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Iran Tensions May Prompt S. Korea to Rethink US-led Patrols

South Korean (blue headbands) and U.S. Marines take positions as amphibious assault vehicles of the South Korean Marine Corps fire smoke bombs during a U.S.-South Korea joint landing operation drill in Pohang, South Korea, March 12, 2016.
South Korean (blue headbands) and U.S. Marines take positions as amphibious assault vehicles of the South Korean Marine Corps fire smoke bombs during a U.S.-South Korea joint landing operation drill in Pohang, South Korea, March 12, 2016.

The escalating U.S.-Iran conflict is complicating South Korea's possible participation in a U.S.-led maritime coalition to protect international shipping in and near the Strait of Hormuz.

There are increasing calls in South Korea for the government to reject, or at least rethink, U.S. requests to join the force, amid fears South Koreans could get caught up in the violence.

The conflict escalated Wednesday, with Iran launching what it called "tens" of ballistic missiles toward at least two Iraqi military bases that house U.S. and international forces.

Iranian officials said the attack was in retaliation for the U.S. killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike outside the Baghdad airport last week.

The situation is delicate for South Korea, a key U.S. ally that also views Iran as an important potential trading partner.

'Situation totally changed'

"The pressure from the United States (to participate in the maritime force) is going to be higher, but now the situation has totally changed," says Jang Ji-Hyang, a Middle East specialist at Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

It could become a volatile domestic political issue, just months before South Korea's parliamentary election, if South Korean troops were to become targets overseas, Jang says.

"If the government decides to send our soldiers, South Korea could be mired in a war between Iran and the United States," said an editorial in South Korea's conservative Joongang Daily. "Iran is not our enemy and can emerge as a huge market once economic sanctions are lifted."

The liberal Hankyoreh newspaper also noted that the violence is causing South Korea to "rethink" its contribution to the maritime force.

The U.S.-South Korea alliance has already been strained by U.S. President Donald Trump's demand that Seoul pay substantially more for the cost of the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

Although U.S. negotiators have reportedly dropped their insistence that Seoul increase their contribution by five times, the two sides failed to reach a deal before the current cost-sharing deal expired at the end of the year. Another round of talks is expected as early as next week.

There were reports that South Korean participation in the maritime force could factor into the cost-sharing negotiations.

No decision yet

In an interview Tuesday, Harry Harris, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said he hopes Seoul will contribute to the maritime force, noting that South Korea imports "so much" of its energy from the Middle East.

South Korea's defense and foreign ministry officials said this week no decision has been made on sending troops to the region, but vowed to assist international efforts to reduce tensions.

Following an emergency meeting Monday, South Korea's National Security Council expressed the "deepest concern" over the tension and reviewed the possible impact on South Korean citizens, businesses, and ships in the region.

Around 1,600 South Koreans are in Iraq, mostly working on construction projects, according to South Korea's foreign ministry. Nearly 300 South Koreans live in Iran.

South Korea and Iran have tried to maintain economic ties, though the relationship has been impacted by Trump's more aggressive approach toward Tehran.

South Korea, which relies on foreign energy imports, had been one of the top buyers of Iranian oil, but halted those imports in 2019 when its waivers from U.S. sanctions on Tehran expired.

Maritime force

As U.S-Iran tensions escalate, oil prices have surged.

There are concerns Iran may attempt to disrupt international oil flow in the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway that serves as a crucial chokepoint for global oil supplies.

The strait was the focus of U.S.-Iran tensions last year, when six oil tankers and a U.S. drone were attacked in the area. The U.S. blamed Iran for the attacks - a claim denied by Tehran.

The U.S. has attempted to form a broad international military coalition to help protect merchant ships in the strait.

South Korea has for months said it is considering participating. Reports say Seoul could extend the scope of an existing anti-piracy unit operating off the coast of Somalia, possibly to include the Strait of Hormuz. The unit includes a 4,500-ton destroyer, an anti-submarine helicopter, and three speed boats.

It may be difficult for South Korea to reject U.S. requests to join the mission, in part because of South Korea's close military relationship with the U.S. and its past commitments to international peacekeeping missions, say analysts.

South Korea hosts over 28,000 U.S. troops. South Korean soldiers fought alongside U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. South Korea also sent non-combat military personnel to help with U.S.-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, though Seoul's Afghan operations were scaled back after the Taliban kidnapped a South Korean church group in Afghanistan, murdering two of its members.

"It will be tough not to participate," says Lee Jae-Seung, a professor at Korea University who has written about international energy policy. "However, this can also create a hostile relationship with certain countries, so the government needs to be careful."