SEOUL, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- South Korea will deploy troops to the Strait of Hormuz to help protect its vessels passing through the waterway, the country's Ministry of National Defense announced on Tuesday.
An anti-piracy unit known as the Cheonghae Unit, which is already stationed in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia, will expand its operations to the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, the ministry said in a statement.
"In view of the current situation in the Middle East, our government has decided to expand the Cheonghae Unit dispatch area for a limited time to ensure the safety of our people and the freedom of navigation of ships," the statement read.
The unit will not operate as part of a coalition but will collaborate with the U.S.-led International Maritime Security Construct, headquartered in Bahrain, by sending two liaison officers "for cooperation, including information sharing," the ministry said.
"The Middle East is home to approximately 25,000 of our residents and the Strait of Hormuz is a strategically important area that accounts for more than 70 percent of our crude oil shipments," the ministry said, adding that South Korean ships sail through the strait around 900 times per year.
Tensions in the region have risen since the United States killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani with a drone strike earlier this month. Iran launched missile strikes at U.S. forces in Iraq in retaliation and unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian jetliner near Tehran, killing 176 passengers and crew in a move its military ascribed to human error.
Last week, the United States issued a warning to commercial vessels in and around the Persian Gulf, including the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-third of all oil traded by sea passes.
"Heightened military activity and increased political tensions in this region continue to pose serious threats to commercial vessels," the warning said. "Associated with these threats is a potential for miscalculation or misidentification that could lead to aggressive actions."
The United States has pressed for international allies to help secure the Strait of Hormuz. In a meeting with reporters last week, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris confirmed that Washington had requested South Korea's assistance in maritime security in the Strait.
South Korea's 300-strong Cheonghae Unit has been stationed in the Gulf of Aden since 2009 and operates a 4,400-ton destroyer, the Wang Geon, according to the ministry.