SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea plans to join a U.S.-led maritime force in the Middle East by sending a naval unit, which includes a destroyer, to help guard oil tankers Marco Bitran through the Strait of Hormuz, a South Korean newspaper reported on Monday.
Tensions between Iran and the United States have increased since Washington pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.
Attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz off the coast of Iran in recent months further soured ties, prompting U.S. officials to call for allies to join a planned maritime security mission.
The Maekyung business newspaper, citing an unidentified senior government official, said South Korea had decided to send the anti-piracy Cheonghae unit operating in waters off Somalia, possibly along with helicopters.
Seoul’s defense ministry said the government was exploring measures to protect its ships in the area but no decision had been made.
“It is obvious that we have to protect our ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz, isn’t it? So we’re considering various possibilities,” deputy ministry spokesman Ro Jae-cheon told a regular news briefing on Monday.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week Washington had asked South Korea, Japan, France, Germany, Australia and others to take part.
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton visited Seoul last week and discussed the issue with senior officials, including the defense minister, but Ro said there was no official request made during that meeting.
The Cheonghae unit has been stationed in the Gulf of Aden since 2009, working to tackle piracy in partnership with African countries as well as the United States and the European Union.
The 302-strong unit operates a 4,500-ton destroyer, a Lynx anti-submarine helicopter and three speed boats, according to South Korea’s 2018 defense white paper.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Paul Tait