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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 January 2021

Iran warns against 'politicising' seizure of South Korean tanker

South Korean delegation in Tehran for talks on ship and frozen Iranian funds

South Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun meets his Iranian counterpart Abbas Araghchi in Tehran on January 10, 2020. Iranian Foreign Ministry / AFP
South Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun meets his Iranian counterpart Abbas Araghchi in Tehran on January 10, 2020. Iranian Foreign Ministry / AFP

Iran warned other countries not to politicise its seizure of a South Korean tanker in the Arabian Gulf last week as a delegation from Seoul held talks in Tehran regarding the fate of the vessel as well as Iranian funds frozen in South Korea.

"We have repeatedly told... the intervening parties, whether they are the United States or France, that the case does not concern them at all and that they will not help to solve a technical problem if they politicise it," said foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Monday.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the Hankuk Chemi and arrested its multinational crew of 20 near the strategic Strait of Hormuz one week ago.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats escort the South Korean-flagged tanker MT Hankuk Chemi after seizing the ship in the Strait of Hormuz. Tasnim News Agency via AP
Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats escort the South Korean-flagged tanker MT Hankuk Chemi after seizing the ship in the Strait of Hormuz. Tasnim News Agency via AP

Iran maintains the tanker and its crew were stopped in the mouth of the Arabian Gulf because of the vessel’s “environmental pollution", a claim rejected by the vessel's owner. The crew, including sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, remain in custody at the port city of Bandar Abbas near the Strait of Hormuz.

The seizure came as Tehran presses for the release of about $7 billion of Iranian assets frozen in South Korea as part of US sanctions.

The United States and France have called for Iran to release the ship.

A US State Department spokesperson called the seizure "part of a clear attempt to extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions".

The French foreign ministry said the seizure was "fuelling tensions in the region".

A South Korean delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun arrived in Tehran on Sunday for a long-planned visit.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap has said Mr Choi's aim during his visit was to "negotiate an early release" of the tanker and its crew, which includes South Korean, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Burmese sailors.

But according to Iran's foreign ministry the "main goal" of his visit was "to discuss ways of accessing Iranian funds in Korea".

Mr Khatibzadeh said the South Korean delegation "had questions about technical problems related to the ship which we answered", without elaborating.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi also advised Seoul to avoid politicising the seizure of the oil tanker, according to statement posted on ministry’s website on Sunday after a meeting with Mr Choi.

Mr Araghchi said the case was being handled by the Iranian judiciary.

A South Korean diplomat based in Iran met one of the crew members, a South Korean, last week, according to South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Choi Young-sam. The crew member told the diplomat that he and 19 other sailors were safe and were not mistreated. South Korea has requested that Iran provide evidence to back up its claim that the South Korean ship breached environmental protocols, he said.

Diplomats from Iran and Myanmar, which had 11 citizens on the ship, were separately meeting in the Indian capital New Delhi to negotiate the release of the Burmese sailors aboard, according to the semi-official Isna news agency.

The South Korean delegation, including representatives from Seoul's central bank, were also scheduled to meet Iran's central bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati to discuss the trapped funds, semi-official Mehr news agency reported. Mr Hemmati has complained that Iran was struggling to transfer about $220 million held in South Korean banks to pay for Covid-19 vaccines through Covax, the international programme designed to distribute the vaccines to participating countries.

“It is our natural right to be able to use this money,” Mr Hemmati was quoted as saying on Sunday. "We hope that the American pressure will also decrease.”

Updated: January 11, 2021 05:47 PM

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