(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with vice FM's remarks, 3rd last para with gov't plan to send delegation; TRIMS; RESTRUCTURES)
By Kim Seung-yeon
SEOUL, Jan. 6 (Yonhap) -- The government believes there is no evidence proving Iran's claim that a South Korean tanker polluted the ocean when it was seized by Tehran troops early this week over such allegations, a senior Seoul official was quoted as saying Wednesday.
First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun made the remark at the National Assembly as Tehran cited marine pollution as grounds for its decision to seize the oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, according to lawmakers who attended the meeting.
The MT Hankuk Chemi has been held by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) since Monday, with 20 crew members, including five South Koreans.
"If it is marine contamination to a degree that it was visible to the naked eye, we should be able to confirm that from a helicopter," Choi was quoted as saying by lawmakers. "But no such evidence has been revealed and the vessel had set sail with enough safety equipment," Choi said.
Tehran has claimed that the seizure took place due to "technical issues" and the matter will be dealt with in accordance with its judicial process. The ship's operator has denied the allegations and raised doubts about the legality of the seizure.
"Regardless of the legal status of the Korean vessel, as long as there is no demonstration of 'an act of deliberate and grave contamination' that would disqualify the ship's innocent passage, we find that no violation of international law has occurred," the ministry said in a document submitted to lawmakers ahead of the meeting.
Choi is expected to travel to Iran early next week in a trip that had been arranged prior to the incident. His visit is now expected to focus on discussions about the seizure.
At Wednesday's meeting, Choi stressed that the talks on the frozen Iranian assets will proceed separately from the negotiations on the seizure, as securing the release of the crew and settling the issue must be the government's top priority, according to lawmakers.
About US$7 billion worth of Iranian assets is locked in South Korean banks after Washington tightened sanctions against Tehran. Seoul officials confirmed the two countries and the U.S. have been in talks about using the frozen money to purchase COVID-19 vaccines and other goods for Iran.
Speculation has arisen that the seizure might be intended to pressure Seoul to unlock the frozen Iranian money in Seoul under the tightened U.S. sanctions.
The foreign ministry said it "does not make predictions based on speculation, but we are focusing efforts on the current situation while keeping all possibilities open."
The ministry also said in the document that it is preparing legal responses to the ship seizure and checking facts about the ship's sea route and other claims made by Iran.
"The ministry is verifying facts regarding Iran's claim about the environmental pollution, the question about whether the vessel was sailing in international or territorial waters, and also whether the seizure was carried out under due process in line with the international law," it said.
On Tuesday, the foreign ministry said the two sides agreed to resolve the issue diplomatically. Seoul plans to send a delegation early Thursday to negotiate the matter with Tehran.
Seoul's foreign ministry said earlier it will continue to consult with Iran about the matter so that the delegation can get to the scene at an early date.
"This incident is an important matter that directly relates to the safety of our people and protecting their assets," a ministry official said. "We plan to continue consultations with the Iranian side."
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