NATIONAL

Cheonghae Unit sets sail for mission amid speculation of serving in Hormuz Strait

By Jo He-rim
  • Published : Aug 13, 2019 - 16:54
  • Updated : Aug 13, 2019 - 17:55

Korea’s anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit on Tuesday embarked on its mission in the Gulf of Aden amid speculation that its final destination may be the Strait of Hormuz.

As Washington has been calling for its allies to take part in the “international maritime security mission” in the Strait of Hormuz amid heightened tension with Iran, Seoul has been weighing its options. 

The 4,400-ton destroyer Kang Gam Chan is seen at a naval base in Busan on Tuesday morning, ready to carry a 300-strong contingent of the Cheonghae Unit to the Gulf of Aden later in the day for a mission to combat piracy in waters off Somalia over the next six months. (Yonhap)

The naval Cheonghae Unit, one of Korea’s military troops deployed overseas, was seen as the most likely to be sent to the strait, though the government has not confirmed it.

According to the Navy, the Cheonghae Unit, led by 4,400-ton destroyer Kang Gam Chan, has left Busan Port for its mission in the Gulf of Aden, where it will conduct maritime security operations against piracy and escort commercial vessels with the Combined Maritime Forces, a multinational naval partnership.

Upon arriving in the Gulf of Aden in early September, the Kang Gam Chan destroyer will take over the mission of its predecessor unit led by destroyer Dae Jo Yeong, the Navy said. The unit is expected to serve in the area until mid-February.

The size of the unit appears to be similar to that previously dispatched, consisting of 300 crew members that include an Underwater Demolition Team and flying corps operating AW-159 military helicopters. Also part of the unit is the first female chief heading the aviation corps, Lt. Cmdr. Yang Ki-jin, who has about 1,580 flying hours.

Lt. Cmdr. Yang Ki-jin, who has about 1,580 flying hours, is the first female chief to head the aviation corps of 30th Cheonghae Unit that departed for the Gulf of Aden on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

One difference from the previous unit in the Gulf appears to be that the latest unit is said to have reinforced its antisubmarine weapons system, suggesting it might have been preparing in advance for deployment to the Strait of Hormuz. The Navy also said the unit includes military personnel with a lot of experience in overseas missions.

Regarding the possible deployment by Korea, Iran has expressed concerns that such actions would further deepen the crisis in the Middle East region.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi has called on South Korea to be neutral, saying Iran does not want Korea to participate in the US-led maritime coalition, in an interview with Yonhap News Agency last week. 

Mousavi also said the deployment would lead to tensions that would affect Iran’s partnership with countries including Korea.

Korea maintains that it has not received any official requests from the United States to send troops or financially contribute to security missions in the Strait of Hormuz.

However, the government has said it is reviewing “diverse options” to safeguard Korean vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz. Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo also reiterated this when his US counterpart Mark Esper visited Seoul and called for Korea’s cooperation in ensuring freedom of navigation in the waters off Iran.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Cheonghae Unit, and destroyer Kang Gam Chan is being deployed for the 30th time to counter piracy and conduct rescue operations in the Gulf of Aden.

Amid escalating tension in the Strait of Hormuz, the naval unit has been raised as a likely candidate to be sent to the strait, as it conducts security missions close to the area.

Given that deploying any troops outside of Korea needs parliamentary approval, sending the Cheonghae Unit that already serves in foreign seas also raised the likelihood of it joining any international maritime security mission.

“As far as I know, the Kang Gam Chan destroyer is to move to the Gulf of Aden to undertake its original duty,” Choi Hyun-soo, Defense Ministry spokeswoman, said during a regular briefing Tuesday. “We are reviewing various ways to protect our ships (in the Strait of Hormuz).”

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)