+ A

Seoul on horns of dilemma over Hormuz Strait

U.S. wants allies to participate but Iran’s retaliation is feared
Jan 07,2020
As U.S.-Iran conflict grows, Korea is in a dilemma about whether to send troops to the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s largest oil chokepoint.

Joining a U.S. coalition to protect the waterway could endanger Koreans and the country’s vessels operating in the region.

The Korean National Security Council (NSC) met Monday to discuss various scenarios including an armed clash between the United States and Iran and review the security and safety of Koreans living in the region. Chung Eui-yong, chief of the Blue House National Security Office, presided over the NSC standing committee meeting which was also attended by Trade Minister Sung Yun-mo, who is not a regular member of the council.

President Moon Jae-in ordered the NSC members to closely review security conditions, the safety of Koreans in the region and the impact on crude oil supply, said Ko Min-jung, the Blue House spokesperson Monday.

A key question for Seoul is the deployment of Korean troops to the Strait of Hormuz, strategically located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Seoul has been reviewing options as to what role it can play to help international efforts led by the United States to safeguard the waterway.

Iran allegedly attacked Japanese and Danish tankers off Oman last June and seized a British oil tanker traveling through the Strait of Hormuz last July. Washington has been rallying allies, including Korea, to join its coalition to safeguard the strategic waterway, where 20 percent of the global oil supply flows. It is also the route for some 70 percent of Korea’s oil imports.

In an NSC meeting last December, the Blue House reviewed how to contribute to the effort.

But with escalating military tensions between the United States and Iran, Korean troops and vessels could become targets for the Iranian military. Seoul has also been closely monitoring how the Iran crisis could change the tone of denuclearization negotiations between the United States and North Korea.

In May 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the landmark Iran nuclear deal of 2015, putting an end to sanctions exemptions, and there has been an escalation of tensions with Tehran since.

Last Friday, Iran’s top commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, was killed when a U.S. drone bombed Baghdad International Airport on the order of U.S. President Donald Trump. Washington claimed that Suleimani, who led the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and has been behind key operations by Iranian intelligence and military forces for two decades, had orchestrated attacks on its bases in Iraq in the past several months, including an attack in Kirkuk on Dec. 27 that killed a U.S. civilian defense contractor and several soldiers. U.S. officials have also said that the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by protesters on Dec. 31 was carried out by Iranian-backed militia.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Iran would seek revenge for the death of Suleimani. Trump warned Saturday the U.S. government had identified 52 targets in Iran, including cultural heritage sites, for retaliation if there was any attack against U.S. assets or Americans in response to Suleimani’s death. Iran on Sunday announced it will terminate its commitment to limit uranium enrichment, signaling a de facto end to its 2015 nuclear deal with the United States, China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany. Gen. Gholamali Abuhamzeh, a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran’s southern province of Kerman, on Friday evening suggested possible retaliatory attacks on 35 U.S. targets in the region and Tel Aviv - even raising prospects of an attack in the Strait of Hormuz area. Abuhamzeh also was quoted by Tasnim News Agency as saying that the Strait of Hormuz is “a vital [maritime] thoroughfare for the West, and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross the Strait of Hormuz, the Sea of Oman and the Persian Gulf.”

Korea’s antipiracy Cheonghae Unit, initially launched to protect ships off Somalia’s coast in 2009, operates in the Gulf of Aden. The 300-strong Cheonghae Unit’s 31st batch departed on the Wang Geon, a 4,400-ton DDH-II class destroyer, last month from Busan to sail to the Gulf of Aden and will begin its six-month deployment in February. Korea has reportedly been prepared to expand the scope of operation of this unit to include the Strait of Hormuz, which is about 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles), or around three or four days away by ship.

Choi Hyun-soo, spokesperson for the Korean Ministry of National Defense, said in a briefing Monday said “no decision has been made so far” on joining the military coalition in the Strait of Hormuz and that Seoul is “looking into diverse options to protect our people and vessels” in the region.

She added that Seoul is closely monitoring developments in the Middle East and will closely cooperate with the international community to “respond to contingencies related to the safety of our people.”

“Our basic position of supporting international efforts to protect the freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, where more than 70 percent of Korea’s crude oil supply passes, hasn’t changed,” a Seoul government official told reporters Sunday. “We are still in the process of reviewing more detailed plans, and nothing has been decided.”

Seoul officials have noted that while the United States has requested a deployment of troops, they should prioritize the protection of Korean vessels in the Strait of Hormuz. The deployment of troops to Hormuz could depend on an improvement in the situation in the region despite the NSC positively reviewing deployment last month.

Korean military officials likewise are concerned that in the case Korea joins the U.S.-led coalition in Hormuz, the Cheonghae Unit may no longer be seen as a defensive force. In the case a full-blown war takes places between the United States and Iran, Korean destroyers and vessels could also become targets for the Iranian military.

The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday convened a meeting led by First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young to discuss measures to ensure the safety of Korean citizens in the Middle East and protect vessels and aircraft, as well as to manage oil supplies and assist Korean businesses.

There are around 1,600 Koreans in Iraq and 290 in Iran, according to the Foreign Ministry.

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