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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 6)

All News 07:01 January 06, 2020

Crisis in Iran
Seoul should seek ways to protect own interests

The specter of war is looming larger in Iran after a U.S. airstrike using an attack drone, reportedly ordered by President Donald Trump, killed popular Iranian military commander, Qassem Soleimani.

Iran has vowed "harsh retaliation," raising fears of renewed attacks on ships in the Strait of Hormuz, the world's single most important oil passageway. This is bad news for South Korea, and not just because of its potential negative impact on the national economy. Given the government has been under pressure to join in U.S.-led efforts to protect ships in the volatile area, it may have to choose to dispatch troops there depending on how the situation unfolds.

We don't want to be dragged into a military conflict overseas, but cannot sit idly by when the lives of South Koreans there are endangered and the nation's interests are at stake. The moment of truth appears to be at hand for the Moon Jae-in administration. It has to discuss ways to protect Korean nationals and the country's economic interests in the region.

Yet sending troops is a very sensitive matter. The nation's anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit is already operating in the Gulf of Aden, and last month the National Assembly approved a motion to extend its mission, which started in 2009, through Dec. 31, 2020. The government may have to consider broadening the unit's operational area to the Strait of Hormuz as an option by limiting its mission to the protection of oil tankers and ships.

What makes this matter more sensitive is Japan's recent decision to send a military presence to the Middle East to "ensure the safety of Japanese ships transporting oil." In late December, the Shinzo Abe administration approved the dispatch, stirring controversy over a possible violation of the Constitution that limits Japan's use of military force strictly to self-defense. Under the plan, Japan will send a destroyer and a pair of P-3C reconnaissance aircraft, mainly for intelligence-gathering in the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. South Korea, as a former colony of Japan, has enough reasons to be wary of Japan's increasing military role overseas.

It is also notable that the U.S. has sought support from its allies for its operations in the Strait of Hormuz amid rising tensions with Iran. Tokyo's naval dispatch could be one reason Seoul is considering the U.S. request. It is needless to say that Seoul should spare no efforts to seek understanding of any decision it makes regarding this from Iran and concerned Middle East nations.

China and Russia's involvement in the Iranian crisis also needs to be considered. The two countries recently held a joint naval exercise with Iran in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman, which connects the Arabian Sea with the strategic Strait of Hormuz. China said the drill was not connected to the regional situation, but few will argue that Iran has become a flashpoint of increasing rivalry among the world's most powerful countries.

What is happening in Iran poses a huge diplomatic challenge for South Korea. The government should contemplate all factors to make a wise decision.

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