The South Korean Navy will patrol the Straits-of-Hormuz but not join a United States led coalition that seeks to protect oil-laden ships from possible Iranian attacks.
"In consideration of the current situation in the Middle East, the government has decided to temporarily expand the Cheonghae anti-piracy Unit's sphere of activity in order to guarantee safety of our people and the freedom of navigation of our vessels," Seoul's Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
The Cheonghae unit operates a 4,500-ton Wang Geon destroyer, a Lynx anti-submarine helicopter and three speed boats, according to South Korea’s 2018 defense white paper. It has been on an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia since 2009, and will broaden its mission areas into the Gulf of Oman, and further to the Persian Gulf, starting Tuesday.
Last July, South Korea became the first among seven countries to answer America's call to join anti-Iran forces in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most strategically important choke points. The other six countries invited by the US were Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, and the United Kingdom.
Seoul could now be backpedaling its decision to join US-lead coalition forces to avoid severing ties with Iran.
"Since May last year, when tensions began to heighten in the Middle East, we've been reviewing diverse options," a senior defense ministry official was quoted as saying by Yonhap.
"Before announcing the decision, the ministry had consultations with the US and also explained reasons for the decision to Iran through diplomatic channels. The US side welcomed the move, and I've heard that Iran said it understands Seoul's stance," the official asserted.
While the Cheonghae Unit will act on its own, two liaison officers affiliated with the unit to the US-led International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) "for cooperation such as information sharing," the ministry said. The IMSC is headquartered in Bahrain.