South Korea summons Iran envoy over diplomatic threat

South Korea on Saturday summoned Iran’s ambassador after he implied bilateral ties could suffer if Seoul dispatched naval forces to the Strait of Hormuz. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 12 January 2020

South Korea summons Iran envoy over diplomatic threat

  • US wants Seoul to join maritime security effort in Strait of Hormuz

SEOUL: South Korea on Saturday summoned Iran’s ambassador after he implied bilateral ties could suffer if Seoul dispatched naval forces to the Strait of Hormuz.

Ambassador Badmchi Shabestari, in an interview last week with Seoul daily newspaper Joongang Ilbo, made the remarks at a time of heightened tension in the international community following the assassination of a top Iranian military general.

He suggested a possible deployment of South Korean naval forces to the waterway could affect bilateral ties.

“If another country conducts military activities within the Strait of Hormuz, we will not remain inactive,” Shabestari was reported as saying. “Iran and Korea share a history that dates back 1,000 years to the Silla Dynasty and this moment is the biggest crisis in our history.”

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry lodged a protest over his remarks. 

“We called in the ambassador to deliver our concerns of bilateral relations between both governments after the ambassador reportedly talked of the severing of the ties,” a ministry official told reporters. “We listened sufficiently to the ambassador’s explanations.”

According to the official, the Iranian envoy denied directly mentioning the possible severing of diplomatic ties while expressing his concern that Seoul’s participation in a US-led coalition campaign in the Strait of Hormuz could hurt bilateral relations.

The US has been pressuring South Korea to join its maritime security campaign in the waters off Iran.

US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris expressed hope that South Korea would send forces to the strait, especially because the majority of its oil imports were shipped through there. “I believe, especially as a former naval officer, that it is in the interest of all nations to support freedom of the seas and freedom of navigation on the high seas,” Harris told South Korean broadcaster KBS last Tuesday, “and I believe that Korea, who gets so much of your energy from the Middle East, this is a particularly important concept for the Republic (of Korea).”

South Korea is considering sending its Cheonghae Unit, an anti-piracy naval team operating in the Gulf of Aden, to the strait at the request of the US government. 

But the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani has led to concerns that dispatching forces could backfire.

If another country conducts military activities within the Strait of Hormuz, we will not remain inactive.

Badmchi Shabestari, Iran’s ambassador in Seoul

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa indicated her caution at a parliamentary session.

“I think the stance of the United States and ours cannot always be the same in political analysis and when considering bilateral ties with Middle East countries,” Kang told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that the government had yet to reach a conclusion about safeguarding the strait.

Deploying the Cheonghae Unit would be a useful measure to patch up ties with the US government over the thorny issue of defense cost-sharing.

Seoul and Washington have been tussling over how to share the cost of stationing US soldiers in South Korea. 

The US is said to have called for a 10-percent hike from 2019, when South Korea paid about $870 million. That figure already represents an 8 percent increase from the previous year.

“If the US demands we send troops to the Strait of Hormuz, there is little option to avoid it,” Jung Sang-ryul, a professor at the Institute of Middle Eastern Affairs at Myungji University, told Arab News. “The rub is the timing of the dispatch. A troop dispatch at this moment is risky.”

Some believe that South Korea might send the Cheonghae Unit to the strait but not as part of a US coalition, taking its cue from Japan’s naval deployment plan.

Japan’s cabinet approved a plan to send forces to waters around the strait on an intelligence-gathering mission, but the Japanese warship is expected to operate separately from US-led operations in the area.

Since 2009, the Cheonghae Unit has operated from a 4,500-ton KDX-II destroyer on a rotation basis. The unit has escorted more than 21,000 ships and conducted more than 20 operations to combat piracy off Somalia.

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

Updated 22 January 2020

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

  • Will give migrants a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes torn apart by partition of 1947

NEW DELHI: Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak grew up listening to their grandparents narrate stories of the partition from 1947.
Ahuja’s grandfather, Ishar Das Arora, was 7 years old when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two by the British, creating India and Pakistan. 
More than 14 million people were displaced at the time, and about one million perished in the fighting that followed.
Arora moved from a Pakistani village, named Bela, to Delhi after living in several refugee camps and escaping the violence.
Meanwhile, Malak’s grandfather, Ahmed Rafiq, moved from the Indian city of Hoshiarpur to Pakistan’s Lahore.
Now in their 70s, both the grandparents yearn to go back home and see the places where they were born and spent their childhoods. 
However, the constant uncertainty in the relationship between India and Pakistan and their old age has made the task of visiting their respective birthplaces extremely difficult.
To fulfill the wishes of their grandparents, and several others who yearn to visit their ancestral homelands, Ahuja and Malak decided to launch Project Dastaan (story).
“What started as an idea for a student project last year at Oxford University became a larger peace-building venture,” Ahuja, the director of the project, said.
Project Dastaan is a university-backed virtual reality (VR) peace-building initiative reconnecting displaced survivors of partition with their childhood through bespoke 360-degree digital experiences.
Backed by the South Asia Programme at Oxford, it uses VR headsets to give these migrants, who are often over 80 years old, a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes. It shows them the people and places they most want to see again by finding the exact locations and memories that the survivors seek to revisit, and recreates them.
“It is a creative effort to start a new kind of conversation based on the direct experience of a now-foreign country in the present, rather than relying upon records and memories from the past,” Ahuja told Arab News.
He added that Pakistan-based Khalid Bashir Rai “teared up after his VR experience, and told us we had transported him back” to his childhood.
“At its heart, the project is a poignant commentary on its own absurdity. By taking these refugees back we are trying to highlight the cultural impact of decades of divisive foreign policy and sectarian conflict on the subcontinent. This is a task for policymakers, not university students. In an ideal world, a project like this shouldn’t exist,” Ahuja said.
Other members of Project Dastaan — Saadia Gardezi and Sam Dalrymple — have a connection with partition, too. Gardezi grew up with partition stories; her grandmother volunteered at refugee camps in Lahore, and her grandfather witnessed terrible violence as a young man.
Dalrymple’s grandfather had been a British officer in India during the twilight years of the British Empire. So scarred was he by the partition that he never visited Dalrymple’s family in Delhi, even after 30 years of them living there.
“I think Dastaan is ultimately about stripping away the layers of politics and trying to solve a very simple problem: That children forced to leave their homes, have never been able to go back again,” Dalrymple told Arab News.
Ahuja added: “The partition projects are a peace offering in the heart of hostility. It is an attempt at creating a wider cultural dialogue between citizens and policymakers of the three countries.”
The project aims to reconnect 75 survivors of the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with their childhood memories, when the subcontinent observes 75 years of partition in 2022.
Project Dastaan is also producing a documentary called “Child of Empire” that will put viewers in the shoes of a 1947 partition migrant, and will be shown at film festivals and museums.