The South Korean government announced Tuesday its plan to temporarily extend the operation area of the Cheonghae Unit, which was limited to the Gulf of Aden, to cover the Strait of Hormuz. The government has come to the decision after much deliberation in response to the U.S. request to join in its efforts in the Strait of Hormuz. The Ministry of National Defense said the Cheonghae Unit would be on its own mission independent of the U.S.-led campaign but will cooperate if necessary.
The decision to send the Cheonghae Unit has been made to meet the request of Washington and maintain the bilateral ties with Iran at the same time. South Korea will send forces to the Strait of Hormuz, which will allow the nation to have one foot in the U.S.-led campaign but also keep safe enough distance from it. The South Korean government has chosen a separate mission for the Cheonghae Unit in order to ensure the safety and free passage of ships in the Middle East where 25,000 Korean expatriates live and 70 percent of the oil passes.
It is worth noting that sending the Cheonghae Unit to the Strait of Hormuz was already decided late last year following repeated requests from the United States for deployment. The decision, however, was postponed due to escalating tensions in the region with the U.S. government killing of the top Iranian general and Iran’s retaliation against it. Seoul must have waited until the tensions between the two nations ease before the announcement of the decision. However, the deployment of the Cheonghae Unit is rather a short-term solution.
There is a great deal of uncertainty and volatility in the Strait of Hormuz, which means the aim and size of the deployed forces will change according to political circumstances. The Cheonghae Unit has been responsible for dealing with small groups of armed pirates. Now, the South Korean military unit has to protect oil tankers from Iran’s regular forces that might try to block the strait or seize or attack the tankers. This is a highly dangerous mission, which requires careful planning and thorough preparation.
The South Korean government and the ruling party argue that they do not need to go through the National Assembly approval process again as extending the operation area of the unit was part of the previous agreement. However, this cannot help but be seen as an attempt to avoid controversy in the run up to the general elections, especially because the main opposite party does not disagree on the decision. Gaining approval from the National Assembly would help deployed military personnel take pride in their mission.