SOUTH KOREA POISED TO COMMIT TO THE US’S STRAIT OF HORMUZ MARITIME COALITION
The South Korean naval destroyer ROKS Gang Gam Chan departed Peninsula waters on August 13, 2019, as part of a regular deployment of the Cheonghae Unit task force, which has, since 2009, played a stellar role in safeguarding international shipping from the threat of piracy off the coast of Somalia. By the end of its month-long voyage to begin its deployment in the region, however, it appears likely that the 4,400-ton warship will have a new mission — as part of a US-led naval coalition in the Strait of Hormuz.
A downward spiral in relations between Washington and Tehran since 2018 has succeeded in firmly reestablishing the Strait of Hormuz as a critically important maritime security flashpoint. Around 20% of global oil supplies pass through the narrow waterway, which runs between the coasts of Iran and Oman. Following Iranian threats to close the strait, the Trump administration has pressed Seoul and other US partners to send naval assets to the area, with mixed results.
South Korea now looks poised to be amongst the first to contribute to the initiative, with one senior ruling party official being quoted (anonymously) in local media as stating, “We have decided to send troops to the Strait of Hormuz by expanding the operational area of the Cheonghae Unit, which is already active in the Gulf of Aden.”
Three main factors have played a part in Seoul’s apparent willingness to take part in this US-led maritime security initiative.
First, South Korea remains bound to its longstanding alliance with the US, and has a history of contributing to Washington’s military campaigns in an attempt to boost the two States’ bilateral relationship. During recent visits to Seoul, US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, and US Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, both reportedly raised the issue with their counterparts, applying additional diplomatic pressure on the US’s junior partner. South Korea is also believed to have linked its participation with a contentious dispute over cost-sharing for the stationing of US troops in South Korea, with one Moon-administration official calling a South Korean naval deployment in the Strait of Hormuz a “bargaining chip” in upcoming negotiations. Meanwhile, at a domestic level, the left-leaning Moon-administration is also sensitive to conservative critiques that it is not sufficiently committed to upholding the US alliance, a political vulnerability that the ruling party will be keen to minimise ahead of looming elections in 2020.
Second, contributing to the US’s Strait-of-Hormuz-coalition provides the South Korean State with an opportunity to play an expanding role in maintaining international order, in line with its self-identified status as a ‘middle power’. The South Korean Navy, in particular, has been rapidly developing its capabilities since the mid-1990s, with a blue-water naval strategy that seeks to respond to changes in the South’s strategic environment, including the vulnerability of its international shipping trade routes. This extends to the Strait of Hormuz, through which an estimated 80% of Seoul’s crude-oil imports pass. In July 2019, Defence Ministry Deputy Spokesperson, Ro Jae-cheon, pointed to this as potential justification for joining the US coalition, arguing that “It is obvious that we have to protect our ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz, isn’t it?”
Third, the Navy’s Cheonghae Unit provides a convenient vessel through which to facilitate South Korean participation in the initiative. The unit’s existing deployment in the Gulf of Aden places it comparatively close to the Strait of Hormuz, and it has prior experience of being used in diverse missions from Libya to the Gulf of Guinea. Moreover, if troop numbers involved in the deployment are not increased beyond the current levels of around 300, the Moon-administration would not need to seek further approval from South Korea’s National Assembly in order to expand the mission set to the Strait of Hormuz.
Despite these strong incentives for Seoul to participate in the US’ maritime coalition, there has been pushback to the proposal. Some commentators have blamed the US for escalating tensions with Iran, and suggested that the presence of the South Korean Navy could further inflame tensions. Further, the undetected crossing of a North Korean fishing vessel into South Korean waters in June exposed local vulnerabilities in the South’s maritime-security operations. Any repeat of such incidents could once again aggravate debate over the wisdom of Seoul’s desire to project sea power internationally while maintaining focus on its defense of peninsula waters.
Iran, which conducts a large amount of trade with South Korea, has also voiced its opposition to the possibility of Seoul’s involvement in the coalition. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Seyyed Abbas Mousavi pointed to “amicable economic ties” between Seoul and Tehran as a strong disincentive to South Korean participation, warning that “If South Korea joins a coalition organized against Iran, we won’t take that as a positive signal.”
For now, alliance concerns and a desire to enhance the South’s international status appear likely to have trumped Seoul’s fears of maritime overreach and angering Iran. Certainly, a limited deployment in the form of the Cheonghae Unit is currently viewed as more of an opportunity than a risk. Yet, the danger remains that any major maritime provocation from the North could lead to controversy — if an expanded role for the South’s naval forces is perceived to have focused on the Strait of Hormuz to the detriment of Peninsula security.
*Alexander M. Hynd is Korea Chapter President at the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), Washington D.C. He works as a security analyst in Seoul, South Korea. The views expressed are his own, and do not reflect the position of his employers or the NMF. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org