Korea to deploy military forces to Strait of Hormuz

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Korea to deploy military forces to Strait of Hormuz

Korea will deploy its military forces to take part in a U.S.-led multinational coalition to defend the Strait of Hormuz early next year.

The decision to partake in the joint operation to defend vital shipping lanes between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula was taken during a Blue House National Security Council (NSC) meeting last Thursday. According to multiple government sources, Seoul has already informed Washington of its decision and is currently in working level talks over details of the deployment.

In what could become one of the country’s largest military deployments abroad since its participation in the War in Iraq, Korea’s determination to join the coalition, known as the International Maritime Security Conduct (IMSC), arrives after months of pressure from the United States, which is in the midst of a prolonged dispute with Iran as a result of the Donald Trump administration’s decision to impose new economic sanctions after backing out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

According to a government source, Korea will first dispatch a military liaison officer in January to the IMSC’s command center in Bahrain, who will begin preparation work for the eventual deployment of combat forces.

The most likely Korean force to take part in the coalition is the Cheonghae anti-piracy unit, a naval detachment that was established by the Navy to protect civilian ships near the coast of Somalia as part of the multinational Combined Task Force 151. The Cheonghae Unit is composed of a force of around 300 troops, many of them special forces, operating a destroyer, the ROKS Gang Gam-chan, as well as a military helicopter.

Another government source attested that concerns among NSC members regarding how a deployment of a military contingent could affect Korea’s relationship with Iran led to the decision to use the Cheonghae Unit by expanding its range of operations from the Gulf of Aden near Somalia to encompass the Strait of Hormuz.

“There were opinions in the NSC that we should make a decision with caution given our relationship with Iran,” the official said. “A consensus, effectively a decision, was reached to dispatch the Cheonghae Unit to the Strait of Hormuz” in lieu of an entirely new force.

A legal review conducted by the Ministry of National Defense concluded that expanding the operational range of the Cheonghae unit would not violate the terms outlined by its National Assembly-approved mandate, given the proximity of the strait to the Gulf of Aden.

If there were to be an enlargement of the unit itself, whose size has been capped at 320 troops and a single destroyer, the military would require another vote of approval by the legislature.

Yet the Navy, for its part, is considering attaching an additional maritime operations helicopter to the unit to guard against submarine activity by the Iranians, who have reportedly deployed a new type of small submarine introduced from North Korea, said a military source.

Seoul’s decision to join the coalition comes at a time of strain in its relationship with the United States, largely owed to Washington’s attempts to hike Korea’s financial contribution almost fivefold in ongoing cost-sharing negotiations over the upkeep of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea.

Partaking in the combined forces in the Strait of Hormuz could serve to shore up the two countries’ military alliance and demonstrate that Korea is contributing to a broader U.S. military strategy around the globe, which could play to its advantage in the cost-sharing talks.

The fact that Korea relies heavily on the shipping lanes in the Hormuz Strait to import 70 percent of its energy needs - largely in the form of crude oil from the Middle East - may also have factored heavily into the decision, as underscored by its defense officials in earlier cases.

To retaliate against U.S. sanctions, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in July 2018, and appears to have been behind a string of attacks in the strait on oil tankers from a variety of countries, like those owned by Japan and Norway in July this year.

The Strait of Hormuz corresponds to a 167 kilometer- (104 mile-) long body of water between Iran and the United Arab Emirates and Oman, measuring only 39 kilometers wide at its narrowest point. Approximately 20 percent of all global oil production and over 30 percent of liquefied natural gas are shipped across the channel, largely to supply the energy-hungry economies of East Asia. The strategic value of the strait has long been regarded by Iran as a trump card against the United States to get Washington to back off from its so-called maximum pressure campaign on the country and return to diplomacy.

In light of the provocations, the United States has mounted an international coalition to defend commercial activity in the strait, which countries like Britain, Saudi Arabia, Australia and the United Arab Emirates have already joined. In November, the coalition launched Operation Sentinel, later renamed to the IMSC, to “deter malign activity, promote maritime security and stability, and ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce” in the Strait of Hormuz, Persian Gulf, Strait of el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Oman.

In his visit to U.S. allies in Asia in August, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper attempted to recruit Seoul and Tokyo into the effort as well. In October, Japan reportedly decided to launch a destroyer under its self-defense forces to the strait for “research purposes” instead of joining the U.S.-led coalition.

On Friday, Korea’s Defense Ministry said no decision had been reached on a deployment as a result of “both direct and indirect” requests from Washington, but that it was exploring various options. A formal decision to partake in the Strait of Hormuz operation, however, is likely to generate significant controversy in Korea. In addition to the risks posed to its economic ties with Iran, where Korea imports around 13 percent of its crude oil, progressive groups are likely to express strong opposition to a military entanglement in the Middle East, as they did after the government’s contentious decision in 2003 to join the U.S.-led coalition in the Iraq War.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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