South Korea will send delegation to Iran over seized ship

The South Korean-flagged tanker being escorted by Iran's Revolutionary Guards navy after being seized in the Gulf on Jan 4, 2021.
The South Korean-flagged tanker being escorted by Iran's Revolutionary Guards navy after being seized in the Gulf on Jan 4, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (NYTIMES) - South Korea will send a delegation to negotiate the release of a ship and its 20-member crew after the vessel was seized by Iranian forces, officials said Tuesday (Jan 5), the latest development in a provocation by the government in Teheran, which has been economically isolated by US sanctions.

Iranian officials said the ship was detained in the Persian Gulf by Iran's Revolutionary Guard because it had violated environmental protocols and was polluting the sea, according to Iranian state news agencies. The ship was carrying 7,200 tons of chemicals, mostly methanol, according to the South Korean company that owns it, which has denied that it was polluting the waters.

The tensions come as Teheran has sought to pressure the government in Seoul to release about US$7 billion (S$9.2 billion) in revenues from oil sales that remain frozen in South Korean banks since the Trump administration tightened sanctions.

But they also follow a recent escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran as President Donald Trump's term draws to a close. Iran said Monday that it was starting to increase nuclear enrichment levels at a key facility to 20 per cent, a step closer to developing the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. The Pentagon said Sunday that it had directed the aircraft carrier Nimitz to remain in the Middle East, days after it had ordered the ship to return home, because of Iranian threats against Trump and other US officials.

Iran rejected allegations Tuesday that it had seized the South Korean ship as leverage but reiterated its complaint over the locked-up funds. "If anyone is a hostage taker it's South Korea's government, which has taken hostage more than US$7 billion of our revenues for no reason," Ali Rabiei, a government spokesman, said at a virtual news conference.

But news outlets linked to the Revolutionary Guard ran front-page headlines Tuesday linking the seizure of the ship to negotiations with South Korea on releasing the frozen funds. "We captured the thieves," said a headline on newspaper Vatan Emrooz. "A clean response to revenue thieves," said the Tasnim News Agency.

The ship, the tanker Hankuk Chemi, was sailing to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates from Jubail, Saudi Arabia when armed Revolutionary Guard members approached it, according to Ri Il-su, an official at DM Shipping, the company that owns it.

Once aboard, they forced the ship to change course and sail to Iran.

"The Iranian troops said they were coming on board for an investigation but didn't answer questions about what the investigation was about," said Ri, who added that the captain of the ship called the company during the seizure.

Communication between the ship and the company was cut off, and the company received an anti-piracy security alert notice from the ship, which company officials suspected was activated by the captain as a warning to the ship's headquarters. Ri called accusations by Iran that the vessel was polluting waters "absurd."

The vessel is being held in the port of Bandar Abbas, and the case is expected to be referred to the judiciary, Iranian media reported, citing navy authorities.

There were five people from South Korea on board, along with 11 from Myanmar, two from Indonesia and two from Vietnam, according to Choi Young-sam, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry.

"Our goal is an early release of the ship and its crew," Choi said. "The Iranian diplomatic authorities have also made it clear to us that they will cooperate with us for an early resolution of this issue."

The issue will also be addressed during a planned visit to Teheran by a South Korean vice foreign minister, Choi Jong-kun, next week, which had been expected to focus on the frozen Iranian assets in South Korea.

The future of relations between Iran and the United States appears to have reached an inflection point as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office this month. A security adviser to Biden said Sunday that if Iran reentered compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump left in 2018, the new administration would pursue "follow-on negotiation" over Iranian missile capabilities.

The US Treasury Department announced additional sanctions Tuesday, taking aim at Iran's steel sector.

But Tuesday, Iran accused the United States of triggering new tensions in the region, according to Press TV.

"We have made it clear to them that we will not start any war directly or indirectly," Rabiei said. "But if a blatant mistake is made by the United States, we will defend our security and vital interests with full force."