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Seoul officials on alert over heightened risk of US-Iran conflict

Seoul officials said Sunday they were cautiously watching escalating tensions between the US and Iran and staying vigilant about the possible repercussions here.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched a task force to evaluate the current situation in the Middle East and to discuss measures to protect Koreans living in the area, the officials said.

On Friday, the US confirmed that President Donald Trump had ordered the airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani -- the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the second-most powerful man in Iran -- which took place at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. The attack has raised tensions between Washington and Tehran to new heights.

Presided over by Vice Foreign Minister Cho Se-young, the inaugural meeting of the task force was held Sunday morning. 

Results of the meeting were reported to Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who directed the team to enhance the security of Korean citizens and businesses in the Middle East. 

The ministry added that in coordination with the diplomatic offices in the region, it will maintain an emergency response system around the clock.

 
An anti-war demonstrator holds a sign during a rally on Saturday in Seattle, Washington. Groups held rallies across the US Saturday in response to increased tensions in the Middle East as a result of a US airstrike that killed an Iranian general last week. (AFP-Yonhap)
An anti-war demonstrator holds a sign during a rally on Saturday in Seattle, Washington. Groups held rallies across the US Saturday in response to increased tensions in the Middle East as a result of a US airstrike that killed an Iranian general last week. (AFP-Yonhap)


“The government’s first role is to secure the safety of our citizens and companies,” the ministry said in a statement. “While continuing close communication with the US and major countries, we will closely evaluate the situation and make every effort to protect our citizens in Iraq and surrounding countries.”

“The government is aware that the situation is very serious. There have been evaluation that the tension will alleviate gradually, but we cannot rule out the possibility of miscalculation and (an) accidental clash that could escalate into war,” a Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

“With Iran’s supreme leader mentioning ‘severe revenge,’ there could possibly be some kind of action. We need to prepare for further risk factors.”

The military tension in the Middle East could be a factor to be considered as the government mulls the US’ request for a military coalition in the Strait of Hormuz. 

There has been speculation that the Korean Navy’s anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit, which has been stationed in the Gulf of Aden, could be redeployed to safeguard the Strait of Hormuz off the coast of Iran, following the US’ call for allies to join the US-led maritime force to safeguard oil tankers sailing through the area. 

Korea has been mulling whether to deploy units to the region. But the ministry said nothing has been decided and it is discussing the matter with related departments. 

“Strait of Hormuz is a very important area with about 70 percent of (South Korea’s oil imports) passing,” another Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity. “Our principle position that we will contribute to international society’s call for safeguarding vessels remains the same.”

Iran has vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death, without indicating when that could happen or where. Many are concerned Iran will block or attack the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s largest oil chokepoint, where large numbers of US destroyers and warships cross. 

Meanwhile, the ministry said there are about 1,600 South Koreans residing in Iraq and 290 in Iran. There are also 150 citizens in Lebanon and 600 in Israel. Highlighting that they are safe, the ministry said it is closely watching citizens in the region.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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