(Yonhap Feature) Piracy proves profitable: Korea's IntelEdge takes on Somalia
By Andrew Salmon
SEOUL, Jan. 2 (Yonhap) -- The famous Korean Admiral Yi Sun-shin never battled Blackbeard, Calico Jack or Captain Kidd, but his distant descendants are now joining the struggle against 21st century sea wolves -- on a freelance basis.
With Korea's economy hinging on global trade, mostly seaborne, there is a clear requirement for maritime security. And with Korea's military generating a pool of trained professionals, private military contractors (PMCs) are supplying the security demands of Korean merchant shipping.
These "sea marshals" are not easy to find. They are virtually invisible on the Internet (a considerable feat in itself). A meeting with an executive required an introduction from a private investigator. The executive asked to meet in a coffee shop rather than his office and declined to be photographed.
Lim Yong-beom was casually dressed and in his early 40s. Of average height, he has a gentle handshake, but when he removed his jacket, a Homeric physique was apparent beneath his shirt. Lim, a special forces veteran, is the chief intelligence officer of IntelEdge, a PMC founded in 2010 that provides maritime security, consulting, intelligence and specialized hardware.
"We have around 20 regular contractors, all ex-Special Forces, and another 20 temporary, mostly British," said Lim, whose post-military service experience with PMCs includes work in West Africa and the Middle East.
Korean sea marshals are recruited from veterans of the most elite units, Lim explained. These comprise the army special forces of the 707 Battalion (similar to the US Delta Force or British SAS); the naval commandos of SEAL-UDT, or Sea-Air-Land/Underwater Demolition teams (who won fame for the storming of the captured "Samho Dream" last January); and the operators of HID, or Headquarters Intelligence Detachment (a black operations unit so secret that the Ministry of National Defense denies its existence).
The Korean SEAL Samho Dream raid was "good for business," Lim said.
IntelEdge sea marshals on duty (Courtesy of IntelEdge)
An IntelEdge sea marshal displays tatoos
Compared to their lavishly equipped U.S. counterparts, Korean operators are renowned for improvisation.
"ROK Special Forces may lack equipment, but complete the mission," he said, calling South Korea by the acronym of its official name, the Republic of Korea. "Creativity is their plus point."
For low-risk operations, Lim offered "semi-armed" teams, carrying compound bows. "We are Koreans -- good archers!" said Lim. "Crossbows have triggers so we can't carry them, but compound bows are sports equipment." This means they can be carried internationally, obviating firearm transit problems.
However, for operations off Somalia, firearms are essential. The problem is that under Korean law, they are impossible to own, so IntelEdge "rents" firearms from partners in Sri Lanka, where teams usually board ships.
Essential skill sets include language (IntelEdge staffers get company support for English lessons), tactics (more circumspect than military tactics) and knowledge of the regulations of the countries of the flagged ships they operate aboard. Lim himself speaks fluent English and holds a Ph.D. in nautical engineering from an Australian university, as IntelEdge offers consulting on strengthening ships for optimal defensibility
Container ships with high freeboard and powerful engines do not need protection, but for vulnerable vessels, a team of four sea marshals is appropriate for 24-hour protection, Lim said. IntelEdge usually has three teams on operations at any one time. And yes, there have been some close calls.
In September, a ship with four sea marshals was chased by 12 pirate skiffs, each with four pirates aboard. "First, we filmed their weapons," said Lim, citing company policy. "And we don't fire before they fire."
After the pirates fired warning shots, Lim's men brandished their weapons. "They saw our guns and gave up," Lim said. "After a two-hour chase, that was a very thrilling moment."
Another vessel found itself surrounded in the Indian Ocean. "The ship's short-range radar was out of order," Lim said. "One of our marshals saw the pirates with his naked eye." Skiffs surrounded the ship. The marshals fired warning shots and the captain put his foot down. The ship escaped, but over the horizon, it juddered to a halt, its engine burnt out. For two days, the vessel drifted while engineers made repairs. Luckily the pirates did not return, but it was a nervous time for the marshals.
Some might suggest that armed escorts increase the likelihood of violence. Lim disagrees. "Pirates' money comes from investors, probably via Yemen, to buy fuel and weapons," he said. "If they don't refund their investment, they get desperate."
Currently, Somali pirates use machines guns, assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), which is why Lim is trying to acquire longer-range rifles than his current AK47s. "We need to outrange RPGs, which are effective to about 400 meters," he said.
Still, he is scathing about some of the more kinetic international PMCs.
"They abuse their weapons, and have killed local people," he said.
Part of his interview process is moral questioning, to ensure potential contractors are not overly gung-ho.
"We look carefully at how they react to critical conditions," he said. "This business is very different from military service."
IntelEdge's intelligence includes a report on the position of suspected pirate mother ships, which is updated daily and is disseminated via a "closed" Web site for clients (its "public" Web site serves only as a contact point). The company also offers a 24-hour hotline.
Like many Korean firms, IntelEdge is price competitive compared to global competitors, but hardly cheap. For a one-week, four-man escort team, the company charges US$40,000. Other Korean PMCs include Shield Consulting and Aegis International, but Lim is unconvinced Somali piracy will last forever, as the international community moves to stabilize the lawless nation.
Hence, he is looking to the future. IntelEdge has developed a shooting stimulator that Lim claimed is two generations ahead of current U.S. equipment; it has already sold it to Malaysian clients. But the most promising business area, he says, is global risk consulting for Korean companies operating in hazardous areas.