Over the weekend, I saw this story that really caught my attention. It seems some pirates had seized the crew of a cargo ship, but a United States Navy helicopter showed up and demanded their release. The pirates complied, the crew was returned to their ship, and all was well.
First, I was reminded of how important it is that we have a strong navy. While it is true that we are the unquestioned ruler of the seven seas, with only one nation (Communist China) even close to posing a potential challenge (and they’re years away from being able to project power more than a couple of hundred miles from their shores), there are other threats out there that need to be met. Fighting piracy has been a function of navies since time immemorial. Our Navy’s first challenge were the Barbary Pirates of Africa’s north coast — and the pirates were the predecessors of today’s Muslim terrorists. For much of the time since then, piracy has waned, but never really gone away.
It’s been making a comeback in recent decades, quietly but steadily. And the US Navy has been at the forefront at fighting off these buccaneers, including several notable engagements off the coast of Africa. And it doesn’t get much attention, but there were 239 reported incidents of piracy last year — and lord knows how many unreported ones, as shipping companies might not report such attacks that could harm their insurance rates.
But the real reason the story caught my eye was the nationality of the victim ship. Our old unfriends, the North Koreans, had their bacon pulled out of the fire by the United States Navy — against whom they pulled an act of piracy of their own almost exactly 40 years ago.
The capture and continued captivity of the USS Pueblo is a black mark in United States history. Even if you grant that she might have been in North Korean waters (and I don’t, but it’s certainly arguable), the treatment of her crew was utterly intolerable and in violation of existing laws and agreements. And her continued existence as a trophy and monument of anti-Americanism is an insult to the US Navy and the US itself.
I will never understand why she was not sunk at dockside at some point over these many years, as a reassertion of our sovereignty over her. And in 1999, when she was towed from Wonsan to Nampo through international waters, it is nothing less than disgrace that she was not either taken back or sunk in deep waters.
North Korea has offered to return the Pueblo, in exchange for some significant diplomatic concessions — such as an official state visit by Secretary of State Rice or some other personage of such prestige. The Bush administration has refused to discuss doing so, and I think that is the right response — “millions for defense, not one cent for tribute” is what Thomas Jefferson said about the Barbary pirates, and it’s still a sound policy today. Otherwise, as Kipling said about another group of noted pirates and buccanneers, “once you pay the Dane-geld, you never get rid of the Dane.”