S. Korea Still Plans To Send Naval Ship To Somalia

SEOUL, Dec. 24 (Yonhap) — South Korea‘s plan to send a warship to the Somali waters to help fight pirates remains unchanged, and a related motion will be submitted to the National Assembly in the near future, a foreign ministry official said Wednesday.

He added that foreign and defense ministries agree on the need for the dispatch, denying media speculation over a possible rift between the two over the matter.

The authorities originally planned to seek parliamentary approval by the end of this year.

“Cheong Wa Dae [ROK Office of the President] (presidential office) instructed all ministries to focus on getting the budget plan for next year, along with economy-related and reform bills, passed amid the economic crisis,” the official said, asking not to be named. “We will put forward the motion early next year. Not only the ruling Grand National Party but also the opposition parties are expected to support it.”

He denied media speculation that Seoul’s deferred move might be aimed at giving a “present” to the incoming U.S. government of Barack Obama.

“Sending a naval ship to Somalia is part of a U.N.-led campaign, not spearheaded by the U.S. alone,” he said. “Its foremost goal is to protect our nationals there. That is why the consular bureau, not the North American bureau (at the foreign ministry), is in charge of the issue.”

He said negotiations for the release of five South Koreans held by a group of Somali pirates are under way.

He gave no details, citing a possible negative impact to the effort.

A 20,000-ton Japanese freighter, whose crewmen include five South Koreans, was seized last month near the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden.

China announced last week it will send destroyers to Somalia, becoming the latest nation to join the crackdown on piracy.

This article was from just before Christmas and before the Chinese dispatched their three-ship task force to the Gulf of Aden.  Even the Japanese are seriously talking about sending their own ship to the Gulf to fight pirates, but the ROK’s are paralyzed.  In typical ROK political fashion, the National Assembly is gridlocked as political parties cannot agree on anything with the result being hunger strikes, sit ins, even all-out assaults on rooms as committees do business.

Not helping the situation is the international political fallout over Hebei Spirit.  This was an “editorial” from yesterday:

SEOUL 3 Jan (Korean Herald) The international maritime community is raising issue with a Korean court of appeal ruling on Dec. 10, 2008 that found the captain and chief officer of Hebei Spirit– the Hong Kong-registered supertanker that spilled 10,900 tonnes of crude oil off the coast of Taean — negligent in minimizing the spillage.

In December 2007 a barge owned by Samsung Heavy Industries, which broke free after a cable to one of the two tugboats snapped in rough seas, rammed into the anchored Hebei Spirit. The supertanker was holed in three places and crude oil spilled into the seas, making the incident Korea’s worst oil spill in history.

Last month’s ruling reversed a lower court decision which had exonerated Jasprit Chawla and Syam Chetan, captain and chief officer, respectively, of Hebei Spirit. The Daejeon Appeal Court found that while Samsung was mainly to blame for the accident, the tanker bore more responsibility for the environmental damage. Chawla was given an 18-month jail term and fined 20 million won and Chetan was sentenced to eight months in prison and given a 10 million won fine. Heibei Spirit was fined 30 million won.

The captain of the Samsung barge, who had been exonerated in the previous ruling, was sentenced to 18 months in jail. The captain of the tugboat had his three-year jail term, 2 million won fine lowered to 30 months in jail with a fine of 2 million won. The captain of the supporting tugboat also had his sentence reduced from 12 months in prison to eight months. The court rejected an appeal by Samsung Heavy Industries, which was fined 30 million won by a lower court.

The Daejeon Appeal Court said that Hebei Spirit‘s chief officer failed to take appropriate action even though it was clear that the barge and the tanker were at risk of collision. The captain did not take appropriate measures to mitigate the oil spillage and in fact, actions taken by the captain after the collision actually accelerated spillage, the court said.

The owners of the Hebei Spiritsaid the court’s ruling is unacceptable and said they would appeal. A Supreme Court bail hearing is set for Chawla and Chetan, although no date has been set.

The appeals court ruling setoff widespread anger in the international shipping community, which claims the Korean government is scapegoating the Hebei Spirit.

V.Ships, the tanker’s ship-manager, said that the decision “will surely go down as one of the most disgraceful examples of a miscarriage of justice in a supposedly advanced nation state.” The International Transport Workers’ Federation called the court’s ruling “incomprehensively vindictive” and questioned the propriety of the court. Sailors’ groups are threatening to boycott sails to Korea.

In Mumbai, more than 2,500 people were reported to have demonstrated against the jailing of the two Indian nationals. Samsung products were destroyed during the course of the demonstration and organizers of the rally called for a boycott of Korean products.

Demonstrations and emotionally-charged accusations are not the best way to resolve the issue at hand. Rather than blasting the Korean justice system, the interested parties should present evidence to persuade the relevant authorities and the court. The Korean court should also not let Korean public sentiment influence its decision.

I find the last paragraph particularly offensive, because I sat here in Seoul during last summer’s Mad Cow protests where tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets because they were sure (after all, the TV news magazines told them) that Koreans were genetically pre-disposed to being vulnerable to Mad Cow disease and the US was irresponsible and just wanted to sell its tainted beef overseas.  The underlying problem for ROK industry is that for a nation that has a great shipbuilding (and sailing) reputation they are “nationalist” to the point of near-xenophobia.

In the long run, we will probably see at least one ROK ship join the anti-pirate armada…but not in the immediate future.  When we do, it will be interesting to see how the ROK government “spins” the deployment and whether they try to mix in damage control over the ongoing fall-out  of  Hebei Spirit (which in itself is unfortunate that the ship that was hit becomes the name for the spill).

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