The Cheonghae Unit engaging in an anti-piracy combat exercise last month (Yonhap)
The Ministry of National Defense said Tuesday that its anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit will expand its operational range to cover the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow body of water between the Persian and Oman Gulf that sees millions of barrels of oil passing through it daily.
“Given the heightened tensions in the Middle East, we’ve decided to field the anti-piracy unit to cover those additional areas to safeguard our people and guarantee free passage of our ships,” said the ministry.
In addition to operating in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Yemen, the unit will undertake its missions -- covering new operational range three times larger than before -- for an indefinite period of time, until the situation around the region “gets better,” according to the ministry.
Around 25,000 Korean nationals currently reside in the Middle East, and 70 percent of petroleum imported to Korea comes through Hormuz.
The ministry added the unit will operate independently of the International Maritime Security Construct, a US-led multinational coalition, to defend the strait. But it said Cheonghae will dispatch two liaison officers to the international team and will cooperate with it if called for.
Destroyer Wang Geon departing from a naval base in Busan last month (Yonhap)
Last July, the United States urged allies to join a coordinated maritime security mission two months after Iranian revolutionary guards attacked oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.
The ministry said locally developed destroyer Wang Geon will replace destroyer Kang Gam-chan in the afternoon to lead the operations. The 4400-ton destroyer Wang Geon, which houses around 300 soldiers including the special forces, is capable of sea, air and land operations.
Seoul’s decision to expand the deployment of the anti-piracy unit to the region and not to join the US-led coalition of forces is understood as a move intended to respect both its alliance with Washington and economic ties to Tehran.
Locked in disagreement with South Korea over the defense-sharing cost deal and resumption of North Korea tourism, the United States has asked Seoul to join its planned maritime mission in the Middle East, while Iran urged against it.
The Defense Ministry said fielding the unit in the region serves the national interests of protecting the Korean people and vessels, and Seoul officials familiar with the matter said the thorny issues between Seoul and Washington had nothing to do with the deployment decision.
Washington welcomed Seoul’s decision, while Tehran said it understood it, according to the ministry.
The ministry added that the deployment did not require additional parliamentary authorization.
The unit had already been empowered by the parliament to expand its operational range beyond the initially approved perimeter if it relates to the protection of Korean people in times of emergency, the ministry said.
By Choi Si-young (email@example.com