Seoul is scrambling to respond to the seizure of a South Korea-flagged tanker by Iran, sending a Navy unit to the Strait of Hormuz and summoning Tehran’s envoy to Seoul demanding the immediate release of the vessel and its crew.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry is to dispatch a delegation to Iran soon for talks to free the tanker and its sailors, while First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun is planning to visit Tehran early next week.
Cheong Wa Dae’s National Security Council on Tuesday also held a meeting with related ministries to discuss the measures.
The country’s anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit, which was operating in waters near Oman, was dispatched to the strait upon news of the seizure and arrived in the area early in the day, according to the Defense Ministry.
The unit, aboard the 4,400-ton Choi Young naval destroyer, is to closely monitor the situation in cooperation with multinational naval forces operating in nearby waters, and will also protect other Korean ships in the area.
It is less likely for the troops, whose mission is to protect South Korean vessels and sailors, to take any military action, as Seoul officials seek a diplomatic solution to the incident.
On Monday, Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps captured the oil tanker, the MT Hankuk Chemi, and detained its crew, citing “environmental and chemical pollution concerns.” The tanker was carrying 7,200 tons of petrochemicals from Jubail, Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates when it was intercepted by the Iranian forces. The vessel has been held at an Iranian port for examination, though the operator of the tanker denied that it polluted the water.
The vessel’s 20 crew members — 11 from Myanmar, five Koreans, two Indonesians and two Vietnamese — are safe, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said, and demanded their immediate release by Tehran.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Tuesday that Seoul is making diplomatic efforts to ensure the swift release of the vessel and its crew.
“We have been working to figure out the situation through the Iranian Embassy in South Korea and the South Korean Embassy in Iran and continuing to make efforts to resolve the situation,” Kang told reporters.
When asked whether the seizure reflected Tehran’s frustration over Korean banks’ decision to freeze billions of dollars in Iranian money due to US sanctions, Kang said it was not the right time to discuss the matter and that the “first priority” was to verify the facts and ensure the safety of the crew.
Koh Kyung-sok, director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s African and Middle Eastern affairs, met with Iranian Ambassador Saeed Badamchi Shabestari in the afternoon to lodge a protest over the seizure, and called for the prompt release of the vessel and its crew.
Before the meeting, the Iranian envoy told reporters that the sailors remain safe.
The Foreign Ministry said a delegation, led by Koh, will be dispatched to Iran as soon as possible to resolve the matter through bilateral negotiations with Iran.
Vice Minister Choi is set to leave to Tehran on Sunday for a three-day trip, and is expected to discuss issues regarding the vessel seizure, the Iranian asset tied up in Korea and other matters of mutual interest.
Washington has joined Seoul’s calls for Iran to “immediately release” the tanker and accused Tehran of threatening freedom of navigation for economic sanctions relief.
“The regime continues to threaten navigational rights and freedoms in the Persian Gulf as part of a clear attempt to extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions,” a State Department spokesperson said, according to Reuters. “We join the Republic of Korea’s call for Iran to immediately release the tanker.”
The Iranian government, however, said the tanker’s seizure was over a “purely technical issue and due to the polluting the sea,” and that it would be dealt with in the framework of the law.
The seizure comes as Tehran is pressuring Korea to release $7 billion in Iranian money from oil sales kept in Korean banks due to sanctions reimposed by the Donald Trump administration in 2018 against Iran, after Washington’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear accord.
The latest standoff also coincided with escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran, with Sunday marking the one-year anniversary of the US killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military general.
Tehran on Monday announced it would resume enriching uranium to 20 percent, marking its most significant breach of a 2015 nuclear deal with six major world powers. The move appeared to pressure Washington, which is in the final days of the Trump administration ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who said he is willing to reenter the nuclear accord.
In response to escalating tension in the region, the US reversed its decision Sunday and ordered the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to remain in the Middle East in the wake of “recent threats” from Iranian officials.
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