The beginning of January 2020 was marked by an exchange of blows between the United States and Iran, which could potentially lead to a further drastic exacerbation of the situation in the Middle East.
However, this article is not about whether or not war will break out between the United States and Iran, it is rather about how these escalating tensions will affect or are already having an effect on the Korean Peninsula, and it seems South Korea is on the receiving end of far more problems than the North.
North Korea (the DPRK) may learn another lesson from this situation, which is that having nuclear weapons is good protection against US operations like the assassination of General Soleimani.
It is also possible that this could be related to another story we have already been hearing about. Given that Iran and the DPRK allegedly cooperate on defense, the high-precision weapons Iran used in the January 8 missile attack could be of North Korean origin or created in a joint project.
Nevertheless, Pyongyang has released no official statement yet, although three days after the death of the Iranian General, the North Korean media broke the first news about the incident. Their message is essentially to continue to strengthen the scale of Pyongyang’s unstoppable military might, so that no one will ever consider the possibility of using the armed forces against North Korea until the United States abandons its hostile policy.
On January 5, the North Korean propaganda outlet Meari published an article with the title “Military Experts Expect Middle East will Become Graveyard for US.” According to anonymous expert sources, the United States has got itself into a war in the Middle East it cannot get itself out of, and even US allies are in no hurry to respond to requests to send in troops, leaving America in despair.
One way or the other, the South Korean press is busy trying to figure out how the crisis will affect Pyongyang’s strategy. Basically, and judging by the discourse of propaganda, it is expected that Pyongyang will take advantage of the situation to finally justify its nuclear program to continue on its path to becoming a nuclear power.
Former US nuclear negotiator Robert Gallucci told Radio Free Asia that the North Korean regime could deduce the United States would not want to get itself involved in two hostile policies at the same time, and North Korea may take a provocative approach, for example, by conducting long-range missile tests. South Korean Professor Park Won-gong takes a somewhat different view, who says that due to the growing tensions between the US and Iran, the US government’s interest in the North Korean issue may wane, and if the US is still dealing with the Iran issue in February-March, the North may launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), although this will depend more on whether the US and South Korea will resume their joint field training exercises and the scale of the war game.
Concerns have also been expressed in the South Korean media that if Washington focuses on the Iranian issue, the dialogue with Pyongyang may fall by the wayside, and the negotiation process will definitely be stalled.
South Korea, however, is being dealt a whole range of nasty problems as a result of the escalating tensions with Iran. Their first round of problems comes with US attempts to get Seoul to play a more active role in the so-called International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC). The organization’s main aim is to accompany merchant vessels through the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway through which 20-25% of the world market’s total oil supply passes and 70% of Middle Eastern oil, which is imported to South Korea. The maritime security mission aims de facto to prevent Iran from blocking the Strait of Hormuz if the situation boils over, under the pretext of ensuring safe passage.
Since November 2019, the headquarters of this mission have been located at the US Fifth Fleet’s base in Bahrain, and the United States is demanding that its coalition allies play an active role in this initiative. There are currently six countries in the security coalition, including Australia, the UK, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. However, many countries do not want to get involved in a conflict with Iran, which is one of the world’s largest oil producers. South Korea is in the same boat, as both an ally of the United States and an importer of Iranian oil. Seoul does not want to sour relations with Iran, but it is also hard to ignore these “urgent requests from its main ally.”
These kinds of demands were being made before tensions escalated in January 2020. On December 13, 2019, the South Korean government decided it would join the coalition, albeit gradually and carefully. They will start by sending a South Korean representative to the security coalition’s command center, but the decision on whether or not the armed forces would be deployed to engage in combat missions will strictly depend on the situation in the Strait of Hormuz and the nature of the request received from the United States.
On December 18, 2019, military sources reported that the South Korean Navy’s Cheonghae Unit, an anti-piracy unit stationed in the Gulf of Aden, may be moved to the Strait of Hormuz in February 2020.
On the one hand, Seoul sees participating in the naval mission as a way to strengthen its alliance with the United States and as a bargaining chip in negotiations on splitting the defense bill with Washington. On the other hand, there are fears that this involvement would threaten Seoul’s relations with Tehran and the safety of Korean citizens in the Middle East.
