As Japan Security Watch has previously reported, the MSDF’s Kirisame (DD-104) and Yudachi (DD-103) destroyers are deployed in the Gulf of Aden as part of a multinational anti-piracy effort off the coast of Somalia. Japan’s deployment has so far given protection to 1,393 vessels of various flags.

South Korea is also operating in the region as part of the US-led Combined Task Force 151. This week, the South Korean Navy (ROKN) liberated the Samho Jewelry, a chemical tanker captured by pirates earlier in January. The operation and its unfolding aftermath raise questions that Japan must address in its own deployment.

Background

On Friday, 21st January, South Korean UDT/SEAL naval special forces boarded the Samho Jewelry, a 11,500-ton chemical tanker taken hostage by Somalian pirates in the Arabian Sea on 15th January. 21 sailors were rescued (the captain was injured during the assault but survived); eight of their captors were killed, and another five were captured in the five-hour assault.

South Korea Navy's Lynx helicopter leaves from the destroyer Choi Young during a military drill in the West Sea of South Korea (Source: Reuters)

South Korea Navy's Lynx helicopter leaves from the destroyer Choi Young during a military drill in the West Sea of South Korea (Source: Reuters)

The UDT/SEALs were stationed aboard the ROKS Choi Young (DDH 981), a Chungmugong Yi Shu-shin class destroyer deployed in the anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit. With the reported assistance of a US destroyer and/or Omani vessel, they boarded the Samho Jewelry from three rigid inflatable boats in Operation Dawn. All the while, the Choi Young’s Super Lynx helicopter “blared the words “Throw down your weapons. Then you will be spared” in Somali.”

This was their second encounter with the pirates aboard the Samho Jewelry. On 18th January, South Korea forces killed six of the Samho Jewelry’s pirates in an attempt to hijack a Mongolian ship. The South Koreans drew back from their assault after taking some wounded of their own.

Before the final assault, the Choi Young and its Super Lynx helicopter chased down the Samho Jewelry and staged several feints in order to wear down the pirates.

The 58-year old captain, Seok Hae-Kyun, is reported to have slowed the pirates down by steering the Samho Jewelry in a zigzag fashion and by mixing water into the engine oil, South Korea military officials told AFP.

The decision to assault the Samho Jewelry came as intelligence warned that a ship had left port to reinforce the pirate crew following the 18th hijacking incident.

The assault was beamed live from the commando’s headgear to Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin in Seoul.

Aftermath

The five captured pirates are being held aboard the Choi Young, which is waiting for approval to enter the Omani port of Muscat so that the captives can be airlifted to Seoul for trial.

“Although it is too early to determine how the prosecution of the Somalis would be carried out, there will be no legal hurdle to indict and put them in local courts under South Korean criminal law,” Kwon Jeong-Hoon, a justice ministry official, told AFP.

Kim Hyun-soo, a professor of international law at Inha University, is less enthusiastic. In an editorial for Joongang Daily, he writes: “The most desirable way for effective punishment is the British solution: to entrust the judgment to a country near the pirates’ activities. The government needs to come up with long-term plans like signing an MOU with African countries such as Kenya on the handling of pirates.”

The issue of how to get the Somalian pirates to trial has been difficult for the South Korean government. The Omani government is apparently reluctant to allow the hijackers into the country – granting access to the Choi Young but not the Samho Jewelry.

“We’ve heard that the Omani government, proclaiming itself as a ‘clean state’, does not like the idea of criminals and pirates being brought into its territory,” defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok told reporters.

The Chosun Ilbo reports:

“The Omani government, which has been offering us full cooperation and support, would like to have the case dealt with quietly without the pirates being exposed to the public,” a Foreign Ministry official said.

The South Korean government has reportedly dispatched an ROKAF C-130 Hercules to Oman to pick up the captured pirates, who are expected to arrive in South Korea on Monday or Tuesday next week.

Meanwhile, the captain, suffering a gunshot wound to the abdomen and a fractured arm and leg, is in intensive care after undergoing two rounds of surgery at Sultan Qaboos Hospital in Salalah, Oman. A specially-equipped plane has been dispatched to Oman to bring Seok home, but efforts have been delayed by his ‘precarious’ condition.

Reaction

UDT/SEAL commandos of South Korean Navy’s Cheonghae unit on the deck of the 4,500-ton destroyer Choi Young after Friday’s operation to retake the chemical carrier Samho Jewelry (Source: Korea Times)

UDT/SEAL commandos of South Korean Navy’s Cheonghae unit on the deck of the 4,500-ton destroyer Choi Young after Friday’s operation to retake the chemical carrier Samho Jewelry (Source: Korea Times)

While the military operation to liberate the Samho Jewelry showed the capability and skill of the ROKN, it has also raised the spectre of reprisals against currently- or later-captured South Korean sailors.

