Thursday, 15 January 2009

Is the pressure on South Korea beginning to tell?

11 January 2009 Amidst mounting criticism of intransigence over the Hebei Spirit affair, the South Korean Maritime Tribunal is scheduled to explain its position during the 35th session of the International Maritime Organisation’s Facilitation Committee in London tomorrow, Monday. Christopher Mayer, writing for Lloyd’s List, says that although the fate of Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan was not on the committee’s agenda, such a presentation is not without precedent at IMO sessions.

There are other signs that the Koreans are beginning to take the international criticism of the criminalisation of the Hebei Two seriously. The Korea Times reported earlier this week that the sentencing of the two officers to jail terms last month was drawing ‘scrutiny overseas’ and that “one international union of maritime workers called the ruling ‘incomprehensibly vindictive.’'' The influential Seoul based daily drew its reader’s attention to threats of boycott of Korean products in India and the threat to relations between the two countries.

Meanwhile, protests continue in India demanding the immediate release of the Capt. Chawla and Mr. Chetan on bail, pending the Korean Supreme Court verdict. On Thursday, demonstrations were held in New Delhi. “The protestors were seeking justice and release of the two jailed Indian marine officers by contending they were not primarily guilty for the collision of the tanker with a barge of Samsung in Korea.”, ANI reports. The demonstrators included mariners, families of the two officers as well as ‘commoners’ all of whom pledged to boycott South Korean products, the agency reported. South Korea is said to be concerned about the effects of a widespread boycott of South Korean ports by mariners, as it is hugely dependent on shipping to supply most of its energy needs.

The two officers of the tanker, involved in the biggest oil spill in South Korean history in December 2007 were convicted of criminal negligence and violating anti pollution laws by the Daejeon District Court, which overturned a lower court’s ‘not guilty’ ruling. The sentence has been widely condemned across the world; the Hebei Spirit was at anchor when she was struck repeatedly by a barge that broke loose while being towed by Samsung Heavy Industries tugs and the crew of the VLCC did everything they could to reduce the oil spill when her tanks were ruptured. Samsung has come under criticism for allegedly using its massive clout to influence events, as well as for trying to entice some the other crew’s testimony with ‘gifts’.

At the IMO, the Korean tribunal is expected to submit new technical information on Monday on the Hebei Spirit casualty without commenting on the legalities, as the matter is still sub judice in Korea. The move is being seen as underhand by some industry watchers, who claim that the introduction of the ‘new information’ at a forum where the Hebei Two cannot defend themselves is borderline dishonest, and may be an attempt to unfairly influence the global maritime community.

Others are more sanguine, and see the latest developments as positive. South Korea has been stung by the global condemnation of its judicial system in this case, and is finally responding at the IMO, they say. They also point out that the January 7 Korea Times article was headed “Taean Ruling Mars Korea India Ties,” and was replete with quotes of international criticism of the South Korean position; an indication that the universal criticism is finally having some affect.



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