South Korea and the Tensions in the Middle East

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.

US-Iran: What's Next in This Conflict?
Kayhan Barzegar
With Iran's “tit for tat” policy in attacking the American military bases in Iraq after the assassination of Major General Gassem Soliemani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force, it seems that both Iran and the U.S. have entered a de-escalation phase. For Tehran, this limited conventional military action was necessary and justified as a show of its national strength and unity. It also legitimised the nation's regional policy.
Expert Opinions

The first set of problems is connected with the insistent demand of the United States that it take part in security measures in the Strait of Hormuz. There is already a South Korean contingent there, formally, to fight against pirates. However, even before the incidents of January 2020, the Americans demanded that Seoul be more actively involved in this project, which is de facto directed against Iran’s possible actions to block the strait and negatively impact the global hydrocarbon traffic. At the end of the year, Seoul’s involvement was limited to sending a liaison officer, but now the issue is under consideration. Moreover, on January 9 Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said: “Given the political analysis and bilateral relations with the Middle East countries, I believe that our position on this issue cannot be exactly the same as that of the United States.” This is the first time a senior government official has openly admitted that Seoul’s decisions on some issues may not coincide with those of Washington.

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.

The Hybrid Twenties: How US-Iran Confrontation Is Changing the Balance of Power in the Middle East and in the World
Dmitry Suslov
Strategically, the very first crisis of the 2020s has clearly demonstrated the essence of a new stage in the development of world disorder: the complete absence of rules, blurring the line between the state of war and peace.
Expert Opinions

The second set of problems is economic. South Korea is dependent on imported hydrocarbon fuel, and through the efforts of Moon Jae-in, who declared “war” against nuclear power, this dependence has only increased. In 2018, South Korea imported 58.2 million barrels of crude oil from Iran, which is 4.8 percent of all oil imports to the country, and in January-November 2019 70% of the imported oil and 38% of LNG came from the Middle East. This means that in the event of a conflict there, the supplies of hydrocarbons may be interrupted, and South Korea will have to pursue new options. Incidentally, one of these could be Russian liquefied gas.

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.

USA - Iran: Retaliation Diplomacy
Oleg Barabanov
In the next couple of days it is worth watching how the Americans behave in Iraq. There are two options: either they will sharply activate the evacuation of their bases, or vice versa - they will begin to strengthen them. In the latter case, the chances of an escalation of the conflict with a harsh American response will increase
Expert Opinions

The third set of problems is related to the evacuation of South Korean citizens from Iran and the Middle East in general. Currently, there are 290 South Koreans in Iran, 1,570 in Iraq (mainly construction workers), and about 850 citizens in Lebanon and Israel.

Regardless, in the event that the US-Iranian confrontation enters a hot phase, North Korea will learn many interesting lessons, and perhaps get the opportunity to test some of its new weapons in combat conditions against the most likely enemy. South Korea, regardless of which path it takes, may face economic or domestic political problems, which on the eve of the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2020 may create additional difficulties for the Moon administration.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.