Johnny Depp culture clash: How to punish pirates loving life in Korean jails

Wednesday, February 2, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL When I was a kid reading comic books and paperback novels about pirates, I got the impression the preferred way to deal with them was to hang them from the yardarm. Actor Charles Laughton shouting defiance with a noose around his neck in that classic film Captain Kidd provides an enduring image.

So what do you do when you actually capture some of these people? Hang the worst of the lot and toss the rest into prison for life? Not so fast. The Koreans have the five they grabbed from a Korean freighter in the Arabian Sea on Jan. 21, and the Malaysians have another seven picked up from another vessel in the Gulf of Aden on Jan. 20, but no one quite knows what to do with them.

The pictures of the pirates in Korea, wearing big-hooded jackets from the crew of the Samho Jewelry, the vessel they hijacked a week before Korean Navy Seals stormed it, make them look like American basketball players on half-time break. Peering into their weary, stony faces, their downcast eyes, on the TV news and the front pages of the papers, you might think they were on the losing side, getting a lecture from the coach, while the fans behind them booed and cheered.

True, the ropes strung around their arms and waists, their shackled hands in front, in traditional Korean prison style, convey a rather different message. Still, you do get the impression they'd be alright staying where they are rather than returning to the old life of skimming the seas looking for another likely prize.

That much may be true. The Koreans were tough and resolute in attacking the ship, killing eight of the pirates in cabin-to-cabin fighting while a Korean navy destroyer stood by and a Linx helicopter hovered overhead, but now they're doing whatever it takes to show their humanitarian instincts. You're not likely to read any stories of beatings or torture while this bunch is under interrogation, on trial and facing sentences that could theoretically make them life-long habituees of the Korean prison system.

In fact, the five surviving pirates may never have had it so good. They're sleeping in real beds in heated cells in a jail in the southeastern port of Busan, and they're dining on food guaranteed to exclude sacrilegious stuff like pork, which happens to be a staple of the Korean diet. They've got doctors on nearby call, and the Coast Guard people are making sure they've got blankets and thermal underwear to fight the winter chill, an unaccustomed experience for those born and raised in the hot zone.

Life is so good in the hoosegow in Busan that two of them have been saying, hey, we like here, we don't want to go back. That's the kind of appeal that Koreans may take seriously. The Korean National Tourist Organization has trouble convincing tourists that Korea is every bit as great a tourist destination as nearby Japan, Taiwan or mainland China. It's nice to see that more and more people, Somalian pirates included, would like to stay on in a country that offers lots of beaches, mountain scenery, a growing number of fine restaurants and bars and excellent cuisine that doesn't take much getting used to.

You can imagine these five, after serving rather brief sentences before gaining their freedom for good behavior, merging quite easily into the swarms on the sidewalks of Itaewon, the district near the large United States military base to which foreigners, American GIs and a lot of others have been flocking ever since the Korean War in the early 1950s.

There is one quite serious problem not counting the obvious, that they hijacked a ship. There is also the physical condition of the skipper, Captain Seok Hae-Kyun. He was the only Korean casualty of the attack, and initial reports were that his wounds were "not life-threatening."

Not true. Photographs of this middle-aged man, unconscious, with tubes protruding from his mouth, nostrils and arms, give a sense of how close he came to dying from two shots in the stomach as well as shots in the wrist, thigh and leg. Those bullets in the abdomen necessitated two operations to keep him alive after he was flown to Oman by helicopter and at least one more operation in a hospital near Seoul after he was flown there on a Korean Air Force ambulance plane and doctors discovered severe blood poisoning had set in.

Seok is still expected to survive, but his struggle raises the question of how to deal with the pirates. Investigators are pretty sure that one of them fired at him, and they even had what they thought was a confession, but the man soon recanted. It may be up to members of the Samho Jewelry crew, flown to Busan after their bullet-riddled ship was finally allowed to dock in Muscat, to provide the vital testimony that will finally get one or more of the five convicted of murder.

The five, basically kids aged 19 to 25, have one defense that probably won't get them off the hook but may result in lighter sentences. That's simply that the bad guys were the ones who died, that they didn't know what they were getting into, that they were innocent victims, all that. As one of them was quoted in the Korean media as telling interrogators, he climbed aboard the Samho Jewelry only "after the others hijacked it" and had "nothing to do with the hijacking".

The real problem, though, is whether to hold these five for a long time or to use them as bait while pirate bands hold a small Korean fishing trawler and its 43 crew members, captured last October off the Somali coast. The 247-ton Golden Wave is skippered by a Korean who is believed to own it but has no funds for ransom. The vessel's engineer is also Korean, two other officers are Chinese and the rest are Kenyan.

The question of what to do with the captured pirates burst into the media in South Korea last week when Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin, a former top general who has called for retaliation against North Korea in the event of more attacks, said he would "consult" with other officials about exchanging them for the crew of the Golden Wave.

Opposition politicians immediately advocated that idea while the Foreign Ministry rejected it several days later after what are believed to have been intense behind-the-scenes discussions. The pirates were flown to South Korea for trial after officials decided that negotiations for an exchange would only encourage piracy.

Koreans differ widely in their view of whether to hold the pirates for long even if they go on trial, are found guilty and sentenced to long terms. "We do not negotiate with pirates," is a mantra of local officialdom, along with the corollary, "We will not submit to terrorists' demands."

Those arguments, though, face strong condemnation from critics of the conservative government of President Lee Myung-Bak. The Democratic Party, the main opposition voice, has seized on the pirate issue with the same eagerness with which it pillories the government for negotiating with North Korea after the sinking of the naval vessel the Cheonan in March and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea in November.

One reason for Lee's decision to approve orders to recapture the Samho Jewelery, an 11,500-ton chemical carrier, was the humiliation of having to pay $9.5 million in November to obtain the release of a 300,000-ton supertanker, the Samho Dream, owned by the same company, and its 24 crew members after they were held for seven months.

Samho, not the government, reportedly put up the money, but the deal was seen as not just a terrible precedent but a national humiliation, a sign of weakness under duress. Lee, criticized for the weak response to the Yeonpyeong attack, could ill-afford the public perception of a leader afraid to fight back.

Now, with the five pirates safely in Busan, public sentiment for vengeance is waning. Did anyone see Johnny Depp as the bad guy in the Pirates of the Caribbean films? These characters may not whisper and snarl with his elan, but it's getting hard to see them really as villains as they linger in the safety of their cells, fed and clothed, the victims of masters back in Somalia who doubtless are not the least concerned about their fate.

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