Seoul says it will dispatch a delegation to Tehran for talks following the seizure of a South Korean-flagged tanker which Iranian naval forces say took place for repetitive violations of maritime environmental law and polluting Persian Gulf waters with chemicals.
Speaking at a regular press briefing on Tuesday, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Choi Young-sam said the delegation, led by Director-General for African and Middle Eastern Affairs Koh Kyung-sok, will soon leave for the Iranian capital to resolve the issue of the seizure of MT Hankuk Chemi tanker through negotiations.
He added that South Korean and Iranian officials will discuss a wide range of other issues of mutual interest, and Seoul will do its utmost to find a swift solution to the matter.
Separately, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said on Tuesday that she was making diplomatic efforts to secure the release of the tanker.
Kang said she responded to Iranian officials on Monday, and that her ministry was engaged in talks with diplomats both in Tehran and Seoul.
The public relations office of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)’s Navy said Monday that the South Korean-flagged MT Hankuk Chemi tanker had been seized upon a request by Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization and a verdict by the prosecutor office of Hormozgan province.
The statement added that the ship, carrying 7,200 tons of ethanol, was being held at Iran’s southern Bandar Abbas port city.
Earlier, Director-General for African and Middle Eastern Affairs Koh Kyung-sok met with Iranian Ambassador Saeed Badamchi Shabestari, Yonhap news agency reported.
The Iranian ambassador told reporters prior to the meeting that the tanker’s crew members were safe and healthy, but declined to comment on when the vessel would be released.
In another related development, South Korea said a naval destroyer operated by its anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit had arrived near the Strait of Hormuz to help the return of the MT Hankuk Chemi tanker from Iran.
Yonhap, citing an unnamed South Korean government official, reported that the vessel was expected to handle the task in close cooperation with the country’s Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries as well as with the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh explained on Monday that the impounding of the vessel had been carried out solely on technical grounds.
Khatibzadeh said the tanker had been captured through a judicial verdict as it was causing environmental damage.
The developments come as South Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun is set to visit Iran on a three-day trip over a separate issue.
The visit had been planned before Monday’s incident and is set to pivot on the release of Iranian oil money frozen in South Korean banks under US sanctions against Tehran.
‘South Korea holding Iranian funds hostage’
Hossein Tanhaei, head of the Iran-South Korea Joint Chamber of Commerce, told the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) on Sunday that the Islamic Republic will negotiate to barter its frozen assets in South Korea for COVID-19 vaccine and other commodities.
According to the official, raw materials, medicine, petrochemicals, auto parts, home appliances, and related parts are among the prioritized items on the list for bartering.
Also on Tuesday, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei roundly dismissed allegations that Tehran was holding the vessel “hostage,” saying it is in fact Seoul that is holding $7 billion of Iran’s funds hostage.
“We’ve become used to such allegations … but if there is any hostage-taking, it is Korea’s government that is holding $7 billion belonging to us hostage on baseless grounds,” Rabiei told reporters at a news conference streamed live online.