An official from Seoul's defense ministry said on Tuesday that South Korea's Cheonghae Unit,
currently on anti-piracy missions in waters off Somalia, is to expand its operating area to the Gulf of Oman and Arabian or Persian Gulf including the Strait of Hormuz for an unspecified period of time due to rising tensions in the Middle East.
Two liaison officers will be sent to the Bahrain-based International Maritime Security Construct, the coalition of countries tasked with maintaining security in the region, to make preparations and intel gathering for the unit's six-month mission.
The 31st rotation of the Cheonghae Unit began on Tuesday, with the four,400 ton Wang Geon destroyer, complete with 300 military personnel and a Lynx helicopter, replacing the 30th rotation’s Kang Gam Chan destroyer.
The defense ministry official said increasing the unit's personnel or equipment would require parliamentary approval, but that expanding its operating area did not require such approval.
Due to the limited capacity of the unit, Seoul may ask the IMSC for help depending on the situation but in principle, the official stressed the unit's role is to protect Korean nationals and vessels.
The official said the government has been mulling over the military's role in the Strait of Hormuz since last May due to the region's significance in crude oil supply.
"South Korea's oil tankers, which carry more than 70-percent of Korea’s crude oil imports, pass through the Strait of Hormuz some 900 times a year. Also, some 25-thousand South Korean nationals reside in the Middle East."
The defense ministry official said the foreign ministry has informed its Iranian counterpart of the decision, while Washington is said to have welcomed the move.
"Some South Korean media outlets have raised the possibility that the move could help Seoul in its negotiations with Washington on other issues including the defense cost-sharing talks which were held last week without reaching a compromise.
Kim Ji-yeon, Arirang News."