- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 21, 2020

South Korea’s deployment of a key naval unit to the Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday may be a show of support for the Trump administration’s attempt to rally allies against Iran, but analysts say it is unlikely to ease a nasty military spending dispute between Washington and Seoul.

South Korean officials said the “independent” deployment will temporarily expand a South Korean anti-piracy mission already underway in the Gulf of Aden to include operations in the Middle East’s most strategic oil transport route, where U.S.-Iran friction has heated up over the past year.

While the Trump administration previously requested South Korea make a contribution to U.S. efforts to secure waters off Iran, Tuesday’s deployment represented a delicate move for Seoul. South Korean defense officials said the unit being deployed will cooperate with a U.S.-led naval coalition in the region, but will not officially join it.

Some saw the distinction as being driven by Seoul’s desire to appease both Washington and Tehran.

“I think the reason the South Koreans are doing this independently is they want to support the U.S. but they don’t want to piss off Iran,” said Scott Snyder, who heads the U.S.-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. “South Korea has its own independent relationship with Iran.”

U.S.-South Korean ties have also been strained by Mr. Trump’s demand that Seoul pay more for the upkeep of U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula.

South Korean officials sought to keep the issues separate on Tuesday, saying the Middle East mission is being driven by the reality that some 70% of South Korea’s oil imports originate in the Persian Gulf and rely on passage through the Strait of Hormuz.

South Korea has been among several U.S. allies around the world to be caught by soaring tensions between Washington and Tehran, which have spiked with the Jan. 3 killing of a top Iranian general by a U.S. drone strike. Like Japan and others, South Korea has agreed to stop buying Iranian oil at Washington’s request, but continues to rely heavily on crude from other Persian Gulf nations, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — a central rival of Tehran.

Officials in Seoul said Tuesday that a 4,400-ton-class navy destroyer, along with 300 troops and a helicopter, will be repositioned there to guarantee “freedom of navigation” for South Korean vessels passing through the waterway. The deployment marks the first time since 2004 — during the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq — that Seoul has dispatched troops overseas at Washington’s request.

Japan, which draws roughly 90% of its oil imports from the Persian Gulf, last month announced that it too was sending a warship and surveillance airplanes to protect Japanese ships in the area. Tokyo’s deployment, however, does not involve explicit operations in the Strait of Hormuz.

Both Japan and South Korea are among the allies pressure from the U.S. to pay more for the American troops stationed in their country.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper pushed the demand last week in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, arguing that “South Korea bears no more than one-third of the costs most directly associated with the stationing of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula.” U.S. negotiators have reportedly sought a fivefold increase in South Korea’s payments of roughly $1 billion a year.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said the Strait of Hormuz mission will cost roughly $28 million per year.

But South Korea’s foreign ministry rejected any linkage between the mission and the cost-sharing fight with Washington, according to Yonhap, which cited a ministry spokesperson as saying that one “flatly has nothing to do” with the other.

Some analysts say the issues may are inexorably linked, but that Seoul would do best to keep them apart.

South Korea has a vital national security interest to protect freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz,” said David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and Northeast Asia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“If they want to be independent and respected as a middle power, they need to be doing this, not as part of burden-sharing or because the U.S. twists their arm,” Mr. Maxwell said. “They should be doing this as a matter of course.”

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