Asia Minute: South Korea Sending Naval Unit to Persian Gulf

Jan 23, 2020

This week, South Korea’s government announced it will be sending a naval unit to the Middle East. That move has been welcomed by the United States and criticized by Iran. But for South Korea, it’s a form of compromise.

South Korea will be sending an anti-piracy naval task force to the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, and the narrow passage between the two known as the Strait of Hormuz.

In a statement, the country’s Defense Ministry wrote that the destroyer, helicopter, three speed boats and force of 300 personnel will “guarantee the safety of Koreans and the freedom of navigation of Korean ships.”

The ministry said South Korean ships sail through the Strait of Hormuz about 900 times a year — adding that the area “accounts for more than 70% of our crude oil shipments.”

But South Korea is not joining a group led by the United States called the “International Maritime Security Conduct coalition.”

That may seem like a relatively minor distinction, but it is a crucial one for South Korea. The move allows South Korea to have a regional presence in response to diplomatic pressure from the United States, while keeping enough distance to maintain relative diplomatic peace with Iran.

Sending a larger contingent of forces would also be sensitive in domestic politics — with an election approaching in April.

A State Department official told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency “The United States welcomes and appreciates the decision.”

The Joongang Daily quotes a South Korean Foreign Ministry official as saying Iran expressed “concern” at the move, but added both countries will “work toward improving bilateral relations.”