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South Korea anxiously hopes for heroic captain to recover

The ship's captain lies sedated in a hospital bed here, breathing tubes thrust down his throat, fragments from six bullets fired by Somali pirates lodged in his body. As he fights for his life, Seok Hae-kyun is being called a hero.

Seok, government officials say, single-handedly set the stage for a successful operation last month off the coast of Africa by South Korean commandos who rescued the Samho Jewelry's crew of 21 and killed eight of 13 armed abductors.

Seok, 58, reportedly provided his captors false information about the chemical freighter, mixed water with engine oil and, along with the ship's chief engineer, sabotaged the rudder and other vital systems. Often with a gun at his head, he subtly veered on a zigzag course, sometimes even backtracking, allowing rescuers to catch up with the vessel.

During the rescue he was shot several times, suffering wounds to his arms, legs and abdomen. On Saturday, he was airlifted from Oman to a trauma center near Seoul, where surgeons have labored around the clock to stem the damage to his internal organs. He remains in critical condition.

Each day, a concerned nation follows Seok's progress. In a nationwide speech this week, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said the rescue would not have occurred without the captain's help.

"You might think you'll be carried off safely because the shipping company will pay the [ransom] money [to the pirates]," the president said. "But I believe [Seok] had something else in mind. He seems like a very special person."

Seok enlisted in the South Korean navy after graduating from a vocational high school, too poor to afford the tuition for the nation's prestigious naval academy. "He started his sailor's career mopping the deck, incrementally moving up from third to first mate before finally becoming captain," read an op-ed piece in a Seoul newspaper.

The captain's son, Seok Hyun-soo, recently told reporters that the family had implored him to retire from the merchant marine after he bought a building a few years ago. But following a brief layover at the end of each voyage, he would pack his bags and head out to sea again.

"He chose the sea to get out of poverty," the son said. "The sea was his home and livelihood."

Seok's savvy from 30 years at sea came to bear Jan. 15 when his ship, en route from the United Arab Emirates to Sri Lanka, was raided by pirates. The captain herded his crew into a so-called panic room, but the invaders broke the locks and forced Seok back to his post.

On Wednesday, seven of the crewmen held hostage with Seok arrived home, describing for officials their ordeal at the hands of the pirates.

The abductors often beat the captain, yelling "Kill!" one crewman told Yonhap news agency.

When commandos stormed the ship Jan. 21, the captors turned their anger on Seok, opening fire. Initial reports said his condition was not life-threatening, but he now clings to life as a nation holds its breath.

Seok's family has kept a vigil at the hospital, which has been mobbed by reporters and well-wishers. Prior to his father's arrival from Oman, Seok Hyun-soo told reporters the family was in shock that his father's exploits would result in such grave injuries.

"Dad, I love you," he was quoted as saying. "I'm very proud of you."

Under heavy guard Sunday, the five remaining Somali suspects arrived in South Korea, where investigators have tried to solve the mystery of who shot the Samho Jewelry captain. One alleged pirate reportedly admitted to the crime, but he has since recanted.

Meanwhile, cautious surgeons express hope for Seok's recovery. And President Lee has called them to offer his support.

"Please lead the situation well," he said, "so that Capt. Seok may rise from his bed."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Jung-yoon Choi in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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