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PM heading to Iran for talks on seized vessel

Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun (Yonhap)
Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun (Yonhap)

Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun is heading to Iran in the next few days for talks to release a seized South Korean oil tanker and its captain, according to his office and diplomatic sources Tuesday. Iran’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the visit earlier in the day, but did not specify a date.

With the two governments still consulting on the timing, the Prime Minister’s Office said it was seeking to arrange a meeting between Chung and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

In early January, the vessel, MT Hankuk Chemi, was seized and its 20-member crew apprehended in the Persian Gulf by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps.

Because the seizure occurred amid talks about unlocking $7 billion in Iranian funds frozen in Seoul under US sanctions, the case prompted speculation that the Iranian government could be upping pressure on Korea by holding the Korean-flagged ship hostage.

But Iran denied this, saying it seized the ship for violating its rules on environmental pollution.

Amid escalating tensions between the two countries, the Iranian authorities in February agreed to release all the sailors except for the captain. The 20 crew members comprised 11 nationals of Myanmar, five Koreans, two Indonesians and two Vietnamese.

Chung’s planned trip may indicate that the two governments have reached a tentative agreement about unlocking the Iranian money.

Seoul and Tehran had been consulting over how to release part of the funds through a Swiss humanitarian trade arrangement designed to facilitate the flow of humanitarian goods, such as COVID-19 vaccines, to the Iranians.

Meanwhile, the prime minister, who is said to be pursuing a presidential bid next year, is likely to offer his resignation before or after the trip. He is considered one of the key presidential hopefuls from the ruling liberal bloc.

Asked about his presidential bid last week, he said, “When the time comes, there may be an opportunity to talk about that. I’m not yet ready.”

He added, “The appointment of a prime minister is at the president’s sole discretion. It would be appropriate for me to talk about my future with the president first.”

Among his potential successors is former Interior Minister Kim Boo-kyum. Some women’s names have also been suggested, since President Moon Jae-in has emphasized gender balance in his Cabinet.

Upon Chung’s pending departure, Cheong Wa Dae is also likely to carry out a modest reshuffle, possibly the last major reshuffle under Moon’s presidency, which enters its final year in May. It is expected to affect the troubled Land Minister Byeon Chang-heum and some long-serving Cabinet members.

By Lee Ji-yoon (