[Viewpoint] Praying for Captain Seok

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[Viewpoint] Praying for Captain Seok

The shipping industry is one of the prides of Korea Inc. Korea ranks fifth in the world in terms of the deadweight tonnage of its ships. It is behind Greece, Japan, Germany and China and is followed by Norway, Hong Kong, the United States, Denmark and Britain. Traditional maritime powers - the U.S., Britain and Norway - lag behind Korea.

In 2008, the shipping sector was the country’s top contributor in external trade. It earned $47 billion from transporting cargo via sea, beating $43.1 billion in revenue from shipbuilding, $37.6 billion from petrochemical products, $35 billion from automaking and $32.8 billion from semiconductors.

It was the first time a nonmanufacturing industry topped the list of exports. Many people are aware of Korea’s strength in automobiles, television sets, memory chips and cellular phones, but they are surprised to learn of our shipping industry’s global status.

The fate of Korea’s shipping industry is inevitably entwined with the country’s export-reliant economy. With scant natural resources at home, the country had to import raw material like crude oil and iron to feed the country’s industrialization process and modernization. President Park Chung Hee, who spearheaded the country’s industrialization, emphasized exports as the primary engine for economic advancement.

Korea had to feverishly transport raw materials in and ship manufactured goods out to push its economy forward. It naturally had to build ships and set sail on the seas to realize the country’s trade goal.

Crewmen play the most important role in the shipping industry, and they are trained in maritime academies. In the early days after liberalization from Japanese rule, there were few Korean flag carriers. They went aboard foreign ships and became the first generation of matroos, Dutch for seamen.

With ample experience on sea, they returned home to sail on Korean flag carriers. One of them was 58-year-old Seok Hae-gyun, the captain of the Samho Jewelry, who is now in intensive care after being severely wounded by Somali pirates during the Korean Navy’s heroic rescue of the hijacked ship.

Seok is the archetypal self-made sailor. After graduating vocational high school, he entered the Navy because he didn’t have the money to attend a maritime academy. He started his sailor’s career mopping the deck, incrementally moving up from third to first mate before finally becoming a captain.

The captain’s place is the ultimate goal among seamen and carries the highest prestige. A vessel is considered a part of the country’s territory on the sea, and the commanding captain is therefore a high-ranking civilian envoy of his nation.

Oceangoing vessels are alone on the limitless waters, fighting unexpected storms, towering waves and other natural hazards. They now must confront a new enemy: pirates. A captain’s quick wit, guts, judgment and sense of command are crucial when his ship faces danger because the fate of the ship and the crew are on his shoulders.

Captain Seok was both valiant and calm when his 11,500-ton chemical cargo ship came under attack from Somali pirates while it was on its way from the United Arab Emirates to Sri Lanka. He and his crewmen hid themselves in the panic room below the deck. But the locks were broken by armed Somali pirates after they seized the ship.

Captain Seok maintained a brave face and quick wits even at gunpoint, lying about the state of the ship to buy time for Korean Navy commandos to arrive at the scene . He was the first to be shot when special forces from the Cheonghae Naval Unit stormed the ship to rescue the hostages.

A sailor who survived numerous perils on sea is now struggling with the toughest fight of his life. The Navy commando forces went onboard the Samho Jewelry to bring home all the crewmen alive. Their mission is not complete until the captain is back on his feet.

We hope all the prayers from well-wishers across the country will reach the captain and help bring the strong-willed man back to his former life and to his family.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin
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