|Deputy Minister for National Defense Policy Chung Suk-hwan announces the government's plan to introduce Navy's anti-piracy Cheonghae unit to the Strait of Hormuz for "independent operations" to protect the safety of Korean people and the safe navigation of Korean ships there during a press briefing at the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul, Tuesday. Yonhap|
By Jung Da-min
The government announced Tuesday that it will introduce a naval unit to the Strait of Hormuz for "independent operations" to protect the safety of Korean people and the safe navigation of Korean ships there.
The Korean naval presence will be introduced by "temporarily" expanding the area of operations of the Navy's Cheonghae anti-piracy unit from the Gulf of Aden to the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. This is instead of joining a U.S.-led naval coalition policing the region.
"The Cheonghae unit will be conducting independent operations in an expanded operational area," Deputy Minister for National Defense Policy Chung Suk-hwan said during a press briefing. "But when needed, the unit will cooperate with the U.S.-led International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC). We are also planning to send two officers from the Cheonghae unit to the IMSC headquarters as liaison officers for cooperation in information sharing."
Washington has called for Seoul's participation in the IMSC, a maritime patrol coalition of countries including the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the U.K. and Bahrain. The IMSC is headquartered in Bahrain.
"The government had been reviewing a plan to redeploy the Cheonghae unit since May last year as the tension in the Middle East heightened," a ministry official told reporters. "The primary concern has been the safety of Korean people and the government's decision has been made due to the decrease in piracy activities."
The independent operation is the government's way of cooperating with the U.S., its biggest ally, while avoid straining ties with Iran, one of the biggest trade partners in the Middle East.
|This Dec. 13, 2019, file photo shows members of the Republic of Korea Navy's anti-piracy Cheonghae unit conduct a training on the southern coast of South Gyeongsang Province. Yonhap|
Until late last year, Seoul was considering joining the IMSC, but mounting tension in the Middle East following the U.S. assassination of top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, put Seoul in a dilemma as it does not want to risk its ties with Iran and put Koreans in the region in danger. Iranian Ambassador to Korea Saeed Badamchi Shabestari said Korea's participation in the IMSC could impact relations between the two countries.
The ministry official said Seoul had discussed the matter with Washington and Tehran through diplomatic channels, prior to the announcement, which was welcomed by the U.S.
He said that Iran's basic stance was similar to its response to Japan's decision earlier to independently operate a naval vessel in the region. Tehran expressed support for Tokyo's "de-escalation" initiative while calling for its help in "salvaging the nuclear deal and lifting sanctions." This referred to the U.S. pulling out of a 2015 international nuclear deal in 2018, and imposing sanctions on Iran that have crippled its economy.
The 31st deployment of the Cheonghae unit, being conducted by the 4,400-ton destroyer Wang Geon with a 300 person crew and Special Forces team, began Tuesday when it took over from the Kang Gam Chan, with the expanded area of operations.
The official said the government was not planning to participate in the IMSC, but the Cheonghae unit would cooperate with ships from other countries in the region.
The Start of Hormuz is an important region for Korea as it is a main shipping choke point vital to oil shipments from the Middle East with 70 percent of crude oil imported by Korea passing through it. There are also about 25,000 Korean residents living in that part of the Middle East.