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.

India sends 36 ministers to restive Kashmir on charm offensive

Updated 19 min 25 sec ago

India sends 36 ministers to restive Kashmir on charm offensive

  • Ministers are on a five-day outreach mission to connect with people in the valley
  • The ministers’ visit follows a New Delhi-sponsored trip of 15 foreign ambassadors

NEW DELHI: India has dispatched dozens of ministers to its portion of the Kashmir region to promote government projects and development following months of unrest in the area.

Last August New Delhi revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, imposing a security crackdown and a communications blackout. It is India’s only Muslim-majority state and scrapping its semi-independence was the central government’s bid to integrate it fully with India and rein in militancy.

Prepaid mobile and Internet services have been restored although most of the valley remains without the Internet. Landline and post-paid mobile services were restored last month. 

The 36 ministers are on a five-day outreach mission to connect with people in the valley, with media reports saying Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the delegation “to spread the message of development among the people, not only in the urban areas but also in the villages of the valley.”

He was also reported as asking them to tell people about central government schemes that will have grassroot benefits.

The ministers’ visit follows a New Delhi-sponsored trip of 15 foreign ambassadors to the region.

Jammu-based ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ashwani Kumar Chrungoo said the ministerial trip tied in with New Delhi’s development agenda.

“The ministers will interact with local-level representatives and stakeholders, and discuss the plan for the development of Jammu and Kashmir,” he told Arab News. “Kashmir cannot go back to the old ways. There are no political issues that remain here, all have been sorted out by parliament by abolishing Article 370, division of the state and neutralization of separatist elements.”

But India’s opposition Congress party said the visit was an attempt to “mislead and misguide” the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

“This is a third attempt to mislead and misguide the people of the world, Jammu and Kashmir and India. They are coming here for a third time to tell lies,” Congress leader and the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Ghulam, Nabi Azad, said.

Dr. Radha Kumar, from the Delhi Policy Group, said that a development agenda would not work without addressing the political issue.

“With all the unilateral decisions to abrogate the special status of the state, arresting all the mainstream leaders and putting the state in a lockdown, how are the government’s actions so far going to establish credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir?” Kumar told Arab News. “I think this visit is more for international consumption than anything else.”

Dr. Siddiq Wahid, a Kashmiri intellectual and academic, called the visit a “clear sign” that New Delhi had no idea what to do.

“No matter how many ministers you send to Jammu and Kashmir it’s not going to alter the ground situation, it’s not going to address the issue of alienation,” he told Arab News. “What issues will they talk about with people? The government lost the people’s trust long ago.”

The Himalayan region has experienced turmoil and violence for decades. It is claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, which have gone to war twice over it, and both rule parts of it. India’s portion has been plagued by separatist violence since the late 1980s.

Jammu-based Zafar Choudhary, a senior journalist and editor of The Dispatch newspaper, said Modi’s government was full of surprises. “There have never been so many surprises in Jammu and Kashmir as have come in the last two years,” he told Arab News. “There is no instance in the past when so many central ministers have visited a state in one go.”