Jan. 8 (UPI) — South Korean diplomats arrived in Tehran to negotiate the release of the MT Hankuk Chemi seized on Monday, but discussions could drag out due to Iranian demands.
Seoul’s foreign ministry said Friday the delegation landed in the Iranian capital on Thursday and has been briefed by the South Korean Embassy in Tehran, Yonhap reported. Embassy officials have been able to make direct contact with the crew, which includes South Korean, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Myanmarese nationals.
Iran has said it is not interested in negotiations with Seoul and denied the capture of the South Korean tanker was politically motivated. But Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Thursday the South Korean delegation was in Tehran to “discuss accessing Iranian funds in Korea,” a reference to frozen Iranian assets.
Officials in Tehran have condemned Seoul for freezing state assets, estimated to be $7 billion, according to Yonhap. Last year, Iran slammed Korea for freezing its assets in two South Korean bank accounts. The move from Seoul came after the United States strengthened Iran sanctions and withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.
Seoul sources who spoke to Yonhap on the condition of anonymity said Iran is seeking ways to unlock the assets to purchase $1 billion of medical equipment and buy more than $10 million worth of COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX facility, managed by the World Health Organization.
Seoul’s diplomatic sources also said South Korea plans to tackle Iranian charges of alleged pollution. The MT Hankuk Chemi’s parent company has denied the allegations.
South Korea has deployed a naval destroyer to seas near the Strait of Hormuz. The 33rd contingent of the Cheonghae Unit includes troops who took part in the 2011 Operation Dawn of Gulf of Aden against Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea, South Korean news service Newsis reported Friday.
The rescue operation was launched after pirates seized South Korean tanker Samho Jewelry. During the skirmish, the South Korean unit captured five pirates and killed eight, according to the report.