In this photo released by Tasnim News Agency, Iranian forces seized a South Korean tanker in the Persian Gulf of Monday. (AP-Yonhap)
South Korea is considering legal action against Iran after its forces seized a Korea-flagged tanker and its crew, while Tehran insists the issue is “completely technical” on environmental concerns, rejecting allegations it is holding the vessel hostage for its $7 billion in funds frozen in Seoul.
The Foreign Ministry on Wednesday, in a report submitted to the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said it is preparing legal procedures, checking whether the seizure was done in accordance with international law. The ministry said it is verifying facts concerning Iran’s claim that the seizure was due to environmental pollution concerns, and is looking into whether the tanker was sailing in international waters or territorial waters and whether Iranian forces followed international law when capturing the vessel.
Tehran reiterated that it had detained the vessel for “repeated violations of environmental laws” and would deal with the matter within the legal framework, though the vessel’s operator flatly denied water pollution allegations.
The ministry said it is maintaining communication with Iran through embassies in both countries, as well as seeking cooperation with the US, the EU, Qatar and Oman, as well as three countries where detained crew members originate -- Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia.
Seoul has been scrambling to respond since Monday, when Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps captured the oil tanker, the MT Hankuk Chemi, in the Persian Gulf, citing “environmental and chemical pollution concerns.” The vessel was carrying 7,200 tons of petrochemicals and had 20 crew members on board -- 11 from Myanmar, five Koreans, two Indonesians and two Vietnamese.
The vessel has been held at an Iranian port for examination, and the Foreign Ministry confirmed that all the sailors are safe.
In response, Seoul is sending a delegation from the Foreign Ministry to Iran on early Thursday for talks to free the tanker and its sailors.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, however, did not welcome such a trip, saying “there is no need for a diplomatic visit.”
“The South Korean government’s behavior in this regard is not understandable and is rejected,” Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement. “We urge the Korean government to deal with this technical issue logically and responsibly,” he said, repeating that the issue is a “completely technical one.”
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 on Iran reimposed by the Donald Trump administration in 2018, after Washington’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear accord.
Amid growing speculation that Tehran seized the ship to gain leverage over unlocking the frozen assets, Iran denied such claims and accused Seoul of taking its 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 which belongs to us hostage on baseless grounds,” spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters at a news conference, according to Reuters.
A Foreign Ministry official said South Korea has been in discussion with Iran and the US about using the funds tied up in Korea to purchase COVID-19 vaccines for the Middle East country.
South Korea had recently received the green light from the US Treasury to purchase COVID-19 vaccines through the global procurement mechanism, the COVAX Facility. But Tehran remains undecided as the Korean won-based assets held in banks could be blocked again in the process of converting into US dollars to purchase the vaccines.
By Ahn Sung-mi (email@example.com