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South Korea reviews sending troops to Strait of Hormuz

South Korea is reviewing sending a naval unit to the Strait of Hormuz to take part in the US-led maritime force to protect oil tankers in the strait.

On Monday, a local daily reported that Korea has decided to send the Cheonghae Unit that operates in waters off Somalia, citing an unnamed senior government official. However, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said it has not made a decision. 

(South Korea's Navy)
(South Korea's Navy)

“There have been reports on sending troops to the Strait of Hormuz, but nothing has been decided. We are reviewing various ways to protect our ships,” Col. Roh Jae-cheon, the ministry’s deputy spokesman, said in a regular press conference Monday.

If a unit is dispatched to the Strait of Homuz, the Cheonghae Unit appears the most likely candidate, experts say.

The Cheonghae Unit was deployed to the Gulf of Aden in March 2009, to fight piracy and conduct maritime security operations with Combined Maritime Forces.

According to the Navy, the unit consists of a 4,400-ton destroyer, an anti-submarine helicopter, three rigid-hull inflatable boats and about 300 troops as of March.

“I personally think the Cheonghae Unit is a likely candidate because the government would not need approval from the National Assembly,” a naval officer at the Defense Ministry told The Korea Herald.

National Assembly ratification is needed to send troops on overseas missions. However, as the Cheonghae Unit is already deployed and its mission would remain the same -- protecting Korean vessels and nationals -- sending the unit would be the least complicated way.

“The unit is also located close to the Strait of Hormuz. But we (Navy) have not yet been informed of the final decision, as far as I know, and we are preparing for all available options,” the officer added.

Conflict in the region has escalated since May 2018, when US President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal that had put a stop to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief.

Following the move, the US also imposed new sanctions on the Iranian regime, intensifying tension in strategic waters off Iran.

A series of military incidents have occurred. A US unmanned drone was shot down by Iran in late June and a British-flagged oil tanker was seized July 19.

In early July, the United States proposed forming a coalition, Operation Sentinel, to protect ships passing through the strait -- an important shipping route for the world’s crude oil and gas tankers.

The Strait of Hormuz is a key waterway where about 20 percent of the world’s oil passes through. About 70 percent of Korea’s oil imports are shipped through the strait.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Washington had asked South Korea, Japan, Germany, France and other nations to take part in the coalition.

By Jo He-rim (