South Korea sending naval forces to Strait of Hormuz to boost security

Anti-war activists stage a rally against the South Korean government's decision to send troops to the Strait of Hormuz near the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 23 January 2020

South Korea sending naval forces to Strait of Hormuz to boost security

  • Iranian Foreign Ministry says the decision is ‘unacceptable’

SEOUL: South Korea will send naval forces to the Strait of Hormuz in response to a US request to boost security in the region.

Around 70 percent of the South’s oil imports pass through the waterway and its vessels sail through it hundreds of times every year. Tensions have been higher in the Middle East since a top Iranian general was killed earlier this month in a US airstrike. There have also been jitters about maritime security in the strait, where oil tankers have been attacked and vessels have been seized.

But there are warnings that the South’s decision could strain relations with major oil producer Iran, even though the anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit will not be joining an international US-led coalition.

“In view of the current situation in the Middle East, we decided to extend the operational radius of the Cheonghae Unit for a limited time so as to ensure the safety of our people and the freedom of navigation of South Korean vessels,” Jung Suk-hwan, a policy adviser to Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, told reporters on Tuesday. He stressed that the unit would not operate as part of the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) led by US naval command headquarters in Bahrain. 

Instead, South Korea is scheduled to dispatch liaison officers to share information and help facilitate potential cooperation with the IMSC.

The 300-strong Cheonghae Unit has been stationed in the Gulf of Aden since 2009. A 4,400-ton destroyer codenamed the KDX-II is sent to the region on a rotational basis. Among its missions were the rescue of a South Korean ship and its crew in 2011, shooting eight people suspected of being pirates and capturing five others.

The Defense Ministry said that the unit’s operational area would expand to 2,830 km from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Gulf.

“The Middle East is home to about 25,000 South Korean residents and the Strait of Hormuz is a strategically important area that accounts for some 70 percent of our crude oil shipments,” Jung said, adding that South Korean ships sailed through the waterway around 900 times a year.

The South has said its operations will be independent, but Iran has expressed its displeasure.

“The Korean government has informed us that it wants to dispatch a part of its fleet in Aden to the region for patrolling missions, but outside the US coalition, and we have told them that the decision is unacceptable,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Monday.

He said such a decision was in line with the US policy of “adventurism” and that it did not fit in with the friendly relations between Tehran and Seoul. 

Experts said it was a balancing act and that there could be repercussions for the South.

“It’s a delicate decision by Seoul to meet the demands of Washington and Tehran, as well as to minimize the damage in relations between the two governments,” Jung Sang-ryul, a professor at the Institute of Middle Eastern Affairs at Myungji University, told Arab News. “But the decision doesn’t suit Iran’s taste.”

The Cheonghae Unit’s KDX-II destroyer is equipped with enhanced defensive equipment, including an updated anti-submarine sensor and a close-in weapon system, according to a military source.

“Three key threats to the Cheonghae Unit are drone, torpedo and missile,” the source said, requesting anonymity. “The KDX-II destroyer is now armed with systems to respond to those threats effectively.”

Shin In-kyun, head of the Korea Defense Network thinktank, said an attack on the destroyer during patrol missions could not be ruled out because the South was not operating wholly independently of the US.

Washington has welcomed Seoul’s deployment decision.

“As we have stated in the past, this is an international problem that requires an international solution,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn was quoted by Yonhap News Agency as saying. “We welcome our South Korean allies helping to ensure freedom of navigation in the Middle East by supporting the IMSC.”


South Korea reports fewer than 50 new infections, earning WHO praise

Updated 1 min 4 sec ago

South Korea reports fewer than 50 new infections, earning WHO praise

  • South Korea has been bringing the epidemic under control, with about 100 or fewer new daily cases for the past month
  • Officials have urged even greater vigilance, saying a large epidemic could re-emerge at any time
SEOUL: South Korea reported fewer than 50 new coronavirus cases for the first time since its peak in late February, earning the praise of the World Health Organization for combatting the spread in one of the first countries to be hard-hit by the disease.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said there were 47 new infections as of midnight on Sunday compared with 81 recorded a day earlier, taking the national tally to 10,284.
The death toll rose by eight to 191, while another 135 people have recovered from the virus for a total of 6,598.
South Korea has been bringing the epidemic under control, with about 100 or fewer new daily cases for the past month, but this was the first time the daily tally of new cases was less than 50 since 909 were reported on Feb. 29.
In February, South Korea uncovered what was believed to be the biggest outbreak outside of China. But a program of mass testing and contact tracing helped contain the virus, which has spread far more quickly in other countries.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, held a 25-minute phone call with President Moon Jae-in, praising South Korea’s leadership in containing the virus, Moon’s presidential Blue House said.
Moon said in the call that South Korea was “willing to actively support other countries with prevention skills and supplies as the circumstances permit.” Moon said he recently had phone calls with about 20 global leaders.
Tedros proposed that Moon help support sub-Saharan African countries with virus-related supplies including test kits, the Blue House said.
Despite the encouraging evidence in South Korea, officials have urged even greater vigilance, saying a large epidemic could re-emerge at any time, with smaller outbreaks appearing in churches, hospitals and nursing homes, as well as among travelers returning from abroad.
“We are taking great caution against any optimistic expectations with this one-off figure,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told a regular briefing.
On Saturday, the government extended its intensive social distancing campaign by two weeks, citing the sustained small clusters of infections.
South Koreans had refrained from socializing in February when the number of cases rose exponentially but more people started going out recently as the weather became warmer and people became weary of the isolation, Kim said.
The movement of people spiked about 20 percent over the weekend compared with the end of February, he said, citing data from the state-run statistics agency and SK Telecom, the country’s largest mobile operator.
Starting on Sunday, the government toughened penalties for those who violate self-quarantine rules to up to 10 million won ($8,100) in fines or one year in prison from 3 million won ($2,400) in fines.
Authorities have reported several cases of quarantine rules being broken over the past few days. The Gunpo city government south of Seoul said on Sunday it has filed a complaint with police against a couple in their 50s and their children who broke away from isolation and went out even after testing positive for the virus.
A Korean student living in the United States sparked public uproar after taking a fever remedy before flying home late last month. The student was found to have contracted the virus, putting some 20 other people who took the same flight in self quarantine.
“We cannot maintain social distancing forever,” Kim said. “But it is the most effective measure to help protect others and yourself.”