By Kim Seung-yeon
SEOUL, Feb. 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is finalizing talks with the United States about using some of Iran's money frozen in Seoul under U.S. sanctions to pay Tehran's U.N. dues in arrears, a foreign ministry official said Wednesday.
Such progress in the talks for solutions to unblock the Iranian assets in South Korea appears to have affected Tehran's decision to release most of the crew members of a seized South Korean oil tanker, according to the official.
On Tuesday, Tehran said its judiciary gave permission to free the sailors, except for the captain, from the MT Hankuk Chemi that has been seized by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps since Jan. 4 over allegedly polluting the ocean. Twenty sailors were aboard the ship, including five South Koreans.
Despite the Iranian government's denial, speculation has mounted that the ship seizure might be related to Tehran's discontent over its US$7 billion locked in South Korean banks due to U.S. sanctions.
"The issue has been almost settled. We've finished discussions (with the U.S.) about paying dues and we need to have discussions on very technical parts," the official said. "There's been considerable progress on the issue of dues and I think this served as a chance (for Iran) to feel our sincerity."
Tehran has requested that Seoul use part of its frozen funds to pay off part of its U.N. contributions in arrears. But the money needs to be converted from Korean won into U.S. dollars, and the U.S. sanctions currently ban dollar-based transactions with Iran.
The ministry official added that the government has been in talks with Washington about a non-dollar payment method.
Seoul is also continuing consultations with Washington over ways to expand other humanitarian trade with Iran using the frozen money, the official added.
Regarding the sailors, it has not yet been decided how many of them will remain in the vessel, another foreign ministry official said, adding that the ministry is discussing the matter with the ship operator.
Iran said earlier that the captain must stay in the ship for management reasons.
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