Seoul to send anti-piracy unit to Strait of Hormuz

Satellite image of the Strait of Hormuz. Credit: Raconteur

South Korea has become the latest country to send its defence forces to the Strait of Hormuz amid growing tensions between the US and Iran.

The defence ministry said on 21 January 2020 that the country’s Cheonghae anti-piracy unit will be expanded as Seoul decides to send troops to the Strait of Hormuz to protect South Korean merchant ships transiting the waters.

The Cheonghae Unit, comprising 300 personnel, has been on an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden since 2009, and from 21 January will enlarge its coverage to the Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf. The troops are manning a 4,400-gt warship, Wang Geon.

South Korea’s decision comes less than a month after its neighbour, Japan, decided on a similar move.

The defence ministry said, “In consideration of the current situation in the Middle East, the government has decided to temporarily expand the Cheonghae Unit’s sphere of activity in order to guarantee safety of our people and the freedom of navigation of vessels.”

Since 2018, when US President Donald Trump re-imposed sanctions on Iran, friction between the two countries has gone up and ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman have been subjected to attacks and risks. The situation has been compounded with the US-instigated assassination of top Iran general Qassem Soleimani on 3 January 2020.

In May and June 2019, there were several attacks on international merchant vessels, including the 27,000-dwt products tanker Kokuka Courageous, in the region, which the US blamed on Iran. The owner of Kokuka Courageous, Kokuka Sangyo of Japan, stated that the crew saw a flying object just before the blast. The sighting gave rise to speculations that a surveillance drone could have tracked the tanker prior to the blast. The attack on Kokuka Courageous and a Frontline tanker, Front Altair, resulted in 44 crew members having to evacuate. The Iranian government has denied the accusations that it masterminded the attacks.

While the US has asked its allies to join a military coalition to protect merchant ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz, Japan and South Korea have decided otherwise.

Both Japan and South Korea are US allies that have stayed friendly with Iran and do not want to jeopardise the relation.

Nevertheless, two liaison officers linked with the unit to the US-led International Maritime Security Construct, which is based in Bahrain, will share information with the South Korean authorities.

South Korea’s decision to send troops to the Strait of Hormuz comes nearly two weeks after the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries met representatives of the country’s major ship operators to advise them of the need to raise alert levels for their vessels in the troubled region.