SEOUL: South Korea will send naval forces to the Strait of Hormuz in response to a US request to boost security in the region.
Around 70 percent of the South’s oil imports pass through the waterway and its vessels sail through it hundreds of times every year. Tensions have been higher in the Middle East since a top Iranian general was killed earlier this month in a US airstrike. There have also been jitters about maritime security in the strait, where oil tankers have been attacked and vessels have been seized.
But there are warnings that the South’s decision could strain relations with major oil producer Iran, even though the anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit will not be joining an international US-led coalition.
“In view of the current situation in the Middle East, we decided to extend the operational radius of the Cheonghae Unit for a limited time so as to ensure the safety of our people and the freedom of navigation of South Korean vessels,” Jung Suk-hwan, a policy adviser to Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, told reporters on Tuesday. He stressed that the unit would not operate as part of the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) led by US naval command headquarters in Bahrain.
Instead, South Korea is scheduled to dispatch liaison officers to share information and help facilitate potential cooperation with the IMSC.
The 300-strong Cheonghae Unit has been stationed in the Gulf of Aden since 2009. A 4,400-ton destroyer codenamed the KDX-II is sent to the region on a rotational basis. Among its missions were the rescue of a South Korean ship and its crew in 2011, shooting eight people suspected of being pirates and capturing five others.
The Defense Ministry said that the unit’s operational area would expand to 2,830 km from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Gulf.
“The Middle East is home to about 25,000 South Korean residents and the Strait of Hormuz is a strategically important area that accounts for some 70 percent of our crude oil shipments,” Jung said, adding that South Korean ships sailed through the waterway around 900 times a year.
The South has said its operations will be independent, but Iran has expressed its displeasure.
“The Korean government has informed us that it wants to dispatch a part of its fleet in Aden to the region for patrolling missions, but outside the US coalition, and we have told them that the decision is unacceptable,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Monday.
He said such a decision was in line with the US policy of “adventurism” and that it did not fit in with the friendly relations between Tehran and Seoul.
Experts said it was a balancing act and that there could be repercussions for the South.
“It’s a delicate decision by Seoul to meet the demands of Washington and Tehran, as well as to minimize the damage in relations between the two governments,” Jung Sang-ryul, a professor at the Institute of Middle Eastern Affairs at Myungji University, told Arab News. “But the decision doesn’t suit Iran’s taste.”
The Cheonghae Unit’s KDX-II destroyer is equipped with enhanced defensive equipment, including an updated anti-submarine sensor and a close-in weapon system, according to a military source.
“Three key threats to the Cheonghae Unit are drone, torpedo and missile,” the source said, requesting anonymity. “The KDX-II destroyer is now armed with systems to respond to those threats effectively.”
Shin In-kyun, head of the Korea Defense Network thinktank, said an attack on the destroyer during patrol missions could not be ruled out because the South was not operating wholly independently of the US.
Washington has welcomed Seoul’s deployment decision.
“As we have stated in the past, this is an international problem that requires an international solution,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn was quoted by Yonhap News Agency as saying. “We welcome our South Korean allies helping to ensure freedom of navigation in the Middle East by supporting the IMSC.”