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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 23)

Diplomacy 07:08 January 23, 2020

Inevitable, but realistic move
Dispatch plan aimed at protecting national interests

South Korea's decision to dispatch a naval unit to the Strait of Hormuz is inevitable but realistic, given its alliance with the U.S. as well as its diplomatic ties with Iran. On Tuesday, the Moon Jae-in administration announced a plan to provisionally expand the operational area of the anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit stationed in the Gulf of Aden to the strait to protect the safety of Koreans and ensure freedom of navigation for Korean ships there.

The expansion means that the country will not have to send an additional naval vessel to the area. It can mobilize the existing anti-piracy unit with 300 sailors to cover the Strait of Hormuz, a transportation chokepoint, through which more than 70 percent of South Korea's oil imports pass. About 170 Korean ships navigate through the strait 900 times a year. Well over 25,000 Koreans reside in Iran and other Middle East countries.

The decision was made at the request of the United States. Washington had demanded Seoul join its International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) coalition to ensure security and stability in the region. But Korea could ill afford to comply with the demand, which could have put Seoul-Tehran ties at risk. For this reason, the government has decided on the expansion of the anti-piracy mission without taking part in the IMSC. Therefore the unit will operate independently of the coalition. However, two liaison officers will be sent to the IMSC headquarters in Bahrain for operational cooperation.

In fact, Seoul was in dilemma over what decision to make. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to please both Washington and Tehran at the same time. It is all the more so when tension between the two is growing after a U.S. drone strike killed an Iranian military leader, Qassem Soleimani, earlier this month. President Moon found it hard to categorically turn down the Trump administration's call for the dispatch. Thus, he made the final decision after much consideration.

We have to acknowledge that Seoul has strived to strike a balance between its strong alliance with the U.S. and its robust trade relations with Iran. The U.S. welcomed Korea's decision, saying that it demonstrated the strength of the bilateral alliance. We hope Seoul's move will have a positive effect on the ongoing defense cost-sharing negotiations with Washington and much-needed bilateral collaboration in dealing with North Korea over stalled nuclear talks and inter-Korean dialogue.

But Iran has expressed its concern about the decision, according to a foreign ministry official in Seoul. In this regard, the Moon administration needs to make a concerted effort to seek Iran's understanding about the inevitable move.

Now Seoul must make preparations to help the Cheonghae Unit conduct smooth operations in the Middle East waterways. Most of all, the country should leave no stone unturned to avoid being drawn into a war in the volatile area. That is why Korea must engage in active diplomacy to make sure that it will not be caught in the crossfire.
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