Apart from that, we must remember that South Korea has allies in the Middle East, primarily the UAE, where South Korean specialists train local security officials and engage in other activities. On October 2, South Korea’s Deputy Minister of Political Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Vice Minister of National Defense met with the UAE Assistant Minister for Political Affairs and Undersecretary of the Ministry of Defense in Abu Dhabi. The next time the defense ministers met was in Seoul on December 16, and UAE Minister of State for Defense Mohammed Ahmed Al Bowardi called on the South Korean side to show some “interest in resolving the Middle East issues.”
The second round of problems has to do with South Korea’s cooperation with Iran, and also concerns South Korea’s general dependency on Middle Eastern fossil fuel — a dependence which has increased due to President Moon Jae-in’s energy policy. In January-November 2019, 70% of the oil imported by South Korea and 38% of its liquefied natural gas (LNG) came from the Middle East.
In 2018, South Korea imported 58.2 million barrels of crude from Iran, which is 4.8% of the country’s total oil imports. Iranian oil has been banned since May 3 last year after the US imposed sanctions, but the situation is not that simple. According to “diplomatic sources” quoted by the Korea Times newspaper, the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned South Korean Ambassador Ryu Jeong-hyun to Tehran in November 2019, and lodged a complaint over Seoul’s delayed payment for crude oil and condensate oil worth 7 trillion won ($5.97 billion).
Seoul’s petroleum companies have been purchasing oil from Tehran using Korean currency to avoid violating the US sanctions that prohibit trade with Iran in dollars, but the payment can only be finalized if it is approved by the South Korean government.
Apart from that, South Korean companies are involved in the Iranian construction industry, and also supply various goods to the market. According to the South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, “We have maintained economic ties with Iran for a long time and currently, we provide humanitarian assistance and educational support to the country.”
A third round of problems could be associated with the difficulty of evacuating South Korean citizens from potential conflict zones. There are currently 290 South Korean citizens in Iran and 1,570 in Iraq (mainly construction workers), while in Lebanon and Israel there about 850 South Korean citizens.
A fourth round of problems could affect South Korea’s domestic policy. At the very least, sending South Korean soldiers to fight for American interests will damage President Moon’s image as a proud and independent politician. That is why South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party of Korea has still not given a clear definition of where it stands on this issue. The main opposition party, the Liberty Korea Party, believes that participation in the Strait of Hormuz mission could be a way to protect the South Korean people, while the left-wing opposition Party for Democracy and Peace is opposed to it, who have cited the potential possibility of attacks on Korean citizens by the pro-Iranian proxies.
A political debate may later arise over whether the decision to send troops should have to go through the approval process in South Korea’s National Assembly. Given the level of discord among the parties, this could prove difficult, especially in the run-up to the general election, the 2020 South Korean legislative election, which are less than a hundred days away.
Let’s now move on to look at Seoul’s official reaction to this recent escalation in tensions.
On January 5, 2020, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense expressed that they are prepared to respond quickly in the event of an emergency. However, when the question was raised about sending the South Korean Navy’s Cheonghae Unit to the Strait of Hormuz, a representative of the Defense Ministry said that various options were being discussed, but no concrete decisions had been made yet.
On January 6, the South Korean government held a working meeting to discuss the situation in the Middle East. The meeting was attended by representatives of the South Korean Intelligence Service’s Agency for National Security Planning; the Office for Government Policy Coordination; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Ministry of Trade Industry, and Energy; the Ministry of National Defense; and the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. Those in attendance exchanged their views on measures to protect South Korean vessels and aircraft, measures to ensure a stable energy supply, as well as the work of import and export companies going forward. To quote the South Korea’s Chief of Staff to the President Noh Young-min, “President Moon Jae-in has ordered members of the National Security Council to not only examine the security situation there, but also the security of Korean residents and oil supplies.”
On January 7, First Vice Minister of Economy and Finance Kim Yong-beom announced that tensions between the United States and Iran will not have a significant impact on South Korea’s energy supply in the short term, as the delivery of oil and gas from the Middle East has continued uninterrupted. He noted that there currently is no Iranian oil in South Korea, and that the oil and gas facilities and oil tankers in the region are not being attacked. If the situation worsens, South Korea will consider the possibility of releasing its strategic oil reserves, which amounted to 96.5 million barrels at the end of November 2019. This would be enough to last 180 days. If we include the reserves stored by private companies, South Korea has a total of 200 million barrels worth of reserves for a rainy day.
Following the Iranian attack on January 8, 2020, the US Ambassador to South Korea Harry B. Harris Jr. said that he would hope Korea will send forces to the Strait of Hormuz. In an exclusive interview with KBS, he reminded South Koreans that the country receives energy from the Middle East.
