A senior South Korean official says the situation surrounding a Korean-flagged oil tanker that has been seized by Iran for repeated environmental violations is “serious,” saying he is heading to the Islamic Republic for “in-depth” talks on the issue.
“I am a little relieved to know that the crew is safe, but the situation is serious,” First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun said in the northwestern city of Incheon before boarding his flight, which will take him to Tehran via the Qatari capital Doha.
“I hope to hold in-depth talks with key officials, whether it’s about consular issues or other major issues between Korea and Iran,” he added.
Last week, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)’s Navy said the vessel, named MT Hankuk Chemi, had been impounded upon a request by Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization and a verdict by the Prosecutor’s Office of the southern Hormozgan Province.
Carrying 20 crew members, the ship was sailing through the Strait of Hormuz when it was intercepted for causing water pollution. It was headed to the United Arab Emirates after loading 7,200 tons of oil chemical products in Saudi Arabia.
Iran urged South Korea to behave “rationally” in the aftermath of the seizure after Seoul reported the matter to its National Security Office, ordered its naval destroyer ROKS Choi Young to move near the Strait of Hormuz, and said it was ready to take legal action.
A South Korean delegation has also been dispatched to the Islamic Republic to discuss the issue of the tanker.
“The problem with the Korean ship is purely technical, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, like all countries, is fully sensitive to protecting and safeguarding the marine environment and deals with violations in accordance with the law,” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters on Tuesday.
“The South Korean government’s behavior in this regard is incomprehensible and rejected. We urge the Korean government to deal rationally and responsibly with this technical issue,” Khatibzadeh had noted.
Choi is also expected to discuss Seoul’s duty to release $7 billion in oil revenues that it owes to Iran but is holding under the pretext of abiding by the illegal US sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
The Islamic Republic has strictly rejected any allegations that it has impounded the tanker to enable the release of the funds.
“If there is any hostage-taking, it is Korea’s government that is holding $7 billion, which belongs to us, hostage on baseless grounds,” Ali Rabiei, spokesman of the Iranian Administration, said this week.
Tehran has even reportedly agreed to barter its frozen assets for COVID-19 vaccines and other commodities.