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US Navy Rescues Crew of North Korean vessel off Somalian Coast

US Navy Rescues Crew of North Korean vessel off Somalian Coast

Posted November. 01, 2007 03:17,   


The U.S. Navy rescued the crew of a North Korean cargo ship off the east coast of Somalia on Oct.29, after it was attacked by pirates who seized control of the vessel.

The rescue is drawing much attention over whether it will serve as a turning point in North Korea-U.S. relations.

However, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell, at a briefing, brushed off the attempts to exaggerate the political interpretation of the incident, saying, “I am not ready to answer such a question.”

According to the U.S. Navy and foreign news outlets, the North Korean vessel with 22 crew members was heading to the port of Mogadishu, Somalia`s capital, after departing from India. The North Korean-flagged ship was reportedly carrying loads of sugar.

The ship, called Dai Hong Dan, was one of four vessels intruding into northern waters off Jeju Island before it was challenged by South Korea’s Navy in 2001. It was widely known that the captain received a medal of honor from the North Korean leader for his efforts.

The North Korean vessel was hijacked by pirates while sailing 60 nautical miles (111 km) off the northeast seas of Mogadishu. The area is notorious for being frequently haunted by pirates. Earlier this year, a South Korea vessel with four crew members was also seized in these waters.

Although the number of pirates was small (estimated as seven), they overwhelmed the deck of the ship in a minute. The North Korean crew, who kept the upper hand in number, confronted the pirates without losing control of the steering and engine houses.

The North Korean sailors sent out an SOS distress call which was immediately registered by the assistance program for sailors known as SAP and passed on the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau.

The International Maritime Bureau, which is in charge of piracy-related issues, informed the U.S. destroyer James E. Williams through the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain. The USS James E. Williams launched a rescue operation to save the North Korean ship immediately following the order from the Navy.

A helicopter was sent from the destroyer to investigate the distress signal of the hijacked ship, and the USS destroyer demanded by radio that the pirates give up their weapons after informing the Somali government of its operation.

With the abrupt intervention of the U.S. Navy, the pirates seemed to lose their composure. Without leaving any chance, the North Korean crew attacked the pirates with hidden firearms, taking control of the ship. Most of the North Korean crew members, who served the military for over 10 years, were reportedly armed with AK-47 assault rifles, distributed by the North Korean regime.

The deadly naval battle left two pirates dead and five captured and seriously injured three North Korean crew members.

The film-like incident seems to have nothing to do with the physical and mental capacity of the North Korean crew. On Oct. 28, when a North Korean vessel capsized off the coast of China, 20 out of 23 North Korean sailors survived a more than 7 km swim to the coast.

The U.S. Navy, which had no room to engage in the gun battle, organized the aftermath of the rescue operation. The North Korean crew requested medical assistance by radio after regaining control of the ship.

Three naval soldiers from the USS Williams boarded the Dai Hong Dan and treated the wounded sailors. Three seriously injured crew members were taken aboard the Williams.

This is a somewhat unexpected response from the U.S. given that North Korean vessels have been tightly monitored by the U.S. Navy in relation to illegal transactions involving WMDs, counterfeit products and drugs.

However, regarding this allegation, Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for the U.S. 5th Fleet, dismissed such an argument, saying, "When we get a distress call, we help," the Associated Press revealed.

srkim@donga.com zsh75@donga.com