SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea's military said on Tuesday (Jan 21) it plans to expand the deployment of an anti-piracy unit now operating off the coast of Africa to the area around the Strait of Hormuz, after the United States pressed for help to guard oil tankers.
As a key US ally, South Korea has debated the prospect, and the decision to divert a navy unit already in operation southwest of Arabia comes as a compromise that will not require fresh parliamentary authorisation.
While South Korea will deploy its forces to the area, including the Gulf, it will not officially be joining an international coalition of forces, the defence ministry said.
"The South Korean government decided to temporarily expand the deployment of the Cheonghae military unit in consideration of the current situation in the Middle East to ensure the safety of our citizens and free navigation of our vessels," a ministry official told reporters.
The Cheonghae unit will continue with its mission while it cooperates with the coalition, the ministry said, adding that the United States had been briefed on the decision, which was also explained to the Iranians separately.
Attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz off the coast of Iran last year prompted US officials to call for allies to join a planned maritime security mission.
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.
The unit's operations have included a 2011 rescue of a South Korean ship and its crew, shooting eight suspected pirates and capturing five others in the process.
The South Korean troops have also evacuated South Korean citizens from Libya and Yemen, and as of November 2018 had escorted around 18,750 South Korean and international vessels.
South Korea, the world's fifth-largest crude oil importer and one of Iran's major oil customers, stopped importing Iranian crude from May after waivers on US sanctions against Iran ended at the start of that month.