The South Korean government is upping its alert levels for local ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz amid worsening tensions between the US and Iran.
On 10 January 2020, the vice-minister of Oceans and Fisheries, Kim Yang-soo, met with representatives of major South Korean shipping companies, including HMM, SK Shipping, Pan Ocean, and Korea Line Corporation, as well as office from the Korea Shipowners’ Association and Korea Ship Managers’ Association, to discuss countermeasures.
Following suit, India’s Directorate General of Shipping (DG Shipping) has advised Indian flag ships transiting these waters, and neighbouring regions, to ‘maintain heightened security’. “Due to recent incident in the Persian Gulf region, there is a possibility of escalation in conflict that could affect shipping not only in the Persian Gulf region but also the Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Oman and other adjoining regions. In view of the same, vessels operating in these regions are advised to maintain heightened security alert commensurate with the prevailing situation,” DG Shipping wrote in its advisory copy, published 8 January.
Fears of armed conflict in the Middle East are growing after Iran fired missiles at US bases in Iraq following the US-instigated assassination of Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani on 3 January 2020. Tensions have been brewing since US President Donald Trump re-imposed sanctions on Iran in November 2018.
Kim said that since the killing of Soleimani, the monitoring interval of all South Korean ships within a 241 km radius of the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf has been reduced to every hour, from six hours previously.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries (MOF) has also set up a real-time information sharing centre to share intelligence on the rapidly changing situation, working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of National Defense, and Korea Shipowners’ Association.
South Korea sources 70% of its crude oil imports from the Middle East and the MOF is planning an alternative route in case the Strait of Hormuz is blockaded.
A spokesperson for HMM told SAS that the company is forming a task force to respond accordingly to the situation in the Middle East.
He said, “HMM is thoroughly monitoring the situation in the Middle East in terms of geopolitical issues, as well as organising an internal task force to discuss and establish contingency plans in preparation for emergency condition. The task force comprises a range of related teams, including sales [container/bulk], operations, legal, and strategy departments.
“HMM currently maintains normal operations in the Middle East as it is.”
Concerns that shipping could be victimised by the US-Iran conflict are not unfounded. Amid growing tensions with the US, Iran has detained several ships over accusations of fuel smuggling.
On 19 July 2019, Tehran seized the UK-flagged Swedish-owned product tanker Stena Impero and 1,800-dwt Iraqi product tanker Riah. The capture of Stena Impero was widely seen as retaliation for the seizure of the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) very large crude carrier (VLCC) Grace 1 (since renamed Adrian Darya 1) in Gibraltar on 4 July 2019 for carrying oil to Syria. The NITC tanker was freed on 18 August 2019.
After the release of Stena Impero, Iran continued to target international shipping. In September 2019, two ships were seized over accusations of smuggling more than 500,000 litres of diesel.
The situation is such that Japan is sending a warship and patrol planes to escort Japanese merchant ships in the Gulf of Oman, starting this month.