U.S. President Donald Trump met with Chung Eui-yong, chief of South Korea’s presidential national security office who visited Washington on Friday for high-level talks between South Korea, the U.S. and Japan at the White House. The U.S. president made surprise appearance at the high-level meeting where Chung attended with White House National Security Advisor and Japan’s National Security Bureau chief. At the meeting, President Trump said South Korea and Japan are Washington’s strongest allies in the Indian-Pacific region.
What specifically President Trump said at the occasion has not been made public. However, his meeting with Chung in person is apparently his act of gesture to express Washington’s lofty expectations on South Korea as an ally over pending issues including dispatch of South Korean troops to the Hormuz Straits, sharing of the cost for U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and Washington-Pyongyang nuclear talks.
As for dispatch of South Korean troops to the Hormuz Straits, the South Korean government can no longer afford to delay unconditionally. Seoul has thus far been considering different options, including changing the operational boundary of the Cheonghae military unit. However, Seoul should first display more than anything its commitment to proactively take part by considering strengthening of the South Korea-U.S. alliance as top priority. While Seoul need to take time and carefully consider the size of troops to be dispatched, timing and method of dispatch, rather than reaching hasty decision, the South Korean government should equally take into consideration its obligation to contribute to the international community as a responsible nation. Japan made financial contributions worth as much as 13 billion U.S. dollars during the Gulf War in 1991, but it failed to join the allied forces at the time, only to be ridiculed by Washington as “automatic teller machine.” This time, Japan has decided to send its self-defense forces.
South Korea is importing 70 percent of crude oil and 30 percent of petroleum gas from the Middle East through the Hormuz Straits. Seoul should find the best measures to ensure not only stable supply of energy but also “protection of its citizens,” which is one of the main purposes of the Cheonghae Unit’s operation. Since safety is a priority, Seoul should make thorough preparations and hold negotiations with Washington, by defining the specific purpose of its troops dispatch and avoiding sending troops to areas where armed conflict is most intense.
Amid the intensifying crisis in the Middle East, the proposed dispatch of South Korean troops to the Hormuz Straits is changing into complex functional relations that are interlinked with North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and ongoing consultations over South Korea’s sharing of costs for the U.S. troops stationed here. South Korea’s troops dispatch to the Hormuz Straits could have positive impact on Washington’s negative perception towards President Moon Jae-in’s new vision for inter-Korean economic cooperation for the New Year, and add renewed momentum to talks over the North’s denuclearization. However, South Korea should be also wary of adventurism of Iran, which has warned against cooperation with the U.S. ahead of the Iranian general elections scheduled late February. Seoul should check to pick timing when tension will be eased, and find a way to protect the safety of South Koreans living in the Middle East, among other top priorities.