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South Korea may have overplayed hand against pirates, critics say

References to the rescue of a crew last week as part of a tougher anti-piracy policy are drawing pledges of retaliation from Somali pirates and raising concern about the safety of those who remain hostages.

January 27, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Seoul — The South Korean government's pledge to get tougher on piracy and its self-congratulatory remarks after a military raid last week that freed 21 sailors held hostage by Somali pirates may attract more violence, analysts and critics say.

President Lee Myung-bak's celebratory reference to the raid as part of a new anti-piracy policy increasingly waged with high speed boats and attack helicopters and other comments are drawing pledges of retaliation from pirates and concern about the safety of remaining hostages.

Critics say government officials are overplaying the success of the raid Friday in the Arabian Sea to compensate for perceived feeble responses to two fatal incidents last year attributed to North Korea.

Those were North Korea's shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island in November, which killed four people, and the sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors, allegedly caused by a North Korean torpedo attack. Pyongyang denies responsibility for the ship's sinking.

Instead of worrying about their public image, South Korean officials should focus on freeing the captain and 43-member crew of the Golden Wave crabbing boat, seized by pirates in October, the critics say.

"It's been a campaign to get credit from voters," Kim Seung-hwan, a professor of international affairs at Myongji University in Seoul, said Wednesday. "The government should be more concerned about the hostages still out there. What is it doing for them? The reaction to the rescue should have been more muted."

South Korean government officials said this week that they had obtained intelligence that Somali pirates had pledged to attack more South Korean ships in light of last week's rescue of the chemical carrier Samho Jewelry. Eight pirates were killed and five captured in the top secret mission, during which the captain of the carrier suffered a gunshot wound.

A man who identified himself as a pirate told Reuters that the deaths would be avenged. "We shall never take a ransom from Korean ships," the pirate said, according to the news agency. "We will burn them and kill their crew."

Critics say the government has offered too many details of its rescue tactics in news reports that will help pirates planning future attacks.

"The military has told of all of its strategies and that certainly won't be helpful should another hostage rescue arise," Kim said.

More than 3,000 people have signed an online petition calling for more to be done to gain the release of the remaining hostages. Some want the government to swap the five captured Somalis for the crew of the Golden Wave, but the government dismisses prospects for such a deal, calling the two hijackings unrelated.

The Golden Wave has been used as a mother ship by the pirates in several other attacks, according to South Korean news reports.

The wife of Golden Wave captain Kim Dae-geun, who declined to give her name, said the government had refused to help meet the pirates' ransom demand, which she said had dropped from $6 million to $600,000. She fears for her husband's safety and asks why officials would risk a military assault to free the crew of one vessel and not the other.

"I am very anxious, and worry that pirates may give him an even harder time," she said, according to South Korean reports. "I'd like to try calling them [via a negotiation line with the abductors], but the pirates are very sensitive now so I can't even call."

Also Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said during a visit to Seoul that world leaders would press their objections to North Korea's uranium enrichment program. Steinberg met with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and other officials.

South Korea has proposed preliminary military talks with North Korea for Feb. 11 near the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries.

In a statement, North Korea also called for direct talks with Washington.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Jung-yoon Choi in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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