Freed N. Korean vessel opens new window for U.S.-N. Korea ties

Byun Duk-kun

A U.S. Navy destroyer helped a North Korean cargo ship escape a hijacking by pirates off the coast of Somalia on Tuesday, an incident which may bode well for the growing detente between the two nations, as sentiments remain upbeat over ongoing talks on the North’s denuclearization.

Officials here noted the incident will work positively in efforts to denuclearize the communist North, as it came just one day before the chief nuclear negotiators of the U.S. and North Korea were to meet for discussions on denuclearization, normalization of ties between the former Cold War foes and other issues.

It was early Tuesday when the USS James E. Williams, operating near Somalia, received a request from the International Maritime Bureau to investigate a North Korea-flagged ship reportedly hijacked by pirates.

The U.S. destroyer reacted with little hesitation, dispatching a helicopter to investigate the reported hijacking and then sailing at full speed to arrive at the site at midday to lend assistance, the U.S. Navy said in a press release.

The 22 crew members of the North Korean freighter eventually regained control of the ship after a firefight with the pirates, while the Williams demanded by radio that the pirates give up their weapons.

Two pirates were reportedly killed in the deadly gunfight, while five others were captured in the tense standoff.

After the hijacking situation was resolved, three injured crew members of the North Korean ship who may have received relatively serious wounds were brought onboard the U.S. destroyer for medical treatment, and were then sent back to their ship in stable condition, a message sent by the U.S. Navy to Yonhap News Agency said. It said the injuries sustained by the three merchant sailors were not life-threatening.

Besides giving first aid, the U.S. warship did not receive any further requests for assistance from the North Korean vessel, the message said.

Washington tried not to brag, saying piracy was a “scourge” in Somalia’s waters and that U.S. vessels were available to intercede when necessary.

“When we get a distress call, we help,” Lydia Robertson, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, was quoted as saying by the AP.

South Korean officials agreed, saying the U.S. would have acted the same way had the incident taken place a year ago. They, however, noted the U.S. would not have acted so swiftly or as willingly had the incident happened before Feb. 13, when Pyongyang agreed to shut down and later disable its key nuclear facilities.

“Piracy is a crime that does not choose its victims by their nationality,” a ministry official said, asking that he remain unidentified.

“The U.S. and NATO forces have long operated missions in the (Somali) area to intercept pirates, so I don’t think the U.S. would have acted any differently had the incident happened a year ago,” said the official, whose job mainly deals with U.S. affairs.

Other officials said the incident demonstrates the changed mood between the former enemies as multilateral talks aimed at denuclearizing the communist North maintain an upbeat mood.

Washington and Pyongyang have held two rounds of working-level talks this year under a six-nation accord signed in February, which binds North Korea to shut down and disable its key nuclear facilities and declare all its nuclear programs.

In return, the communist nation will receive 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil or equivalent assistance, as well as other political benefits such as its removal from the U.S. list of terrorism sponsoring states and the normalization of its diplomatic relations with the U.S. and Japan.

North Korea has already shut down all its key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and promised earlier this month to disable the Yongbyon complex and submit a full list of its nuclear programs by the end of the year.

Christopher Hill, the top U.S. envoy in six-way talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear ambition, was expected to hold bilateral talks with his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye-gwan in Beijing later Wednesday to discuss various issues including the normalization of ties between their nations, according to officials here.

“The incident will have a positive impact as a result of the efforts by both the U.S. and North Korea to normalize their diplomatic ties,” a ministry official said, asking to remain anonymous.

North Korea has yet to officially acknowledge the U.S. assistance in regaining the freedom of its vessel and treating the ship’s wounded North Korean crew members.

Crew wins deadly pirate battle off Somalia

The crew members of a North Korean freighter regained control of their ship from pirates who hijacked the vessel off Somalia, but not without a deadly fight, the U.S. Navy reported Tuesday.

When the battle aboard the Dai Hong Dan was over, two pirates were dead and five were captured, the Navy said.

Three wounded crew members from the cargo ship were being treated aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS James E. Williams.

The captured pirates were being held aboard the North Korean vessel, the Navy said.

The bandits had seized the ship’s bridge, while the crew kept control of the steering gear and engines, the Navy said.

The Koreans moved against the attackers after the Williams — responding to reports of the hijacking — ordered the pirates to give up their weapons, according to the Navy.

When the crew members stormed the bridge, the deadly battle began. After the crew regained control, Navy sailors boarded the Dai Hong Dan to help with the injured.

North Korea and the United States have no diplomatic relations.

The incident took place about 70 miles northeast of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, the Navy said.

It is the second incident of piracy reported in recent days. A second U.S. Navy destroyer was searching waters off Somalia for pirates who hijacked a Japanese-owned ship, military officials said.

Over the weekend, gunmen aboard two skiffs hijacked the Panamanian-flagged Golden Nori off the Socotra archipelago near the Horn of Africa, said Andrew Mwangura, a spokesman for the Kenyan-based Seafarers’ Assistance Program.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke has been pursuing the pirates after entering Somali waters with the permission of the troubled transitional government in Mogadishu, U.S. officials said Monday. In recent years, warships have stayed outside the 12-mile limit when chasing pirates.

Two military officials familiar with the details confirmed the ongoing operation.

The Navy’s pursuit of the pirates began Sunday night when the Golden Nori radioed for help. The Burke’s sister ship, the USS Porter, opened fire and sank the pirate skiffs tied to the Golden Nori’s stern before the Burke took over shadowing the hijacked vessel.

When the shots were fired, it was not known the ship was filled with highly flammable benzene. U.S. military officials indicate there is a great deal of concern about the cargo because it is so sensitive.

Benzene, which U.S. authorities have declared a known human carcinogen, is used as a solvent and to make plastics and synthetic fabrics.

Four other ships in the region remain in pirate hands, the Navy said.

U.S. and NATO warships have been patrolling off the Horn of Africa for years in an effort to crack down on piracy off Somalia, where a U.N.-backed transitional government is struggling to restore order after 15 years of near-anarchy.

On Monday, the head of the transitional government resigned as his administration — backed by Ethiopian troops — battled insurgents from the Islamic movement that seized control of Mogadishu in 2006.

Hospital officials reported 30 dead in three days of clashes on the city’s south side.

In June, the ship USS Carter Hall fired warning shots in an attempt to stop a hijacked Danish cargo ship off Somalia, but the American vessel turned away when the pirated ship entered Somali waters.

In May, a U.S. Navy advisory warned merchant ships to stay at least 200 miles off the Somali coast. But the U.S. Maritime Administration said pirates sometimes issue false distress calls to lure ships closer to shore.

The pirates often are armed with automatic rifles and shoulder-fired rockets, according to a recent warning from the agency.

“To date, vessels that increase speed and take evasive maneuvers avoid boarding, while those that slow down are boarded, taken to the Somali coastline and released after successful ransom payment, often after protracted negotiations of as much as 11 weeks,” the warning advised.

The agency issued a new warning to sailors in the Gulf of Aden, between Somalia and Yemen, after Sunday’s hijacking.


Comments are closed.