Senior South Korean diplomat travels to Iran amid tensions over ship seizure

January 10, 2021 - 21:19

TEHRAN - South Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun left Seoul for Tehran early on Sunday to hold talks with Iranian officials over a range of issues including Iran’s seizure of a South Korean ship in the Strait of Hormuz.

The South Korean diplomat is expected to meet his counterpart and other high-level officials at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. He will join a South Korean delegation currently visiting Tehran. The delegation, hosted by the country's ambassador to Iran, is part of the entourage accompanying the East Asian country's deputy foreign minister, according to Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh.

Tehran and Seoul are locked in a bitter dispute over Iran’s blocked assets in South Korea, with the seizure of the South Korean being the latest in a series of disagreements between the two Asian countries. Some 7 billion dollars of Iranian oil revenues have been frozen in two South Korean banks since September 2019, when Washington's sanctions waiver for South Korea's imports of Iranian oil expired.

On January 4, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) impounded the MT Hankuk Chemi carrying 20 crew members, including five South Koreans, for polluting the environment.

Khatibzadeh said the Korean vessel's seizure was “a totally technical issue.”

“Based on initial reports coming from local authorities, the issue is completely technical, and the vessel was led ashore upon a judicial order because the vessel had been polluting the sea,” the spokesman said in a statement following the seizure of the ship.

“Like other countries, the Islamic Republic of Iran is sensitive about such offenses, especially polluting the marine environment; so, it deals with such offenses in accordance with the law,” he continued. “This was not an exceptional incident, and similar incidents had earlier occurred in Iran and in other countries’ waters, and it is something usual, and further information will be announced accordingly.”

The ship is currently in dock at the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. And the South Korean embassy in Tehran confirmed the safety and health of all 20 sailors Wednesday.

“I'm a little relieved to know that the crew is safe, but the situation is serious,” Choi told reporters at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, according to the South Korean Yonhap News Agency.

While Iran says that the ship was impounded for environmental issues, South Korea implied that the ship was seized in an effort to put pressure on Seoul to release Iran’s frozen money.

Citing a diplomatic source in South Korea, Yonhap claimed that Iran made a request to South Korea for the use of the frozen money to purchase medicine, medical equipment and COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX Facility, a global vaccine procurement mechanism.

“It will be a good opportunity to clearly hear once again what the Iranian government wants and to distinguish what (we) can do and cannot do regarding the issue, as well as what needs to be consulted on with the U.S.,” Choi noted.

On the other hand, Iran has urged Seoul to behave logically in dealing with Tehran’s seizure of the vessel due to technical issues rather than politicizing it.

“The South Korean government’s behavior in this regard is not understandable and is rejected,” Khatibzadeh said. “We urge the Korean government to deal with this technical issue logically and responsibly.”

Khatibzadeh once again reiterated that the problem with the South Korean ship is a completely technical one, adding that Iran is very sensitive about protecting its marine environment and deals with any violations in accordance with the law.

“As the authority in charge of such issues, the [Iranian] Ports and Maritime Organization is professionally trying to offer the necessary assistance to the ship and its crew, and will inform the public about it accordingly,” the spokesman pointed out.

According to Khatibzadeh, Iran and South Korea are in close contact to resolve outstanding issues. He said during the visit of the South Korean delegation, the two sides will hold negotiations on how to give Iran access to its financial resources in Korea. On the other side, South Korea said that Choi will negotiate an early release of the South Korean oil tanker and its crew seized by Iranian authorities last week.

“We hope to hold in-depth talks with key officials whether it is a consular issue or other major issues between South Korea and Iran,” the South Korean diplomat said.


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