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[Opinion] A New Challenge for the Korean Navy

Posted November. 19, 2008 02:59,   


Pirates in the Malacca Strait were infamous through early this decade, but they have since lost their influence. The strait connecting the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean is narrow and rocky, offering a good environment for pirates. The Gulf of Aden off Somalia’s coast links the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, which is another nice place for them. Narrow like a funnel, the gulf is the only path to the Suez Canal without going around the Cape of Good Hope. Some 16,000 ships pass the gulf per year, including 30 percent of the world’s oil tankers. The figure also includes some 460 Korean vessels.

The number of Somali pirates has jumped to more than 1,000 from around 100 in 2005. They are said to have received ransom money worth 100 million dollars a year. Between January and September this year, 199 piracy cases were reported and 63 ships were hijacked in Somalia. Insurance premiums for ships have increased 10fold. The pirates have grown more aggressive, taking a Ukrainian cargo carrying 33 tanks in September and a U.S. aircraft carrier-size Saudi oil tanker made by Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering a few days ago.

Multinational naval forces including the 5th U.S. Fleet have begun cracking down on the pirates, but they seem to be struggling. This is why the Korean Navy has failed to send a fleet despite public opinion since May 2006 when the Korean vessel Dongwon was hijacked. Four centuries ago, naval power Japan lost to a heavily outnumbered Korean fleet led by Admiral Yi Sun-shin. This showed a militarily strong nation could still lose at sea if it failed to study seas well. Moreover, Korea has no experience in deep-sea operations. Though the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry, which has had difficulty negotiating with pirates, strongly asked to send a fleet, the decision was far from easy for the Korean military.

After inspectors visited the site, the Defense Ministry seems to have decided to give it a try. Next month, it will submit a bill to the National Assembly on sending a naval fleet to the Gulf of Aden. The Korean Navy has six fleets capable of conducting deep-sea operations, including one dubbed “Yi Sun-shin.” Many question if a middle power like Korea needs an “ocean-going navy.” But with thorough preparation, this could be a good chance for the Korean Navy to take a step forward.

Editorial Writer Kim Chang-hyeok (chang@donga.com)