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S. Korea to Send Troops to Hormuz Strait

2020-01-23

© YONHAP News

The South Korean government decided on Tuesday to send its anti-piracy unit to the Strait of Hormuz, where tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been escalating. The South Korean troops, however, will not join a U.S.-led collation in the strait but conduct independent operations. As the decision came after continuous pressure on Seoul from Washington, the troop deployment is expected to positively influence the relations between the two allies. Here is Lee Jong-hoon, a research professor of political science and diplomacy at Myongji University with more. 


It is worth noting that the deployment will be independent from the U.S.-led maritime coalition, called the International Maritime Security Construct or IMSC. In other words, the South Korean unit will not be under the command of the U.S. military but act on its own. Still, the Defense Ministry in Seoul says that the Korean troops may cooperate with the IMSC, if necessary. 


The Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that the operational range of its anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit would be expanded to cover the Strait of Hormuz. The unit will be undertaking operations separate from the U.S. coalition, with the purpose of safeguarding Korean nationals and vessels in the strategic waters off Iran. 


The Cheonghae Unit is supposed to carry out missions in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia but it is also allowed to engage in activities in “designated waters” to protect Korean citizens in cases of emergency. This stipulation provides grounds for the government’s recent decision to temporarily expand the unit’s sphere of activity. Its operational area will not be expanded permanently, nor will a new military unit be deployed. In short, the Cheonghae Unit that has already been carrying out anti-piracy operations in the waters around Somalia will perform missions in broader zones. 


The Cheonghae Unit is a naval detachment that has been on an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia since 2009. Under the government decision, the 31st batch of the rotational troops along with the destroyer, the Wang Geon, began to lead the expanded operations at 5:30 p.m. on January 21st, Korean time. The expansion of the unit’s operational range has the purpose of protecting Korea’s national interests. 


The U.S. and Iran have, in effect, entered a quasi-state of war since the killing of Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani. As a result, tensions have heightened in the Strait of Hormuz, which is the route for 70 percent of South Korea’s oil imports. For South Korea, it is necessary to secure and stabilize this important transportation route. In this sense, it should have sent its troops earlier. Under these circumstances, the U.S. has publicly and strongly requested South Korea to dispatch troops to join the U.S.-led multinational collation in the region. So, in terms of the stable management of South Korea-U.S. relations, the troop deployment was also necessary. 


Concerns have been rising over the safety of international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz due to mounting tension between the U.S. and Iran. Currently, some 25-thousand South Koreans reside in the Middle East. If South Korea finds it necessary to quickly evacuate its nationals in the region, the Cheonghae Unit could step in to bring them home. 


There were also diplomatic considerations behind the decision on the independent deployment of the unit and the temporary expansion of its role. 


Stuck between the U.S. and Iran, South Korea seems to have found a sort of compromise. Seoul has maintained relatively good relations with Tehran. Amid U.S.-Iran tensions, it is difficult for South Korea to side with either. With the U.S. and Iran in fierce military confrontation, Iran has already warned that it will regard South Korea as its enemy if Seoul joins the U.S.-led coalition against Iran’s military activities. Of course, South Korea had to avoid that scenario. 


South Korea’s decision to let its military unit carry out independent operations is seen as a move to accept Washington’s request and also consider relations with Iran at the same time. Since last year, the U.S. has asked South Korea to take part in the military coalition to contribute to stability in the Strait of Hormuz. But South Korea’s participation in the U.S.-led collation will damage its economic ties with Iran, while putting the safety of Koreans residing in the Middle East at stake. South Korea eventually chose “independent deployment” which could be accepted by both the U.S. and Iran. 


Regarding this issue, the two countries both understand South Korea’s decision. The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday that the U.S. welcomes and appreciates Seoul’s decision, adding that it demonstrates the strength of the bilateral alliance. The remarks bode well for future South Korea-U.S. relations. 


It is true that there has been friction between South Korea and the U.S. over Seoul’s North Korea policy and their defense cost-sharing deal over the stationing of U.S. troops in South Korea. As the U.S. has reportedly demanded that South Korea pay five times higher than last year, their negotiations have experienced rough sailing. 


South Korea has recently said that it will push for South Koreans’ individual trips to North Korea without violating international sanctions. But Seoul needs Washington’s agreement on this matter. I think South Korea made the troop dispatch decision in consideration of its relations with the U.S. as well as inter-Korean ties. 


Attention turns to whether South Korea’s decision to send troops to the Strait of Hormuz will enlist Washington’s support for Seoul’s North Korea policy. Basically, the South Korean government seeks to improve cross-border ties with North Korea in order to facilitate North Korea-U.S. dialogue. As part of that, Seoul is spurring efforts to allow South Koreans to take individual trips to the North within the boundaries of U.N. sanctions. While tourism itself is not subject to the sanctions, cash transfers and other issues could be viewed as a violation. That’s why cooperation from the U.S. is necessary. If the U.S. agrees on individual tours to North Korea, it might be possible to break the deadlock in South-North relations. 


North Korea has long pressured the South to resume suspended joint economic projects such as the Mt. Geumgang tour program and the Gaeseong Industrial Park project. As things haven’t turned out well, the North went as far as to notify the South that it would demolish all South Korean facilities at the Mt. Geumgang resort. 


I think individual trips are an indirect way of resuming cross-border exchanges. If South Korean individuals are allowed to travel to the North, though not in groups, I guess Pyongyang may soften its attitude toward Seoul to some extent. Starting with that, the two Koreas could mend their ties. In the meantime, the positive development could facilitate North Korea-U.S. dialogue. Seoul’s recent troop deployment decision can be understood in this context. 


During the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday, North Korea said that it would no longer adhere to its moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. Still, South Korea and the U.S. have reiterated their commitment to dialogue. 


We’ll have to wait and see whether the South Korean government’s recent troop dispatch decision will provide momentum to break the stalemate in North Korea-U.S. relations as well as in inter-Korean ties.

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