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Korea to reduce oil imports from Iran in steps

Senior Washington official links Iran’s nuclear issue to that on N.K.

South Korea on Tuesday decided to reduce its oil imports from Iran “in steps” as the U.S. urges its allies to join its tougher sanctions over Tehran’s controversial nuclear programs.

The decision came after Seoul officials and the U.S. delegation, led by Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, discussed the sanctions and how to minimize the possible fallout from them.

“We showed (the U.S. delegation) that we shared the (U.S.) view on the purpose of Washington’s sanctions against Iran and expressed our stance that we will cooperate to address the Iranian nuclear issue within our capacity,” a government press release said. 

Earlier in the day, Einhorn turned up pressure on South Korea to reduce its oil imports from Iran, saying that Tehran’s nuclear issue is linked to North Korea’s. But he stressed Washington was carefully considering joint efforts to minimize possible economic impact from the sanctions.

“We are urging all of our partners to help us, work with us in putting more pressure on the government of Iran to get them to negotiate seriously,” said Einhorn during his talks with Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Jae-shin in Seoul.

“In particular, we are urging them to reduce their purchases of crude oil from Iran and we are urging them to unwind their financial dealings with the Central Bank of Iran.”

Einhorn arrived here on Monday for a three-day visit to explain the sanctions and secure the Asian ally’s support for them. His delegation also includes Daniel Glaser, the U.S. Treasury’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing.

Einhorn pointed out that efforts to address Iran’s nuclear issue could help move forward denuclearization efforts on the Korean Peninsula, in an apparent move to ratchet up pressure on Seoul.

“(The South Korean government) knows that the situations in Iran and in North Korea are related. I think progress in one will help us achieve progress on another,” he said. “That’s why it is so important that our two governments work closely together on this Iran problem.”

Seoul has been in a dilemma over its participation in the sanctions. It is apprehensive that its participation could undermine crucial trade relations with the world’s third-largest crude oil exporter.

From January to November last year, Seoul imported 81.6 million barrels of crude oil from Iran, which accounted for some 9.6 percent of the total oil imports. The annual two-way volume has topped $15 billion.

Seoul is also concerned that should it not fully join the sanctions, it could hurt its long-standing efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Some experts here said that Seoul should show “consistency” in its denuclearization efforts.

Regarding Seoul’s economic concerns, Einhorn said, “I want to say very importantly, that we want to do these things while maintaining stability of international oil markets.”

“We want to do this while being very sensitive to the economic interests of our close allies like the ROK (Republic of Korea) and South Korean companies. We are confident that working together we can send this signal and we can do it without the adverse effects that I know many in South Korea are concerned about.”

Vice Minister Kim said that Seoul will “strongly” support international efforts to address Iran’s nuclear issue.

“It is unfortunate to see that the situation concerning Iran’s nuclear issue has recently deteriorated. The South Korean government will strongly support and participate in the efforts by the international society to address the issue,” he said.

Kim also stressed that the allies will closely work together to minimize the possible fallout from the U.S.-led sanctions.

On Dec. 31, President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act that includes the so-called Kirk-Menendez amendment designed to cut off international transactions with Iran’s central bank.

South Korea currently makes payments for its oil imports from Iran through the Iranian central bank.

Seoul considers joining the sanctions by reducing its oil imports from Iran. But the world’s fifth-largest oil importer is seeking to prevent the complete suspension of the imports.

Seoul believes it can utilize a provision in the NDAA, under which Washington can defer or suspend its application of the act to a particular country, which has “significantly” reduced oil imports from Iran.

On Monday, Einhorn met Kim Tae-hyo, President Lee Myung-bak’s aide for external strategies and planning, to discuss the issue.

“(We are) not yet at a stage when we decide the cuts in our oil imports from Iran,” Kim told the media. “The two countries should exchange views on a variety of things including our situation here, how the U.S. will seek to stabilize global oil prices and the level of the sanctions against Iran.”

By Song Sang-ho


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