Saturday, November 3, 2007

Pirates make strange bedfellows

As most people are aware, the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are far from being considered friendly. For more than a half-century, the U.S. and North Korea, and South Korea, have faced off in that east Asian peninsula in one of the last remnants of the Cold War. Virtually the only assistance that Washington has ever provided to the government in Pyongyang is desperately needed food aid to feed the people in the communist north. But in an odd twist, the U.S. Navy came to aid of a North Korean freighter this past week, helping the Korean crew rebuff an attack by pirates and then providing medical assistance to the survivors.

Tuesday morning (October 2), the North Korean ship Dai Hong Dan sent out a distress call saying they had been boarded by pirates while steaming 60 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. The USS James E. Williams, a destroyer based out of Norfolk, Virginia, and deployed with Combined Task Force 150 in the region, responded to the distress call and by around noon (local time) had arrived close by the stricken freighter.
Dai Hong Dan (US Navy photo)

According to the U.S. Navy’s Combined Maritime Force Headquarters in Bahrain, the Dai Hong Dan crew were able to report that they had confronted the attackers, who had seized control of the wheelhouse, while the Koreans controlled the engine room. The Americans radioed the Somali pirates aboard the freighter and ordered them to lay down their weapons, then prepared to dispatch a boarding team to the North Korean ship.

In the meantime, the Korean crew fought back against their attackers, retaking control of the freighter and apparently killing at least one pirate while capturing six others. A request for medical assistance led the Americans to send naval corpsmen to the Dai Hong Dan, along with a security team.

US Navy personnel board Dai Hong Dan (US Navy photo)

But lest this all appear to signal some rapprochement in relations between Pyongyang and Washington, keep in mind that assisting mariners in distress is one of the oldest maritime traditions there is. One can but wonder what the young American sailors thought as they prepared to respond to an appeal from a North Korean vessel. Yet they appeared to carry out their duties with professionalism and the North Koreans were, in this instance, unafraid of asking for help when they needed it.

An added question is developing in some maritime quarters about what the Dai Hong Dan was doing in those waters in the first place. The USS James E. Williams did not detain or search the North Korean vessel, but we may hear more about this in the future.

The homepage for the USS James E. Williams can be found here. The North Korean news agency’s site is here, though there is no news about the incident as yet.

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