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Scarier Halloween Costume: A Pirate, or Kim Jong-il?

Yesterday, a U.S. Navy destroyer helped the crew of a North Korean freighter recapture their vessel from a band of marauding pirates off the coast of Somalia. It’s an unusual news item, not because piracy is rare — around the world, pirate attacks have surged over the last decade — but because we’re more used to hearing about the dire threat North Korea poses to world peace, and what the U.S. is doing to contain it.

While it’s true that the rescue of the North Korean freighter was unprecedented, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising.

The world’s oceans are largely unpoliced. At the same, they carry more than 90 percent of world trade. High seas piracy, which can strike almost anywhere along unguarded shipping lanes, injects uncertainty into the shipping industry. That uncertainty can throw sand into the gears of the global economy (for example, piracy off the coast of Somalia is restricting the flow of humanitarian relief, not to mention trade goods, into the country).

To heighten the perception of danger, the profits from high seas piracy may or may not be finding their way into the pockets of international terrorists.

Compare that with the more measurable, more predictable risk posed by North Korea, which has recently agreed to mothball its nuclear weapons program. Which one produces more fear and instability?

Part of the explanation for this week’s unusual maritime rescue might lie in the Ellsberg paradox, which Dubner and Levitt explored last month in their column on the resurgence of the American nuclear power industry. Given a choice between a risk with understandable consequences and a risk fraught with immeasurable uncertainty, we tend to choose the former.

So today and tonight, at the office Halloween party or after hours, let us know. Which costume is scarier: a pirate, or Kim Jong-il?

Trick or Treat bonus links: Dubner wrote about Pirates earlier this month, during a lull in piratical activity. And you can see a live map of all reported pirate attacks around the world here, courtesy of the International Maritime Bureau.