South Korea’s military will send an independent contingent to the Middle East to help guard oil tankers amid rising regional tensions rather than participating in a U.S.-led coalition, the Defense Ministry in Seoul announced Tuesday, taking a page out of the Self-Defense Forces’ playbook.
The decision by U.S. ally South Korea will “temporarily expand” the deployment off the coast of Somalia to include the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, which are linked by the Strait of Hormuz, starting Tuesday. The mission would not be part of the U.S. naval coalition in the area, the South’s Defense Ministry said in a statement — although two liaison officers would be sent to the U.S. headquarters for “information sharing.”
The South Korean unit has been stationed in the Gulf of Aden since 2009, working to tackle piracy in partnership with African countries as well as the United States and the European Union. The 300-strong unit consists of a 4,400-ton destroyer, a Lynx anti-submarine helicopter and three speed boats, according to South Korea’s 2018 defense white paper.
The expansion of the mission already in place, which does not require fresh authorization by parliament, was widely seen as a compromise by a reluctant Seoul amid pressure from the White House to join the U.S. coalition. The duration of the mission was not clear, but a Defense Ministry official said it will be valid “until situations in the Middle East improve,” the South’s Yonhap news agency reported.
Attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz off the coast of Iran last year, including one Japanese-operated vessel, prompted U.S. officials to call for allies to join the planned maritime security mission.
Japan has already begun a similar “intelligence-gathering” mission in the region that aims to protect commercial shipping. Japan sent two P-3C Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol planes to the region earlier this month, while the destroyer Takanami will leave Japan on Feb. 2, according to the Defense Ministry.
That mission, too, is being operated separately from the U.S.-led coalition.
The South Korean Defense Ministry said its move would ensure the safety of citizens and free navigation of the country’s vessels, adding that Washington had been briefed on the decision, which was also explained to Tehran separately.
Seoul, which like Tokyo maintains friendly ties with Tehran, opted not to participate in the coalition out of concern doing so would hurt its relationship with the country.
Japan and South Korea, the world’s fourth- and fifth-largest importers of crude oil, respectively, have been two of Iran’s major oil customers before halting crude imports last year after waivers of U.S. sanctions ended.
The South Korean decision also comes at a difficult time in its alliance with the United States and as Washington’s diplomatic gambit with Pyongyang appears increasingly shaky.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has demanded that Seoul pay billions of dollars more for the costs of stationing 28,500 American troops in the country.
Trump has insisted that there can be “no free riders,” and has reportedly pushed for an unprecedented fivefold increase — to $5 billion — in South Korea’s contribution in negotiations. Those talks were expected to have knock-on effects for Japan, which begins its own burden-sharing talks this year.
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris last week urged Seoul to join in the naval mission, saying “very few countries have a greater need” to take part as the South “gets 70 percent of its oil supplies from the Middle East.”
The last round of negotiations was held in Washington last week, following the expiry of the previous cost-sharing deal at the end of December. That meeting ended without a breakthrough, but the two sides have voiced an openness to more creative ways to bridge their gaps on the issue.
Seoul’s decision to take on the military patrols in the Middle East could be one aspect of that, observers said.
Andrew O’Neil, an expert on the Koreas and a professor at Griffith University in Australia, said the timing of the decision was “no coincidence.”
“While there is continuing resentment in Seoul regarding Trump’s focus on alliance ‘return on investment,’ there is also realism and no appetite for compromising the U.S. alliance, at least not yet,” O’Neil said.
Perhaps even more indicative of Trump’s apparently transactional view of the alliance with South Korea, however, was a document by the president’s lawyers released Monday in which he appeared to suggest that the stationing of U.S. forces in the South is a form of foreign aid — a stance that would reject the long-held view that the troop presence serves both allies’ interests.
Trump’s lawyers made the case in the 110-page Trial Memorandum for the Senate’s impeachment proceedings against the president. In the memo, Trump’s defense presents arguments for why “Pauses on Foreign Aid Are Often Necessary and Appropriate.”
“Placing a temporary pause on aid is not unusual. Indeed, the President has often paused, re-evaluated, and even canceled foreign aid programs,” it said, citing the example of a tweet Trump sent last August before the formal cost-sharing negotiations began.
“In August 2019, President Trump announced that the Administration and Seoul were in talks to ‘substantially’ increase South Korea’s share of the expense of U.S. military support for South Korea,” the document reads.
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