On January 9, the South Korean Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Planning and Finance, Hong Nam-ki, said that if the situation in the Middle East worsens, it would have a limited impact on the South Korean economy. Despite Iran’s missile attack on US military bases in Iraq, the stock exchange and the financial market have remained largely stable.
On the day of the attack, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha reported that the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs is monitoring the situation in the Middle East twenty-four seven, but the decision to send South Korean troops to the Strait of Hormuz has not yet been made. The Minister reaffirmed that so far there is no need to evacuate South Korean citizens from Iraq, as they are in areas that are not in the crosshairs of the pro-Iranian forces. Nevertheless, an emergency evacuation plan is being drawn up for citizens in potentially dangerous regions.
Minister Kang’s statement reminds us of another statement she has made: “Considering a political analysis and bilateral ties with countries in the Middle East, I believe our stance on the issue cannot be the exactly same as the US.” This is the first time a senior government official has openly hinted that South Korea’s decisions on certain issues may not always be in line with America’s wishes.
On January 10, representatives of 107 South Korean public organizations gathered on the Seoul’s central Gwanghwamun Plaza to hold a press conference in opposition to the possibility of troops being dispatched to the Strait of Hormuz. Activists staged a performance to highlight that this cannot be let happen amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran. The points have been made that the assassination of Gen. Soleimani was carried out in clear violation of international law and Iraqi sovereignty. Thus, the United States is fully responsible for escalating tensions in the Middle East, and Seoul has no reason to support Washington by getting involved in the hostile situation created by the American side. Those who took part in the press conference also noted that it is unacceptable to be putting pressure on the South Korean government, citing the previously mentioned statement made by Ambassador Harry Harris.
In particular, it is worth mentioning the scandal with the Iranian Ambassador to Korea Saeed Badamchi-Shabestari who was summoned to the South Korean Foreign Ministry after, in several interviews with local South Korean media outlets (including the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo), he had allegedly warned that Tehran could sever ties with Seoul if the government agrees to the US request. The Foreign Ministry protested, and summoned the Ambassador for an explanation, but he denied directly mentioning the possible severing of diplomatic ties, although he did express concern that Seoul’s participation in the US-led coalition campaign in the Strait of Hormuz could hurt relations between Seoul and Tehran.
How will the situation develop further? The South Korean media predicts three likely scenarios of how Iran could respond. The first scenario would be the destabilization of the entire region by involving forces that are friendly with Tehran. The second scenario would be the destabilization of the global oil market by blocking the chokepoint through the Strait of Hormuz used to supply the world market with energy. A third scenario could be a cyber or terrorist attack against strategic government entities and critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe. The possibility of military clashes can “not be ruled out”, but this scenario is believed to be less likely, as it would be too costly with too many losses for both parties.
The Korea Times suggests that the rising oil prices will lead to a sharp increase in local prices for gasoline and diesel fuel, which will be an additional burden on the South Korean economy. The price of gasoline had risen for the seventh straight week by the first week of January, reaching 1558.70 won ($1.34) per liter, which is 4.6 won higher than it was the week before. Diesel prices have risen for the sixth week in a row.
Expert opinions differ on whether the South Korean military will be deployed to the strait. Senior Fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Shin Beom-chul, believes that a liaison officer may be sent to the region, but only if a request is made by the United States. “It is important to send a political message that South Korea stands with the US as an ally, but how to materialize such a message should be done by analyzing the circumstances very closely.” Cha Du-hyeogn, a visiting fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, suggests sending a naval force of a similar size to the Cheonghae Unit, and believes that Iran may not be in a hurry to sever ties with South Korea even if a naval force is sent. “Many U.S. allies that are asked to send troops to the strait have economic ties with Iran, and severing these for joining the U.S.-led naval mission will only hurt Tehran.”
Other experts are also talking about the likely expansion of the Cheonghae Unit’s operational scope. For the time being, the unit is legally permitted to engage in missions in and around the Gulf of Aden, and whether or not parliament will allow the Cheonghae Unit greater scope will depend on the role it is to play in the area.
In the author’s opinion, Seoul will want to prove it is an ally of the United States, as it did in the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), despite all its toing and froing between both sides and symbolic gestures; it will choose the lesser of two evils. Let’s not forget, the last time a Republic of Korea Army contingent was deployed to Iraq was not under a conservative government, but under a “democratic” president, Roh Moo-hyun.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.