South Korea navy destroyer in pursuit of Somali pirates

South Korea today sent a naval destroyer in pursuit of an oil tanker captured Sunday by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. The tanker holds some $170 million of crude oil.

Jo Jung-ho/Yonhap/AP
Samho Shipping official Jo yong-woo points to a map during a press conference at its office in Busan, South Korea, Monday. A South Korean Navy destroyer is pursuing a South Korean-owned oil supertanker believed to have been hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.

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South Korea’s Navy sent a destroyer to pursue a South Korean-operated oil tanker hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced Monday.

Pirates on Sunday apparently boarded the supertanker nearly 1,000 miles southeast of the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden, highlighting the broad reach of the pirates and the persistence of a problem that grabbed headlines last year with a rash of hijackings. The tanker was transporting a load of crude oil from Iraq to the US believed to be worth as much as $170 million.

The South Korean destroyer was in the Gulf of Aden patrolling for pirates when the South Korean Navy received a call from the tanker saying that three pirates had boarded it, the Associated Press reports today. It will take about one day for the destroyer to catch up with the ship, which has a crew on board of 19 Filipinos and five South Koreans and was on its way to the US from Iraq when it was apprehended.

The ship did not have a security escort to protect against pirates because, according to the shipping company, “Somali pirates were believed to be inactive in the area where the tanker was seized.”

Reuters reports that a pirate source told the news agency the ship was being taken to Haradheere, a port frequented by pirates where many ships are held during ransom negotiations. Reuters also reports that the destroyer is faster than the tanker and will be able to catch up to the tanker before it reaches port.

South Korea’s official Yonhap news agency reports that the Navy destroyer will not “intercept” the tanker, apparently meaning it will not directly confront the pirates, though it could try to keep the hijacked ship from making port. The South Korean government also will not enter into any ransom negotiations with the pirates, reports Yonhap. Somali pirates earned tens of millions of dollars last year collecting ransoms for hijacked ships, and negotiations can often be protracted, with pirates holding the ships and crews until a sum is agreed upon.

The BBC, which offers a map of the approximate area of the hijacking, reports that pirates have been attacking ships further and further from the coast of Somalia in recent months, “in some cases closer to the Indian coast than Somalia.”

The increasing number of hijackings in recent years has driven up the price of insurance. That has shot up the profits of shipping insurance companies, The Christian Science Monitor reported last year, perhaps decreasing incentive for some to put a stop to piracy.

An editorial in The Korea Times argues that South Korea must “step up international cooperation to crack down on the pirates and ensure the safe voyage of vessels in the Indian Ocean.”

But the Monitor’s in-depth report on Somali pirates made clear that the problem is an entrenched one that will be difficult to end, even with increased international naval patrols like the flotilla that has plied the Gulf of Aden since last year’s rash of piracy.

But behind [individual pirates] is a vast network of investors and corrupt officials who buy the speedboats, weaponry, and GPS devices; who select targets from the Lloyd's of London list of insured ships; and who distribute the bulk of the dividends among themselves by underground money transfer systems. […]

None of the pirates believe the increasing naval patrols by the US, the French, NATO, the Indians, the Chinese, and others, is going to deter pirates. As long as there are opportunities to make money from piracy, there will be young men desperate for work, and "investors" providing weapons, speedboats, and information on which ships to attack.

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