished.

This can not be the entire response. The Asian and European Countries have stolen the fishing grounds of the Somali’s, we can not pretend we owe no solution beyond hanging the pirates. If we can not return the fishing to Somali, we must make investments that will allow the Somali’s an honest living.

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By bridesmaiddres, February 4, 2011 at 12:16 am Link to this comment

I think they should really rot in jail. They have been so bad and they have lots of victims already.

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By Inherit The Wind, February 3, 2011 at 11:39 pm Link to this comment

PatrickHenry, February 3 at 11:52 pm Link to this comment

I’m glad to see the ROKs taking care of business.

Yeah, I feel the same.  I find it sickening that people are trying to drum up sympathy for these assholes. You kidnap someone, you are a fucking criminal, endangering another’s life so you can get money from it.

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By PatrickHenry, February 3, 2011 at 6:52 pm Link to this comment

I’m glad to see the ROKs taking care of business.

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By FRTothus, February 3, 2011 at 4:48 pm Link to this comment

The West has been playing innocent victim regarding piracy and terrorism, and its journalists have done their darnedest to portray Western double-standards and on-going crimes in the best possible light, which means they routinely ignore them.

The fact that the Western powers have been dumping toxic pollutants in the Somali territorial waters for decades, have over-fished the seas to the point where the fish populations are practically exhausted, making life impossible for the fishermen simply trying to feed their families, and habitually violate international laws which forbid what the West has done and continues to do, makes any accusation pointed at Somalia yet another example (as if we needed one) of systemic Western hypocrisy, double-talk, and dirty-dealing.  Impoverishing the already poor, our ruling elites and those who write their copy, feign surprise when the victims of predatory capitalism take matters into their own hands.

“A terrorist is someone who has a bomb, but doesn’t have an Air Force”
(Willima Blum)

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By morongobill, February 3, 2011 at 1:25 pm Link to this comment

If the west had kept its’ big nose out of a Somali internal matter, and not helped oust the Islamic Courts Union, I doubt we’d have the problem now.

Pretty hard to be a pirate without a hand or hands.
Under sharia law imposed by this group there was virtually no piracy.

You reap what you sow in this world.

Our zeal to “eradicate terrorist bases” bit us right in our big, fat asses.

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By Mike Follansbee, February 3, 2011 at 9:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I don’t understand the worry over legalisms.  Clearly the United States has created a model for dealing with this by use of Blackwater and numerous other security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They are outside the law and can kill and maim with near impunity. I’m not advocating turning Blackwater lose on pirates, but I’m just surprised this approach hasn’t appealed to the USA and other countries as a solution.

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By Inherit The Wind, February 3, 2011 at 9:19 am Link to this comment

Piracy has been a plague on the world’s shipping since the time of the Trojan War.  Read the Odyssey and you’ll realize that “brave” Odysseus was a pirate who nonchalantly sacked towns on his way home.  Pirates plagued Rome and the Chinese empires. They plagued early “New World” shipping and were an early test for Jefferson and the US Marines.  Despite the cute Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp movies, pirates weren’t handsome and brave freedom fighters—they were seabourne thugs.

It used to be that piracy on the high seas could be dealt with summarily…but to just let them go?

That’s insane.

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By dbtodd, February 3, 2011 at 8:12 am Link to this comment

In the 5th paragraph the author says there is a precedent in how pirates are dealt with, then two sentences later programs this case as setting a new precedent (though it is identical). It cannot be both.

Note that setting up a prison for foreigners is not new, we (the U.S.) have Gitmo as an example. It IS still open for business.

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