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Seoul, Tehran still deadlocked over seized tanker

South Korea`s Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun (left) meets his Iranian counterpart Abbas Araghchi, in Tehran. (Iranian Foreign Ministry/AFP)
South Korea`s Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun (left) meets his Iranian counterpart Abbas Araghchi, in Tehran. (Iranian Foreign Ministry/AFP)

South Korea and Iran remain at odds on the issue of a Korean tanker in Iranian custody despite senior diplomats’ efforts to negotiate the release of the vessel, as well as the matter of Iranian funds frozen in Korean banks.

Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun met with Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in Tehran to discuss pending bilateral issues on Sunday, the Foreign Ministry said Monday.

Choi’s meeting came days after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized the MT Hankuk Chemi and its 20 crew members in the Persian Gulf on Jan. 4, citing “environmental and chemical pollution concerns.” The timing of the seizure, which came amid rising tensions between the two countries over nearly $7 billion worth of Iranian funds frozen in Korea due to US sanctions, raised speculation that the latest action was intended to gain leverage and pressure Seoul into releasing the money.

During the meeting, Choi called for the swift release of the tanker and its crew and requested substantial evidence from Iran to back up its claim that the vessel violated environmental protocols, according to a Foreign Ministry official.

In response, Araghchi told Seoul not to “politicize the issue” and to wait until the factual investigation is completed by the Iranian judiciary, German news agency DPA reported, citing Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA.

Araghchi said the tanker was seized because it was leaking oil and polluting the water, making it the issue not “political but technical.”

During the talks, Araghchi said the Iranian funds in Korea remain tied up in Korea due to a “lack of political will on the part of the South Korean government, rather than the oppressive US sanctions,” according to the IRNA.

The Iranian official said Korean banks had illegally frozen Iran’s assets for nearly two years as a way of “giving into the US excessive demand,” and called on Choi to find a way to resolve the issue, calling it the “first priority” for bilateral ties.

About $7 billion in Iranian revenue from oil sales has been frozen in Korean banks since 2019 due to sanctions reimposed on Iran by the Donald Trump administration, after Washington’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear accord.

Iran is demanding that Seoul grant access to the funds, with the two sides and the US in talks about using part of the money to purchase COVID-19 vaccines and medical equipment for Iran, as the coronavirus crisis mounts in the country. 

Choi is expected to meet Iran’s foreign minister and other senior officials Monday, when he plans to reiterate his calls for the release of the vessel and sailors. He is also reportedly to meet Central Bank of Iran chief Abdolnaser Hemmati to discuss the frozen funds.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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