SEOUL: A South Korean anti-piracy naval contingent has been dispatched to the Gulf of Aden on a rotational mission, following speculation that the 300-strong force could join a US-led coalition patrolling the Strait of Hormuz amid tensions with Iran.
A ceremony took place on Tuesday for the 30th rotation of the Cheonghae Unit at the port city of Busan.
The contingent on board the 4,400-ton destroyer Kang Gam Chan is scheduled to conduct operations to protect vessels off the Somali coast for six months from September.
“As of now, the Kang Gam Chan will sail to the Gulf of Aden to carry out its routine mission,” said Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo. “We’re reviewing various options of protecting our vessels.”
Capt. Lee Sang-keun, head of the 30th rotational batch, said: “We’re fully ready to conduct missions wherever our people need help.”
A senior officer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said on condition of anonymity: “The unit is heading for the Gulf of Aden first, then it could be dispatched to the Strait of Hormuz at the order of command.”
But the officer said no formal decision has been made for the unit to join the US-led campaign.
According to officials in Seoul, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper raised the issue of South Korea potentially joining the campaign during a one-on-one meeting with his counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo on Aug. 9.
Jeong reportedly expressed support for the US-led initiative to safeguard freedom of navigation, while asking for Washington’s help to resolve a trade feud with Japan.
The Trump administration is maintaining its push for allies to join the coalition to protect commercial shipping in the waterway, through which 20 percent of the global oil supply flows. The route is vital for South Korea, as about 70 percent of oil imports come via the waterway.
Currently, only the UK and Israel have joined the campaign. Iran has warned that such an international naval presence in the Strait of Hormuz will increase the “risk of combustion” in the region.
A day after Esper visited Seoul, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Sayyed Abbas Moussawi urged South Korea to remain neutral, citing economic ties between the two nations. “(South) Korea’s possible joining of the coalition is not a good signal for us, and it will make things complicated,” Moussawi was quoted by the Yonhap news agency as saying.
Rep. Kim Jong-dae of the Justice Party expressed concern that Seoul’s possible partaking in the mission would compromise the country’s economic ties with one of the largest oil exporters.
“Iran is one of the largest trade partners with South Korea. Are you sending troops to the waters of Iran to protect shipping of oil from Iran? It’s absurd,” the lawmaker said in a news conference at the National Assembly on Wednesday.
“Once sending forces to the region, we should bear the burden of economic damage. I don’t think we’re prepared for that risk now,” added Kim, a member of the National Assembly’s Defense Committee.
“I was told by a military source that the Kang Gam Chan was fitted with underwater search systems to detect torpedoes and mines ... The unit is also known to have recently been involved in training exercises to thwart drone attacks. These are clear steps to prepare for the Hormuz dispatch.”
As for whether the destroyer has been armed with new defense equipment, Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi said: “That is something that can be done depending on the needs at the site. There hasn’t been any big change (in weapons systems).”
Some civic groups said the dispatch of the Cheonghae Unit must be approved by Parliament. “The Cheonghae Unit has been sent to the Gulf of Aden for the sake of international peacekeeping, but the Strait of Hormuz is a spot where military tensions between the US and Iran are escalating,” said Park Jin-seok, a member of Lawyers for Democratic Society. “Sending troops to the volatile region is against the law.”