Seoul to send destroyer to Hormuz Strait

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Seoul to send destroyer to Hormuz Strait

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President Moon Jae-in, second from left, receives a briefing from the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs at the Gyeryongdae military compound in South Chungcheong on Tuesday. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

South Korea will deploy its antipiracy unit to the Strait of Hormuz for defensive purposes independent of a U.S.-led maritime coalition, Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense announced Tuesday.

The Navy’s Cheonghae antipiracy unit, which currently protects international shipping in the Gulf of Aden, will have its operational range expanded to include the Strait of Hormuz “to uphold the safety of our people and freedom of navigation,” said a ministry official.

This decision comes after months of pressure from the United States to enlist South Korea’s help in an international effort to defend the strait - the transit route for some 70 percent of Korea’s crude oil imports - amid escalating tensions with Iran.

In December, the South Korean government was leaning toward joining the U.S.-led maritime coalition, called the International Maritime Security Conduct (IMSC), but that threatened friction with Iran, from which Seoul imports around 13 percent of its crude oil.

In a press conference on Monday, the chairman of the National Assembly’s Defense Committee, Rep. Ahn Gyu-back, said the deployment would not require approval by the legislature since it will only involve an expansion of the operational range of the Cheonghae Unit, whose mandate currently covers antipiracy operations in the waters around Somalia.

The Cheonghae Unit is a naval detachment protecting civilian ships near the coast of Somalia as part of the multinational Combined Task Force 151. It is composed of a force of around 300 troops, many of them special forces, operating a destroyer, the ROKS Wang Geon, and a military helicopter.

The Strait of Hormuz is a 167-kilometer-long (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 through 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 - if relations turn actively hostile.

In light of provocations from Iran, 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 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, Bab el-Mandeb Strait and Gulf of Oman.

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The 300-strong 31st contingent of the Cheonghae Unit departs for the Gulf of Aden for the next six months aboard the 4,500-ton destroyer Wang Geon from a naval base in Busan on Dec. 27. [YONHAP]

Tensions recently reached a peak in the region after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the killing of the powerful Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, leader of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in a drone attack at an Iraqi airport earlier this month. In days following the attack, Seoul said it was reviewing options for a possible contingency situation in the Middle East, leading to speculation that an official deployment decision was at hand.

The Defense Ministry official said while the Cheonghae Unit would be undertaking a separate operation to safeguard Korean vessels in the strait, the unit may cooperate with the IMSC “if necessary.” Consultations have been made with the United States, which welcomed the deployment decision, the official said, adding that two South Korean liaison officers are set to be dispatched to the IMSC headquarters in Bahrain for coordination purposes.

Seoul informed Iran of its deployment plan, to which Tehran responded it “understands South Korea’s decision,” the official added. But a Foreign Ministry official told reporters Tuesday afternoon that Tehran expressed “concern,” saying it opposed any deployment of foreign forces to the area.

Influencing South Korea’s decision to undertake an independent military deployment to the strait may be its ongoing cost-sharing negotiations with the United States over the stationing of the 28,500 U.S. troops on its soil, as well as the growing strain in the allies’ relationship over Seoul’s interest in opening up individual tourism to North Korea.

The deployment in particular may work in Seoul’s favor in the cost-sharing talks, as it could demonstrate South Korea is committed to assisting U.S. military operations around the globe. One of the main arguments behind the initial American demand that South Korea pay around $5 billion for 2020 - an almost fivefold increase from last year’s payment of $930 million - was that Washington was helping bolster South Korea’s defense with its military commitments not only within Northeast Asia but around the world.

According to Rep. Ahn, however, who is a member of the ruling Democratic Party, the Strait of Hormuz deployment decision was “entirely separate” from other matters in discussions with the United States and that the protection of Korean citizens was the primary objective.

Another factor that may have pushed South Korea toward an independent deployment was the announcement from Japan on Dec. 27 that it would send a helicopter-equipped destroyer and patrol planes under its Maritime Self-Defense Force to the Strait of Hormuz separately from the activities of the U.S.-led IMSC. Like Seoul, Tokyo was torn between fulfilling its commitments in its alliance with the United States and preserving friendly ties with Iran.

While an independent operation by the Cheonghae Unit could reduce the likelihood that it is targeted by Iranian forces in the area, experts say South Korean troops could be exposed to a variety of risks, particularly from Iranian submarines imported from North Korea. Tehran is believed to own 21 submarines - 16 of which are Ghadir-class midget submarines built by North Korea that are difficult to detect and can operate in shallow coastal waters.

To counter such threats, the South Korean military strengthened the unit’s antisubmarine capacities, adding more torpedoes and anti-aircraft defense systems to its destroyer.

While he received a New Year’s performance report from top officials in the military and Defense Ministry on Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in made no mention of the Strait of Hormuz deployment decision, only addressing the country’s larger plans to enhance and modernize its defense capabilities.

“[South Korea] must obtain the capacity to comprehensively defend itself in response to both traditional and non-traditional security threats that are advancing and diversifying by day,” Moon said in an address at the meeting.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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