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.

Ethiopian PM says troops ordered to move on Tigray capital

Updated 50 min 24 sec ago

Ethiopian PM says troops ordered to move on Tigray capital

NAIROBI, Kenya: Ethiopia’s prime minister says the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray capital after his 72-hour ultimatum for Tigray leaders to surrender ended, and he warns residents to “stay indoors.”
The statement Thursday by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office means tanks and other weaponry can now close in on the city of some half-million people. His government has warned of “no mercy” if residents don’t move away from the Tigray leaders in time.
The new statement asserts that thousands of Tigray militia and special forces surrendered during the 72-hour period. “We will take utmost care to protect civilians,” it says.
Communications remain severed to Tigray, making it difficult to verify claims.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below:
The United Nations says shortages have become “very critical” in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region as its population of 6 million remains sealed off and its capital is under threat of attack by Ethiopian forces seeking to arrest the regional leaders.
Fuel and cash are running out, more than 1 million people are now estimated to be displaced and food for nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea will be gone in a week, according to a new report released overnight. And more than 600,000 people who rely on monthly food rations haven’t received them this month.
Travel blockages are so dire that even within the Tigray capital, Mekele, the UN World Food Program cannot obtain access to transport food from its warehouses there.
Communications and travel links remain severed with the Tigray region since the deadly conflict broke out on Nov. 4, and now Human Rights Watch is warning that “actions that deliberately impede relief supplies” violate international humanitarian law.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s 72-hour ultimatum for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front leaders to surrender ended Wednesday night. His government has said Mekele is surrounded.
The UN has reported people fleeing the city. Abiy’s government had warned them of “no mercy” if residents didn’t move away from the TPLF leaders who are accused of hiding among the population.
But with communications cut, it’s not clear how many people in Mekele received the warnings. The alarmed international community is calling for immediate de-escalation, dialogue and humanitarian access.
Abiy on Wednesday, however, rejected international “interference.”