Yesterday was a bad day for mobsters in New York City. Today was a bad day for pirates in the Arabian Sea. Somali pirates had taken over a freighter called the Samho Jewelry, operated by the Samho Shipping company of South Korea. In a previous incident, the Koreans paid millions in ransom to recover the crew of an oil tanker after seven months of captivity. This time, they sent in a commando team that killed eight pirates and captured five others. One of the 21 hostages was injured during the operation.
The Fox News report on the incident suggests the South Korean military was looking to flex its muscles, after public unrest over the subdued response to recent North Korean acts of aggression, along with the earlier payment of ransom to pirates.
Lt. General Lee Sung-ho told reporters the operation involved a destroyer from the U.S. Fifth Fleet providing support for the South Korean destroyer Choi Young. Some of the pirates were blown away by covering fire from a Lynx helicopter gunship. The decision to strike was made because the pirates were expecting reinforcements, and some of them had actually left the Samho Jewelry to attack a nearby Mongolian ship. Apparently the pirates are not students of Civil War history, or they would have known it’s a bad idea to get greedy when you’re up against General Lee.
Somali piracy is a growth industry. At any given moment, dozens of ships and hundreds of hostages are being held. High-seas rescue operations, like the one South Korea just pulled off, are extremely risky for the hostages. Global shipping is so heavy that navies can’t protect all the trade routes. South Korea says it hopes today’s operation will scare pirates off, but their activity actually increased after the famous incident in which U.S. Navy Seals took Somali pirates out with head shots in 2009.
Piracy is a low-cost, high-return way to seize goods and hostages from ships isolated in a vast ocean, like so many floating treasure chests. Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has, for many years, been suggesting we issue letters of marque and reprisal to have bounty hunters take them out. It sounds pretty far out, but it’s actually something the Constitution explicitly authorizes the U.S. government to do. It would also spur job creation, because there would be even more reality TV shows about these bounty hunters than there are about hoarders.
In the long run, history has shown that only taking out their coastal bases of operation stops pirates for good. As long as Somali pirates can still put boats in the water, we’ll have more ransom payments, punctuated by the occasional commando raid.