A delicate decisionThe Moon Jae-in administration has decided to send the Cheonghae Unit patrolling the Gulf of Aden to the Strait of Hormuz — a very volatile part of the Middle East. The Ministry of National Defense said, “Our government plans to expand the waters being covered by the Cheonghae Unit to the strait for a limited period of time to protect our people and vessels after taking into consideration the volatile situation in the region.”
We welcome anything that safeguards our people. But concerns are plenty. First of all, it could trigger a serious crisis if the maritime troops get involved in the deepening tensions between the United States and Iran after Maj. Gen, Qassim Suleimani, leader of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was killed in a U.S. drone attack on Jan. 3.
According to the Defense Ministry, the 300-strong 31st contingent of the unit aboard the 4,400-ton destroyer Wang Geon will assume the mission. The naval force is expected to carry out operations in the Strait of Hormuz separately from the U.S. Navy. The government also plans to dispatch two liaison officers to the headquarters of the International Maritime Safety Conference (IMSC). The strait is strategically important as 70 percent of our oil supplies go through it.
But Iran’s naval bases are scattered along the strait in the Persian Gulf. Iran has 21 small submarines and submersibles, including the type that North Korea used to attack the Cheonan warship in the West Sea in 2010. Iran’s submersibles are capable of launching underwater attacks thanks to the torpedoes and ship-to-ship missiles they carry.
As Iran’s ground-to-ship missiles are deployed along its coast, the Persian Gulf is a very dangerous place. In the worst-possible case, not only our commercial vessels but also the destroyer Wang Geon can be attacked by Iran despite the installation of missile defense systems on the warship that detect and intercept torpedoes fired from Iranian submarines and ground-to-ship missiles from the air.
Our government must draw up operation guidelines so the unit can carry out its mission successfully. The government should cooperate with the U.S., but should not get entangled in disputes with Iran. Seoul must make it clear that the Cheonghae Unit’s only aim is to protect our own people and vessels. The government also needs to build a consensus on the issue with the rest of the international community. It must also devise substantial measures to protect the safety of our people living in the region.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 22, Page 30