The United States/North Korea Alliance of 2007

For most of the first half of the 20th century, the Korean peninsula was under Japanese control. When World War II ended, so did that arrangement; the Allies agreed to return control of Koreans to the Koreans themselves. But that transition didn’t happen overnight — and it didn’t happen cleanly. The United States and the Soviet Union, while allies during the war, quickly became rivals. Neither wanted the other to have undue influence over Korea, so the two nations split the peninsula in half. The Soviet Union had dominion over the northern half of the region while the United States would govern the southern part. The hope and expectation was for the two halves to unify under one locally-run government within a few years, but that didn’t happen. In 1948, voters in the southern half of the peninsula formed the Republic of Korea, elected their first government, and drafted their first constitution; that same year, Kim Il Sung established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly (and accurately) called North Korea, in 1948.

In the 70-plus years since, the United States and North Korea haven’t had much of a relationship, to say the least. The two were adversaries during the Korean War and, during that period, American President Harry Truman even considered dropping a nuclear bomb on North Korea. The two nations have shared hostilities a few times since the end of the war — today’s “From the Archives” story shares one of the more ridiculous events — and to this day, the two nations do not have formal diplomatic relations. 

But for one day — October 29, 2007 — the two played nice. 

Like most other nations, North Korea has seafaring merchants. And if you want to go from southeast Asia to Europe, you either have to go around the entire African continent or through the Suez Canal. The former is very long and therefore not ideal, but the latter takes you past the Horn of Africa (here’s a map), the part of the Arabian Sea that borders Somalia. (And while we’re at it, here’s a real-time map of worldwide marine traffic; you’ll note that there are a lot of ships near the Horn of Africa.) And for a while, that was a dangerous proposition. Starting in the year 2000, many former Somalian fisherman, unable to find enough fish to survive, turned to piracy instead. When war broke out in Somalia in 2006, the government effectively turned a blind eye to piracy. In 2008, there were 111 attempted hijackings, and the numbers went up for the next few years, peaking at an estimated 237 in 2011. Ultimately, the practice dwindled as ships became better at protecting themselves, but for most of the first decade and a half of this century, military ships from various nations patrolled the area in case someone needed help fending off pirates.

On October 28, 2007, the Dai Hong Dan, a North Korean merchant vessel (pictured above), was in the Arabian Sea about 70 miles off the coast of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. As War History Online explains, “armed assailants, disguised as a guard force, boarded the cargo ship and took control” of the ship, and took all 22 of its sailors hostage. The pirates then took the ship further out to sea and sent a message back to North Korea: pay the pirates the equivalent of $15,000 or they’d kill the hostages. 

Before anyone could pay that ransom, though, one of the sailors managed to issue a distress call. And luckily for them, an American destroyer, the USS James E. Williams, was in the region on an anti-piracy patrol. The Williams approached the captured North Korean ship and, as CNN reported, “ordered the pirates to give up their weapons.” That gave the North Koreans the opening they needed. The 22 sailors attacked the seven pirates, overwhelming them and retaking the ship. Two pirates were killed in the process, and three of the North Koreans were injured. The crew of the Williams boarded the Dai Hong Dan — with permission! — to give aid to the injured North Korean sailors and take the surviving pirates as captives.

In response to the rescue, the North Korean government, via its state news agency, issued a message of thanks to the Americans: “We feel grateful to the United States for its assistance given to our crewmen,” it stated, per Reuters. After that, though, North Korea and the United States went back to being adversaries. But for a brief moment, a joint force of North Koreans and Americans was able to overcome a common enemy.

Bonus fact: In 2013, a retired sailor named Colin Darch was invited to give a lecture to a chapter of the Women’s Institute, an organization dedicated to being “a trusted place for all women of all generations, to share experiences and learn from each other” per its website. Darch was there to talk about piracy, but the women attending the lecture weren’t quite aware of his backstory. Darch wasn’t a historian who had researched the history of piracy (although he had written a book on the subject), and he wasn’t there to talk about the pirates of yore. Rather, he was a survivor of an attack by Somali pirates. In 2008, he was taken captive and held hostage for 47 days, per the BBC. And he was there to share his tale of survival. Unfortunately, because the members of the Women’s Institute chapter didn’t know this, they decided to make the talk a little more festive — they all dressed up in pirate costumes, as seen here. The women were understandably embarrassed, but Darch didn’t mind. As he told the Guardian, “I think they were worried I might be a bit upset that they were trivializing it, but I thought it was funny. I just laughed and said it was like something from The Pirates of Penzance.” 

From the Archives: A Tree Falls in North Korea: Landscaping during an armistice is risky business!