It's not often that a nation does something as dramatic as rescuing 21 of its citizens from pirates on board a freighter, and also marks the occasion with the significant milestone of conducting its first-ever operation in international waters. South Korea did just that on Friday, sending a unit of its elite SEALs (who sometimes train with US Navy SEALs) to rescue sailors held hostage by Somali pirates. Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation offers this telling commentary about some of the larger stakes that may have driven South Korea's president to action.
Bravo Zulu is navy parlance for “job well done.” South Korea’s naval commandos certainly earned that accolade by successfully rescuing all 21 hostages held aboard a South Korean freighter. On January 15, pirates armed with automatic rifles, heavy machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades seized the Samho Jewelry ship 800 miles off the Somali coast. In an early morning attack, a South Korean SEAL unit seized control of the ship and freed all hostages. Eight pirates were killed, five wounded, and none escaped.
The daring rescue was fraught with risk. Seizing a ship from heavily armed opponents while on the high seas is exceedingly difficult. That it was done flawlessly is a testament to the professionalism, dedication, and bravery of the South Korean SEALs. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak also deserves credit for authorizing the dangerous mission. He subsequently vowed to protect his countrymen, declaring, “anything that threatens the life and safety of our citizens will not be tolerated.”
Hopefully South Korea’s tenacity will deter Somali pirates from seizing other civilian freighters. Since 2006, nine Korean vessels have been taken hostage in the area. The rescue was the first time South Korea attempted recapture a ship as well as the first Korean military operation in international waters.
One can hope that North Korea will also take note of Seoul’s new resolve. Following Pyongyang’s unprovoked attack on a South Korean island that caused four deaths, President Lee vowed a sterner response to any subsequent provocation. Seoul augmented military forces in the region and altered the military rules of engagement, enabling local commanders to more effectively respond to future North Korean aggression.
South Korea’s commandos are rightly being hailed by their countrymen as heroes for their stunning success. Their triumph is also a vivid reminder of how the stalwart men and women of the U.S. armed forces toil relentlessly every day to defend our own freedom. In the words of George Orwell, “people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
Bruce Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation