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International relations

South Korean vice minister to seek tanker's release on Iran visit

Seoul sends special forces to Strait of Hormuz amid tensions over frozen billions

The South Korean-flagged tanker seized by Iran is seen on Jan. 4 in this picture supplied by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps via Iran's West Asia News Agency.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korea's vice foreign minister intends to discuss the release of a chemical tanker and crew seized by Iran when he visits Tehran on Sunday, as tensions rise over billions of dollars in Iranian funds frozen in Korean banks due to U.S. sanctions.

Vice Minister Choi Jong-kun's three-day visit was scheduled before Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took control of the South Korean-flagged vessel on Monday in Gulf waters off Oman. "Vice Minister Choi will discuss many topics widely. Of course, he will talk about the seized vessel," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Choi Young-sam told reporters on Tuesday. "Iran told us that there is no problem."

The ship, named Hankuk Chemi, is reportedly carrying 7,200 tons of ethanol. Its crew of 20 includes five South Koreans; Reuters reported that Indonesian, Vietnamese and Myanmar nationals were also aboard.

The South Korean ministry confirmed that the ship is now in Iran, and said the Iranian ambassador to Seoul had offered assurances that the crew members are safe.

The spokesperson's remarks came hours after Seoul deployed a special naval force to the Strait of Hormuz -- a vital waterway for the global oil trade. The Ministry of National Defense said the navy sent its Cheonghae anti-piracy unit toward the strait right after it received word that Iran had taken the 9,797-ton merchant vessel.

The same unit rescued 21 crew members from Somali pirates in 2011; this is its first mission related to Iran.

"We plan to cope with [the situation] in close cooperation with the Foreign Ministry, the Oceans Ministry and the Combined Maritime Forces," the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The Foreign Ministry has demanded the Hankuk Chemi's early release, and Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters that the government is making diplomatic efforts to achieve this.

Iranian reports said the vessel was stopped over concerns about pollution. But Seoul and Tehran are at odds over as much as $9 billion in Iranian money stuck in South Korean banks. Iran has demanded that the funds be transferred, but South Korea has declined since Washington bans transactions with the country.

Rejecting the notion that the ship was taken hostage, an Iranian spokesman on Tuesday was quoted by Reuters as saying, "If there is any hostage-taking, it is Korea's government that is holding $7 billion which belongs to us hostage on baseless grounds," using a lower estimate of the funds.

The U.S. re-imposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 after pulling out of their 2015 nuclear deal. Under that arrangement with six major powers, Tehran had agreed to restrain its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

On Monday, Iran also announced the resumption of 20% uranium enrichment at an underground facility. This was likely to inflame tensions with the U.S. and risked complicating a potential move by the incoming Joe Biden administration to repair the deal.

An unnamed U.S. State Department representative called for the Hankuk Chemi to be freed immediately and said Iran was trying to "extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions," according to Reuters and South Korea's Yonhap.

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