The routine deployment is drawing attention due to the possibility of the unit’s missions expanding to the Strait of Hormuz where the U.S. has called on its allies to forge a coalition against Iran’s military activities amid heightened tensions between Washington and Teheran.
Though Seoul has said it has not received any official requests from the U.S. on the issue, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stressed the importance of the freedom of navigation in the region and called for international support while meeting with Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo last week in Seoul.
In response, Jeong told Esper that South Korea is well aware of the significance of safeguarding the waters there, and it has been reviewing various options to protect its people and oil tankers in the region.
Sending the Cheonghae Unit to the waters off Iran has been cited as one of the most plausible options for Seoul to join the coalition, as it does not require additional parliamentary approval as long as the number of troops remains the same.
The U.S. has received mixed responses from its allies regarding the plan. Britain and Israel have announced their willingness to participate, while Germany has declined and Japan has taken a cautious stance.
As the world’s single most important oil passageway that forms a choke point between the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, the strait is the route to the open ocean for more than one-sixth of global oil production and some 70 percent of South Korea’s oil imports.
The Cheonghae unit has been deployed in the Gulf of Aden since early 2009 as part of global efforts to tackle piracy in the region.
Over the past decade, the unit had provided support for the safety of around 22,400 vessels and countered 21 pirate attacks as of end-July in treacherous waters, according to the Navy.