By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 10 (Yonhap) -- A foreign ministry official has reiterated South Korea's top priority on the safety of its citizens in the Middle East, as it explores the possibility of a troop dispatch to the Strait of Hormuz amid high military tensions between the United States and Iran.
Last week's killing of a top Iranian general and Tehran's retaliatory attacks this week have sharply raised tensions in the region and reinforced speculation that Washington will ramp up calls for its allies to contribute to maritime security operations in the vital waterway off Iran.
"In Iraq, there are 1,600 South Koreans. In Iran, the number is 290, and of them, 240 are in Tehran," the senior official told reporters on condition of anonymity on Thursday.
"The government's decision would affect the safety of these people. Thus their safety should be given the first and foremost priority."
South Korea has kept a cautious stance over the deployment issue, as it has been struggling to balance its commitment to increasing contributions to its alliance with the United States with its long-standing trade ties with Iran.
Observers say that Seoul could switch the mission of its anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit, now operating in the Gulf of Aden, to the Strait of Hormuz. But critics argue that such a change could require parliamentary consent, namely a revision of the unit's legal mandate.
However, the ministry official pointed out that should South Korea decide to deploy the unit to the tense waterway, it could use part of the unit's mandate, which is "protection of the safety of South Korean nationals."
Securing freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz is a crucial issue for South Korea as well given that the waterway hosts key shipping lanes for more than 70 percent of the country's oil imports.
The issue of the troop dispatch could be part of a key agenda item when Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and her U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo hold talks in San Francisco on Tuesday.
South Korea has been exploring ways to increase its contributions to the bilateral alliance as part of efforts to address the U.S. demand to jack up Seoul's share of the cost for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea.
BTS member Jimin's 'hanbok' suit up for auction
BTS enters Billboard Hot 100 with new Japanese single
(LEAD) Seoul mayor pushes for introduction of self-testing kits, extending hours for small businesses
BLACKPINK amasses 60 mln subscribers on YouTube: agency
Drunk driver gets 8-yr prison term for hitting and killing Taiwanese student
Number of peak concurrent viewers on BTS online event surpasses 2.7 mln: agency
U.S. service member injured in stabbing, police searching for suspect
(LEAD) New virus cases back under 600 on fewer tests; stable vaccine rollout in focus
S. Korea to start vaccinations of care workers, airline crews
(4th LD) New virus cases in 600s for 4th day as sporadic infections continue