A difficult decisionThe Moon Jae-in administration appears to be leaning toward sending our troops to the Strait of Hormuz at the request of the United States. There are some good reasons to do so. To address the North Korean nuclear threat, Seoul needs close cooperation with Washington. The Moon government also needs to lower the amount of our defense cost-sharing demanded by U.S. President Donald Trump. He wants to raise it to $5 billion, nearly five times our current contribution.
But there are many problems with sending our troops to the Middle East. First of all, it will not be easy for a government to build a consensus on the issue. As in the case of sending troops to Iraq in 2003, such a decision will be met with strong opposition in Korea. At that time, opposition swept the country and divided it. To avert such a crisis, the government must persuade opponents and build a consensus before making a final decision.
To avoid a battle in the National Assembly, the government seems to be considering the idea of expanding the operations of the Cheonghae Unit from the Gulf of Aden. But such a plan will be criticized as a trick. It is the best for the government to get approval from the legislature.
The government should act carefully. Some security experts expressed concerns that South Korea may not be able to get Trump to back down on his demand for more cost-sharing even if it sends troops to the Strait.
Another worry relates to the safety of our sailors. In Iraq, the Zaytun Division did not engage in battles because their mission was for peacekeeping and other reconstruction-related duties. But this time our troops may confront regular forces of Iran. If a skirmish occurs between Iran’s navy and our navy, no one knows what will happen. In addition, what should we do with the Cheonghae Unit’s original mission of safeguarding freighters from pirates around the Gulf of Aden if it moves to the Strait of Hormuz? The two waters are too far apart for the unit to carry out both missions at the same time.
Last but not least, our government must pay heed to its relations with Iran. Iran was a country in which Korea earned hard currency during the oil boom in the 1970s. Iran might emerge as a huge market if United Nations sanctions are ever lifted. Seoul must avert a situation in which its relations with Teheran are damaged over the long term. It must watch what Japan did. Tokyo chose to have a summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Dec. 20 before making a final decision on whether to send its Self-Defense Forces to the Strait of Hormuz.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 19, Page 34