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SEOUL, Jan. 5 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will dispatch a delegation to Iran this week to negotiate the release of a seized Korean oil tanker and its sailors, officials said Tuesday.
The South Korean-flagged MT Hankuk Chemi was seized Monday by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the Strait of Hormuz reportedly due to allegations of chemical pollution. The operator of the ship denied the allegations.
Five South Koreans, 11 Myanmarese, two Indonesians and two Vietnamese were on board when it was seized. The vessel was traveling from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates.
"A delegation, to be headed by the director-general of the related region, will be dispatched to Iran at the earliest date possible in efforts to resolve the matter through bilateral negotiations with the Iranian side," foreign ministry spokesperson Choi Young-sam said in a press briefing.
The delegation will be led by Koh Kyung-sok, director-general of the ministry's African and Middle Eastern affairs, he added. The team will head to Iran late Wednesday, sources said later in the day.
First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun is also expected to address the issue when he travels to Tehran early next week, according to the ministry.
His planned three-day trip, starting Sunday, had already been arranged prior to the incident, mainly to discuss an agreement to unlock the Iranian money in Seoul that has been frozen under sanctions against Tehran.
A foreign ministry official later confirmed that the two countries and the U.S. have been in talks about using the Iranian money frozen at South Korean banks to purchase COVID-19 vaccines from a global vaccine procurement program.
Tehran reportedly had made the proposal to Seoul about the idea as a way to settle the issue over the frozen money, as it has been seeking to secure COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX Facility.
"I believe there will be broad discussions on various issues of mutual concern for South Korea and Iran. There will of course be an exchange of opinions about the recent ship seizure," the spokesperson Choi added.
The ministry repeatedly stressed that all diplomatic efforts are under way for a solution regarding the seizure.
Earlier, a foreign ministry official met with the Iranian ambassador in Seoul to lodge a protest over the ship seizure.
President Moon Jae-in also ordered the presidential Office of National Security to work closely with related organizations to cope with the situation, according to Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Kang Min-seok.
"The government is taking the seizure of our ship very seriously," Kang said in a statement. "Immediately after the incident occurred, National Security Office chief Suh Hoon informed the president of the situation."
Kang said related authorities, including the spy agency, have been making efforts to come up with countermeasures.
The Iranian government, meanwhile, denied that it was taking the South Korean ship as a hostage and instead criticized Seoul for freezing Iranian assets, Reuters reported.
Iran's assets at two Korean bank accounts known to be worth around $7 billion in total have been frozen since September 2019, when Washington's sanctions waiver for South Korea's imports of Iranian oil expired.
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