Sailors may end up in Hormuz
The 300-strong Cheonghae Unit departed from Busan on the 4,400-ton Kang Gam Chan, a DDH-979 Yi Sun-shin class destroyer, for a month-long voyage to the Somalian coast. The 30th batch will take over from the current group in the Gulf of Aden and will be deployed in the area for six months to combat piracy, protect Korean vessels and, when needed, support other countries’ ships in nearby waters.
However - if ordered - the Navy destroyer could end up steering toward the Strait of Hormuz, strategically located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
Somali pirate activities in the Gulf of Aden have been under control recently. The Strait of Hormuz is only around four days away by boat.
Washington has stressed the importance of the freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz and has been calling for allies, including Korea, Japan and Australia, to support the U.S. coalition to protect the waters.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper raised the issue during talks with his Korean counterpart, Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo, in Seoul last Friday as he made his first tour of Asia since he became Pentagon chief. While Esper stopped short of officially requesting Seoul to dispatch troops to the waters, his remarks requesting cooperation could be construed as indirectly asking for such a deployment by Korea.
After Iran allegedly attacked Japanese and Danish tankers off Oman in June and seized a British oil tanker traveling through the Strait of Hormuz on July 19, the United States is trying to rally allies to safeguard the strategic waterway, where 20 percent of the global oil supply flows. It is also the route for some 70 percent of Korea’s oil imports.
Korean officials have expressed support for the U.S.-led initiative to protect the waters both during Esper’s visit last week and a trip by John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, at the end of last month.
However, Choi Hyun-soo, spokesperson of the Korean Defense Ministry, said in a briefing Tuesday, “as of now, the Kang Gam Chan will sail to the Gulf of Aden to carry out its existing missions.”
When asked if any decision has been reached by the Korean government on the dispatching of troops to Hormuz, Choi only replied, “As we have said many times before, we are reviewing various methods of protecting our vessels,” without denying the possibility of such a deployment.
She said that there has been no working-level talks with Washington on the deployment of troops to the strait.
Military officials have indicated that the Kang Gam Chan has bolstered its defense capabilities in seeming consideration of a potential sudden change in its mission.
Choi, addressing reports that the destroyer’s weapons capabilities has been bolstered, said, “that is something that can be done depending on the necessity at the location.” She added that “there hasn’t been any big change,” however.
Korea will have a lot to consider if it ultimately decides to deploy troops to Hormuz, taking into consideration its alliance with the United States. Such an action could make Korean vessels a target of the Iranian military. Thus, there has been an internal review of such a deployment since June.
“In June, following the attack of two large-size oil tankers and heightened tensions in Strait of Hormuz, we have considered methods on how to protect our vessels,” a Korean military official told the JoongAng Ilbo Tuesday, adding this was “before any request from the United States.”
Seoul was also put in an awkward position in its diplomatic and economic relations with Tehran when U.S. President Donald Trump in May 2018 decided to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal signed by China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, the United States and Germany in 2015.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry has urged Seoul to remain “neutral” especially taking into account its economic partnership.
The Cheonghae Unit, first deployed in 2009, is best known for its heroic rescue of the Samho Jewelry, a Korean freighter hijacked by Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea January 2011. In the Operation Dawn of Gulf of Aden mission, the Korean commandos on a 4,500 destroyer rescued all 21 crew member held hostage by the pirates. The anti-piracy unit marked its 10th anniversary this year.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]