Seoul — South Korea has decided to send its anti-piracy troops to the Strait of Hormuz to help protect its vessels passing through the strategic waterway, in response to the US' call for help to guard oil tankers, the Defense Ministry announced Tuesday.
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"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 our vessels," the ministry said in a statement.
The 300-strong Cheonghae Unit, which has been on an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia since 2009, will broaden its mission areas into the Gulf of Oman, and further to the Persian Gulf, the statement said.
However, the military unit will not join a US-led coalition, but conduct independent operations, it said.
The US has long asked for South Korea to join the US-led campaign to ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.
But the South Korean government has delayed its decision for fear of worsening ties with Iran, which had long served as a major crude supplier to South Korea.
South Korea's bid to strike a delicate balance between the US and Iran has led to Seoul's decision on the "temporary" expansion of the anti-piracy unit's role for naval operations "independently" of the International Maritime Security Construct, or IMSC, a US-led military coalition.
"The defense ministry had consultations with the US, and also explained reasons for the (troop dispatch) decision to Iran through diplomatic channels," a ministry official said.
South Korea, one of the closest allies to the US in the Asia Pacific, has long been keen to abide by Washington's foreign policies as Seoul requires full US support and influence in its quest to completely denuclearize North Korea and improve diplomatic and economic ties with Pyongyang.
Iran had long been one of the main crude suppliers to South Korea, having imported about 12 million barrels a month, which accounted for about 10% of its total imports, before Iran was sanctioned early last year.
Seoul has been nervous after a series of incidents near the Strait of Hormuz, a key route for oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. The Strait of Hormuz is used to transport South Korea's crude oil and LNG imports.
South Korea, the world's fifth biggest crude importer, received 690.62 million barrels of crude through the Strait of Hormuz over January-November 2019, accounting for 70.3% of the country's total imports, according to the energy ministry.
More than 38% of South Korea's LNG imports have also come from the Middle East for the first eleven months, it said.