The aggravation of the troubled relationship between the United States and Iran has an impact on events on the Korean peninsula, which affect the South far more than the North.
North Korea basically got further confirmation that maintaining a nuclear arsenal aptly protects the country from hostile American actions like the assassination of General Soleimani. More interestingly, there are curious rumours about North Korea-Iran military cooperation, and the author would not be surprised if there is a North Korean hand in Iran’s possession of high-precision weapons, which were used in the attack against US air bases.
It is much more interesting to consider the problems that South Korea faces as a result of this exacerbation. Seoul is a close ally of Washington, and maintains friendly relations with Tehran (in particular, due to its import of Iranian oil). If the United States demands that it join the pressure campaign against Iran, this will create an unpleasant dilemma.
Thus, president Moon Jae-in is in an unpleasant situation. On the one hand, a defiant disregard for American demands may lead to retaliatory measures, which in the future could be painful for the South Korean economy.
On the other hand, the overseas expedition of South Korean troops to the Middle East can be considered in the context of ongoing disputes about how much South Korea should pay for the presence of American troops on its territory. Let’s recall that the parties had not reached an agreement before the end of the year, and the United States demanded a very substantial increase of the South Korean share.
However, Moon positions himself as a populist and tries to emphasise his independence from the United States, even within the framework of the struggle between domestic political factions. From this angle, the fulfilment of the American request tarnishes his image an independent politician. However, the Democrats are “not used to it.” The South Korean troops went to Iraq to fight for American interests not under the conservatives, but under an even more committed populist, Roh Moo-hyun.
So far, there is discord among the political parties: the ruling party of Korea has not yet clearly presented its position on this issue. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party believes that participation in the Strait of Hormuz mission can be a way to protect the South Korean people, while the left-wing People’s Democracy Party and numerous NGOs oppose it, citing the potential possibility of attacks on Korean citizens by the pro-Iranian proxies. Equally, the responsibility for aggravating the situation in the Middle East rests entirely on the United States, and Seoul has no reason to support Washington by participating in hostilities initiated by the American side.
In its efforts to fulfil American requirements, Seoul somewhat reduced its import of Iranian oil and refused to make payments in dollars, but this only means that they switched from dollars to won. South Korean-Iranian relations are also developing in other areas, and there are rumours about the arms trade and high technology supplies.