Seoul weighs up sending naval protection to Gulf

South Korea's Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo. (AFP)
Updated 29 July 2019

Seoul weighs up sending naval protection to Gulf

  • The dispatch of the unit doesn’t require parliamentary approval since it has already been approved for similar roles and missions overseas

SEOUL: South Korea is considering sending naval forces to the Strait of Hormuz to help protect international oil shipping from attack, defense authorities said on Monday.

“We’re closely watching the situation to brace for various possibilities,” Choi Hyun-soo, a Ministry of National Defense spokeswoman, said.

She rejected media claims that Seoul’s decision followed a request by the US government.

“We are reviewing various options to help protect our ships sailing through the waters,” she said.

However, government sources confirmed that South Korea’s military is preparing to send its anti-piracy unit Cheonghae, now operating off Somalia, to join the US-led maritime coalition in the Gulf. “Technically, no decision has been made. But, practically, yes,” a senior officer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Arab News on condition of anonymity.

“Given the importance of the alliance with the US, it’s imperative for us to take a role in the coalition,” he said.

The officer said that the Cheonghae unit had been trained to protect commercial shipping from a range of threats in and around the Gulf since 2009.

The 300-strong unit, which operates from a 4,500-ton KDX-II destroyer carrying a Lynx anti-submarine helicopter, has escorted 21,895 ships and conducted 21 operations to combat piracy off Somalia.

“The dispatch of the unit doesn’t require parliamentary approval since it has already been approved for similar roles and missions overseas, which could help minimize controversy in political circles over the sending of troops,” the officer said.

Seoul’s presidential office expressed caution about joining the anti-Iran multinational coalition.

We’re closely watching the situation to brace for various possibilities.

Choi Hyun-soo, Spokeswoman, Ministry of National Defense

“Any decision (on sending troops) will be based on national interests,” a presidential spokesman said.

Observers said that the Cheonghae unit’s move to the Strait of Hormuz comes at a sensitive time, with Seoul seeking support from the US over its escalating trade dispute with Japan, which has decided to restrict exports of high-tech chip-making materials to South Korea.

“The Hormuz dispatch is a litmus test of the evolving South Korean-US alliance, which has been weakening to an extent over issues such as North Korea,” Moon Keun-shik, an analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum in Seoul, said.

The troop dispatch is also tied up with negotiations between Seoul and Washington over defense cost-sharing. The Trump administration wants Seoul to bear the costs for US troops on South Korean soil. As a result, South Korea agreed to pay $920 million early this year, up from $830 million last year.

“South Korea has few options to resist US demands. The dispatch of the Cheonghae unit is an attempt to soothe US officials,” Kim Dae-young, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Security, said.

A long-standing business relationship between Seoul and Tehran adds to the risks facing the South Korean government over possible intervention in regional tensions.

“South Korea faces a dilemma in terms of security and economic matters,” Kim said.

“Joining the US-led maritime coalition in the Strait of Hormuz would worsen economic ties with Iran. But we cannot sit idle because about 75 percent of oil imports to our country are shipped through the strait.”

Tehran was Seoul’s third-largest source of petroleum in 2017 and became the largest supplier of condensates for South Korea’s petrochemical industry.

After the US reimposed sanctions in 2018, South Korean imports of Iranian oil declined by 60 percent and were completely suspended this year with the end of US waivers for importing some Iranian oil.

In 2018, South Korea secured $5.2 billion in construction contracts with Iran, but most of the contracts have been abandoned.

The country’s exports to Iran in the past five months have shrunk by up to 10 times in comparison with the same period last year, reaching just $148 million. 

In the same period, Iran’s exports to South Korea have declined by 33 percent, reaching $2 billion.

Korea test-fires ‘super-large multiple rocket launcher'

Updated 25 August 2019

Korea test-fires ‘super-large multiple rocket launcher'

  • Kim likes testing missiles, says US president
  • Denuclearization talks in trouble

SEOUL: North Korea test-fired a new type of multiple rocket launch system late Saturday into the sea off its east coast, state media reported.

It was the seventh test in a month, as negotiations to scrap the North’s nuclear arsenal flounder.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Sunday that the latest weapons’ test was on a newly developed “super-large multiple rocket launcher.”

The country’s leader Kim Jong-un oversaw the test and called the device a “great weapon.”

North Korea must step up its development of strategic and tactical weapons to counter the “ever-mounting military threats and pressure offensive of hostile forces,” KCNA reported Kim as saying while he oversaw the testing.

One of the short-range weapons has been identified as a KN-23, a mobile short-range ballistic missile based on the technology of Russia’s Iskander missile, which could hit targets across the South after evading missile interceptors operated by South Korea’s military. Pyongyang maintains that joint South Korea-US military drills are a provocation.

South Korea officials urged the North to stop hostile acts.

“We express strong concern that the North continues to test-fire short-range projectiles despite the South Korea-US military drills ending,” a presidential spokesman told reporters on Saturday. “We urge the North to halt such hostile acts that raise military tensions.”

Despite worries about the North’s provocations that could harm the security of South Korea where 28,500 US armed forces personnel are stationed, US President Donald Trump again touted his friendship with Kim.

“Kim Jong-un has been pretty straight with me, I think, and we’re going to see what’s going on, we’re going to see what’s happening,” he told reporters in Washington before heading to the G-7 summit in France on Friday night. “He likes testing missiles, but we never restricted short-range missiles.”

Trump and Kim held a surprise meeting in the Demilitarized Zone in June and agreed to resume working-level denuclearization negotiations within a month, but such a meeting has yet to be held.

In a further sign that nuclear disarmament talks are barely holding together, the North blamed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for complicating the talks, calling him a “diehard toxin.”

“He is truly impudent enough to utter such thoughtless words which only leave us disappointed and skeptical as to where we can solve any problem with such a guy,” North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said on Friday in a statement carried by KCNA, referring to Pompeo’s recent remarks in which he said sanctions would be kept until the North took concrete steps to bin nuclear weapons.

US Special Representative Stephen Biegun for North Korea was in Seoul last week to discuss ways to get negotiations back on track but it is not clear if he contacted his North Korean counterpart.

Biegun’s efforts were overshadowed by South Korea’s surprising decision to sever military ties with Japan. 

On Thursday, the presidential Blue House announced it would pull out of an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, a key pillar of the US-led trilateral alliance in East Asia to check the influence of China and Russia.

The intelligence pact, called the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), has benefited South Korea’s military to collect key information on North Korean nuclear and missile activities, as Japan operates seven spy satellites while South Korea has no such strategic assets.

The decision to end GSOMIA came amid escalating trade disputes over Japan’s restriction of exporting chip-making materials to South Korea following disputes arising from Japanese colonial rule.