It was recently reported that Somali pirates have been holding the crew
of the North Korean cargo ship Chilsanbong Cheonnyeonho since it was captured last March. Ten months on, the ship remains detained, with hefty ransom demands likely still outstanding. With no records for the vessel
found at maritime insurance tracker Seasearcher, the possibility that its crew may now be facing abandonment is becoming ever more likely. However, given South Korea's dramatic rescue of one of its own vessels captured by pirates in January, the case of the Chilsanbong now offers the Koreas an opportunity for military cooperation at a time of increasing tension.
Thanks to close-range combat skills accrued from decades of training to fight North Korean ships, South Korea's raid
in January was a major success, resulting in the death or capture of 13 Somali pirates and the rescue of all 21 hostages. In a further show of firm-handedness, South Korea quickly flew the captured pirates to Seoul to face trial
. The well-publicized rescue mission may have been an intentional attempt by South Korea to restore naval deterrence over North Korea following the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korean artillery. Domestically, it may have also helped improve the South Korean navy's credibility, with the Asia Times suggesting
that the bold operation would, at least temporarily, "silence domestic criticisms" of naval competence.
North Korea has had nine of its vessels captured since 2006, and paid $3.5 million
to free the North Korean-crewed MV Theresa VIII last year. With last week's inter-Korean military talks ending in debacle, Pyongyang could now be considering its own brazen rescue mission, for similar reasons. Such an operation could conceivably kill two birds with one stone. A high-profile and successful operation would send a chilling message to Seoul -- without the risk accompanying a direct provocation -- while also increasing North Korea's bargaining power in future military talks. However, this outcome remains highly unlikely, as Pyongyang knows.
According to Joseph Bermudez, an expert on the North Korean military, with the exception of some submarines, the North Korean navy has never operated outside regional waters. "The DPRK has employed merchant vessels since the 1960s to carry weapons, advisers and Special Operation Forces personnel throughout the world," Bermudez noted. "They could certainly attempt to do so in this case. However, they completely lack the intelligence-collection capabilities to plan such a mission."
He added that the Proliferation Security Initiative
, under which Western ships can interdict vessels suspected of carrying illegal cargo, has put limits on North Korea's willingness and ability to move soldiers and weapons. "North Korea would likely also weigh the risks of failure to be very high when compared with the recent Republic of Korea (ROK) effort," he concluded. "Public failure and humiliation, in comparison with the ROK, is not something that they want -- especially at the present."
With the prospect of a unilateral North Korean rescue mission well off the radar, Pyongyang and Seoul, if serious about improving relations, should now view the plight of the Chilsanbong Cheonnyeonho as an opportunity for naval cooperation. Indeed, intelligence permitting, an inter-Korean rescue mission could both serve to reduce naval tensions while increasing Korean deterrence vis-à-vis other would-be pirates in the region. It would also help out what now looks like an otherwise forgotten crew.
While a radical approach, it would not be the first time South Korea has helped its neighbor to the north: The same destroyer that dramatically rescued the ROK vessel in January also chased Somali pirates
away from a North Korean cargo ship near Yemen in May 2009. That time, a North Korean crew member on the cargo ship thanked the South Korean navy for its protection by radio. While that particular move did little to reduce inter-Korean tensions -- North Korea tested its second nuclear device that month -- Pyongyang has shown state-level gratitude to the U.S. in similar circumstances.
In late 2007, a U.S. naval vessel cruised to the support
of a North Korean cargo ship, the Dai Hong Da, after it repulsed a boarding attempt by Somali pirates. On that occasion, U.S. sailors were invited on board the North Korean ship to provide medical assistance to wounded crewmen, with one report
even suggesting some of the seriously injured were airlifted by the U.S Navy to nearby Yemen. This remarkable cooperation did not go unnoticed in Pyongyang. In a rare occurrence, North Korea's state news agency, KCNA,released a statement
saying, "We feel grateful to the United States for its assistance given to our crewmen. This case serves as a symbol of the DPRK-U.S. cooperation in the struggle against terrorism."
With the crew of the Chilsanbong Cheonnyeonho still awaiting rescue after 10 months of captivity, and evidence suggesting funds to pay a ransom may be hard to dig up in Pyongyang right now, cooperation with Seoul may be the only way North Korea can hope to recover the vessel and its crew. South Korea has shown remarkable skill in recovering its own sailors and could offer real assistance to the North, all against a common enemy. Even if a joint rescue attempt is out of the question for now, inter-Korean discussion and collaboration on the issue could help reduce tensions where they currently run at their highest -- between the two countries' navies.
When the next round of inter-Korean military talks takes place, it would be prudent for both South Korean and North Korean commanders to choose a common issue upon which to build trust. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden is a problem that plagues both nations, making it an ideal starting point for inter-Korean détente.
**Tad Farrell is director of NK News
, a North Korea news and information resource for professionals, academics and students. He holds a master's degree in nonproliferation and international security from Kings College London. He is using a pseudonym due to restrictive press freedoms in North Korea, where he sometimes travels.
**Andrew Pascoe is an Australian freelance journalist who covers business and politics. He has been published widely in Australia and for such global publications as Agence France-Presse, China Dialogue and Paydirt. He is a staff journalist at NK News.