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(3rd LD) Vice FM Choi redoubles call for Iran's swift release of seized ship, crew members

All News 22:50 January 11, 2021

(ATTN: ADDS more details about Choi's meeting with Iran's central bank chief in paras 13-16)

SEOUL, Jan. 11 (Yonhap) -- Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun has renewed his call for Iran to release a seized South Korean oil tanker and its sailors and offer evidence to back Tehran's claims that the vessel polluted the sea, a foreign ministry official said Monday.

Choi made the appeal during Sunday's talks with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in Tehran, where the seizure of the vessel and Tehran's money frozen in Korea under U.S. sanctions topped the agenda.

Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps seized the MT Hankuk Chemi on environmental pollution allegations on Jan. 4. The ship, which was traveling from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates, was carrying 20 crew members, including five Koreans.

Seoul has been seeking the early release of the vessel as well as its 20 crew members through diplomacy. But Tehran has stressed the "judicial process" on the issue, raising concerns that the seizure could be protracted.

"During the talks with Deputy Minister Araghchi, the vice minister first made a strong request for the swift release of our citizens and the vessel," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

Iran has claimed that the seizure is solely due to "technical issues," while some observers raised speculation that the seizure could be related to tensions between the two countries over Tehran's frozen assets estimated at US$7 billion.

Choi also used the talks to request that Iran provide concrete evidence to explain the vessel's marine pollution allegations.

On the request, Iran's foreign ministry is said to be making efforts to secure related documents from the country's authorities in charge of judicial procedures related to the seizure of the tanker.

During the talks, Araghchi claimed that Korea's lack of political will led to the freezing of the assets, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

"Freezing of Iran's foreign exchange resources in Korea is more due to a lack of political will on the part of the Korean government than the U.S. sanctions," Araghchi was quoted by the news agency as saying.

He also called for Choi to find a "necessary mechanism" to resolve the issue as the "first priority" in bilateral relations, according to the IRNA.

About US$7 billion Iranian assets have been frozen at two Korean bank accounts as the Donald Trump administration withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and tightened sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Iran has been urging Korea to let the country access the money.

Tehran reinforced the call for Seoul on Monday (Iran time) when its central bank chief met with Choi, according to Tasnim News Agency.

Abdolnaser Hemmati described the frozen assets as the "main challenge" with Seoul and pointed out that Seoul has made no progress even though his country raised the issue many times, including during his own visit to Seoul last year, the news outlet reported.

He also called South Korea's attitude toward the frozen assets "a big mistake" and "unacceptable" that it chose to freeze Iran's assets upon a third country order, according to the news report.

The central bank chief also stressed that Iran will take legal steps to use their assets here if the issue is not resolved.

On Monday, Choi is also expected to pay a courtesy call on Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and meet other senior officials, at which he plans to reiterate his call for the release of the ship and sailors.

Seoul officials have confirmed that the crew members are safe and in good shape, according to the ministry official. On Friday, all Korean sailors had phone conversations with their families here.

Seoul also shared information on the status of 11 Myanmarese, two Indonesians and two Vietnamese among the crew members with their respective governments.

This photo, taken on Jan. 9, 2021, shows Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kuk preparing to depart for Iran at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul. (Yonhap)

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