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Hormuz choice gets more fraught

Korea’s NSO chief in Washington to discuss Middle East situation
Jan 09,2020
U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris urged Korea to send troops to safeguard the Strait of Hormuz following the killing of a top Iranian military commander that led to heightened tensions in the Middle East.

“I would hope that Korea will send forces out there,” said Harris in an interview with KBS broadcast Tuesday evening, noting that Seoul “gets so much of [its] energy from the Middle East.”

Washington has been pressing Seoul to join a coalition to safeguard the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, where 20 percent of the global oil supply flows. Korea maintains it’s reviewing its options.

“Let me begin by saying that we’re not demanding that Korea do anything,” said Harris.

“We are asking Korea to consider helping in the Strait of Hormuz,” he continued, “in the Persian Gulf area.”

He stressed that “it is in the interest of all nations to support freedom of the seas and freedom of navigation on the high seas.”

Since last year, Seoul has been carefully considering the deployment of Korean troops to the strategic strait, the transit route for some 70 percent of Korea’s oil imports. The escalation in tensions in the Middle East has made the decision even more delicate as joining the U.S. coalition could make Korean troops and vessels targets and also jeopardize diplomatic and business relations in the region.

Korea has been closely monitoring the situation after U.S. President Donald Trump authorized 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 the Baghdad airport in Iraq last Friday. Washington said it was in response to an Iranian-supported militia’s rocket attack on Kirkuk, Iraq, on Dec. 27, killing an American contractor, and to prevent an unspecified future attack.

Tensions escalated after Iran, in retaliation for Suleimani’s killing, attacked two Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops with a barrage of missiles on Wednesday.

Seoul’s Blue House on Wednesday said it was “closely monitoring” and “receiving real-time reports” on the situation.

Ko Min-jung, the Blue House spokesperson, said in a statement that Korea is making “all kinds of preparations to cope with whatever situation” and taking into consideration various scenarios. She added that the government has contingency plans for a possible impact on the economy and that relevant authorities will hold meetings for a “comprehensive review” of the situation.

Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Park Han-ki and other military officials convened an emergency meeting in Seoul Wednesday to discuss the safety of Korean troops and citizens following the Iranian missile attack.

The Korean Ministry of National Defense said it is closely sharing information with the U.S. Defense Department and monitoring the Iranian attack on two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. The Korean Foreign Ministry also held a meeting to discuss the safety of Koreans living in the Middle East, after launching a task force Sunday to monitor the situation.

Chung Eui-yong, director of the National Security Office, arrived in Washington Tuesday for trilateral talks with U.S. and Japanese counterparts Wednesday to talk about the situation on the Korean Peninsula and stalled denuclearization dialogue amid Pyongyang’s signaling it may take a different strategic path and halt its moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing. But the Middle East tensions and the matter of the deployment of troops to Hormuz also were expected to be discussed.

Chung, when asked by reporters at Incheon International Airport Tuesday whether the deployment of Korean troops to the Strait of Hormuz will come up in the talks, said they will discuss their “views on various different issues.”

Harris in the KBS interview said that the “bottom line is that the door remains open for negotiations” with North Korea.

However, when asked how Washington will respond to North Korea crossing a red line such as launching an ICBM, Harris replied, “We are ready to fight tonight if need be.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]