The Chosun Ilbo reported (from a Reuters release):

We never planned to kill but now we shall seek revenge,” a pirate who identified himself as Mohamed told Reuters by phone. “We shall never take a ransom from Korean ships, we shall burn them and kill their crew.”

“We shall redouble our efforts. Korea has put itself in trouble by killing my colleagues,” he added. The pirate is reportedly from Garad, one of the two pirate havens in Somalia.

After the Cheonghae Unit rescued the freighter Samho Jewelry, Somali pirates took some hostages from hijacked ships to an inland camp for fear of similar operations by other foreign navies, according to a pirate who identified himself as Hussein.

As John M. Glionna of the LA Times reports, “Instead of worrying about their public image, South Korean officials should focus on freeing the captain and 43-member crew of the Golden Wave crabbing boat, seized by pirates in October, the critics say.”

The South Korean government clearly favours military response over ransom payments:

The wife of Golden Wave captain Kim Dae-geun, who declined to give her name, said the government had refused to help meet the pirates’ ransom demand, which she said had dropped from $6 million to $600,000. She fears for her husband’s safety and asks why officials would risk a military assault to free the crew of one vessel and not the other.

Japanese Deployment

Japanese shipping has also fallen victim to Somalian pirates. As Japan Security Watch reported back in October, the MV Izumi is currently under pirate control and the whereabouts of its 20-man Filipino crew is currently unknown. The roll-on lift-off multipurpose vessel is now being used as a mothership by Somalia pirate forces.

It is unlikely that the MSDF will swoop to the rescue. With the Izumi’s crew held on Somalian turf, the government would have to authorise a rescue mission that would involve entering another (albeit failed) state to extract non-Japanese nationals in a hostile environment. None of those are going to happen with the current interpretation of Article 9 and without Japanese citizens being at stake.

Their mission, as is typical for MSDF international security operations, is guided by a strict rules of engagement. From the 2010 Defense of Japan White Paper:

By applying Article 7 of the Act concerning Execution of Official Police Duties, the use of weapons can be allowed only when it is used for self-protection, the protection of others, or for preventing interference with official duties, to suchan extent as is considered reasonably necessary in accordance with the situation

In addition, when countering acts of piracy, including such acts as approaching excessively close to a ship or following a ship, if any party perpetrating such acts of piracy continues their acts despite the countermeasures of others, and there are reasonable grounds to believe that no other means are available to stop the passage of the ship in question, the use of weapons is permitted to such an extent that is considered reasonably necessary in accordance with the situation

Members of the MSDF’s Special Boarding Unit are based in Djibouti as part of the anti-piracy mission, assisted by Japanese Coast Guard officers – as the MSDF is not authorised to make arrests.

Lessons for Japan

MSDF Special Boarding Unit (SBU) fast-roping from SH-60 in exercises (Source: Asagumo)

MSDF Special Boarding Unit (SBU) fast-roping from SH-60 in exercises (Source: Asagumo)

The Japanese Ministry of Defense has not commented on whether it would follow the South Korean response in the event of Japanese crew being held by pirates, but it is clear from the SBU’s presence in the region that such a contingency has been considered. Japan should resolve itself to following in South Korea’s footsteps, particularly in order to counter the belief that it is ‘soft’ on kidnapping.

Japanese shipping has suffered little from piracy thus far, but if the pirates’ response to the South Korean recapture of the Samho Jewelry is realised, the Japanese government will have to balance the safety of its citizens with the possibility of endangering other Japanese vessels. Reprisals would then necessity further uses of force by the MSDF and that would risk a loss of support back home.

The problem of securing passage of any captured pirates must also be considered. First, Japan must decide whether it would try them under a Japanese court or hand them off to a third nation. In the former case, Japan must also arrange (perhaps with Djibouti) for transit clearance to fly them to Japan. These issues should be explored in preparation for any such incident so that MSDF vessels are not unnecessarily kept from their escort duties.

Japan should also determine whether or not it would seek the support of Combined Task Force 151 in any recovery operations.

Considering and determining these questions now will allow for a quicker response in the event that a Japanese crew are taken hostage. The issue might be difficult to address in the Diet, but with the Samho Jewelry assault demonstrating what must be done, it is a necessary debate to have in the Kantei and at Ichigaya.

(H/T: Robert Koehler at The Marmot’s Hole)

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch