Sailing into uncertainty
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
A critical state affair went mostly unnoticed while politicians were engrossed with the negative campaigns against Japan and Cho Kuk, the nominee for justice minister. Last week, a 4,400-ton Kang Gam Chan destroyer with 300 sailors onboard took off on a mission to join Korean troops in the Gulf of Aden, joining the Cheonghae Unit that has been stationed in the Gulf of Aden since 2009 to protect Korean vessels from piracy in the seas of the Persian Gulf while carrying crude and other fuel from Middle Eastern oil producing nations.
The new ship’s mission is defense in the Gulf of Aden until February. But the move comes after Washington called upon its Asian Pacific allies — Korea, Japan and Australia — to back U.S. engagement in the Strait of Hormuz, located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman that has become the latest flash point in tensions between the United States and Iran after a U.S. drone was downed in Iran. Seoul could not have flatly ignored Washington’s request. The troops reportedly have been warned that the location of their mission could change.
Some could argue that tweaking the engagement of the Cheonghae Unit to the Strait of Hormuz should not require additional troops or legislative approval.
But that is entirely misleading. The unit’s mission is strictly to “protect Korean vessels and nationals from Somali pirates” as approved under the 2009 legislative bill to “dispatch Korean troops to Somali waters.”
The reasoning that the mission in Somali waters and the Strait of Hormuz should not be any different if the purpose is to defend our national interests is preposterous. How can a mission versus pirates with outdated firearms and one countering Iranian naval forces armed with more than 30 submarines be the same? An entirely different naval operation clearly requires a new legislative review and approval.
The absence of military protection in the waterway where 400 Korean vessels pass a year if the Cheonghae Unit is called to the Strait of Hormuz is also an issue of a debate. Changing the operation of the Cheonghae Unit is not an issue.
But dispatching the destroyer without a legislative endorsement and clarifying the mission cannot be right. The issue requires more careful study as it involves the safety of our sailors, vessels, the alliance with the United States as well as ties with Iran and international sentiment.
There are many factors to consider. The international community is not pleased with the United States’ planned intrusion in the Iranian waterway. Only the British and Israeli governments have agreed to join the coalition. Germany declared nonparticipation while Japan agreed to send only patrol planes, even as one of its tankers came under attack. In contrast, the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) to counter sea piracy drew the support of 33 nations.
The Iranian disruption in the sea transport of oil has been triggered by the Trump administration’s unilateral walkout from the Iran nuclear deal. Moreover, Israel’s joining of the coalition in the conflict between Iran and the United States has raised the stakes. Korea cannot afford to make an enemy in Iran as it is one of the most important oil suppliers.
Still, Seoul may end up sending troops to the territorial waters of Iran and Oman as it requires Washington’s help in clearing the air with Tokyo and also fending off its demand for a spike in cost-sharing for the U.S. military presence in Korea. Still, the decision requires public approval through legislative endorsement. A recent poll showed that 44 percent were against, while 37 supporting the dispatch.
Before sending our men to the risky sea battlefield, the government must be assured of returns from Washington. Seoul has sent troops to Vietnam and Iraq at the request of the United States.
Korea earned economic aid in return for its dispatch to Vietnam and trust from President George W. Bush for joining the Iraq operation.
Seoul must clearly lay out the terms before sending troops to the Hormuz waters. We will look foolish if we give Trump whatever he wants when all he does is demand more money from Korea.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 20, Page 34