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South Korea eyes support for US-led coalition in Strait of Hormuz

Extending the remit of South Korea's anti-piracy ships may be a way for South Korea to join the US-led coalition without seeking parliamentary approval. Officially, the word from the South Korean defence ministry is that its key anti-piracy destroyer will continue with its mission in the Gulf of Aden and that its preparations before its latest departure did not consider a possible role in the Strait of Hormuz

Although South Korean authorities say there is no plan to join a US-led coalition, observers note that additional parliamentary approval for the anti-piracy unit to join the coalition is not required if the number of personnel remains the same. The Gulf of Aden is just a four-day sail away from the Strait of Hormuz

SUGGESTIONS that South Korea may be ready to join a US-led coalition in the Strait of Hormuz have gathered momentum, with reports surfacing that it is sending a fresh batch of troops to the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy efforts. Their remit could easily be extended to the Strait of Hormuz.

South Korean news agency Yonhap reported on Tuesday that the Cheonghae Unit, South Korea’s anti-piracy fleet, is scheduled to depart Busan in South Korea to conduct anti-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia for six months starting in September. The South Korean navy has been conducting these overseas deployments since 2009.

The 300-strong contingent of personnel on board the destroyer Kang Gam Chan includes special forces — such as an underwater demolition team, a Navy Seal team, marines and navy pilots — aimed at protecting South Korean vessels off the Somali coast and providing support to ships of other nations in nearby waters.

On the face of it, this appears to be a routine deployment that continues South Korea’s longstanding commitment to international shipping. However, speculation has arisen that this could be a way of stealthily expanding the remit of these anti-piracy ships into the geopolitics playing out in the Strait of Hormuz.

It is of particular significance that additional parliamentary approval for the anti-piracy shipping unit to join the coalition is not required so long as the number of personnel remains the same. What is more, the initial area of operations in the Gulf of Aden is only a four-day sail away from the Strait of Hormuz.

The US plan for a coalition has received mixed responses from other significant military powers. The UK has eagerly signed up to the Washington plan. However, other important military backers such as Germany have declined. Japan has remained on the sidelines.

In earlier pronouncements, authorities in Seoul had previously said they had not received any official request from the US about contributing to the Strait of Hormuz force.

However, the mood may have changed in Seoul in the wake of a visit to South Korea by US Defence Secretary Mark Esper last week. The US official highlighted the importance of freedom of navigation in the region and called for international support.

South Korea’s defence ministry was quoted as saying that the destroyer in the anti-piracy initiative is to continue the unit’s mission in the Gulf of Aden and its preparations did not consider a possible role in the Strait of Hormuz. A spokesman was cited as saying no special preparations had been made for additional missions and that there have not been any working-level contacts with the US over the issue.

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